welcome home, college freshman xoxo
* as published in the Chicago Tribune
(here’s a tale you all know, you who come to the table, pull up a chair. i could barely wait last week to see that boy, now asleep in the room up over my head as i type. so i wrote the essay below. it ran in the newspages. but it belongs here, most of all. you see the boy, trying to sleep, and the little one, who could not pull himself away from that bed. he just stood beside his big brother, soaking it in. so did i.
and, now as we all get ready to crank the stoves, set the table, open the door and welcome the ones we love, here is the welcome home essay, just for you. xoxo)
By Barbara Mahany
I’ve been imagining the sound for months: his footsteps.
The house has been hollow without them, the thud I came to know as his as he stumbled out of the bed, the gallop as he loped down the stairs.
I can almost feel the gust of the wind as the front door swings open and in pops that curly haired mop I last buried my nose in on a hot August day when I left him on a leafy college quad, 1,000 miles away.
But any day now — I could tell you the hours and minutes — we are about to fall into the sweetest of homecomings, the freshman in college coming home for the very first time.
It’s a film loop I’ve played in my mind over and over. Since way back before he was gone. It was, in many ways, a salve to the wound that was growing, deepening as the day of his leaving finally arrived. Nearly swallowed me whole, that widening gash.
I’ve long savored the romance of November, when the light turns molasses, the air crisp, and planes fill the sky, the crisscrossing of hearts headed home. But never before had I felt it so deeply.
This year, one of those jets is carrying home my firstborn.
Now, all these months later, I can only imagine the boy who’s more of a man now. Calls home just once a week, Sundays, after 5 p.m. “Circa 1975,” I call it, just like when I was a freshman in college and had to wait for the rates to go down to report in to the folks back home.
It took me the better part of a month to get used to the missing sounds in our house. To not wince each night when I laid down three forks, not four. To not leave on the porch light as I climbed up to bed.
Over the months, I’ve learned to steer clear of particular shelves in the grocery store, because they hold his favorites — the turkey jerky, the sharp cheddar, stuff I used to grab without thinking, his stuff.
Curiously, I haven’t spent much time in his room. Except once, when I tackled the closet, folded every last T-shirt, rolled up loose socks, rubbing my hand over the cloth, absorbing the altered equation, that I was now the mother of a faraway child.
And so, I’m looking forward to when the place at the kitchen table will be ours again, the place where we talked until the wee hours, poring over the landscape of his life, refining the art of listening, asking just the right questions.
I leapt out of bed days ago, scribbled a list of all the foods I wanted to buy, to tuck on the pantry shelves, to pack in the fridge. I flipped open a cookbook to a much splattered page, the recipe for one his favorites. It’s as if the alchemy of the kitchen will fill places that words cannot.
I can barely contain the tingling that comes with knowing that, any day, he’ll be boarding a plane, crossing the sky, putting his hand on the knob on our door.
My beautiful boy, the boy I’ve missed more than I will ever let on, he’s coming home to the house that’s been aching to hear him again.
Barbara Mahany is a Tribune reporter.
(in case my editors want the link to be floating here…)