Gone, Baby, Gone

Amy SilvermanNovember 2019
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Illustration by Jess Suttner
Illustration by Jess Suttner

Our columnist bids adieu to her college-age child – and reassesses her own identity as a Phoenician.

The late summer sun hits my back as I move slowly across the sweet little brick courtyard, studying stacks of used books – a time-honored tradition at the tiny liberal arts college my daughter Annabelle has chosen to attend in Portland, Oregon.

It’s the first day of orientation week. Bill Nelson, Reed College Class of ’62, has been setting up shop here in the center of campus for more than 50 years. He charges $5 a book, no matter the title. Business is good today.

As I browse, I hum. Very quietly. I hope no one can hear, I have a terrible voice. But I’ve had this earworm for days, the opening lines of a song from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland:

I give myself very good advice

But I very seldom follow it

That explains the trouble that I’m always in

I’ve been full of advice all summer, all for one person – Annabelle.

It’s the advice I never took – from myself or anyone else – when I left for college: Take deep breaths. Make eye contact. Put the fridge where your roommate can access it, too. Accept every invitation you get except for the ones that aren’t legal and even then, don’t rule those out entirely. SMILE.

So far, Annabelle has taken all of my advice and asked for more. This has surprised both of us, I think. My older daughter is the most self-sufficient person I know, a wise old soul who rarely ever asked for help with homework or anything else as she was growing up. When high school started she disappeared into her bedroom, the only sign of life the opening strains of the theme from The Office as the show looped over and over on Netflix. When she got a car, we saw her even less.

In the evenings during the weeks before she left for college, Annabelle started showing up on the living room couch instead of disappearing into her room. I could feel her marking the time, sensed her starting to panic. One morning her little sister climbed into bed with Annabelle, and later reported, “Her pillow was watery when I was cuddling her.”

Annabelle was already homesick. I had no advice on this front. When I left for college 35 years ago, I was nervous, too. I hated leaving my family and friends.

But unlike Annabelle, I couldn’t wait to get the hell away from Phoenix.

Years ago, I brought my girls Downtown on a perfect spring (or maybe it was fall) evening. We sat at a picnic table at Welcome Diner under stars and bubble lights, eating burgers and watching people. Annabelle sighed deeply. “I love Phoenix,” she said.

She still loves Phoenix. But when it came time for college, she knew she wanted to leave.

I have a tribe of mom friends, and for months they shared their own best advice about launching a kid: get her the HPV vaccine, order the extra-long mattress pad early, make sure she has an electric tea kettle and Command Strips and extra Clorox Wipes and her favorite blanket from home. Don’t send her with an umbrella, no self-respecting person in Portland uses an umbrella. Make sure she has a waterproof jacket that falls below her knees.

On the advice of one friend, I even took Annabelle out for a cocktail, just in case she’d never had one, and that’s how my oldest daughter wound up drinking a margarita for breakfast one morning in August.

But no one could prepare either of us for how hard it would be for Annabelle to leave Phoenix.

“You have to give it time,” another friend said. She was right. It got better. In late September, I asked Annabelle what it was like to be away.

“I still love Phoenix more than Portland,” she said. “I’m always going to love it more than any other place. But you gotta explore, you know, and find other places you love in different ways. I’ve never done that before.”

It had never really occurred to me that you can long to see new places – and still love the one you call home. I told you she’s an old soul.

Annabelle swears that when she’s done with college, she’s moving home to Tempe. She wants a house in the Maple-Ash neighborhood, a few blocks from where we live now. I won’t hold her to it. Either way, I’ll always be in her debt for showing me Phoenix through her own personal looking glass.

Back in the courtyard – humming and browsing – I stop and smile. There it is in a pile of old novels: a 1960 paperback copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I dig in my purse for $5, and take the slim volume home as a reminder to take Annabelle’s advice.

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