Jill Talbot’s column, The Last Year, traces the moments and seasons before her daughter leaves for college. The column ran every Friday in November and January. It returns through March, and then will again in June.
My daughter, Indie, has been on a college tour her whole life—riding in her stroller through the snow in Boulder; rolling down a hill outside the English building in Utah; peering from the passenger window while football fans swarm sidewalks toward a blue field in Idaho; sitting under my office desk in Oklahoma, silently passing me notes or drawing pictures; climbing the three stories to my office in northern New York to race her Razor on the shiny hallway floor; spinning in the revolving doors of a building in Chicago as the El barrels overhead; snapping photos of red-tile roofs in New Mexico; thumbing through the books in my office on a Texas campus covered by trees.
Indie was the first student to show up for kindergarten. Her teacher pointed to a ball of clay on a table, and Indie immediately sat down. I slipped out the door but stood just beyond it, watching her play through the window. Days later, she hopped into the car holding something small and misshapen, painted purple and green. “Here,” she said, handing it to me, “I made you a bowl.”
In first grade, Indie asked if school could be her space. Because it’s always been the two of us, I understood it was important for her to have a world she did not have to share, one she could move through alone. How young she was to ask for this, but as the years have disappeared behind us, I recognize it as a claim my daughter has always made for herself. She will do it alone. I agreed not to interfere unless I had reason: a call from a teacher, a pattern of bad grades, missing work.
I kept my distance, allowed Indie her own.
Last November, she attended a visitation day at a university where I once taught. Out of all the places we’ve lived, this school stands out as her favorite. I let her go alone. From Dallas, two flights—one to Boston, then a nine-passenger plane farther north. If I had climbed in my car and followed, I would have driven 1,660 miles.
When I was in second grade, my teacher sent a note home requesting a meeting with my parents. I handed over the sweaty note to my mother after waiting as long as I could before bedtime. When she read the note to my father, he sat forward in his chair: “I raised my daughter to be sociable and to have a personality.” The next day, my mother walked into Nat Williams Elementary alone.
All through elementary school, the notes from Indie’s teachers arrived, tucked into bright folders. The phone rang after dinner or during planning periods. Teachers leaned into my car’s window after school: “Are you Indie’s mother? Do you have a minute?” At the third grade parent-teacher conference, Mrs. Brown showed me a desk set apart from the rows, a desk suffocatingly near her own. “That,” she said, pointing, “is Indie’s desk.” Indie, it turns out, had inherited my behavior. I inherited my father’s response to it.
Every note, every call, every concern from Indie’s teachers was about her talking in class. In seventh grade, when the Spanish teacher called to complain about Indie’s laughter, I sat for a moment, then asked, “You’re calling me because she’s laughing?” That night, I told Indie we had six more years of this to go. But the Laughing Phone Call turned out to be the last one.
Indie submitted applications to five universities, completing every step of the process on her own, including her selection of schools. She checked email first thing every morning. She walked to the mailboxes at our apartment complex every afternoon, and when she got home late from band rehearsal or work, she’d walk through the door, “Did you check the mail today?” She was accepted to four of the five universities. She was holding out for that last one, the only one she really wanted.
In an attempt to distract her, I started adding a simple sentence to the end of all of my texts to her, followed by an emoji.
Here is a train.
Here is a salad.
Here is a door.
Here is a pen.
Here is a taco.
Here is a television.
She loved it, and her friends did, too. When she texted from English class that her best friend had been accepted to his dream school, I replied, “Here is a highway. To Stillwater.”
Imagine going to five schools in seven years. Imagine the conversation you know is coming because of the way your mother sits down on the couch, the way she holds herself and her face, the way she begins, “I got an offer from a school—in Utah, Idaho, Oklahoma, New York, Chicago, New Mexico, Texas.”
Now imagine after all those states and moves that you get to pick the state, the school, and stay there.
Imagine that wait.
The morning email checks.
The walks to the mailbox.
Two weeks ago, the bells of the apartment office rang as I stepped inside to tell the manager our garbage disposal wouldn’t churn. He held up a finger and disappeared into the package closet. When he stepped out, he handed me a stiff, oversize envelope. The date of its arrival, six days before, had been scribbled in the bottom corner in black sharpie. I rushed out, the bell ringing behind me as I snapped a photo of the insignia in the left corner, the university 1,660 miles away. I sent it to Indie. And then I turned the envelope over and read the words on the back:
Think about how far you’ve come—And how far you’re about to go.
We hide our small sorrows away.
We search for a way to carry them.
Here is a bowl.
Read earlier installments of The Last Year here.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction. Her writing has been recognized by the Best American Essays and appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Longreads, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and Slice Magazine.
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