Ditch and Run

I didn’t think dropping Crystel off at college would be hard. I’m really good at ditch and run.

Often Jody will say to the person that she’s talking to at a party, “Oh, I guess we are going now,” after I’ve tapped her shoulder on my way to the car. There’s no stop in me. I’m done now, my whole body is saying. When Jody wants to socialize at an event, we drive separately. Later, after a party, I’ve had people tell me, “We didn’t see you leave. You were just gone.”

I couldn’t tap into my own experience of being dropped off at college. I’m not even sure who drove me to my dorm in Menomonie, Wisconsin from Ellsworth. What I do recall is a few weeks later my mother telling me not to come home anymore. There wasn’t any room for me. I no longer lived there.

Crystel was able to move in early at the University of Minnesota because of her involvement with Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence (MCAE). I helped her pack the van. A refrigerator, clothes, plants, hangers, and more plants. At the dorm it was my job to hang her clothes in a certain direction on the hanger. Jody made her bed. Two hours later, I had only finished one suitcase. She had that many shirts! I couldn’t believe that I would patiently undertake this miniscule tedious task. I mentioned that. We had just enough time to drive to Target for more hangers and a few items before joining MCAE for their parent and family kickoff event.

I accompanied Crystel into the large banquet hall. Jody was waiting in the car for my help to locate parking. I asked Crystel if she was okay for me to leave her. Above her mask I could see her stricken eyes. I hurried to the car to ask Jody to find parking herself. 

The banquet hall filled up. Dinner was served. Speeches started. I looked over at Crystel. Shook my head at each possibility that came to mind. There would be no ditch and run. She needed her moms.

I cried when we got home. I was already missing her. In the following days, I realized that for her, going to college is a step towards an independent life. I’ve texted and talked with her frequently. She’s getting settled. Meeting new friends and old. Involving herself in activities. Studying. My heart is with her. Hers with me. Where we intersect is home. There’s always room.

Senior Spotlight

At this time of year, high school seniors are applying for colleges, grants, and scholarships. They are answering this simple question a dozen times over from their friends, classmates, and adults: What are your plans for after graduation?

Crystel decided to apply for one college and one college only. This isn’t much of a surprise because she goes after what she wants. Always has. She doesn’t stop until she achieves her goal. She rarely alters her course. I’ve become a believer of her dreams ever since she overcame a speech disorder. At 3, she could not talk intelligibly. Juan who could understand her best often spoke for her. There came the day when she told him, “STOP.” By the time she was 7 she had graduated from speech therapy and was onto her next achievement.

When she told me that she only applied to one school, I held my breath. She didn’t have a backup plan. She submitted her college application without telling Jody and me. I thought she would have at least asked me for advice about the personal statement. After all, I am a writer. She told me that she reflected on her friend who was accepted. He’s Hispanic with a single father. I quizzed her. Did you tell them that you have two moms? Adopted? Hispanic? She kept nodding. She also said that she was Vegan. What about your Tae Kwon Do 2nd Degree Black Belt? No, she had forgotten about that.

All I could do was hope that she got accepted.

Juan on the other hand, recently told someone he was taking a gap year. Several years ago, I so strongly believed in a gap year for Juan and Crystel that I bought several books:

The Complete Guide to the Gap Year: The Best Things to Do Between High School and College

Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs

Gap Year, American Style: Journeys Toward Learning, Serving, and Self-Discovery

I don’t think Juan opened a page of any of those books. Especially since I had already dropped them off at Goodwill.

Even so, he had latched onto the concept of not going to college. Not now. Maybe not at all.

For many reasons, Jody and I support Juan having a ‘gap’ year. He’s in the National Honor Society, active in Student Government and just finished his last season of Cross Country. Still, his path is not Crystel’s.

An adult recently asked Crystel, “What are you doing after graduation?” She responded, “Going to the University of Minnesota.” (She was accepted). The question was followed with, “What about Juan?” Without pausing she said, “He’s going to the basement.”

Juan is graduating from his bedroom to our finished basement. His current bedroom will convert to Jody’s home office. He will continue to work as he has since he was 14-years-old.

Crystel’s desire is to study abroad. I’m sure that will happen. Juan is looking forward to living in the basement. It has the feel of an apartment. He’ll move out when he’s ready. Until then, Jody and I will have a roommate.

Your Moms Are Going into The Peace Corps

I told the kids that after they graduated from high school that their moms were going into the Peace Corps. Even though it is 4 years from now, I believe in giving plenty of notice. Juan Jose’ has already told us that he isn’t leaving home. He’s going to live here forEVER. It was clear that the moms were going to have to leave to get on with their life.

I had been in the Peace Corps in my early 30’s. After 1½ years, I received a phone call that my mother was dying of cancer. I went home for a 30-day leave, returned to Tonga in the South Pacific where I was stationed, only to learn that I didn’t have the stamina to wait for a call telling me that she had died. Though our relationship was contentious, I needed to be within driving distance when she took her last breath. We never spoke of my decision.

It has always been in the back of my mind to return to the Peace Corps as a couple. I’m excited that Jody is willing. It will be an adventure we can share.

I mentioned Fiji, Tonga, and other South Pacific Islands.

Until now, Crystel had not been verbal about her plans after high school.

“I’m coming,” she said. I thought about that. Many people do have family members visit during their two-year stint.

“Yes,” I agreed. “A visit is possible. Maybe you both can even travel to New Zealand and Australia with Mama Jody and me.”

“No. I’m coming.”

“Oh, okay.” I had no answer other than that. How does one hide their 18-year-old daughter for two years in a hut? I’m not sure that the Peace Corps allows for extended stays. As her Uncle Scott mentioned, maybe they have a university she can attend.

When I was in the Peace Corps in 1990, most people went off the island to New Zealand or Australia to get their education.


“Is college important?” asked Juan Jose’.

Both Jody and I answered him in the affirmative. I wasn’t satisfied with my answer. How do you tell a ninth grader that college is important when he thinks that the stuff he is learning is useless?

I support the kids doing a gap year and traveling overseas. As a human resources manager, I learned that the most important work strength one can have is knowing how to get along with others. If you can’t get along with others you most likely won’t hold your job long and you’ll be stymied for promotions.

I thought about the foundry workers, the press and extrusion operators and other laborers at the companies where I’ve worked. All jobs which the kids are familiar with from plant tours that I’ve given them.

I explained to Juan that the people who do those jobs work much harder than me, but they make less money. “It’s another example of how the world is unfair,” I said. “The hardest working people make less money because they don’t have a college degree.”

I went on to say that if you get a college education you are more likely to be in a job you want, make more money, and do less work.

Juan was quiet. I imagined him living at home and attending a community college. “The college you go to is far less important than one would think,” I said. “It’s the 4-year degree that holds the importance.”

It never occurred to me that Crystel might do her gap year with Jody and me.

I learned that the University of the South Pacific includes Tonga. Maybe, that will have to be part of the deal if she starts packing her bags and sets them next to ours when we join the Peace Corps. The university is jointly owned by the governments of 12 island countries: Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Western Samoa. All places that she wants to travel.

Jody and I have our work cut out for us. We have to start teaching Juan Jose’ how to take care of the yard, the house, and the pool. Oh, and to run the dishwasher and throw his socks down the clothes chute. We have four years.


To parents of college-bound kids


Whether you’re taking your first or your last child to college this fall, my advice is, “Hang in there, you’ll all be OK in a while.” I’ve done both and lived to tell the tale.

But admittedly, undoing all the underpinnings of daily parenthood is a very odd process. You’ve spent nearly 20 years building the structure of parenthood—teaching them to dress themselves, holding them close when they’re sick or sad, cheering the speech they give and the goal they score, nagging them about homework and chores, worrying about their friends and who’s driving—but now you’re supposed to quickly dismantle all that daily caretaking. You’re supposed to gracefully move into the next phase—occasional bursts of intense parenting—which is what being the parent of an adult consists of. I almost wrote “parent of an adult child.” That paradox explains how weird it is to send a young adult out into the world. Your son or daughter is and isn’t an adult, is and isn’t a child, but you’re always a parent. Sigh. It’s confusing.

Becoming a parent was a major adjustment for me, even though I’d longed to be a mother and was delighted when I became pregnant. Learning to share my body and change my eating and drinking habits—more protein, less junk, no caffeine, no alcohol—was hard but worth it. Assuming the role of responsible parent was even harder. I always had to think about someone else and bring the equipment he’d need—food, diapers, pacifier. I had to learn to plan ahead, make sure there was gas in the car and money in my purse—no more flying by the seat of my pants when I had a baby with me. Staying out partying didn’t make sense anymore when we had to drive a babysitter home late, and I’d just have to get up with a baby at 6:00 a.m.

Soon I became accustomed to being responsible and it no longer felt like a sacrifice. Soon it was second nature to put the kids first—making sure they got fed something relatively nutritious before they got too cranky, scheduling my plans around naps and bedtime at first, and later, around homework and extracurricular activities. Juggling work, daycare, and the kids’ schedules. My life was crazy-bizzy, but good.

When my kids were young, the biggest challenge of parenting was having the stamina to do it all. Later, the challenge became thinking through the best way to handle a kid’s emotional and moral development—teaching them how to handle mean kids, how not to be a mean kid, deciding how long they needed to keep practicing something they weren’t good at, teaching them how to be their own person, how take care of themselves, how to take care of others, and so on.

By the time my kids were teenagers, I could hear the warning bells—ACT tests, talk of colleges, college visits. I knew their departure was coming, and I knew it was how their life was supposed to go. But it was hard to wrap my head around the reality of them leaving. These people I love so much, who have been the center of my life, are really going? I could hardly bear to think about how big a hole they’d leave in my life, and yet and I had to help them go, because that’s what was right for them. Occasionally they were annoying, so was easier to think of letting them go. It helped to remind myself that the goal of parenthood is to raise a person who’s capable of being independent, that I should measure my effectiveness as a parent by their ability to be OK without me—but after nearly 20 years of worrying about them daily—well, old habits die hard.

But each of our sons left and I lived through it.

Soon I learned that they still needed me but in a different way—not daily, but occasionally, in intense spurts. Their problems were harder—how to deal with all the drinking in the dorms, how to handle roommates who wreck your stuff and are late with the rent, how to find the right career path.

My husband and I lived through a number of jangling adjustments: from being alone to having them back, from being delighted to see them and their friends to wishing they’d pick up the pop cans and pizza boxes, from acknowledging their independence to setting ground rules for the courtesies a house full of adults needs.

They have turned into adults I genuinely like and enjoy as people. I have turned into a mom who rarely says, “It’s supposed to be hot/cold/snowing, don’t you think you should wear shorts/pants/a jacket?”

In fact, I’ve gotten so used to my youngest being gone, that the night before he returned to college this year, to my profound embarrassment, I forgot to cook dinner. I don’t mean I neglected to cook a special goodbye dinner, but I didn’t remember to cook any dinner whatsoever (bad Mommy). So we ate nachos, leftovers, and frozen pizza. And it was fine. Because now we’re all adults, and I don’t have to be in charge of meals. 

But my youngest still welcomed the box of cookies I stayed up late baking the night before.