Elisabeth Egan is a novelist and essayist, and when she writes about parenting, we drop everything to hear what she has to say. Even if, like today, it means weeping a little. OK, a lot. Here’s a brilliant letter she wrote to her daughter, who is heading off to college…
I was 14 when my family moved my sister into her freshman dorm at the school where our parents met. I don’t remember the official goodbye, but I do remember what happened when we got back into our mauve Mercury Sable with its suddenly huge backseat and opera blaring from the speakers. My mom turned to my dad and said, “If she doesn’t wave one more time, I think I’m going to die.”
Despite her passion for ear-splitting arias, my mom doesn’t do emotional outbursts in real life. Her response to any injury, from a paper cut to a fractured pelvis, is “You’ll live”; she tosses heartfelt cards in the garbage without a second thought (“What? I read it already”); and, on the morning of my dad’s funeral, she actually said, “No blubbering, girls. We’re channeling our inner Jackie Kennedy.”
The day we dropped my sister off at college was the one time I’ve ever witnessed the faltering of my mom’s stiff upper lip. I can still see her profile — hand clasped over mouth, eyes filled with tears — as she watched her firstborn walk across a courtyard to the high rise she’d call home for the next nine months. Thankfully, at the last possible moment, my sister turned and shot us a dazzling smile. Then she lifted both arms overhead, gave us a double wave and stepped through a door held open by someone else’s sweaty dad.
She was gone. We drove away.
My mom cried for the next four hours, then sporadically for about a week. I didn’t have much sympathy. I was deep in the sneer and loathing phase of adolescence, and my sister had been so ready to go, she’d taken her shower caddy for a summer-long test run, leaving me without shampoo or saline solution in the bathroom we shared. Plus, there were the clothing leftovers for me to feast on in her closet! And the cassette tapes to steal!
Now that my oldest kid is graduating from high school and getting ready to leave for college, I see my sister’s leave-taking in a new light — the light of parenthood, which is one of the brightest bulbs there is. In a funny, happy twist, our daughter is going to the school where my husband and I met 25 years ago. She is as ready for the next phase as her aunt was, and as likely to make a beeline into it with arms open wide. She may toss us a bonus wave at the last minute, but will not permit a love- and advice-fest in the parking lot. And, unlike my mom, I’ll definitely want to host one. So here, in no particular order, are the important things I’d say to my daughter if only she’d hang around long enough to listen. The most important one is at the very end.
- I love you. I’ll miss you. Thank you.
- Ignore the New Jersey jokes. Not everyone can be from a state as great as ours.
- I hope you’ll consider a hiatus from social media for the first ten days. Scrolling through other people’s pictures may give you the false impression that your friends have settled effortlessly into their new schools. This is just a filter. If things are so great, why are they on Snapchat?
- Give orientation activities a chance even if they’re weird, boring, too early, too late or too far away. I met one of my best friends on the bus back to campus after a canoe-jousting competition. Have you ever known me to canoe-joust? No. But I gave it a whirl that day, and we all love the wise, sparkly woman I met as a result.
- Along those lines: you’ve grown up among my college friends, but that doesn’t mean it was love at first sight with all of them. Some are people I discovered after graduation; others I never would have stuck with if I hadn’t peeled away a few layers. My point is, give people a chance. Give them five chances. However:
- Trust your instincts. If someone seems like a creep, they probably are.
- Take your work to the library even if you have everything you need to get it done in your room. There’s no place cozier than a college library at night.
- If you’re lucky, you will have long, late-night, soul-searching conversations with new friends. You’ll trade stories about your high school, your town and your family. Please go easy on us; we did our best! And I’m definitely not the only mom who gossips, uses foul language, gets tons of parking tickets, drinks Diet Coke and steals her kids’ Halloween candy.
- Do not, under any circumstances, drink from a cup you haven’t filled yourself. You never know what someone has slipped in there. And definitely avoid punch, which is a recipe for trouble.
- I’m sorry I complained so much about picking you up from swim practice. I’ll miss your red cheeks, your chlorine perfume and the gravity-defying bun on top of your head.
- I’ll miss your half-finished friendship bracelets taped to the dining room table.
- I’ll miss your trail of Cheez-Its on the kitchen counter.
- I’ll miss the thud of your backpack in the hallway and the particular rhythm of your feet on the stairs.
- Thank you for loving the books I love, with the glaring exception of Anne of Green Gables.
- Thank you for being the best big sister. I can’t say anymore on this topic without crying so, moving on…
- Your room is an appalling disaster. Still, I understand why the pets flock to your bed.
- When someone invites you to do something you don’t want to do, you don’t owe an explanation for why you’re declining. You might say, “Sorry, I’m not going to be able to make it,” or “I have other plans, but thank you for thinking of me!” Or just plain, “No, thanks.” Don’t wait until your forties to learn how to say these words.
- You’ve already had the experience of not being invited to do something you wanted to do. Watching you make other plans reminds me why I picked Grace for your middle name.
- Complicated relationships aren’t more meaningful than easy ones, they’re just more work. The best people are the ones who make you laugh. This applies to friends and lovers. (Yes, I said lovers. I couldn’t think of a better word!)
- Have fun! Ride a cafeteria tray down a snowy hill, jump in a pile of leaves, make mug cakes at midnight. You’re there to learn, but your brain needs a break. And I’m not talking about back-to-back Grey’s episodes on your laptop.
- Listen carefully — to classmates, professors and the sound of the wind.
- Ask questions, ask for directions, ask for help. Even if you think you can find what you need on Google, ask a human being. We still know more than our phones.
- You’ve come to me with problems I didn’t have solutions for. This is a strange feeling for a parent, like being upside down on a rollercoaster. The upside is, I’ve watched you make good decisions on your own — which is not to say all your decisions will be good, or have to be good. Just that you have the tools to make a smart call. I admire that.
- You don’t need an earth-shattering reason to go to your professors’ office hours. Just show up; they’re waiting for you and sometimes they have snacks.
- There are free condoms in the health center.
- Get a job, and please don’t waste all your money on chai lattes.
- I’d aim to do laundry once a week, which is roughly three times more than you do it at home.
- Be brave. Go rock-climbing (on actual rocks); take an engineering class; join a singing group; be the hallmate who organizes a trip to see a lecture you saw advertised on a flier in the student center. (Do they still have fliers?)
- Failure is an option, although I prefer to call it redirection. You are the daughter of a writer, so you know what it means to start a story that doesn’t go anywhere. The point is to start something, have the guts to admit when it isn’t working, and the gumption to begin again. The world has an infinite supply of stories, but courage is a diminishing resource as you get older. Dive in now.
- Try to resist the urge to “brand” yourself, which is so much less rewarding than establishing a meaningful, nuanced identity. For instance, Daddy went for Deep Philosopher during our first semester of college; I went for Cheerful Girl (I’m sure this is hard for you to imagine). Twenty years into our marriage, we still bump up against these boxes, which are empty and take up more room than they deserve. Worth noting: we didn’t find each other until we’d stepped out of them.
- You know how I told you I’m your mother, not your friend? I lied. I’m both.
- When you were in fourth grade, going through normal friend gymnastics — high bar, low bar, balance beam, backbend — I gave you a locket that my mom gave me for my tenth birthday. Inside, I slipped a little piece of paper that said, “Be you.” The locket is long lost to the sands of Maine, but the message remains the same. Be yourself, no contortions required. And know, with each step you take away from our house, that you are the living, breathing, blue-eyed, big-hearted embodiment of the word engraved inside your parents’ wedding rings: Beloved.
(Photo by Daniel Douglas.)