Homecoming memories

Nobody cares if you can’t dance well.  Just get up and dance.”  ~Dave Barry

My son Nate is 25 now, and past the stage of high school homecoming dances. But this week, some of my neighbors are gearing up for this sweet tradition, and I remembered this essay from my book, Writing Home. Happy news: Nate is engaged to the young woman mentioned at the end of the essay and shown in the photo at left. –CL

“The Homecoming Dance”

September 21, 2003

From baptism to bar mitzvah, rituals and rites of passage honor the milestones in our lives.  Certain rituals are so closely tied to autumn, in fact, that I cant imagine the season without them. Raking leaves, visiting cider mills, and digging woolens out of storage are just a few.

But the annual high school homecoming dance crowns them all.

At our house, as surely as the maples shed yellow leaves on the lawn, this semi-formal event kicks up a whirlwind of activity and emotion. Some of it is not pretty.

Since Im the mother of a son, my homecoming rituals do not include shopping for the ultimate evening gown and the perfect shade of nail polish. Admittedly, I miss playing Fairy Godmother to Cinderella, so I live vicariously through other moms who have teenaged daughters. Thats how Ive learned that things are different with boys. The angst level, for instance, is much lower in the wardrobe department. Guys dont worry about their hair, and they dont have to obsess over finding a purse to coordinate with a pair of shoes that will be worn only once.

Traditionally, a boy waits until forty-five minutes before the big event to consider whether or not his dress shirt needs to be unearthed from the closet floor. (This is based on the assumption that he owns a dress shirt.) At that point, all hell breaks loose, sending his beleaguered parents in search of an ironing board while the boy hunts down a pair of matching socks. He also waits until the final hour to announce that his good suit has cake frosting on the lapel – a souvenir from the last semi-formal event he attended.

Homecoming rituals will test any parents mettle, but I believe Im a sturdier person because of them.

I miss playing Fairy Godmother to Cinderella, so I live vicariously through other moms who have teenaged daughters.

Last year, a week before the big dance, we drove Nate to Nordstroms to shop for a new shirt and tie. Anticipating conflict, I backed off and let him sort through the merchandise with his dad. I tried to keep quiet – until I spotted a handsome gold dress shirt that was perfect for his black suit.

“Look at this one, guys!” I shouted, holding up the prize. On cue, Doug spotted a great tie to go with it. Our sweet son glanced at the ensemble, rolled his eyes, and muttered his new favorite word: “Hideous.”

Seconds later, Nates cell phone rang. It was Andrea – a young lady with impeccable fashion sense. Andrea happened to be shopping in the area and would come to his rescue. She would help him find the right shirt.

Well, when the fashionista arrived in the mens department, she immediately chose – you guessed it – the gold shirt. Suddenly this shirt was awesome, and the tie was fairly cool, too. (I bit my tongue and reminded myself that God really does look out for parents, and He is everywhere, including Nordstroms.)

As I type this, the next homecoming dance is a week away. Just as I did last year, and the year before that, Ive reminded Nate to ask a date in advance. Once again, Ive explained how girls need time to shop for dresses and book hair appointments. And just as he did last year, the kid kept his plans under wraps until he needed advice on ordering a corsage.

As it turns out, Nates date this year is Andrea, the sharp young lady with good taste in mens shirts. Thinking ahead last week, we bought Nate a new shirt and tie to co-ordinate with her dress. Thank goodness, Andrea approves. Meanwhile, I am not taking any chances and have dropped off the black suit at the dry cleaner.

This is senior year, after all, and weve finally learned the steps to the homecoming dance. — Cindy La Ferle

Writing Home is available in local bookstores and on Amazon.com (see link at the top of this page). Proceeds from my book sales are donated annually to organizations serving the homeless, including the Welcome Inn and South Oakland Shelter, at holiday time.


Parenting advice

A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realization that this is what the child will always need can hit hard.” ~Sloan Wilson

Note: This essay was published earlier this year (“A New Season of Parenting”) in Metro Parent magazine. It was written especially for friends whose children will be starting college this fall…

It’s going to be a roller coaster year for a friend whose youngest child will graduate from high school in May, then head out of state to college in August. My friend is already working through some conflicting emotions. She gets a little teary at the thought of one less place setting at the family dinner table, yet she’s thrilled about the prospect of a keeping neater house (and gaining a spare bedroom) in the fall.

My son’s last year in high school was a bittersweet time for me, too. Like Janus, the ancient Roman god of gateways, beginnings, and endings, I found myself looking forward and backward as my son closed the door on high school and prepared for his new life at college.

When I wasn’t caught up in the May-June whirlwind of award banquets and graduation ceremonies, I spent a lot of time wondering where his childhood had flown. When no one else was looking, I’d search for it in a family album crammed with precious photos of birthday parties, Fourth of July bike parades, Cub Scout camps, Christmas mornings, and Halloween nights.

Around that time, it also hit me that one of the sweetest gifts of midlife is the maternal amnesia that blurs the other memories of infancy and childhood — the post-partum blues; the exploding diapers; the marathon temper tantrums. Not to mention those snarky adolescent insults. When our kids prepare to leave home for college, after all, we tend to focus on the Hallmark moments.

All of this reminiscing seems a bit maudlin to me now. But revisiting the highlights of my son’s childhood helped soothe my empty-nest blues. Pausing to savor and reflect on my early years of motherhood made it easier for me to move on. It also made me grateful for the privilege of raising a child — and grateful for the chance to spend time with so many terrific young people.

During the high school years, for example, our home was a favorite gathering place for my son’s friends, so I always stocked up on extra snacks and soft drinks. Looking in our refrigerator in those days, you wouldn’t have guessed that we were a small family of three. When I unloaded my grocery cart in the checkout line, clerks would often ask if I was feeding a very large family or hosting a party. I always answered yes to both questions.

And since my “extended family” left for college when my son did, my feelings of loss encompassed more than one child.

Taking flight, moving on

Grieving isn’t unusual in the early weeks of empty nesting. Raising children gives us a sense of mooring and purpose. That sense of mooring suddenly disappears when they move out, and getting used to a quieter household can be a huge adjustment. As essayist Marion Winik wrote, “Once you’re a mother you can never think something else is the most important thing.” Still, few parents I know are comfortable with the term “empty nest.” An empty nest sounds pathetic and forlorn  — adjectives that hardly fit the millions of accomplished women and men who are reinventing their lives after child-rearing.

“A word signifying a void or a vacuum is an unfair way to describe a time when life can be full of growth possibilities,” note Laura Kastner and Jennifer Wyatt in The Launching Years: Strategies for Parenting from Senior Year to College Life (Three Rivers Press). But even more important than finding a new catchphrase for the empty nest is shifting our focus to the fresh opportunities awaiting our kids on the other side of the threshold.

Our job, after all, is to help them learn how to leave us; to let go.

It’s also our job to get on with our own lives. Just as we hope our kids will thrive without our constant supervision, they need to believe we’ll be just fine, too. In the long run, helicopter parenting doesn’t do anyone any good.

So, even if your kids aren’t leaving home this year, it’s not too early to sign up for those ballet lessons you’ve postponed for ages. Or to rediscover the sport or the craft that kept you juiced up and inspired before your name was Mom. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done. A new season of parenting will unfold. — Cindy La Ferle

— Nest photo by Cindy La Ferle —

Now on the stands

When my son was growing up, I wrote pieces for parenting magazines, including Detroit’s own MetroParent. Now that I’m an empty nester, I’ve naturally moved on to other topics. But I was honored last year when the managing editor of MetroParent invited me to submit an essay on preparing for a new season of parenthood — the empty nest. It’s fun to revisit a magazine that I often used as a resource when I was a younger mom. My piece now appears in the January 2010 issue, and readers in southeast Michigan can find the magazine at bookstores, libraries, and newsstands. — CL