By the time you read this, my son will be on the verge of returning to school for the second semester of his freshman year of college. Waiting for him is a new slate of classes, including an Intro to Film course that may or may not alter what he wants to do with his life, and not one but two weekly DJ spots on WJRH Radio. Beyond that, his life stretches out to infinity, full of the possibility and promise that can only seem real through the lens of hindsight. For now, though, he’s just happy to be home. Overjoyed. And that worries me.
For two weeks now he’s bathed himself in San Francisco, his friends and even his parents, helping out around the house and showing not-feigned outrage when we suggest going ahead with our plans to go skiing for two days (“What? Without me?”), even though he has concert tickets and would have to stay home. He has wallowed in the habits of the high school-era him, lounging around the house in sweats, watching YouTube videos until sunrise, turning his room back into a chaotic jumble of clothes, iMac power cords and spent pretzel bags.
Once again we wonder where all of the dishes have gone, how many Ritz crackers one individual can consume in 24 hours and how likely it is that we’ll ever see the $30 loan again. (“I don’t have any cash and don’t want to use my ATM.”) Not to be too much of a cliché, but you know all of those things they tell you will happen the first time your college-age/young adult child comes home? They’re true. The school even sent out an email to warn us: “Remember that your student has been on a ‘college-time schedule,’ which is different than the family schedule.”
Amen, that. The family schedule generally includes activities that begin before noon.
But that’s all noise, quirky little tics that are equal parts annoying and hilarious, us on one side trying not to nag, him on the other doing his best in the face of what must suddenly seem like unprecedented limitations and hassles. The other day I asked if he missed the magical pretzel bags while he was in college.
“What magical pretzel bags?”
“The ones that magically return to the pantry from your room.”
“At college, my room is the pantry.”
What he doesn’t realize is that by being annoying, we are doing him a great service. It’s that parental annoyance, not the luxurious nostalgia of being back in his childhood room and among hi s childhood friends, that will shepherd him safely to the starting blocks of his adult life.
Yes, I’ve worried that he’s too relieved at being home, re-embracing his San Francisco life like a castaway returned to the mainland. Was 3,000 miles too far? Will he decide upon the first snowfall of winter that he can’t bear being so far from the Golden Gate Bridge and fully grown adults walking casually down Haight Street dressed as Pokémon characters? Will he graduate and scurry home, managing his life by geography instead of ambition?
It could happen. But also it could not happen. My worries left out the part about growing up and going away for the first time and how your childhood home becomes a talisman, a safe place where your dog, your Xbox and even your parents are waiting right where you left them, eager to wrap you in your favorite blanket from childhood and feed you Kraft macaroni and cheese without judgment.
I’d forgotten that growing up is scary, even when you’re having the time of your life. Deadlines and tests and roommates and riding buses alone to unfamiliar airports can seem like a raw deal when compared with your old bedroom and your old friends. “That doesn’t come until later,” my wife told me when I raised my concerns that our boy may be too attached to his old life. “One day you go home and realize you’re not home: You’re visiting your parents, and you can’t wait to get home.”
Sorry, Thomas Wolfe: Not only can you go home again, but ultimately, you have more than one place to call home.