Mom and I motored southwest on I-4, diagonally bisecting Florida with our Plymouth Duster crammed full of my clothes, plants, posters, Peanuts sheets I’d swiped from R.J.—all my possessions and possibilities. New Smyrna Beach lay behind us, the place I’d always call home.
Inside, I shimmered with anticipation like Christmas tinsel, while palmettos, saw grass, orange groves, and marshes blurred through the windows. Lakeland 30 flashed by on a green sign. Only minutes to Florida Southern College and my future.
I crossed my legs in the passenger seat, uncrossed them, raked my fingers through what was left of my newly shorn hair. Fears flitted through my mind.
Was I smart enough to succeed in college classes? Even though I’d eked out C’s in high school chemistry and analytical geometry and trigonometry, the concepts arced into the stratosphere above my mental capabilities.
No one at FSC knew I’d climbed three-quarters of the way up the social ladder at New Smyrna Beach High School in the last two years. I’d be starting over on the bottom rung. Again.
I glanced at Mom. She thought I was the smartest, most trustworthy, beautiful girl in the world. I thought she was delusional. But in a lovely way. I breathed in her scent, Chanel Nº 5, let her chatter about how much fun I would have in college cocoon me. Today I needed to believe her.
Mom and I schlepped the contents of the car up three flights of stairs in freshman dorm Allan Spivey Hall.
I smiled at the other brand new coeds, sweating beneath boxes and shooting embarrassed glances at their relatives.
The Christmas tinsel inside me buzzed with electricity.
I’d been eighteen for eight months, adult enough for beer and casting ballots. Now, I could hardly wait to dive off the starting block into the rest of my grown-up life—being the boss of me, belly-laughing with the girls I’d bumped into on the stairs, basking in the brilliance of college boys who would strut brains along with their brawn.
Almost before the thought had crossed my mind that Mom would go home, we said our good-byes and hugged one last time. Mom gave me a big smile. “You’re going to have a wonderful year, a wonderful life. I just know it!”
The dorm room door clicked shut behind her, echoing in the silence. The anticipation I’d felt flinging across I-4 and the electricity of moving in fizzled.
I didn’t know a single person on campus.
I pictured Mom, driving I-4 past the Disney World exit—she who had listened to minutes and hours and days of my minutia, liked the boys I liked, prioritized me and R.J. before her husbands in her heart. She’d been more friend than mother—consulting me when I was twelve about whether to divorce Dad, pointing at a black and white photo of the man she said she should have married. If that twenty-something guy with wire rims and a receding hairline had been Mom’s choice, I wouldn’t be feeling this wretched need for human connection. I wouldn’t be here at all.
Mom hadn’t been perfect. She was as bitter as she was beautiful—battered by a bad marriage to Dad. But I didn’t blame her. And bitterness didn’t keep her from being the soft place where I’d landed my whole life. I could tell Mom anything and know she would come down for me, for my heart.
Home had never been the place anybody in my family wanted to be. The houses—and Volkswagen van and boat—hoarded undercurrents of bad marriage, the dregs of divorce, then a blow-hard stepdad.
Our 60-year-old wood-frame home on Faulkner Street wasn’t just messy, but dirty from pets winning the balance of power.
Mom’s energy was spent as an R.N. at Fish Memorial Hospital. Her extroversion meant people were more important than household chores. We kids had more interesting things to do than clean. Our stepdad plain didn’t care. But, I knew, despite my teenaged house-mortification, my mother had always meant home to my heart.
Mom, who’d hitchhiked around Europe for three months with a girlfriend before she married Dad, cheered for my every adventure. I didn’t realize how rare this gift was. Friends tell me they’ve been haunted by their parents’ “Why would you want to do that?” or worse, “Don’t even try. You’ll never succeed.” I hope I’ve championed my kids’ adventures—across America and into Canada, Mexico, Ireland, England, Wales, France, Peru, and Uganda—like Mom did mine.
If she could have, Mom would have puttied her love into the divots Dad dug from my soul. But Mom’s belief in me couldn’t undo the destruction of Dad’s disappointment. What she gave me was a second—good—voice in my head.
Her positivity had been hard won—raised in the depression, mostly by her mother’s mean twin who kept Mom while Grandma worked to support them. My mild-mannered grandmother defied her family and the church to divorce Mom’s father when his abuse spread to my mother, who was just a baby.
Grandma had wanted to be a nun, but her family insisted she marry. Instead, she passed down Catholicism to Mom, who passed it to me. Every Sunday of my life we walked into Mass ten minutes late for a dose of God and familiarity. It is the part of my heritage I picked as a pillar. The part that made all the difference in… pretty much everything.
I stared out the dorm window at the sun glittering off Lake Hollingsworth like it had from Biscayne Bay when we lived on the Annie Lee. Childhood, the most significant chapter of my life, snapped shut—not to be reopened for 30 years—when I would excavate each memory from storage, set it in the sun, and let God sift the good from the bad.
I straightened the quilt on my bed one more time and folded my arms across the ache inside. I wanted my roommate to walk in the door and rescue me from myself.
One of Mom’s pithy sayings marched through my head, “People in hell want ice water.”
I smiled and spoke another Mom-ism into the quiet, “Well, peachy keen, then,” and stood. I just had to walk out there and meet some people. I could do this. I’d survived seven new schools already.
My own daughter, Annie, moves across the country this week for a ten-month post-college religious program with no specific plans to move home afterward. I am struck by the similarities to the day I separated from Mom. I am excited about this big step into Annie’s future and I believe it will be fun, healthy, life-directing. But the mother part of me curls around the cavern already yawning inside—the place Annie has been creating in me for nearly twenty-five years, the place she’s filled with her Perfect Storm of sunshine and hurricane Brad Paisley wrote into a song. And I think this is how Mom must have felt the day she took me to college.
I’ve dredged up thousands of words about Dad and the damage done. Mom—the woman who softened every sharp edge of my life—deserves more than these few pages. But I inherited Dad’s melancholy that made hurt weigh heavier than happy.
Mom drifted into dementia in her eighties and departed bit by bit. Even after peachy keen slid into peachy cream, then slipped through the cracks in her mind altogether—Mom lit when I walked into the room. A testament of the permanent place I owned in her heart. Years after her death, I still feel fully loved. This is the gift I want to give my kids.