My mother, Chickie Ling, Jerome, Arizona, around 1920

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Shadow Playground: Childhood Memories of Wormsloe Plantation in the 1950’s and 60’s

This story will be published in the September issue of Georgia Backroads magazine.

I just recently read in The University of Georgia Graduate School Magazine about research UGA is conducting on what life was like in the 1700’s on Wormsloe Plantation in Savannah, a reading which brought back a flood of memories for me personally. I grew up on the Isle of Hope in the 1950’s and 60’s in the shadow of Wormsloe, before it became a National Historic Site.

Even without Wormsloe, the Isle of Hope, on the marshy outer edges of Savannah, would have been a magical place to be a child. Because it’s an island, although with a narrow causeway connecting it to the mainland, and because it was a more trusting, more innocent time, we children had a great deal of freedom to explore all it had to offer. Within barefoot walking distance were the bluff with its antebellum houses and pristine cottages, with its docks and boats; Barbee’s Pavilion with its famous terrapins; and Blissett’s Store with a selection of pickled pigs feet and briny eggs, grotesque treats our mothers would never have fed us and most likely never knew about. Kinsey’s was near our school, with penny candy and a screen door that closed with a tap instead of a bang as we exited on summer days with our banana popsicles. Then there were the marshes all around us with fiddler crabs and the smell of river mud. Out back was a forest where we kids discovered an abandoned still, the fecund smell of which I still remember. Some of the neighborhood boys later used the still as a fort, described by one of its builders as “the finest clubhouse ever constructed on the Isle of Hope”.

I remember Halloweens when we trick-or-treated anywhere and everywhere, without our parents who simply cautioned us to “stay on the island”, and, in the summer, playing Sardines at dusk and catching fireflies in a jar later in the evening. I remember swimming at the optimistically-named Wymberly Yacht Club where the only watercraft leaving the rickety dock were the kids doing cannonballs trying to escape the biting gnats known as sandflies. Then there was the day we went sauntering into the marsh, happily exploring, only to be nearly marooned on a tiny sandbar when time and tide got away from us.

And I remember Wormsloe. Wormsloe wasn’t part of our island freedom as it was off limits being private property; a beautiful, secret plot of real estate, a place of great import, although I didn’t really understand why. But Wormsloe was always there.

And so were we.

It seems that every former Isle of Hope kid has a Wormsloe story. My own recollection is of entering those iron gates with a friend and walking up the mile-long oyster-shell laden private road to the big house. I remember peeking in the windows of the somewhat frightening old building full of books, thinking what a wonder it was to be in that place, looking through those windows to a completely different time. I was a rather timid child, a real rule follower, so I can’t imagine having the nerve. I do know that I believed we’d been given some kind of tacit permission from the old lady who lived there, permission granted to children who wanted to explore as long as boys and girls didn’t go together. I’m pretty sure I never ran that invitation past my parents.

Just knowing Wormsloe was there made us feel different, lucky in some way we couldn’t explain. I have a scholarly friend who wrote, “We inhaled an air of other times. Having a real plantation next door changed things, like growing up in the back yard of Independence Hall.”

The younger brother of my best friend describes Wormsloe as his favorite playground. He was one of those unfettered boys who eschewed school in favor of the education that could be garnered from real life. While I was at home dutifully completing my Social Studies homework, he was breathing history and making friends with both the caretaker and the old lady.

His memories include:

There was an old fort there. That is where we fought off the Spanish invaders. The old fort was crumbled, covered with vines and it had saw palms growing in and all around it, but to me it was as sturdy a fortress as Pulaski. The Spanish never had a chance! I almost fell into a well one day by the old fort. It had been covered up for so long that instead of falling through, I simply started sinking. We covered it up with sticks and palm fronds trying to capture either some wild animal or some unlucky Spaniard. It never happened…… There were several oaks along the marsh that you could jump out of when the tide was high and float down to the dock.

And then:

There was an older lady who lived in the house. As far as I know she lived alone. I never saw anyone else with her. Sometimes she would sit on her front porch and enjoy her view. There were several flower gardens made into squares around the house. Some had bird baths and benches for people to sit and relax. We would try and sneak around the front of the house without her seeing us. One day in particular, she saw us and stood up waving us up to her. I was with a friend and he took off running. I, being somewhat inquisitive, not to mention caught red handed and paralyzed from fear, walked up the steps ready to meet my maker. She asked where my friend went and I said that he had to go home. She made a sound in her throat and told me that we were going to ruin her bushes by crawling through them. She then told me to follow her inside. With thoughts of ending up like someone in a horror movie, I followed her into the kitchen which was a lot bigger than ours. She had some kind of cookie that was obviously homemade and had fruit in it. I ate it and told her that we would be careful not to get in her bushes. From then on out, whenever we saw her on her porch we would walk by, wave and speak. She usually had some kind of treat for us, typically cookies or cake. Sometimes the cookies were soggy, but I never complained.

As an adult, I learned the elderly lady who lived at Wormsloe was Elfrida DeRenne Barrow, a woman not only with an impressive bloodline, but also formidable in her own right. She was a mother, a published poet, and a noted historian, and we have her to thank not only for preserving her home for all of us through the Wormsloe Foundation, but also for opening its gates so children and adults alike can visit without skulking through the bushes. The notion that she befriended scruffy little boys who trespassed on her property so they could dream about and participate in the history she sought to preserve helps to expand and illuminate my memories of growing up in the shadow of Wormsloe Plantation and makes me want to visit again, this time with actual permission

The little trespassers as their mothers saw them. There are no known photographs of them in their natural habitats.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Going Back to Oak Creek

This was written a few years ago. It's about a trip my mother, my daughter and I took in 1998. It was later published in Arizona Highways Magazine. I was actually paid $900 for it, by far the most I've ever been paid for one of my stories.
My mother is now gone and Molly is in graduate school. My friend, Allison, used part of the story at my mother's funeral, which she preached on the edge of Oak Creek where Mama's ashes were illegally scattered.

My mother as a young woman

Oak Creek Today

I always knew about Oak Creek, where my mother spent her summers as a child and where she took my daddy just after she married him, before he, in turn took her east to start their life in Georgia. For me, it had a mysterious, almost mythical allure. Of course, I knew only what I had heard from Mama and what I had seen in the sepia-tones photos stored in our attic.

In my mind, I saw Oak Creek as being from another time, a time when the west was still wild, a time when a little girl could grow up hunting, fishing and camping – real camping, not Winnebago camping. For me, a product of the 1950s, a child of the South, Mama’s stories of staying at Oak Creek in the 1930s and ‘40s were as foreign as if she had been raised by wolves. Perhaps she was. It could happen at Oak Creek.

It was not until years later that I, as the mother of a daughter myself, yet still a daughter to my own mother, made the trip to the place that was so much a part of me, even though I had never been there. Three generations of females flew west from Atlanta in the spring of 1998. Mama, my 13-year-old daughter, Molly, and I all had different agendas. My mother wanted what might very well be her last visit to her home state, and I longed to know more about her early life. I wanted to find myself somewhere in her beginnings, to know the “Arizona part” of me. Molly came only because I wouldn’t let her stay home with her friends, even though she thought she was old enough.

The three of us traversed the circuit of my mother’s childhood, starting with Prescott, where she was born. Her family’s Victorian house still stands, now listed on the historic register, but in tawdry disrepair.

Next we went to Flagstaff and visited the University of Northern Arizona, where Mama earned her teaching degree. As we neared Oak Creek, our anticipation became palpable, at least for my mother and me. Molly was busy experimenting with different makeup looks in the back seat of the rental car, a Walkman firmly affixed to her ears.

Mama had saved the best for last. We were to stay in a motel on the edge of the enigmatic Oak Creek and would visit Sedona and take a day trip to Jerome, the played-out mining town where she had grown up, living on that portion of the mountain known as Cleopatra Hill. Throughout the week, as we took in the sights and mused over almost forgotten memories, Mama kept saying, “I just hope we can find where the Oak Creek cabin used to be. That’s what I want to see most.” I hoped so, too, mostly for her, but also for me.

The Oak Creek of Mama’s childhood was very different from today’s vacation and retirement mecca of Sedona. In the old days, it was a place of hardy locals mixed with folks, like my grandparents, who camped and built summer cabins on the edge of the creek, within view of the majestic red rocks. It seemed the place that defined her most. She and her daddy had helped to build their cabin on a site so pristine and beautiful, so geographically and aesthetically desirable that few could afford it today.
Mama knew the cabin had been torn down and the land returned to the state at the end of a 99-year lease, but she hoped for some sign that her life there had really happened, perhaps some proof for me.

Mama with her parents and friends on the cabin terrace.

Descending the winding road from Flagstaff, I thought this had to be the most beautiful place in the world, this land of Oak Creek. Mama couldn’t seem to take it all in. She kept craning her neck, looking for the place where the cabin had stood. “Maybe this is it. No, it doesn’t look right.” Small access roads, leading toward the creek, all looked the same to me. For her, it had just been too long and things had changed so much. No doubt some of Mama’s memories had been distorted by time. We stopped and asked, but no one could help us. The old-timers were gone.

The next day we stopped in Clarkdale for lunch and then headed up the mountain that was, and still is, Jerome. I saw the “J” at the top. Mama had told me how painting the inscription had been a high-school freshman class rite of passage. As I peered over the dash at the steep climb up to town, I remembered why Mama never learned to ride a bike as a child, finally mastering it as an adult in the flat marshlands of South Georgia. Bike-riding in Jerome was dangerous, if not impossible. After attempting to park the rental car on a downhill slant and close its door without losing my footing, I understood.

Mama’s daddy had been the city attorney in Jerome before moving to Phoenix to become an assistant state attorney general. I recalled the story of the jailhouse sliding down the mountain and remembered how I had surmised in my egocentric child-mind that my granddaddy probably had some “worthless varmints” incarcerated in the jail as it made its way to its new address. Learning in later life that my grandparents had already moved when the jailhouse made its way down Cleopatra Hill was a little disappointing, so I chose to remember it the other way. I also, as a little girl, possessed some primal narcissistic sense that Jerome’s slow descent down the mountain and its ultimate decline in population had to be connected in some way to my grandfather’s ascent up the ladder of success elsewhere. My family’s moving on had to have been the last straw, an abandonment with which the town just couldn’t cope.

I found Jerome to be interesting, yet felt sad that it had changed so much since my mother’s day. I was glad that the artists had utilized its charm, but couldn’t get past how difficult it would be to live in Jerome, forever canting one way or another, afraid of losing one’s grip, not only on reality but also on the Earth itself. I can see why Mama holds on so tightly to life and why Oak Creek became such a compelling resting place for her.

On our last morning, we awoke to a light snowfall. Although it was pretty and its arrival in mid-April a novelty to us Southern marsh hens, it also hinted at a disappointing final search for the bygone cabin at Oak Creek. I worried that the drive back to Phoenix would be difficult in the snow. Molly was having trouble with her lip liner. Mama asked that we look one last time.

Turning back toward Flagstaff, I feared that Mama would be terribly disappointed if we couldn’t locate the site. All I could see was snow, and driving in this kind of weather makes me tense. About a mile up from the motel, Mama pointed to a side road, more like a driveway. This was one of the places we looked earlier, one of the many that seemed almost right, but not quite.

We pulled over and got out of the car. I envisioned broken hips from falling in the snow and wondered how difficult it would be to get an ambulance up this slippery road. My mother carefully made her way over to a fence. “This has to be it. I just wish I could get closer.”

As she and I gazed forlornly over the frustrating barrier, trying to see what might have been vestiges of the cabin, Molly unfolded from the back seat and out of her adolescent self long enough to check a spot where the fence had collapsed. “Why don’t we just try that hole in the fence over there?”

It took just seconds to mull the repercussions of trespassing on state land and then for all of us to transcend the broken-down fence to Mama’s childhood – and my Arizona roots.

As soon as she reached the concrete slab just a few feet from sparkling Oak Creek, Mama knew she was home. Her faced wreathed in smiles, she cried, “This was the cabin’s foundation! This was the terrace!” It even looked right to me. It looked like the photographs from the attic. All the tableau needed was for my grandmother and my grandfather and my honeymooning father to join my mother in repose as they had in those pictures taken so long ago.

From there, we walked over to the waterwheel my mother and grandfather had built to generate electricity for the cabin. That’s when I knew, for sure, we were in the right place. I had heard about that waterwheel my entire life. It was surreal, actually being there, really touching it. Mama was surprised it had survived nearly 60 years, as the snow’s melting each spring had continually kept if flooded and in disrepair. When I saw it still standing, it seemed to me that its real purpose may not have been so much pragmatic as commemorative. We had found evidence that my mother’s Oak Creek was more than just a place in time. Oak Creek was basic to the woman she had become, the woman who loved my daddy and who bore my brother and me in a very different place and time.

Just before leaving, Mama pointed out the cliff cave on the other side of the creek that she, at 13, used as a refuge from a mother and father who simply didn’t understand, just as Molly’s parents currently didn’t. With that comparison, it became clear to me that the beat of my mother’s heart and the essence of what it takes to be a woman reverberated from her, through me, to Molly, and would most likely endure through other generations.

Going back to Oak Creek that snowy spring was the right thing to do for my mother. She needed to remember all that endowed the girl she once was and the remarkable woman she grew into. The trip was, most definitely, the right thing for me. I needed to see how the creek water and the red rocks fed my Southern soul. It was also the right thing for Molly – although she doesn’t know it yet.

The intrepid travelers

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dinner on the Ground

This was written a few years ago and aired on Georgia Public Radio in 2006.

It was hot and muggy the Sunday Linda and I walked up the brick path to the old church in Savannah, Georgia. It was Homecoming and we were coming home. Our friend, Allison, had been invited to preach the sermon, and Linda and I were there to hear her. The setting held special meaning for all three of us. I had grown up in the church; Allison had arrived as a teenager and found her calling and her future husband there. When Linda was a child, her aunt had led the choir and she had memories of visiting at Easter to hear “Low in the Grave He Lay, Jesus My Savior.”

It had been close to thirty years since I’d set foot in the church, the last time being for the baptism of my eldest, now twenty nine. Sadly, the church I’d grown up in, married in, and christened my baby in had burned at some point after I left home, but a new one, larger but almost an exact replica, was now taking its place. The original building had a rich history. It had been used as a hospital during the Civil War, and what later became the choir loft had earlier been built for slaves who were invited to hear the Word of God, but not in any kind of proximity to the white folks. The current church was a testimony to what a modern church could be, open to all, at least theoretically, and filled to capacity at not one, but two, Sunday morning services each week.

I was surprised at how I felt as I took in the church and its surroundings. My chest was full of memories and my head resonated with the realization that I was stepping where I’d stepped as a little child, a young bride, and a new mother.

We were on the lookout for Allison, who had come early to preach at the nine o’clock service. We found her in the social hall, drinking a Diet Coke, and resting up for her next performance, looking not at all like our friend in her clerical garb. She also looked hot. Heat was a big issue to our mid 50’s menopausal minds and bodies, and we were worried that the stalwarts were going to win out and dinner would, indeed, be served outside, although thankfully no longer laid out, picnic fashion, on the ground, as it had for Homecomings a hundred years ago. I had already been chided by Linda for wearing stockings, something we purported to be against because of feminist issues. In actuality, our stand had more to do with queen-sized versus regular, control top as opposed to sheer, never mind how they hold in the heat.

We took a tour of the social hall where my wedding reception had been held. I couldn’t quite get my bearings until I found the large room where my new husband and I had fed each other wedding cake and considered a future that we never could have foretold. In the back, next to the bathroom, I found an old picture that captured my big brother and me sharing a crowded front pew in what must have been a contrived photo shoot since my brother never would have sat on the front pew, and definitely never would have allowed me to sit with him and his buddies; and there was my best friend, Francine, across the sanctuary, appearing forlorn without me by her side. As I looked closer, I could see my father sitting in the back, wearing a bow tie that I still remember, quietly offering support from behind the scenes. That bow tie was the only ostentatious thing about my daddy.

When I couldn’t locate my mother in the picture, I decided that it was most likely she who had coordinated the picture taking, and she who was working the shutter on the Kodak. When I was a child, ours was a family that, like so many others, virtually lived at the church. It was not only our Sunday morning, but our Wednesday night, and Saturday afternoon, too.

It was getting close to time for the eleven o’clock service so Linda and I made our way into the sanctuary in order to get good seats. Settling in, I couldn’t help but question why God had allowed the uncomfortable antebellum wooden pews to survive the fire when so little else had. Watching Linda open her fan with a flourish and produce several of her mother’s linen hankies in readiness for the heat and what we were looking to Allison to provide for us, that being a helpful sermon and a Good Cry, I was reminded of how artfully my friend had mastered the Steel Magnolia, Faded Flower of the South, persona.

While I mindlessly gazed at the other church-goers taking their seats, Linda squinted at a hand-written sign a few rows up, a sign that sat atop a pile of bulletins. “Marcia, what does that sign say?” she asked in her exceptionally Southern and somewhat loud voice. I was forced to inform her in my not as melodic but even louder voice, “It says, ‘Large Print’, the sign says ‘Large Print’.” We made good use of the hankies as we stifled the titters and snorts that came with the understanding that the “Large Print” sign needed to be printed in yet larger print in order for some of us to read it.

The service began with the preacher making announcements and asking for prayer requests. At some point before the offering plate was passed, he told the congregation that, because it was Homecoming, he was going to continue with the tradition of having folks call out the names of people, living or dead, who had been meaningful to them in some way. Linda’s mama’s handkerchief got a second round of use when I heard someone, someone I didn’t know, call out my dead daddy’s name. Chasing after my drooling eyes and nose with the scented linen, I knew I was heading toward a memorable memorial meltdown. I was a menopause-driven train careening into the station without benefit of either brakes or Arrid Extra Dry.

Just as Allison was being introduced, her many credentials touted, a little boy behind Linda began to squirm and complain, his father unable to quiet him. Before I knew it, Linda had turned around and was saying something to the poor little child, whispering from behind her fan. When I asked her later, she told me she’d promised him a cookie after the service if he’d simmer down, but his look of absolute terror during the entire sermon made me doubt her explanation.

Allison addressed the congregation and spoke from her soul, telling stories and weaving her message without really preaching. She made reference to the place and time of our childhood, a place so beautiful it flirted with magical, a time so finite, it, like my daddy’s bow tie, should have been captured in a snapshot. As she ultimately made her compelling point, sharing her personal life pain to heal others, I was reminded of how successful we three, Allison, Linda, and I, have been in life, if not in love.

Before the benediction, the preacher made the announcement that the Homecoming dinner had been moved inside to the social hall because of the rain that had started up during the service. Linda and I did a mental, hankie-embellished, high five, thankful that our hormone depleted and therefore perspiration-prone bodies would be spared the Savannah humidity as we continued to support Allison by partaking in the pot-luck delicacies provided by the church members. I was particularly impressed with myself as Friend of the Visiting Preacher, and therefore special guest, as Linda and I followed Allison to the front of the lunch line, ahead of the people who had brought the food.

In spite of my iffy emotional state, I successfully maneuvered the lunch line, basking in Allison’s and my dead daddy’s reflected auras, bypassing the lesser folks as I dipped into the macaroni and cheese, potato salad, chicken tenders, and honey mustard sauce, little of which was likely homemade for this new millennium Homecoming meal. Continuing with my all-yellow luncheon theme, I selected banana pudding for my dessert.

Keeping my eye on the clergy table where, for once, I would be sitting, I successfully traversed the crowded social hall with its portable furniture moved in from out at the last wet moment until I came upon a little boy, not the same little boy that Linda had earlier terrorized, but another little boy. This particular little boy had somehow managed to get ahead of me in the lunch line, a transgression he would live to regret. Just as he was digging in to his baked beans, his fruit salad, his spaghetti bake, my karma met his as the toe of my high-heeled shoe, sweatily sliding upon my stockinged foot, caught the leg of his hastily-placed chair, and, in slow motion, I felt myself going down in what can only be described as a noteworthy fall from grace.

I have a confession. I am a faller. I have a history of falling. It’s as if I have a life-long inner ear condition that causes ditzy dizziness at the most inopportune times. While a college freshman, I fell at the University of Georgia, attempting to cross the street from Brumby Hall to the Krystal, carrying my drawing board, a fall significant enough to make me change my major. I’ve fallen in the dark; I’ve fallen in the light. One time, I stepped in a dog dish and slid across my wet kitchen floor, pulling off an extremely painful but almost perfect split to absolutely no applause. Now, I’d fallen in a church social hall in the midst of sweet memories, gentle ghosts, and terrorized little boys.

Linda, who was behind me, says that all she saw was yellow everywhere and macaroni in the little boy’s hair. Allison, who was in front of me, says that, when she heard the commotion, she was ninety-nine percent sure it was me. What I remember is the little boy’s father trying to talk me off the floor as I attempted to clean the honey mustard sauce out of the treads of his child’s pristine sneakers. I also remember potato salad and banana pudding painting a grisly Pollock-like picture on the linoleum and people walking around it all, kindly trying to act like they hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary.

In retrospect, I have to say that my Homecoming visit was a good one. It gave me the opportunity to reunite with good friends, departed family, and lost childhood. It was certainly memorable, not only for me, but also for others. So what if gracefulness is not my strong suit. That’s okay. We all have something to offer and I’m glad I when I can be of help.

And what a help I was when, on that one particular Sunday in over a century of many such Sundays, I was able to contribute something that only someone with my special gifts could manage. It makes me proud that, at future Homecomings at my old church, as folks gather round the table laden with yellow food, they just might remember the stained and sweaty lady who gave her all in an attempt to bring back the tradition of dinner on the ground, and their blessing, in my honor, might include something akin to “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I Knew He Had to Grow up Some Time, But Did It Have to Be Today?

I stand in the driveway as Billy departs, pulling all of his worldly goods behind him (or, at least what he perceives to be the good stuff). He is joining his older sister three thousand miles away in Oregon. Since I have already lost one child to the Pacific Northwest, this doesn't seem quite fair.

Billy calls his small caravan "The Big Lug"; an allusion to the immense, unwieldy bolt that attaches the trailer to his car, and a name that also fits his often genial, and sometimes inert, demeanor. I am sobbing and my heart is breaking. At the same time, however, I'm envisioning the cleaning and rearranging of my living room; the room that he took over for the five months that he came back home to live with me, filling it with wires and circuits, Grateful Dead bootlegged tapes, a vibrating chair, and his big old smelly shoes - items all now being precariously hauled away in "The Big Lug" (by the big lug), thank God.

How can I own two such contradictory sentiments at the same time? I think that it has to do with that parent balance thing, how much you give how much you save for yourself. Although I'll miss him greatly, my little boy in his man's body, it will be nice to have my tidy, female life back.

It's not like he had never left. He had matriculated (and I use that term loosely) at a State University a couple of hours away, but, while not being underfoot, he remained within arm's reach. However, after four years, with no degree in evidence, his father and I agreed that he needed to come home, notably to my house since my ex-husband had his new wife and his new life. I, of course, was still primarily "Mom", and therefore, always available for found kittens and lost souls.

The edict to come home was tolerated only with great angst. Billy would have liked to have stayed in his comfortable college town surroundings with his friends but without the inconvenience of having to go to class. The problem was that he couldn't do that without our support. As always, money spoke, or, in this case, the withholding of money said it all. We finally starved him out.

I thought having him move back in with me, without the pressure of both work and school, might allow him to find some academic direction at our local community college, but that was not to be. After a couple of weeks of my best not-so-subtle brainwashing techniques, he finally told me, "Mom, I wish I could make myself want to finish college but I just can't right now."

So we came to a short-term compromise. He would find a job, deliver his fourteen-year-old sister to wherever she needed to be, save us from the boogyman, if he ever showed his ugly face (perhaps tie him to the vibrating chair?), and help out around the house. I, in turn, would board and feed and put up with him for free. In addition, he was to save his money for whatever life he decided to have in the future.

I knew I was on dangerous ground. What if he became too comfortable?
He might not ever leave. My cooking is pretty foul (even when it's not chicken) but I was offering it for free.

I need not have worried. He was obviously miserable, stuck in that never-never land of hometown four years after high school. All of his close friends had moved on, and the people with whom he worked in the local factory had little to offer someone who had seen the collegiate equivalent of Pa-ree. In addition, he was once again living with his mother, who thinks a late night is staying up for Ally McBeal.

He hated the assembly-line job, which was no surprise. He is very much a social creature and, to his mother's unbiased mind, a creative genius. The tedium and the isolation wore away at him even more quickly than I thought they would. Of course, my hope had been that he would take the blue-collar experience and turn it toward some ambition to finish college. Instead, he decided to move to Oregon!

I'll never forget the call. He reached me during his break at work. "Mom, will you be real disappointed in me if I move to Oregon with Melissa?"

I first wondered what his sister would think about the idea. She had her own life and struggles. Putting those concerns aside, I responded with my best motherly advice. "Billy, I won't be disappointed in you at all." (In fact, I was a bit jealous that I didn't have the courage to do something that outrageous, but I chose not to tell him that). "However, I will be disappointed for you if you can't create a good life for yourself. I just wish you had a college degree. It would make things so much easier." I didn't think that it was a good time to remind him that his sister, with her college degree, was currently waiting tables in a Eugene restaurant. I did, however, point out to him that there are factories in Oregon too, and that a move wouldn't necessarily protect him from low paying, tedious jobs. In addition, I warned him that I wouldn't be able to bail him out financially, for his sake as much as mine.

I know it's going to be so hard for him, this child of video games and creature comforts. He will, most likely, have to hit bottom and I'll need to lend him, not money as I have in the past, but a deaf ear. Of course, a bad time is better than no time, a hard life better than no life, which is what he would have had if he had taken the easy route and stayed with me. I am proud of him for having the courage to take that long trek out of his mother's reach.

In spite of his misery, Billy was a fine companion. In fact, his company was so good that I found myself turning down social engagements to do things with him. No one is as much fun as my irreverent, quirky son is. He made me watch movies that I wouldn't have watched on my own, with American History X being my favorite. He introduced me to web sites and technical innovations I will never be able to find or resurrect now that he is gone. He even got me hooked on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, something out of character for me, since I normally stay pretty much within the confines of HGTV (oh yeah, that and Ally McBeal). It got to the point where I was a little disappointed when he would set up a date with a girlfriend from college when she came through town. The least they could do would be to stay home and watch Regis with me!

Conversely, he could be a real pain. He certainly made his presence known, this male in an all-female house (even my dog and cat are girls). He belched, he slurped, he left a trail of boy trash - paper cups full of melted ice, Rolling Stone magazines, and dirty socks. At one point I told him, "Billy, I am not your maid." His droll response was, "It's a good thing because you're not very good at it."

It was, most definitely, time for him to go.

A couple of minutes after he pulls out of the driveway, my phone rings. It's Billy on his cell phone. "Well, I'm gone!" he asserts, assaulting me with the deeper meaning of that simple statement. Only two thousand, nine hundred, ninety-five miles (and his whole life) still to go. As I wipe my hand across my face to dry my tears, I keep wishing that my son were heading west with an MBA from Harvard. Instead, he is armed only with his unformed dreams and his untapped talents to face the world without his Mama. I say a prayer for his good journey and go back into the house.

As I stand looking at the mess that he left behind, I am, once again, reduced to tears with the bittersweet realization that Billy's now removed stereo equipment and entertainment center have left a big hole in my living room and in my heart.

Wait a minute! Come to think of it, I have a plant that will look great in that corner. I'll just water it and give it some fertilizer. All it needs is a little mothering. All I need is to do a little mothering. Good-bye, Billy. I love you.