You call up to me, “Mom, I’m leaving!”
I listen to you waiting at the door before yelling it one more time. I answer, but you can’t hear me because I’m hiding in my office upstairs. Finally, the door slams shut and you’re on your way.
You’re 16 years old and about to take your second driving lesson. I was the same age when I started mine. Two weeks earlier, at your first lesson, I made sure to walk out to the car and introduce myself to your instructor, while I waited to see you buckle your seatbelt. After watching you pull away with a quickened heart, I went inside to stare down the hands on the clock as they moved ever-so-slowly towards the time you would come through the door again.
Sometime before you get back, a text comes from Grandma asking how the lesson went. Though it doesn’t surprise me that she would want to know how it had gone, it does catch me off guard when she shares what it was like to go through this with me.
My mom worked an afternoon shift then, and my driving lessons always happened right after school. I have vague memories of the lessons, but none of her checking to make sure I returned home. She was never an overly protective parent, and I was definitely of the free-range generation of kids. I don’t remember her fussing about my whereabouts or safety, as much as I do with you and your siblings.
“The first few times you went out, I would check my watch constantly. I couldn’t wait for my break to call and make sure you got home safely,” she told me. Apparently, by my third lesson, her supervisor would let her step away for a few minutes, so she could run to the payphone and get it over with.
I wonder if I was impatient with her when I answered those calls, and I assume that I was. But it didn’t stop her from making the next one. The frustration children take out on their parents, when there’s a sense of overprotectiveness, is something we learn to push aside.
I come downstairs, when I know you’ve left, and I head to the kitchen to begin making dinner. I’ve planned an overly elaborate meal for the middle of the week. We usually have dinners that are quick and simple, to keep pace with the extracurricular activities that clutter our calendar. But tonight, my mind is quieted by going through the motions of preparing some of your favourite dishes—all passed down to me by my mom.
I feel close to her as I chop the vegetables and set the various pots and pans into place on the stovetop. I am looking at the clock a lot less with all the busyness of cooking the meal. Still, I’ve timed the prep so the food will be ready at the time I expect you home.
Like me, you are the firstborn, and all these milestone moments change and prepare me for going through them again with your siblings. They help to loosen my hold on all of you, and harden my heart against the separation I can feel coming. I know you’re only around the corner, practicing your three-point turns, but it feels like a driver’s license brings you so much closer to leaving. Watching you climb into the driver’s seat of a car is like watching you drive off into the wider world, and I know soon you’ll be making decisions for which I will no longer have a say.
Grandma was there the day we loaded you into a car for your very first trip, at three days old. She stood and watched as we all buckled our seatbelts, but I can’t remember if she said anything. Just like when I was a teenager, I don’t know if she was worried as she watched our family of three pull away. She knew enough to keep it herself, just like I’m trying to now.
Giving you the car keys feels a bit like letting the world have the keys to you. And I don’t know if I’m ready to be on the other side of that closed door when you go. As I’m standing at the stove, lifting lids and breathing in familiar scents, I am filled with affection and empathy for my mom and those payphone calls she made so many years ago. This is the trajectory of parenthood, though. We hope you learn everything you need to, and then we steel ourselves to watch you go.
“Didn’t you hear me leaving?” you ask, when you return safely and sit down beside me at the dinner table.
I look at you and think of my own mom, before telling you that I did.