Settling in has its price

I had one week with my daughter in Paris to settle her in before she started her freshman year of college. It was a constellation of connection and closeness along with misunderstandings and frustrations, the need for separation sitting with us both. The weather was gorgeous and we went out to see the sights and enjoy each other’s company.

One of our first trips was to Montemarte, in keeping with my feeling that every trip should involve getting to the highest points I can manage and underground if possible. While we were winding up the path to the cathedral at the the top of the hill,  she proceeded to tell me about getting scared out of her wits by guys who push bracelets onto tourist girls’ wrists and then demand payment, which had apparently happened to her when she was there as a freshman in high school, a story I had never heard before.

Thinking about her having been there before without me, it became all the more real that I was about to leave her alone again. I couldn’t shake how frightening that must have been for her as a fourteen-year-old and how she didn’t really feel she could say no or establish clear limits at the time. Luckily her voice is stronger as a eighteen-year-old. She’s more confident and capable. But the ghost of those violated boundaries was still real.

Another day we sauntered along the Seine; we found The Rex, but unfortunately for me, all the movies were in French. Jeesh. Where did they think we were? We found another theater playing Total Recall in English and it felt like the perfect choice. I had gone to buy the tickets and as I walked back across the street, I saw a scalper coming onto my daughter, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. He was in her personal space and seemed so aggressive that I stepped right between them and gave the guy a dirty look. Maybe it was the force of her earlier story sticking with me, but I couldn’t resist the impulse to protect her from this bastard who was clearly hitting on her under the guise of selling her tickets. How was I possibly going to step away at the end of the week, leaving her alone in a foreign country?

Yet another day and we’re on our way to what I hoped was the French equivalent of Macy’s to get some supplies for her new apartment. It was much more breathtaking than Macy’s and obviously very expensive. I promptly dropped my own money down for a new bottle of Coco Chanel, a favorite splurge of mine since I was my daughter’s age. We grabbed a handful of samples of other products, enough to satiate a teenager for a couple months, and cute little Chanel pins on top of that. We headed upstairs and I told her to look around and get ideas for how she might want to decorate. My vagueness invites trouble.

As we step off the escalator she sees it: A beautiful clear plastic bathroom accessory set — enough to make any Parisian flat sparkle. And very expensive. This was not Target. This was not Bed Bath & Beyond. My budget and maternal limits start blaring red. You really need the whole set? How about just the toothbrush holder and a cup? Do you really need a tissue holder and whatever those other three things are? A necklace rack and a ring holder?  We’re suddenly in a tight-fisted standoff over bathroom accessories. What has this trip come to? Where did I go wrong? Who does my daughter think she is?

On the other hand, I was the one who brought her here. What was I thinking? Then again, why wouldn’t I indulge her in her fantasy of a first apartment full of small and meaningful Audrey Hepburn accents? Maybe because I’m 41 and I don’t think I’ve ever bought a full set. Of anything!

And then I step back and see myself standing there with my oldest daughter, clutching my wallet over a toothpaste holder and snapping about whether or not she needs the ring holder too. In the end, we found a compromise. I spent about $80, maybe $100. On expensive plastic. Later, we laughed. And her Parisian bathroom sparkles.

It’s my last morning in Paris.  We had agreed that on my last night, she would sleep in her new apartment and I would stay in the flat I had rented for the week: a trial separation. I woke up a bit nervous about traveling and saying goodbye. We had agreed to meet at 8:30 for coffee. I arrived at the café with all my luggage and dropped her a text to let her know I was there. No response. I waited 15 minutes. 30 minutes. More texts unanswered. Forty-five  minutes in, I realized I was going to have to leave Paris without saying goodbye and without being able to give her the cash I’d just taken out for her.  Fighting tears, I watched scores of young women coming by on their way to work or school. Where was the one I was waiting for? Unable to wait any longer, I stuff my scattered belongings into my bag, pay for my coffee, and head to the train to catch my flight.

And then I saw her. It was a movie moment, but I was totally playing the wrong role. I didn’t want to be the one breaking down: I’d hoped to be strong, a protector, reassuring her that all would be well when I was gone. But here I was,  practically starting to practically bawl, my embarrassment making it worse. And yet there was something normal, even reassuring about her response. She’d slept through her alarm, a little casual perhaps about meeting me. She was feeling, apparently, a little at home.

She apologized for inadvertently causing an awkward last encounter. I felt relieved to hand her over some money and say a proper goodbye. It’s marvelous and terrible, I think, as I pull my bags toward the train, and we persist because it’s the only way to independence. If I hadn’t been through it myself, I wouldn’t understand how important it is, and I survived. The changes and joys that await her come with freedom of movement and identity, for both of us. I keep moving forward. Charge on, Anna girl. You’ve got this.

15 responses to “Settling in has its price”

  1. Stella says:

    Thanks for sharing…love this. Can’t believe she’s all grown up.

  2. Lynn in Europe says:

    Oh Steph, what a lovely piece. How lucky Anna is to have such a great mom, and how lucky you and Bryan are to have such a great daughter. Hope to meet up with her while she’s in France and with you in Abu Dhabi (of course, you are — and Anna is — welcome to visit us in either Quinson or Berlin, too). Love to you all.

  3. Sacha says:

    Oh I AM all soggy eyed reading this <3

  4. LP says:

    Oh, Anna. You’ve got to wake up and say goodbye to your momma, girl! I’m laughing here but can only imagine how frustrating that 45 minutes must have been. Classic mother-daughter push-pull, but at least it was all against a marvelous backdrop of Parisian cafes. SWW, you’re a great mom, and Anna’s going to thrive. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  5. Marlene Smith says:

    Oh, my sweet daughter. It was touching thinking of you and Anna on the Montemarte. A little more than forty-one years ago your father stood on that hill where he purchased two little pictures of Wide eyed Children, the in thing for artists in 1971. I was home awaiting your birth. I cannot help but reflect on my own feelings when, it was you, at eighteen ,going of on your European adventure. As you and I know so well, separation is hard at any age but not ever as difficult as that first jolt of reality. It is then, we wonder, if we have done enough to prepare our most precious daughter to thrive. You my girl, are a testament to what is a head for Anna and Molly. You have given them your heart and soul, and so it is the time to let Anna fly. Believe me, she will find her wings and soar.

  6. T-Mo says:

    Oh jeez, I’ve got something in my eye. The screen went all blurry a few times when I was reading this. I gotta go blow my nose, too. Must be allergies.

  7. J-Man says:

    Anna is a lucky girl to have a mom like you! You and Bryan have done really excellent work.

  8. swells says:

    If I thought the post itself was a weeper, your mom’s lovely comment just really upped the ante. What a beautiful, contemplative, emotionally present family you have. I’m honored to know you all, and await more stories of your life in AD and Anna’s in Paris. xx

  9. Rachel says:

    What an amazing Monday surprise! It’s hard to decide on my favorite part, but I think it’s this:

    “What was I thinking? Then again, why wouldn’t I indulge her in her fantasy of a first apartment full of small and meaningful Audrey Hepburn accents? Maybe because I’m 41 and I don’t think I’ve ever bought a full set. Of anything!”

    Steph, I can practically *hear* you saying this. So glad you’re both settling in. Much love.

  10. Marleyfan says:

    What a touching, heartfelt post! Anna will do great, especially now tha she has expensive plastic. Love you sis!

  11. SSW says:

    Thanks everyone. Bryan and I talked over ways to stay in touch while in “the dhabs” and TGW seems like a great fit for that.

  12. PB says:

    Just two weeks from my own separation drama in which college boy left me in the dust a block before the traditional goodbye at the gate with bagpipes – I can both relate and not. Relate to the growing up and loss and transition and “when will they call.” But the distinct relationship of mother and daughter, especially when it is done well and healthy and with sparkles, is so rare and lovely that I am wistful. Your description of a week of sightseeing, moving toward the inevitable goodbye, does feel cinematic. An epic line in the sand that you will move from with typical grace into the next phase of your friendship.

  13. SSW says:

    When the girls were younger, I was always so busy just trying to cope with whatever was going on, I didn’t have much room for reflection (that’s not true-of course I was reflecting on it, I just never made time to write about it). Right now participating in new ways feels important especially using my creativity–welcome to being in my 40s, what can I say?