In Honor of All Veterans (and their mothers)

(My column from December 6, 2001)

I’m being weaned, figuratively, from my children by my children. At 17 and 18, Cassie and Carlene don’t need me for many things anymore, except maybe to buy face wash, body lotion, or tampons. Then it’s not really me they need, but my Visa card.

From the minute they were born, I’ve been letting go. I let them go with the nurses to be cleaned, weighed, and measured. I let them get on a bus to go to their first day of kindergarten. I let them go to birthday parties, sleep-overs, field trips, and to the mall and movies with their friends. I’ve even let them go on dates with boys I didn’t like, not because I trusted the boys, but because I trusted my girls. And trust is at the heart of letting go.

While Carlene grew up, her letting go of me was harder than me letting go of her. She hated day care, she wanted her first-grade teacher to call me after a thunderstorm one afternoon, and she usually sat on my lap when strangers or people she hadn’t seen in a while were in the room. As she got older, though, Carlene grew a strong backbone, and combined with her level-headedness, she’s turned into a strong young woman, even though I still buy her razors and shampoo.

On the opposite end of parenting is Cassie. Our letting go experiences have been of her pushing me rather than me pushing her. She had no problem disappearing into clothes racks when she was 2 years old while we were out shopping, leaving me frantic looking for her. She couldn’t wait to go to school, and loved it when I hired a babysitter if I went out. I always knew she needed me in some esoteric way, but she hasn’t given up the secret of why.

She’s done some fast talking and gentle pushing lately to help me face the hardest letting go of her yet. Last Tuesday, I signed a consent form allowing Cassie to join the Army Reserves. She made this decision before September 11, and I was mostly OK with it since she could finish high school without interruption, and go to college while doing her military work. Then as I watched the World Trade Center buildings collapse, and saw the Pentagon on fire and the smoldering airplane debris in a field not far south from where we lived, I decided there was no way in hell I was going to let her join anything that might put her in the middle of whatever was coming.

But when she came home from school that day, she was more determined than ever to sign up.

I knew out of my fear I could be the control freak I’m known to be and refuse to let her join, to make her wait until she was 18 and no longer needed my permission. But I’ve spent 17 years reigning in this child, and to hold her back might break her.

After all, this is a girl who, when she was 3, thought she could stick a penny in an outlet like it was a vending machine. When the lights flickered, I heard a “snap” and felt a bump on the floor. I ran in to her room, and there she was, blinking and stunned, with a penny bent and burned near the outlet. I didn’t punish her. I figured the electric shock that sent her flying a foot from the wall was lesson enough.

This is the same girl who, when she was 7, decided to visit her 80-year-old friend for five hours without telling me where she was. How do you get mad at someone who’s doing a good thing, but who didn’t follow the rules?

Just as control defined me as a parent, dichotomy defined Cass.

I read the consent form. It was perfectly clear. My signature meant I understood Cassie might be put in dangerous, life-threatening situations should her reserve unit be activated. It meant I promised to not sue the government if something happened to her while in their care, like a broken leg, loss of eyesight, or death. This form made the paper I signed so she could get her belly button pierced seem like a sales slip for lipstick. I was granting permission for the government I live under and pay taxes to, to use my child’s talents and interests for the country’s best interests. God help me, the government had better appreciate her.

She’ll go to basic training this summer, a complete letting go if there ever was one. If she screws up, it won’t be me talking to her about her mistake or grounding her for a night. She’ll have a drill sergeant in her face calling her names and screaming at her to do 50 pushups. Instead of her favorite mashed potatoes with cream cheese and sour cream, and Italian chicken drizzled in butter, she’ll be eating chipped beef on toast. Instead of sleeping in on warm summer mornings, she’ll be up at 4 a.m., running, learning to shoot an M16, and throwing grenades. They’ll even put her in a gas chamber. “Cool,” she said.

So, I signed it. She’ll come home a soldier. A lean, mean fightin’ machine. But she’ll still be my little girl, and she’ll still need me. And my Visa card.

I’m being weaned. Weaned from directing and controlling my girls’ destinies. But you know something? When I look at them, when I think of all we’ve been through, I smile like a Cheshire cat and think, ‘Damn, I’ve done a good job.’

 

 

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