When I was 19, I breathed in the sweet North Carolina air, still sticky and humid in September, cool and glorious by November. Southern Sugar Maple trees offered up their fine broad leaves, first in vibrant green, then in gold and rust. For the first time in 10 years, I lived in a place where it didn’t snow in the winter. Still, the ground hardened in the colder end-of-year weather and we wore wool coats, but the down parka I was used to was out of the question. Elegant Dogwoods flowered white and soft pink in the spring. I took on a subtle southern drawl, seamlessly blending “y’all” into my everyday lingo.
When I was 19, I was failing Econ, in lust with a gorgeous, born-again baseball player and after seven months at college still filling my belly with way too much alcohol weekend after weekend, often throwing up before crawling to bed, always stumbling down to the cafeteria in the morning for a bowl of creamy grits smothered in butter.
When I was 19, the freedom of being on my own overwhelmed and thrilled me. Like the majority of the women in my dorm, I didn’t really know how to handle myself around the ridiculous amount of alcohol readily available or the barrage of boys (sorry, but they were still boys while we were decidedly women). My roommate and I made a pact: we would not leave the other behind at the end of the night. When one was ready to go home, the other followed. Our agreement was not always easy to keep to, especially when alcohol flung its Cape of Invincibility over our shoulders and our teenage hearts thumped wildly, star struck by the boys and their attention. Once or twice we lost each other, but for the most part, we stuck together. This is how we survived with most of our brain cells intact and our bodies unbruised. Having a true and trusted friend by your side makes all the difference when you’re finding your way.
My oldest is 13 and I cannot imagine sending her off to college in a few short years. Not because she won’t be capable of being on her own, but because I will not be ready to let her go. When you’re 46, 19 sounds too young and tender to be out in the big, wide world. Maybe it is, or maybe that’s just how all moms feel about their children. We know what it’s like to be out there, whether “there” is college or a first job, a studio apartment or a year abroad.
Here’s what I try to remember: becoming our full selves takes trial and error. Up until that Econ class, my life had been filled with carefully curated success. I took AP everything, got straight As, played on a state ranked tennis team and was vice president of the Honor Society. Almost failing a class (I managed to eke out a D plus), shocked me, but also forced me to accept that I wasn’t always going to be good at everything, especially if I didn’t put in the extra effort. Drinking like a maniac and dealing with the horrible hangovers (eventually) taught me how to be respectful of my limits. Realizing that the world can be a tricky and sometimes dangerous place when you’re on your own taught me how to be a good friend.
It’s difficult for me to be okay with giving my girls the space to stumble like I did without picking them up and dusting them off. I want to reach out and catch them before they fall. I want to snuggle them down in my lap and kiss away their tears. I know I can’t mother them this close up forever. When they do go out into the world, I’ll miss them like crazy and probably call them too much, giving them unsolicited advice and peppering them with questions about what it’s like to be 19.