They were pointless, she said. A waste of money that could be spent on better, more long-lasting things: a computer for college or a trip for my husband (her stepfather) and me. That may sound strange coming from a 17-year-old, but my girl frets over the fact that we’re sending her to college. Again and again she has asked if this is a wise use of our money, seeing as we’re really old (he’s 50; I’m 46) and will need to retire soon. She refused senior photos, then a party. I respected her caution but worried she was living on the edge of her own life.
Then, in May, prom came along. She told us, tentatively, that she’d been asked. Would I go shopping with her? she wanted to know. Then she rushed to say, “I’ll pay for my own dress.”
Later, because he is not a man to confront, my husband said to me privately, “Please pay for her dress if you think it’s the right thing to do.”
I did, taking care not to make a big show of it, simply taking the chosen dress when she handed it to me and walking to the front of the store while she put on her jeans. There were tears in her eyes when I handed her the wrapped package. “Thank you,” she said quietly and I said simply, “Of course.”
There was a slight softening to my independent daughter’s position that day—enhanced, I think, by the fact that she needed me to help her in and out of the complicated gown, so I stayed up on prom night, unhooking her and hearing her stories in the peaceful hour between 1 and 2 a.m.
About a month later, she confided in me that she was feeling wistful about high school and her decision not to mark graduation. Could we, maybe, arrange a small gathering at a park. Again, she was there with her checkbook, trying to buy the food. She didn’t want to put me to any trouble. After all, I had a book coming out.
Frankly, the timing was a bit of a problem. This was one week before the release of THE FOREVER MARRIAGE. I had several local events planned and a teaching stint in Iowa to prepare for and a blog to write!
But I insisted it would be fine. A party, yes! I’d always wished we could have one. The moment she was out of earshot, I got on the phone.
I called that friend everyone has—or should—the one who can take random bits of fabric and string and whip up a puppet on the spot. This woman is a master at everything from bathroom tiling to impromptu entertaining. And bless her, she talked me through.
We could have it catered, she said. Don’t think chafing dishes; these are kids. A taco bar from one of the fast-food Mexican chains would be perfect. Coke and water on ice. A cake from Costco. Plastic plates and forks from a place called Party City I had never known existed, though I’ve been driving by it for years.
My husband rented a park shelter and we hoped like hell it wouldn’t rain. And then something magical happened. People started gathering and it was a little like an Amish barn raising: souls walking toward us, grievances forgotten, a general air of goodwill.
My younger son—the one who has gone missing for months at a time, a young man who’s fought addiction since the age of 16—showed up early to help carry things and buy ice. He was as proud of his little sister as if she’d just won an Olympic event; I suppose to him, graduating with honors and going on to college seemed like just such an achievement. His eyes were clear, his attitude grateful, as he circulated among her guests.
My children’s father, a man who’s long avoided uncomfortable situations involving me, showed up with his wife and the two grandchildren they’re raising. No doubt they felt out of place. Yet they stayed for the entire party, moving among people mostly attached to my new life with my husband, and they were utterly gracious. It must have cost them a lot.
There was a strange, poignant moment when my ex-husband’s grandbaby, the son of his stepdaughter, reached for me and I held him for just a second, wondering at the odd turns a life will take.
My parents were there and along with my sister from Philadelphia. We hadn’t seen each other in nearly a year and hugged wildly. But let me assure you, this, too, was hard-won. We’re very different women, my sister and me, and there were years we hardly spoke. It is only in our 40s, as we realize these useless grudges do nothing more than waste a life, that we’ve come to peace. Today, in a way that touches me deeply, she’s become an avid promoter of my book.
My oldest friends were at the party. As was a man I met just a decade ago who has become like a brother to me—and an uncle to my kids. My former boss, now close friend. And the woman who talked me through the party logistics; she showed up to celebrate, too, even though her husband is gravely ill.
The day was hot, the food mediocre, the park services absent a restroom (which we hadn’t been told). But we all stayed on and on, talking, drinking cheap wine, watching kids roll down the hill and run for my daughter (second from the left, above), nearly until dusk.
“How did we get so old? How did that happen?” a friend asked in a lonely voice and I took her hand. It felt like we were all graduating from one thing into something else.
And when I got into bed I could not sleep, because I felt so FULL of the strangeness of it all. My daughter, all grown up. My ex-husband rolling and playing with grandchildren not ours. My sister listening intently to my former boss. My junior high school friends trading stories with my adult children. One of the dearest women in the world to me, drinking an inch of wine from a plastic cup and checking her phone for updates from the hospital bed where her husband lay. My now-husband—a man I couldn’t have dreamed of when my daughter was born—with his arm around my friend, murmuring to her when the news was not good.
Before going to bed, my daughter had thanked me for the party. And I had said, “No, thank you.” She gave me a look of confusion then shrugged and went off to take a shower. Mothers are so weird, I could see her thinking.
She doesn’t understand now. But some day, she will.