It would be an understatement of epic proportion to say that I looked forward to Lauren’s homecoming. After nine long months, it was May; the end of her freshman year of college and a return to family dinners and movie nights with tubs of popcorn spiced with hot sauce and grated parmesan cheese. No longer would trips down the long hallway of our second floor be punctuated by the painful sight of Lauren’s empty bedroom.
Surely, the three-month summer break would feel like an eternity.
Despite my ostrich-like denial, August, and the time for Lauren’s return to school, arrived. Her bedroom is empty again and our dinners haunted by the vacant chair at the end of the table. But it was an incredible summer.
I had heard dire predictions about the battles we would have from parents who barely survived the dreaded “first summer after college”. We were supposed to have clashed about a whole list of things, including laundry (never an issue because Lauren had become obsessively particular about how her clothes were washed and insisted on doing her own); household chores (a few nudges every now and then, but nothing big) and curfews (trying to set a curfew for a 19 year-old who lives on her own for most of the year seemed like nothing more than a pointless power struggle).
So the battles never materialized and in fact, Lauren’s return to family life was largely stress-free. My wife convinced me to ignore the naysayers and give her a little space. She assured me that if I just let Lauren breathe, everything would work out. As usual, she was right. As a bonus, it seemed as though we had discovered a renewed appreciation for each other.
Nowhere else was this more evident than in the changed relationship between Lauren and her younger sister, Monica. Perhaps it was as simple as absence making the heart grow fonder—it was clear they missed and relied on each other more than they realized. Or maybe it was just the natural evolution of sisterhood, accelerated by months of living apart. Whatever the cause, it was like a curtain had come down on the often contentious, first act of their relationship and risen on a gentler, more tolerant next.
A few weeks after Lauren’s return, I witnessed one of those moments. In different ways, it would repeat itself many times over the course of the summer. This time, the sisters were on their beds alternately clacking away on their laptops and cell phones, an iPod donut on the floor midway between their rooms blaring music from Disney films. Few words were spoken—an occasional question or remark about the current musical selection, for example—yet it was clear they were communicating on a much deeper level and in a language I was unable to translate. Like two circles in a Venn diagram, they were individual entities, joined by kinship, common experience and a shared love of Disney music. They had become “sisters” in the purest sense.
There were hints throughout the school year that their relationship was moving in this direction. Though separated by several hundred miles, they developed a method of doing their homework together via Skype. Monica, at our kitchen table and Lauren, in her dorm room, would sit silently in front of laptops streaming images of each other as though they were sitting across a table in the same room. One would play music loud enough so that the other could hear. It was their way of staying in touch with their past as much as with each other.
What made their complicated cross-state homework venture remarkable is that before Lauren left for college, homework-based tussles were nightly occurrences in our house. Some nights they would accuse each other of taking up too much space at the homework table. Other nights they could not agree on the music to be played while they worked (Silence is rarely an option in our house.) It was gratifying to see that, despite their disagreements, those simple moments left an indelible impression on each of them.
So now Lauren is back at school and we are learning to once again live without her. I miss the family dinners, of course. But I miss the little moments—impromptu, late night conversations in a quiet and darkened house—the most. Those are the times we truly connected as a family.
I glance at my Blackberry more often now, hoping to receive a text message asking for advice. I don’t even mind when the text asks for money instead. I am grateful for any contact I am allowed.
Like last year, all of my parental focus is now trained directly on Monica who seems to spend more and more time in her room, hiding from me. This school year is going to feel like an eternity.
Did you notice changes in your college student this summer? How do you avoid smothering and, at the same time, stay connected? When he or she went back to school, what did you miss most?
John Marchese is an attorney, writer, imperfect father and husband of a perfect wife and mother. He is a shareholder at Colucci & Gallaher, P.C. in Buffalo, New York and a frequent contributor to The Disney Driven Life. John may be reached, followed or ignored at jjmarchese.com and on Facebook and Twitter.