Letting her grow up

When I was little my brother and I walked to elementary school by ourselves. My parents worked late so we came home every afternoon to an empty house or to a housekeeper who let us watch soaps with her (she didn't know the family rule was no TV until 4:00). We never locked our front door. My parents taught us to ask a grown-up for help crossing Center Street if we needed it. We lived in a safe suburb outside of Boston and my parents didn't worry much if my brother and I were grown up enough to have the responsibility they gave us.

There's a lot they didn't know. They didn't know that one day when my best friend Becca and I were walking to school we passed a man in a car with his genitals exposed. They didn't know that one afternoon when I was walking home alone through the park a man shooting hoops told me he'd give me a dime if I "proved" I wasn't a boy.

Then there was the time I was walking home from work and a stranger grabbed my chest, in broad daylight, on a well-trafficked street. then I was 16. I ran home sobbing and my father called the police. The lady detective who filled all the spaces in our house with her uniform and questions told us that there had been several recent unsolved incidents, including a sexual assault out by the lake that was not reported in the paper.

My oldest is growing up. She's been invited to stay with our family friends whose first baby will be turning one this summer. She says she'll be nine and, of course Mom, she's old enough to take an airplane by herself. "I'll have two daughters instead of one," Claire tells me on the phone. "I'll look after her as carefully as I look after Josephine. Don't worry."

I call the airline to make the reservation and the agent explains how it's done: "You'll get a special card so you can go through security without a boarding pass and you'll be able to walk her to the gate. You haveta pay a $50 fee each way. Then you say goodbye and you can worry for two weeks."

My voice breaks when I try to laugh and I hang up without buying the ticket. How can I do this? How can I let her go?

"Let her grow up!" a friend exclaims when I tell him just thinking about saying goodbye makes me cry like a faucet.

"I am," I say in a small voice. "I'm trying."

Like every other parent in the world, I don't want to smother my daughter. I want to give her an appropriate amount of independence and responsibility. My friend Michelle tells me her daughters make their own lunches and manage their own money, budgeting allowances to pay birthday party expenses. They plan their Friday afternoons themselves, when they get home before their parents.

"It has to be at the right age," Michelle says. "When they can spread the peanut butter on the bread without the bread falling apart. You know?"

I realize while Michelle's talking that it's not only my fear that something bad with a capital B will happen to my daughter that makes this growing up stuff so hard. Every time she learns to do something for herself, as proud as I am, it takes her a little bit farther from me. I'm not ready to say goodbye to the baby with the frog legs and the sticky outy ears whose "uh uh uh" meant she wanted to nurse and who was so patient with us as my husband and I fumbled our way through new parenthood. The one who was as round and soft as a baby bunny and who had so many chins milk soured in them despite all our washcloth efforts.

Even if I'm not ready, she is. I redial the number for Delta. Silent tears running down my cheeks, this time I buy the ticket.

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