Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A friend in time

Drop-off day everywhere
At this point last week, we were preparing to fly Sam to his Elon drop-off. 

Today,  I'm looking back on that drop off; the parking lot introductions to other parents, the move-in teams with their maroon t-shirts imprinted with "You bELONg here",  the trips and return trips and final trips to Target for trash can liners, Clorox wipes,  power strips and hampers. The "Goodbye," or,  in my case, the  "I love you. Thank you. And behave." The trip back home, the cliche-quiet inside the cliche-empty nest.

I fed the cat, unpacked, went through the mail and logged on to Facebook.

"What now?" posted a parent-friend of mine.

Whether you've launched the first child and don't know what to expect or like we have, launched the last child and look forward to the full-length, uninterrupted conversations of olde with your spouse, that big question of "what now" hangs like fog beyond the headlights. Inside it are little murkier ones: questions of new identities, roles, validation, and purpose. Interestingly, they parallel the very questions our brand new college students will come to ponder, as soon as they get over the fact that NOBODY cares what time they come in, what they eat, or how often they launder their clothes.

I wanted to write back to my parent-friend, "Clean his room, lol!" but a two-word post like "What now?" is too poignant for a glib response like that, so I considered the more banal, "It's a new education for us too," or, "Join a club! Take a class! Run for office!" Finally,I decided that whatever I said would not be helpful, and would probably be insensitive.

"Never miss an opportunity to shut up," is some of the best advice I've heard. As a drop-off veteran, those opportunities are everywhere right now.

Except that I want to help.

And I want to help because I didn't ease gently onto this little path - I was shoved from behind when our two oldest left for college at the same time.

I recall how lost and fragile and weepy I was over my own two-word plight of "what now" and how I struggled for new normalcy until finally, in the middle of a conversation with my best friend about whether to make scrambled eggs with water or milk I broke down. "Every single day, I loved them and every single day it showed in the people they are," I sobbed.  "Where will I put all of that now?" My very startled friend was silent. "I mean, you know, so it shows?" I clarified.  Her next reaction, while not technically helpful, turned me around just the same.

"Oh my God. It is freaking me out right now to see you this upset."

It  made me think of how dogs are when their owners cry or get upset or gasp or show fright. They prance and whimper and pace in little circles because they know they can't say anything useful. They just hope with their entire being that you will go back to reading the paper or making a sandwich or having a glass of wine or whatever you have to do to calm the hell down. This visual made me laugh, which made me feel better. In the days that followed, the urgency of  "what now" waned and the comfort of easier routines - all the result of lighter days and fewer worries -  eclipsed my anxiety altogether.

Time simply passed.

Whether we're parents wondering where to put our parent-love now so it shows, or college students meandering through small talk with strangers, wondering who will be their next best friend, in only weeks from now, maybe in only days, we will know. We  have already begun to churn the unfamiliar into the familiar, we will soon allow new relationships to show their potential, and the question of "what now" will have been left behind.  

It is a certainty.

But it doesn't happen because we wish it would.

It happens in time.

Let time pass.

And as noted by Coldplay's  Chris Martin, be happy with what lies ahead as you discover, "just who you were."

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ready, I realize

For your convenience, I have posted the italicized back story below to enhance your appreciation for the post which follows.

Sam, somewhere in the
middle of  his
 junior year
A while back, I registered a blog address called Why did I register that address when I already had  Because two years ago I moved, and stopped writing in an attic all the time. Then, I started to re-think  the "everything" nature of my current blog and decided to create a new blog  around a single theme.  I did that, and of course, with Sam leaving soon, I  titled it, "Empty Nest."  I never got past the home page where I posted, "Be here soon! Still sweeping out the nest!"  because when I looked at it later,  even I thought it was tedious.  

 Indeed,  Sam, our fourth and final child  leaves for Elon on Thursday. And how does it feel for the last child to be leaving home? I am asked often, and most often by people ushering first-borns into their senior year. I understand. If I were the parent of a senior and talking to me, I'd ask too, because when a first child leaves for college in only a year, it's a big deal. To imagine the last child leaving is a jumbo-deal.

I have developed an auto-reply, which is this: "I have my moments, but we're ready."   I sometimes say it before I'm asked, the way we say "good," before someone asks how we are.

It doesn't require a therapist to understand that this efficient response is meant to redirect the conversation before I have a chance to babble out a more authentic, but messier response, like this:

Curious Person: "How are you, Susan? How does it feel to have your last child leave the nest?"
Susan:  "Actually, person, I'm struggling. I was putting something in my October calendar the other day when I remembered that life as I know it will have changed by then and then  I had to put the calendar away and be with my feelings for awhile. How are you?"

The "I have my moments, but we're ready" response, economical as it is, is clearly the better choice.

Here is the story of what happened when all the moments formed themselves into an army of moments and resolved to advance. 

Last Monday, I discovered that this blog is being read more often than I thought. So I decided to fix it up, tinker with format, change the template, colors, title and so on. It's a nesting thing, this tidying up of a particular environment before a major change occurs.  Before each child was born, I changed the furniture around. Same thing.

I started by organizing the content of the blog. Since 2008 when I started it, I've written almost 100 posts, but I've been lazy about labeling them. Some are, some aren't, some labels go with only one post like this: 

Label: People Building Snowmen (1).  

But eight of them, written  between the middle of Sam's junior year and today, deal with Sam and the label of "letting go", to wit:

Sam teaching me about rap.
Sam being mortified when I was stopped for speeding near the high school - twice.
Sam learning to drive and getting his license
Sam backing into my car and offering me a decade of birthday money to pay for it.
Sam preparing for and taking the SAT
...submitting the application to Elon
... being accepted and attending orientation
And, finally, Sam graduating.

In these posted accounts of this or that experience, my respect for him is clear, what we mean to each other, obvious. No wonder; it was during this period of our lives together when I learned Sam's expectations of himself were as great as my own, and, when he learned he would earn his independence by not compromising my trust.  Indeed, as I read, I realized that more than he was grateful for my trust, he cherished it. Oh, the things we realize, that we already knew.  

I finished labeling the posts, changed the background eleven or twelve times, changed the font, and font color and font size until it was perfect. I signed out, and signed in as if I were a newcomer.

Then,  I thought, why not use that new sbonifant.blogspot address for the blog instead of atticview.blogspot because, really, I am sbonifant and I don't write in the attic.  I went into the secret labyrinth of blogness and found the "domain redirect" feature. Then I set it up so that would now be replaced by sbonifant@blogspot.   Then I experimented, typing  into the search bar,

Redirecting... it said, before bringing me to

(I wonder how many people know what I'm going to say, now)

Empty Nest. "Be here soon!"

"Huh?" I said this right out loud.

I did it again.

Empty Nest. "Be here soon!"

Atticview.blogspot, I typed.

Empty Nest. "Be here soon!"

Susan Bonifant, I googled, getting nervous.


Empty Nest. "Be here soon!"

I hadn't overwritten Empty Nest with Atticview, I'd done just the opposite.
My blog was nowhere.
And I, as Sam would say, fffrrrreeaakked.
Couldn't be.
Can't be.
Might be.
Probably is.
Four years of writing. Gone?
My book progress, job hunting, accounts of life, children, friends, everything... Gone?
But worse...far perfect, in-the-moment accounts of the high points of Sam's last eighteen months at home.  Gone?

And there they were,  that army of moments, advancing. And here I was with zero defense.  Because with all that I was to let go of, what I needed most, what I could never replace, what I'd put in a place for safekeeping, to look back at when Sam was gone - was lost. And I was not ready anymore.

First, I considered the appointments I would cancel for the day while I recovered. Then, I started clicking randomly, going into pages that meant nothing to me, clicking links for "help" which brought me nowhere, until I found: restore original blog settings. 

I had it back in moments. But I haven't found the word yet to describe the moments when I didn't know I would. 

I knew, and yet have realized a final time, that while our children leave, they leave us with momentos of who they were until they left: the songs they love, the movies they watched over and over, the elderly neighbor who still tells of the day your child cared enough to stop the car and get out to say hello, the cat who curls up on the made bed, the hundreds of baseball caps and all the plaques, neatly placed in a tidied room, the only two ties he ever wore, side by side on an hanger. 

August 19, 2012

In ways we don't realize we find ways to store the memories for safekeeping - to be ready when goodbye comes. For some of us it's a photo album, for others it's our ability to recall a sharp memory, for me it was to document it in a blog.  But when someone asks you, how does it feel to know your child is leaving for college,  always be sure you've kept the best parts of them in a place you can go back to. And then, with authenticity, say:

"I'm ready."

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Don't make me use my writing

I think the following story is blog-worthy. It's not like the sixty dollars story which was popular, judging from my google stats, but it's a good story with a little takeaway message at the end so keep reading.

The other day, I made a sizable deposit at (I'll call it Joe bank).  It was a funds transfer, meant for Sam's tuition.

Did I make the deposit at the counter? Of course not. I never do that. That's what ATMs are for.

Before I made the deposit did I endorse it? Of course not. I never do that and have never had a problem.

La la la. Out came the little summary of my transaction:  7 day hold.

First I said a very bad word. Then I parked the car. Then I went in to see someone about having the hold lifted.

I explained my situation to a teller at the counter. Soon, I was ushered into one of the little perimeter offices behind the glass, where well-dressed twenty-three-year-old bankers oscillate between texting their friends about the weekend and handling the business of a person who looks as if they are about to have a tantrum.

Given my twenty year history of good banking behavior across several accounts, and knowing that banks are well within their discretionary rights to lift a hold when they damn well feel like it (7 day holds were necessary when banks across the land were tiny and funds had to travel back and forth by horse and buggy. Now, banks - the tall and the small - can verify electronically, and overnight, that  Mary bank can pay Joe bank without any risk whatsoever to Joe bank. I checked.)

In the little office, my well-dressed, twenty-three year old (heretofore known as WDTTYO) banker asked me pertinent questions while he clickety-clacked on his keyboard and brought up the history of me. With an apologetic smile, he told me the bank could essentially do nothing.

"Retrieve the physical check," I suggested. (They can do this. I checked).
"Gosh, I wish I could, but it's gone by now. But here's what you can do. After we image it tomorrow or the next day, you can call me and I'll give you the bank information and then you can call someone at the bank and tell them the situation and then you can ask them to produce a statement, on letterhead, to verify that the funds  are in place, and then they can send that to me, and then we'll make a decision about the hold after that and then you can stay in touch with me about that decision."
Because I don't know the secret bank handshake, I suggested that he do all of those things after the check was imaged.
"Gosh, I would love to do that for you," he said, "But they won't talk to us. It's your check."
"How long will this take?"
"Well, it's a process. It takes a few days."
"How long is a few days?"
"It could take up to a week."

7 days.

"Please don't make me point out that we've been solid banking customers for twenty years and hold several accounts here. There's got to be a way to release the hold sooner than that," I said.
"OH, believe me," he said meaningfully, "I sure do want to keep your business." He slid his card across the desk. "Call me tomorrow."

I called my WDTTYO banker the next day to ask if the check had been imaged. He put me on hold for a few minutes, came back, and said, "Gosh it sure hasn't."

I'm not the kickass type.  I'm usually nice and reasonable and I play fair. If I can do more to help someone, I do. I'm rarely mistreated or disrespected or on the receiving end of lazy business judgment. But I sense it when someone refuses to do more because they just don't feel like it.  When I checked into it, I was assured that "banks absolutely talk to each other all the time." Banks eat lunch together and go for manis and pedis. They're friends who have a lot in common.

Here's something my father taught me back when funds transfers were verified by horse and buggy:

Don't ask for anything until you're ready to walk, then ask for everything.

So, I asked for the manager's name and email address. Then I lined up a new account with a nicer bank (I'll call her Alice bank). Then I wrote a letter to the manager of Joe bank. I explained my situation and described the bank's limp sock of a response.  I told the manager about the decision I would have to make now concerning future deposits. I asked for guidance.

"If I can expect service like this from Joe bank in the future, I will move everything to Alice bank where I have already had better service in similar situations. I sure do hope you can help me decide."

Long story short - this could have been longer - I got a call the next day and the ship was righted. Instantly.

And I don't even think my WDTTYO banker will be in that much trouble, because I went out of my way to describe how polite he was. I did not report that  while his smile was saying gosh this and gosh that,what his eyes were saying was "Please get the hell out of here so I can make plans with my buddies for the weekend." I kept that to myself.

Writing is my weapon  tool of choice. Yours may be the ability to think on your feet and verbally full-nelson someone who is being unfair. Or maybe you're twenty-three and adorable and can charm someone else into doing something your way. Whatever. Don't let your power depend on whether or not someone else does their job. Make your power depend on knowing what you deserve, polite but unwavering determination to get it, and having an adequately stocked arsenal toolkit that you're not afraid to use.

Monday, August 6, 2012


The other day, I exited the highway one short and got stuck travelling in the wrong direction. It paid off.
I'm unable to judge distance in terms of feet so I'll just say, about eight or ten car lengths in front of me on the off ramp was a small, black SUV-ish vehicle. It swerved a bit and then, from the driver's side floated several papery items into the air - dollar bills. I stopped and got out, scrambling to gather up the bills. The black car slowed and I held up the handful of money.I was convinced the driver saw me, but the car disappeared.

I pulled over and waited.
And waited.
And waited.
A Sheriff's car pulled up and the officer leaned to ask if I was okay. I explained what I was doing and he left.

I began to think about what I was doing.
Then I began to think about what that sheriff would have done if he were not in uniform.
Then I wondered what my friends would do.
Then I wondered what my CEO friends would have done, what with all their chronic hurry.
I did not wonder what my children would have done, but I did wonder how long they'd wait.
So I texted all but the fourth who would have said "don't bother," and each responded, "5-10 minutes."
How much money was involved they asked and I said, "60."
How long had I already waited they asked, and I said, "A half hour."

Right after that my phone went dead. So I went to the police station and left the cash with a very surprised receptionist who couldn't believed I'd turned it in. I left her my cell phone number.

I wasn't surprised that she was surprised. It is unusual for someone to do that even though it necessarily means that it is more usual to drive through the airborne bills, or, pick them up and keep them.

But I have twenty-something children.

Sixty dollars fills my son's gas tank so that he can make it to work each day. Sixty dollars buys groceries or pays the electric for my daughters who are making their independent lives work. When I was eighteen, sixty dollars a week was about what I was paid to work in a stationery store for a middle-aged bully who said things like, "I'll bet you think you're just beautiful, don't you?"

Sixty dollars is a lot of money.

I came home and told all of this to my fourth child who was touchingly, very proud of me. I asked - I really wanted to know - if he thought the driver of the black car would go in search of his/her cash.
"No," he said.
"Cynic," I said.
"No, I'll explain," he offered. "The guy sees his money fly out the window. He says, 'Well that sucks. Sixty bucks. Damn.' If he saw you and didn't come back, he figured you'd kept it. If he didn't see you and didn't come back, why would he bother with the police station?"

Why would I, then? Why would anyone?

At around 9:00 that night, I picked up a voicemail from a tearful woman who had called to thank me for turning in her sixty dollars.  She'd spent an afternoon picking up and dropping off tired, hot, cranky kids and wanted to take them for ice cream. She stopped at the bank and in her haste, rested the envelope on the dash where the wind carried it away.  
"I saw it go flying everywhere," she said in her message. She ended by letting me know they were a young family who didn't have much. Sixty dollars meant a lot.

Why would anyone bother? That's why.