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On Her Own

Our college daughter recently informed us that she had found the apartment of her dreams.

“It’s got hardwood floors and a fireplace!” She and her future roommates were beside themselves. I had to sit down to catch my breath.

Swelling violins and a rousing chorus of “Sunrise, Sunset” flooded my brain: “Is this the little girl …?” It was one thing to send her off to her college dormitory. Dorms have “house fellows,” a semblance of human authority figures who I can imagine are taking care of her. Leaving the campus borders means a whole other state of independence.

The parents’ association sent an email to first-year parents: “What to Expect During Winter Break.” It was meant to prepare us for the inevitability that life would not be as we knew it four months ago. This brought me up short: “Your student may begin referring to their life in college as ‘home.’” Oh. Thanks for the heads-up. I started imagining what she might say: “Oh, I’m really homesick for all that snow!” or “I left my red sweater at home.” I practiced keeping my face still and just nodding.

Then I remembered my own excitement and pride in transferring that label of “home” from one place to another. I remembered my own first off-campus house in Ithaca, New York, a rustic cottage on the edge of Cayuga Lake, at the bottom of 78 rickety steps. I remembered the thrill of happily cooking a pot of macaroni and cheese.

I loved Ithaca. I love it still. It was the first place I ever chose to live, where I truly left my childhood and began my adult life. I chose that cottage myself, without my parents seeing it, knocking on the walls or checking the thermostat. When the steps were thick with crusted ice, and I nearly slipped and fell maneuvering them with armloads of groceries, I never regretted it, never longed for the elevators of the on-campus apartments.

I remembered the giddy hope with which I signed so many subsequent leases: the triplex in San Francisco’s Cole Valley, with the life-sized Einstein poster on the door; the tiny apartment near Japantown; the studio shrouded in fog at Ocean Beach.

So now she’s going to have a “home” thousands of miles from where her family lives. Ours is the third house she’s lived in. The first was a small A- frame cabin on the side of a steep hill. Then, an eccentric place with cedar shingles like ocean waves. And now we live in a many-roomed house, expanded to include her grandmother.

Unlike my daughters, I never moved around in childhood. I lived in the same mint-green suburban ranch house from infancy until college. I kept returning until five years ago when we sold it after my father’s death. My childhood room was unchanged— the same Eagles posters thumbtacked on the walls since 1977. That house was my anchor. I mourned the loss of that place, the beginning of my known history, almost as deeply as I grieved for my father.

My husband asks, “Where do you think we would want to live—later on?” We have no idea when this hypothetical “later on” might be, but we muse. Guatemala, Brooklyn, Vancouver. I fantasize about Ithaca, a little cottage on the lake. We also think about staying put.

It’s my daughter’s turn to move around, to experiment with picking up and putting down roots in all kinds of places. I feel a vicarious thrill, and a pang, when I see the photos of her home-to-be. The hardwood floors are beautiful, the fireplace charming; the black-and-white-tiles in the kitchen are sweet. The window shows the looming university stadium, home to overflowing, rowdy football games. I bite my tongue and refrain from saying, “Won’t it be noisy? Is it safe?” It’s her turn to make her own nest, far away. It’s time for us to be the anchor. I receive a packet from her first landlord, asking us to co-sign the lease of that Midwest apartment. I take a deep breath, sniffle a bit and sign on the dotted line.

This piece originally appeared in Susan Ito’s monthly “Life in the Sandwich” column at LiteraryMama.com, where she is also creative nonfiction editor. She lives with (most of) her family in California.