My son, Sam, has been trying to work us into his schedule since March. As a college student—he started NYU in the fall of 2009—he always seems to have better things to do than hang with his nosy, middle-aged parents. There was the early graduation scheme, now abandoned, that required summer school in, of course, New York, and the spring break trip to Paris that I followed enviously on Facebook and Twitter (“Never travel with people richer than you are” was my favorite tweet). And then there are the part-time jobs he takes to supplement his meager parental stipend and build his résumé: last fall he worked at Tommy Hilfiger’s flagship store, where he learned to fold clothes, wore a headset like Madonna’s, and met Joe Biden; currently, he is a patients’ advocate at a huge public hospital, which he loves and which, because he loves it, prevents him from ever getting around to coming back to Houston.
So I spend a lot of time dogging my kid in cyberspace and telling myself that the fact that Sam isn’t perpetually homesick means that my husband, John, and I did our jobs well. Born in Houston 21 years ago, just as the azaleas were blooming and the oaks were pollinating, Sam is now much more interested in Bushwick and Williamsburg than the far-flung environs of his own hometown. I’m sure New York has its merits, but like all moms who proudly send their kids into the big, wide world, my hope is that eventually Sam will want to come home. “Good luck with that,” my friends say. But I’m a Texan, and therefore an optimist.
As every parent knows, kids start moving away the moment they are born. But for eighteen years, the process is incremental: sleepovers blend seamlessly into summer-camp stays, the drudgery of carpooling ends and the worry over teenage driving begins. Then comes the day a son or daughter leaves home to begin life as a grown-up, whether it’s as a college student, a soldier, or just a rent-paying resident elsewhere. For a parent, it’s a little like wading out into the ocean and suddenly discovering the drop-off, where the water is deep and the waves are high. Worse, you are supposed to swim to shore while your child heads gamely for the open sea.
At least, that was the image I carried in my head for the period between the joyous moment Sam got his fat purple acceptance envelope and the day we actually left him, alone, in New York City. Even now, I recall those last months through a watery haze. Every time I took him to Target, or sat with him on the porch swing, or listened to him gripe about the smell of the dog or hold forth on a subject he knew nothing about, my eyes would fill and I would have to turn away. Getting him to Manhattan without a breakdown was an exercise in restraint and maturity—mine, not Sam’s. My mother had died suddenly a week before, and that loss, oddly, softened the blow. As Sam told his father, standing in his packed-up room at home, the last of his friends to leave town, “I’ve spent all summer saying goodbye, and I didn’t even know what that meant.”
We made it to New York, met Sam’s roommate, discerned that he was not a serial killer, and checked out the million-dollar view of lower Manhattan from his fifteenth-floor dorm room. Sam pointed to the penthouse of an elegant high-rise. “That’s Beyoncé’s apartment,” he said, passing on the intelligence he had gleaned at orientation. The notion that someone else from Houston was nearby, even if she was a superstar who didn’t know we existed, gave me comfort. Later, Sam walked us to a community garden he’d found on the Lower East Side, lush with fall blooms. He was going to be a regular there, he said, “because I need to see the sky.” As time grew short, I began to panic. I gave him flyers I’d picked up off the sidewalk for Mexican restaurants that we both knew would do only in desperation. I ordered a Texas flag online for his room.
Finally, the morning came when we kissed Sam goodbye and watched him disappear into the crowd on Twelfth Street, walking with the same long-legged, splayfooted gait as my father. He didn’t look back, and my husband spent the whole flight to Houston staring out the window. Our job, essentially, was done.
What I didn’t see then but do see now is that my last-minute moves had more than one purpose. The bonds I was trying to cement for my son weren’t just to John and me but to Texas. If my mother were alive, she would appreciate the irony, because from the time I was six I was hell-bent on getting out of here. I demanded to spend summers with my aunt and uncle in Virginia, enduring their unair-conditioned house with the equanimity of a Zen master. In high school, my best friend and I used to talk endlessly about the lives we would live in “Green-Witch Village.” In Alamo Heights in the sixties, I was a dark-haired, dark-eyed klutz among the blue-eyed blondes who charted the changing seasons by shifting to different sporting events. I longed to live someplace where people read books and dressed in the latest fashions and argued about national politics. Someplace I might actually get a date.
But after college on the East Coast, I came back to Houston for a job as a paralegal. That was in 1976, and while I have lived briefly in other Texas cities and had my share of commuter relationships back east, Houston has been home since then, a great big city with the ease of the Texas I grew up in. Despite my earlier ambitions, I wasn’t constitutionally or emotionally suited for the East: I hated the cold and the reserve