My trip home from college for the holidays went a lot differently than I had imagined. All of my older friends had told me that some things would seem different while others would be exactly the same.
Pushing these predictions to the back of my mind I secretly hoped that when I returned, my house would feel just as cozy and familiar, my bed would swallow me in warmth, and the family dynamics between my parents, my brothers and me would still fill me with the same combination of love and incessant annoyance.
I was certainly right about the dynamics being the same; I am surprised that my mother did not take advantage of my jet lag to secretly implant a tracking device in my arm, which undoubtedly, would have been less painful than the never-ending reminders to “check in” “be safe” watch for ice on the roads and the multitude of other cautionary catch phrases that she rattled off like nervous tics so deeply ingrained in my head that I have unwittingly begun to spew some of them myself on occasion.
On one particular night my parents were furious with me after I had made plans with a friend to go to the mall, (a 40-minute drive from my house) believing I would be home by 10 p.m. You may ask yourself why they could be so angry, knowing my angelic character. We ended up stopping for food after shopping and I failed to mention it to my mom as, even with her daily calls and texts at school, I have gotten out of the habit of apprising my parents of my every move.
At about 10:01 p.m., I was surprised to discover that a person can speak in the midst of an aneurysm when, before I could even plug my key into the ignition, my mom was on speaker phone reaming me out for worrying her as my dad fumed in the background, piping in, “Yeah Mick, this behavior is really disappointing and does not instill trust.”
Some things never change.
But some things do, unfortunately.
As we drove down Route 63 in Bethany and passed the monstrosity that is the new sports complex, and as I struggled futilely to find the “Open” neon sign that is permanently darkened at the little ice-cream shop where I spent many happy hours of my childhood, I realized life has moved on without me.
Bethany will always be my home, but it has changed as have I, the bittersweet evolution of life. Even so, it does not have to happen all at once, so, dad, try to hold on to your hair for a little bit longer, all right?
When Michaela left for college six months ago, the throb and buzz of our home disappeared as quickly as the docks are pulled in on Block Island after Labor Day, leaving you feeling that same dismantled emptiness. It was unsettlingly quiet in our home: I could almost hear the dust particles falling into the void around me.
For weeks, I avoided even looking into Michaela’s room on the way to the upstairs bathroom every morning and night. The bright and beautiful melody that had been our family rhythm for the past 18 years was strangely silent. Soon my wife and I found a new tempo, more of a waltz than the boogie woogie that we’d danced to the last two decades.
We had spit out the bridle of responsibility for our children’s welfare that was now entrusted to their institutions of higher learning. We didn’t have to wait for the car to pull up the driveway to go to fall asleep or polish essays or negotiate curfews. A tremendous burden had fallen from our shoulders, a weight we never noticed until it was gone.
Well the tempo changed again with Michaela’s return from Miami for the holidays. It was like stepping back into a wet bathing suit that you had hung out to dry, trying to get Michaela to clean up her room, asking the five Ws when she wanted to drive to a mall to meet a boy we never heard of, explaining to her why going to Times Square to ring in the New Year with a million drunks and no toilets was not a smart move.
In short, we suddenly found ourselves having to be parents again, mired in the minutiae of everyday decisions.
Michaela reminded us that she had been doing quite nicely without us for months, earning distinction on the President’s Honor Roll, walking onto a Division One crew team as coxswain, and getting elected as the senator of her dormitory.
But reflexively, we reverted to our familiar roles as a parent and child, grabbing onto our well-worn ends of the rope in this tug of war. It was as frustrating for Michaela as it was for us trying to figure out how to allow her some of the freedom she has come to enjoy on a college campus 1,500 miles away from us, yet still keeping some guardrails in place.
We let her go to that mall, and we compromised on the New Year’s plan — she stayed with some friends in Massachusetts, we think.
And her room would remain a disaster area except that, like Tom Sawyer, Michaela was able to con one of her friends into cleaning it for her.
Soon enough my girl was whisked back to the South to resume her studies, and the house was swallowed by silence again, but this time I was ready for it.
Mike Kerin is a lawyer in Milford, and his daughter, Michaela, a graduate of Amity High School, is now in college. In their column, this father and daughter bicker and banter about boys, curfews, homework, stress at school, dress codes, and a host of other issues that represent the jagged edges of adolescence which they must navigate every day, sometimes with humor, sometimes with sarcasm, always with love.