I had lunch the other day with a young person whose mother had asked that I meet her train at Grand Central and make sure she safely get to the bus from Port Authority that would carry her to an overnight in New Jersey. For those of you unfamiliar with New York City, this entailed literally walking her precious baby — a sixteen-year old who often comes to New York on her own with friends and overnights unchaperoned with those same girlfriends in hiker’s huts on the Appalachian Trail — in a straight line five blocks along 42nd Street to the bus terminal. But I was happy to do it because I love spending time with her and hearing what’s up.
She’s looking at colleges now, this little girl who, when learning to walk, forced us to take turns out of dinner to climb and descend the staircase in the middle of the restaurant over and over again. But this trip was to meet up with the service organization that would be sending her to South America for a month this summer, this baby who we taught to lisp, “Pay The Man, Daddy,” every time we crossed a toll booth on the Florida Turnpike. She’ll be on her own in a foreign land, living with a host family, and helping the village organize a sports league or a library or something – she is responsible for figuring that out when she gets there and that she will, oh little toddler in a red dress spinning around the dance floor at my wedding.
Her parents are nervous, she says. They don’t think she’s old enough to do things on her own, but she wants to get away, to be on her own, to stretch her wings. And her parents, even with their reservations, haven’t told her No, bless them. “They’re picking me up tomorrow,” she said, shaking her head, “They want to check out the organization, make sure it’s not fraudulent.” “A wise precaution,” I agreed seriously. She jiggled impatiently in her chair, “They don’t think I know how to take care of myself.” Oh sweet baby, playing tickle games on the couch until she giggled so hard that she peed her pajamas. “But they’re letting you go,” I pointed out. “They’re not telling you No, or Wait Until You’re Older, or creating false obstacles that gaslight you out of going.” “I know,” she agreed with compassion.
She and her dad, the guy with the video camera who catches you with a mouthful of food and demands to know what you think about the momentous occasion, are going to California at spring break to look at schools — Stanford for him although he’d prefer that she attend an Ivy League on the East Coast; a smaller, lesser-known school with a surprisingly selective admissions process for her. “He called it a tier-two school!” She griped knowingly, but still with a smile. “Even if I visit it and decide that I don’t want to go there, it won’t be a waste of time. I’ll be learning about what I do and don’t want in the college I select.”
So wise despite her youth – at her age, I picked a bunch of schools which, like her choices, were on the other side of the country. I visited none of them and my choice was based almost entirely on the fact that It Was In New York City! Not the greatest reason to choose a school but it worked out okay.
“And he keeps telling me what I should study, it’s so embarrassing!” She complained, diving into her Norwegian porridge. “Every time he hears about a new profession, he says, ‘Oh, a bio-geneticist, you could do that. A cartographer, how about that?’” Yep, she’s going to have a hard time with that one, wise child creeping around the living room to Cats on Christmas Eve, turning the CD back to the first track over and over so we could, together, emerge from behind chairs like the Jellicles she had seen at her local theatre. Her parents are scientists of a sort and will expect her to pursue a similar path, though her fantasy-career, I suspect since she would never voice something so heretical, would involve writing, and writing something other than scientific papers, oh tiny genius who used to make up her own crossword puzzles.
On the way to Port Authority, her brother’s sleeping bag in tow, we stopped at the New York Public Library. “The Library?” Wondered the jaded sophisticate who visits so often with friends, but I knew a book-lover when I saw one and her eyes grew wide at the central reading room. It was a quick visit, a promise for her next trip, capped off by a visit to an installation on the main floor. “Oh, the Sixties,” she said dismissively, “My friend is doing a paper on that for History.” Ancient History, she was too kind to say.
Our visit was over too quickly. Too soon I was texting her mom that I had put her safely on the bus, and watching it pull away without even a backward wave, oh starry-eyed cuddle who sat enthralled through the Lion King and wouldn’t leave her seat at the end though the audience was empty and the stage was cleared and even the Fire Curtain was up. “I want to stay. I want to watch it over and over and over and over and over.” Who is this child becoming, this child who I have watched grow and blossom, and emerge? Who will she be, this young sage, when she gets back from her trip abroad, back from her first semester for the holiday, flush with knowledge, confident with certainty, dismissive of our everyday limitations?
And how she will descend to earth once more, reduced to “Oh Mo-om!” or “Oh Da-ad!” by their typical antics, their inability to look at her and not see, overlaying her new-found grownup-ness, as I do, all that has come before, all she has been, for all these years.