When nothing much feels like everything
“Hey, Mom, what’s up?” Lilly appeared on my smartphone screen after I clicked the video call icon. Now that she was a freshman in college, we tried to talk at least once a week.
“Oh, not much,” I said, hearing a jumble of voices in the background. “Where are you, anyway?”
“At the library,” she said. A very good sign, I thought.
“My friends and I came here before class.” Lilly showed the girls piled onto the couch beside her. She was eating a salad, hanging out with friends and printing her Spanish paper. Oh well, good enough.
We chatted about the usual things — how exams were going, boys, her plans for summer, this and that. Knowing that I was meeting a friend for coffee in an hour, I carried the phone with me while I multitasked, throwing the ball for our dog Moby, folding clothes, emptying the dishwasher, picking an outfit to wear.
“Well, Lil, I’d better go get in the shower,” I said after we’d talked for 30 minutes.
“Can’t you take the phone with you?” she said.
“In the shower? The phone will get wet!”
“Please! Just put it on the ledge outside the shower. I’ve done it before.”
Lilly didn’t have anything specific to talk about, but I wasn’t about to shut her down. Since Lilly had left for college, we’d been worried about her. For the first time in her 18 years, she wasn’t happy. This was a foreign concept to our family. Lilly had always been determined to make others smile. As the content third child, she rarely stopped to ask, “What about me?”
It was time for Lilly to talk about herself, and I would need to listen.
When I was young, I didn’t have these conversations with my own mother, though I loved her dearly. She worked as a first-grade teacher, she cooked and cleaned, and created a warm home. She was creative, introducing my brother and me to arts and enriching activities from a young age. Our home was definitely loving, but we didn’t talk much about thoughts, feelings, fears or dreams.
Strangely, now that I am an adult, my mother and I talk frequently about everything. I once remembered that she had never discussed the “birds and the bees” with me, and I asked her why.
“Well, I, I,” she stuttered, trying to remember her state of mind so long ago, “back then, experts said wait for children to ask questions, and be prepared. So, I went out and bought the Life Cycle books, and waited for you to ask. But you never did.”
I felt compassion for my mother, trying her best using her stoic German butcher’s upbringing tempered by her sincere intentions. She was right. I never approached her with questions about life. I’d learned the technical stuff in awkward middle school classes. But I was missing the rest — the this and that.
The subtle exchange of seemingly mundane thoughts that somehow provides answers to the questions that swirl through adolescent minds. Why do I feel bad about myself all the time? Are you proud of me? Is it normal to be afraid to go to college? Do I need a boyfriend? Can I trust my friends? What if I fail? Am I good enough?
When Lilly begged me to continue our call during my shower, how could I refuse?
Our chat continued from my shower, to my closet, to my car, where Lilly described her project poster, her friend Molly, and her salad in minute detail.
“You’re making me hungry,” I said, pulling up to the coffee shop where my friend waited. Searching for the right combination of words to not make her feel insignificant, I began, “Uh, Lilly, I’m really sorry, but I have to ...”
“Mom, I gotta go! Love you!” Lilly blurted, and I heard a cacophony of laughter before the video blinked out.
In our 90-minute conversation, no crucial questions were asked or answered, no deep philosophies were discussed. But, like mortar between the bricks, the mundane this and that would help Lilly build a strong foundation.