816 North Opinion

Susan Vollenweider: Stretching out the string of parenting

“I was thinking about apron strings,” my friend, Tina, said. She and I hadn’t talked in a while but, happily, we still have a strong enough thread of commonality and shared history to keep us connected.

Tina told me about her son who, last time that we had talked, seemed to be in a wandering life-phase. But since then — whoa Nelly! — this kid found a path! A really great path!

Friends’ kids sit on a special relationship shelf: not an easy to reach one, like extended family kids, but a visible and accessible one. I saw more of Tina’s son as he grew up than I saw my own nephews. He had splashed me from a kiddie pool while Tina and I visited, and I bit my nails in faux fear the first time I saw him driving a car.

We all have kids like this in our lives, right? We keep up with them mostly through their parents but know them well enough to root for them when they struggle and feel a glow of pride when they achieve.

“I feel like I can fold up the apron string that I had for him and put it away in a box now,” Tina said.

My overactive imagination conjured up a vision of a gift box filled with her son’s life moment pictures…and a ribbon of apron string settled at the top.

The very day that she had called I got to peek in on the lives of more friends’ kids through the back-to-school Facebook parade of photos. I know some people think this is just another opportunity for parents to brag about their kids. I have one thing to say about that:

Yeah? So?

You need to know that for every happy photo moment a parent has captured, there are two moments they wish they could forget. If this is a brag, brag on, parents. Brag on.

The “Put your backpack on, stand still and let me take your picture,” parental directive is apparent in every photo; the apron string is invisibly present in every one, too. Most of the kids are smiling either because they have all grown up with a camera in their face or because — dare I dream? — they are happy to go back to school.

I see the smiling kids in the photos a lot, but on the first day of school, all shined up, they look different. Even if I saw them the day before, suddenly they are older than I remembered.

In the last few weeks I’ve also seen a sub-set photo parade: college. This one is mostly freshmen headed off to their first dorm room. Usually they are smiling, usually they look sweaty, but very few of them look as scared as I felt when I headed off many years ago.

Stuck in an album instead of beaming on Facebook, I have my own lugging-a-box-to-college picture. I didn’t have much: one box, a suitcase, a typewriter and a laundry basket of things I forgot to shove in the box. When we got to campus, it took Mom and me only one trip up the dorm stairs. She helped me make my bed and she was gone. I was alone.

But I can see now her apron string was still tied to me. Just like it’s tied to the kids smiling on the first day of school, or the kids ready for mom to put down the camera and let them start college.

Tina taught me that the string of the apron becomes the string of a kite ready to keep kids tethered as they learn to fly.

Susan Vollenweider lives in Smithville. To listen to the women’s history podcast that she co-hosts or to read more of her writing visit www.thehistorychicks.com or www.susanvollenweider.com.