by Carol Childers Crawford
A week before Christmas I stood in my Georgia driveway in a thin sweater, holding an oversized, fleece-lined, water repellent coat. I wrestled it into the back of my car while it shimmied and slipped and threw out one arm, then another, like a balky child who didn’t want to go.
Our Emily and her husband had been living in temperate North Carolina, but were moving to New England during one of the coldest winters on record.
We brought up our children in a small town. It’s scenic and friendly, but I have city roots. I always wanted them to know what else was out there. To go other places and see other things. To have choices.
“I can’t believe you let your kids move so far away from you,” a friend said upon hearing the news of Emily’s move. I’m not sure how I could stop them, now they’re adults and all, but the truth is it might be my fault. For years I have been sending the unspoken message that they have my blessing to go.
Early on I sent them off for short periods — on field trips and band trips and mission trips, to camp and to visit relatives. As they grew I talked up college too, but that was for later. Even as they entered high school, it seemed a comfortable distance away. I would have four whole years left with all of them at home. There would be plenty of time for more family excursions to pick a Christmas tree and then come home and watch Little Women again.
Then Emily, our oldest, discovered a program that would enable her to go to college early. I told her she was probably too young for the program. She wasn’t. I fretted she was not ready. Her teachers said she was. She was not leaving someday. She was leaving now. I was happy for her. Really. Still, for weeks I carried the vague, panicky feeling that there was some crucial nugget of wisdom I had forgotten to impart before she left.
Her sisters, Caroline and Abby, followed her beyond the local school, beyond the family vacations, beyond me.
While I supported this venturing, I wanted them to have what they needed out there. I have heard about mothers who do not bring their children’s forgotten objects on principle. If a school child has no lunch one day, they reason, she will remember to bring it from home next time. If she is benched from her soccer game because she is without shin guards, she will learn something.
I am not that mother. I have a slight tendency to over-empathize and I am a little scattered myself, as is my husband. It was hard for us to come down too hard on children who left a science project on the kitchen table when my forgotten gym shoes and my husband’s misplaced wallet might very well be sitting beside it. Too, I figure life has enough hard lessons – no need to not fix a problem when I am able.
So I brought them things. Lunches. Inhalers. Permission slips. I ferried cleats for the soccer player, a clarinet for the member of the band, then a French horn for her little sister. On a family trip, I once traversed an icy road in Idaho to bring their jeans after a snowmobiling expedition. They had brought snow suits home the night before and worn them to the snowmobile place, forgetting they would have to return the suits and then wear something on the ride home.
During her college years, one of my girls left an entire backpack after a weekend visit. It was full of essential books and assignments. She and I each drove an hour to meet in the middle and make the hand-off. I mailed things too: Starbucks cards, newspaper clippings, medicine, the occasional infusion of cash, and sometimes snacks to get them through exams.
Caroline once needed an outfit to go to a party and called me about it. I found the slip of a garment in her room, a yard or two of blue-gray silk, with a fitted waist and eyelet lace on the bodice and hem. It was a reasonable length, as college dresses go. Still, silk’s a thin fabric, and it fit neatly into a padded envelope the size of a Kindle. Karen, at the Post Office window, knows me well and has tracked my various shipping destinations as the girls spread their wings. She went through her usual spiel, asking whether it was liquid, fragile, perishable, or potentially hazardous. “No,” I said. “It’s none of that. I’m mailing a dress to my daughter.” Karen raised an eyebrow, looking down.
“Really?” she said. I didn’t know what she was getting at. Did she think I was sending contraband? I was about to protest when I caught movement behind me. The next guy in line, craning his neck.
When I looked up he gave a sheepish grin, shrugged an apology, and murmured, “Small dress.”
After college they went farther afield. A newspaper job seven states away. A Peace Corps stint in Guatemala. A summer sojourn working in Glacier National Park. Grad school over the border in Vancouver. New employment in California. Letters and parcels followed them. I do not know how much the packages comforted them. I know they comforted me. Most recently my oldest started playing outfield for her company softball team, so we dusted off her father’s old baseball mitt and put it in the mail. Now the tradition continues. Abby has become a professional baker, and put her own surprises in the mail this year. All of us, in our assorted zip codes, found boxes of gourmet cookies in our mailboxes as Christmas approached.
When the latest job offer came through, there was much family chatter. Southerners all, in my clan we do not know much about New England. But we know it’s cold.
My girls are now scattered across the country. The warm part of the country. Between them they own one really warm coat. It was a gift to Caroline for her sojourn in Canada. Now living in Tennessee, she doesn’t need it any more. It was idling at the back of a closet at my house, all but forgotten, until she offered it up for her sister’s new adventure.
I dug it out. It looks like something you would take to the Iditarod. It falls to the ankles, filled with down, sewn with clever pockets and secret zippers and a hood you can pull tight around your face, complete with faux fur ruff. All that warmth takes up a lot of space, and I knew I didn’t have a single spare box in the house that could contain it.
Holding the coat, I stood in line at our local pack and mail place. It was a long line, being so close to the holidays. I felt foolish for being there, felt like explaining that I had already mailed my presents to my sister and assorted far-flung friends. I do that early, always. Instead I waited silently behind the guy mailing an awkward-sized puzzle to his grandson and the woman mailing twenty-seven orders from her Ebay business.
At last the line diminished, and it was my turn to place the mega-coat on the counter with a helpless gesture. “I really need to ship this,” I said. “But I don’t know how.”
Tammy, the lady in charge, was not fazed. She sized it up. “Oh, sure,” she said. “We have something for that.” She went to the back and returned with a box that I knew was too small. I started to point this out, but I have never seen her defeated. So I decided to wait and see.
Tammy took the coat and folded it as though it were a shirt. She flipped it over once. Leaned on it. Tucked in sleeves, re-folded, re-leaned. The process went on, tucking and folding and leaning. Compressing, compressing. The coat was shrinking before me.
A guy came in behind me with a UPS drop off. She looked up, smiling. “That ready to go? Just leave it over there.” She pointed with her head, never taking her hands from the coat.
Another woman wanted packing materials. Tammy called up another employee from the back, still not loosening her grasp.
As she did her work, I had more time to think through the various addresses on all the boxes I had sent. Young Harris College. The University of Georgia. Boston, San Francisco, Nashville, Arkansas, Texas, Montana, Guatemala, Canada. Reunions and departures, going out and coming home. Until home, for them, was someplace else.
I was always glad for them, but also I found it impossible to erase their farewell voice mails on my phone. More than once I questioned my own philosophy of showing them their options.
When the children were tiny, just walking, I felt I had to have them in my line of sight all the time – unless they were asleep or corralled in a play pen. When they got older, though, supervision in the house was more about listening. I got used to a constant low hum of activity, of siblings prattling at each other, sudden giggles and low, territorial growls. My work, whether laundry or bill-paying or writing – could go on with these sounds in the background. But certain kinds of clatter brought me running. A cry of pain, an escalating series of shouts, an unexplained boom or rumble or crash. All heralded trouble: a child had taken a forbidden jump off the top bunk bed or one sib had given another an unwanted haircut.
Now that we don’t all live in the same house, listening matters even more, even though it is done long-distance. No news is often good news – a several-day silence can mean a child is happily busy and will touch base when she can. But sometimes a tone of voice or a terse text sends an alarm signal that makes me want to drop everything, pack a bag, and close the distance between us.
My mother’s sister spent some years living in Spain with her Air Force husband in the fifties. I have the letters she wrote back to Texas, full of news and daily observations about her life there. The letters did the job – the sisters stayed thick as thieves their whole lives. But I’m grateful for my texts and emails, for Instagram and Facebook.
I recently attended a virtual baby shower for a young cousin. And Emily once organized a group video call for the family to talk about our collective DNA. It was like having dinner together without the burned chicken. So we are not such strangers when we do see each others’ faces on real visits, when I am lucky enough to have “mom time,” with them, in the flesh.
And that crucial piece of missing information I was worried about when Emily left early for college? I stopped fretting about it. On her first weekend visit home, it was clear from the light in her face that the decision had been right. At some point, without my noticing, she had accrued what she needed to make the leap.
Tammy was finished. Leaning on a small brown garment that was, impossibly, the Big Coat.
She was hunched over it, squashing it one last time. She stood carefully, focused on the now-compact lump of nylon and fleece.
“Okay now,” she said. If you could just hold it while I get the box.” She held it out and I took it, careful to keep it compressed but still, ridiculously, not wanting to hurt it. It was surprisingly light, if unwieldy. A bit like a squeezable, oversized burrito. There was something about its shape – or perhaps my cradling posture – that brought back sudden memories of my bundled newborns, handed into my arms all those years ago. I shifted my weight, and the tip of a sleeve peeked out as though trying to escape and go somewhere.
“You got it, honey?” Tammy said. She patted my arm before turning to open the box flaps. “Hold tight now,” she said over her shoulder. “Don’t let go.”
About the Author:
Carol Crawford is the author of The Habit of Mercy, Poems about Daughters and Mothers, and has been published in the Southern Humanities Review, Appalachian Heritage, the Concho River Review, the Chattahoochee Review, and the Journal of Kentucky Studies among others. She has been program coordinator for the annual Blue Ridge Writers’ Conference since its inception in 1996. Her website is carolcrawfordediting.com.