Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Fathers, Part 14

Letting go is tough. It’s hard enough taking your kids to college and leaving them there, but at least they’re still living at home during breaks. It’s quite another thing when they leave for good. This column is from September 2000:

Cardboard boxes and plastic milk crates filled with shoes, clothing, books and makeup were piled on the landing and stacked at the top of the stairs. The man worked his way around them in the predawn darkness and entered his daughter’s room. At the foot of the bed he found and ankle and gave it a vigorous shake.
“Wake up!” he said to the sleeping lump beneath the comforter. “It’s time to go. Your childhood is over.”

The man and his wife were used to packing her off to college every fall, but this was different; college was over. Now she was moving away for good.
Had she been moving down the street or across town, or to another town in the same state, the event would not have seemed so ominous. But she was moving to New York, the great black hole of the American galaxy of cities, where the density of its 8 million souls is so great that not even letters home can escape its gravity.

The couple and their daughter drove all morning, mostly in silence, and in the static electricity of their anxiety.
Across the Delaware River and into New Jersey, the man began to feel the pull of the city, the traffic converging on ever-widening highways, swirling faster and faster in a vast whirlpool of speeding machinery.
Half a century ago, he thought, his own father had felt the pull of the great metropolis, too. To him, living and working in New York was what gave life meaning. And so, most of the man's own childhood was spent around the city. Maybe that's why, given the chance, he escaped from New York, fleeing on this very route to Western Pennsylvania and college, never looking back.
He raised his children in the country where, when the farm animals are not in an uproar, the nights as are quiet as death and the sky is a hood of black velvet sparkling with tiny diamonds; where there is solitude, where there is peace, where there are few people.
It’s no wonder she wanted to leave.

Just outside the Holland Tunnel, 16 lanes of traffic merged to two in the carbon monoxide haze of Jersey City. On the other side of the river, the traffic poured out of the tunnel and onto Manhattan Island, where signs for Brooklyn, Uptown, Downtown and Canal Street flashed by, and in a panic accompanied by a chorus of honking horns, he chose a direction, a ramp that dumped them into a maze of narrow, twisting alleys jammed with stationary cars and trucks over and around which swarmed a mass of people, racing about their business like fire ants.
For 40 minutes they inched through the steaming, teeming crush of the city.
“Where are we, exactly?” his wife asked. “I have absolutely no idea,” the man admitted. His knuckles became white as he clutched the steering wheel, and he fought an urge to leave, just get out of the car, leave it in the middle of traffic, just leave and find some movie theater or bar, or another job, and never, ever return.
“Why in the hell would anyone ever want to live in this place?” he fumed.

Eventually, they found their way clear of the mess and managed to get to the tip of the island, into another tunnel and on to Brooklyn. By the time they reached the apartment where the girl would be living with friends for a while, the man really needed to be restrained and hosed down.

But he calmed down. He had found a parking space right away. The apartment was on a quiet street, right around the corner from an outdoor cafe. There were kids zooming by on scooters, parents pushing strollers, people everywhere, different people of every conceivable color and nationality. This was a neighborhood, a place with a sense of community.
The couple knew they could leave their child in that place and not feel terrible about it. It was not their sort of place, but it was interesting. As they had shared their daughter's anxiety, now they shared her excitement about being young, about starting fresh in life.
And about living in the center of the universe.
And about not being a child anymore.


Brant said...

Beautifully written and something to which most parents can relate. And I share your view of New York City: great place to visit; wouldn't want to live there.

Anonymous said...

Wow, do I agree on the idea of living in New York. But I love this county, so what the hey. I hope that my son stays here when he grows up. Otherwise his mother will make me move.

Brant said...

My in-laws retired to Cincinnati. It's just like Pittsburgh, but with worse traffic. Why would they do it? One word: grandchildren. My wife and I just have dogs. We can't compete.

Anonymous said...

I just have one kid, so my wife and I will follow him everywhere. He is her whole life.