Arrival doesn’t begin to describe what happened. For almost a year, Gelsey and I had searched for colleges. We traveled east–where our families lived–and visited six (or was it seven?) campuses in a week. From Middlebury, Vermont–stately trees, huge rocks, great tavern–to Haverford outside Philadelphia where her dad had gone. She aced them all. Then out of the blue, at almost the 11th hour, she chose Carleton, 45-minutes south of St. Paul. Neutral and supportive, I was secretly relieved. We’d had enough dislocation when her dad and I divorced and I moved from Minneapolis to St. Paul (only across the Mississippi, but the effect was enormous, especially the two years I subjected her to an unsatisfactory live-in arrangement.) We didn’t want half a continent separating us now.
The effect of Carleton was Love at First Sight: my own college, Goucher outside Baltimore, had been field-stone modern. I loved Carleton’s huge old trees and red-brick buildings, iconic collegiate. It didn’t matter that Gelsey was housed in the only modern, ten-story building on campus. We liked her roommate, another midwestern blondie. After several hours of lugging up boxes and clothes, their room was crammed. But there sat Harry the Bear on her bed (or did she leave him at home, a sign of maturity?) Taking a break, I stood in the hallway. What was a guy doing coming out of the lavatories? Patting me on the back, Gelsey soothed, “It’ll be fine, Mom. Remember, you went to a girls school.” Right, and guys were allowed in the dorm only during Sunday visiting hours.
I knew she’d handle it. In fact I had an enormous confidence in her ability to adjust. Hadn’t she mastered packing to move over the river every two weeks to her dad’s? Plus she was a good companion, charming and thoughtful. Even if she and her roomie didn’t turn into friends, they’d survive. My second husband and I left them while we checked into a nearby B&B where we had a rollicking time with another college couple–their son eventually became one of Gelsey’s best friends, a connection that lasted until they graduated.
I visited the campus frequently, where she put me up in the guest house From my little cot by a window, I could almost hear her sneeze. It helped that she and her women’s singing group practiced in the guest house parlor. Those first few months, perhaps even the first year, we seemed touched with magic. From the midst of class, she wrote charming notes, “Momissima,” or “Mommy dear,” sweeter and cuter than anything I’d heard her last year of high school. Until we traveled together the summer after her freshman year, our angst and tension seemed to have evaporated into a golden glow.
Now when I look back, I think of a word from Tony Morrison’s novel “Beloved”–rememoring. It captures the memorial I construct to the mother-daughter connection, to Morrison’s magisterial work of evoking mother-daughter love which persisted through escape from slavery, and a mother’s attempt to protect her daughter even through death from that return. Gelsey and I suffered nothing so radical but the tug and tearing apart, the silliness, charm, angst and worry that lay ahead did sometimes feel ultimate.