Home Ground

Simon and I are sitting in the Lowell House dining hall. It is "Mexican Fiesta" night and we are eating stale quesadillas and discussing our hometown, Brookline, a suburb about 20 minutes from Harvard.

Leaning forward over his tray, he whispers conspiratorially, "My mom drives in every week to pick up my dirty laundry. Yours does that too, right?"

I shake my head. What my mother has to deal with is far worse. "She helps with the emotional dirty laundry," I tell Simon. "We have lunch together once a week."

On a Friday afternoon at one, I race out of history class and head toward Garden Street to meet my mother at what we call "the usual spot." There's an empty parking space near the church, and I stand in it. Cars drive by and drivers honk their horns, slow down to glare, or shake their fists and swear at me for claiming a coveted space. It's cold, and I stamp my feet to keep them warm. My mother is late. Finally I spot the blue station wagon. I hop out of the space and into the car while she parks; we kiss hello, then pop two quarters into the parking meter, and are on our way.

If my mom has made a good dinner the night before, I get leftovers: chicken becomes chicken-salad sandwiches, her vegetable stir-fry is delicious even if it's cold, and she has Tupperware containers big enough for even the most enormous matzah ball in her matzah-ball soup. When the weather is nice, we eat outside, sitting on my spiral notebooks so our bottoms don't get wet and dirty, or on the benches near Lionel and Phillips Brooks House. If it is chilly and nasty, we picnic on the bench on the first-floor landing of Harvard Hall. We're always rushing at the end of our lunch, and as the bell rings and the meter runs out, we hurriedly scoop our brown paper bags, Twix wrappers, Goya juice cans, vanilla wafers, and apple cores into the trash, leaving the landing covered with crumbs.

If the leftovers don't make it to Cambridge, we abandon Harvard Hall and hit the Square's restaurants. One Friday, after recounting a triumph on my history midterm, I hem and haw over the menu, even though my mother and I have been here twice this month, and she criticizes my ordering technique. "You're just a bad orderer," she tells me, trying to explain that the salad wrap with fat-free mayonnaise sounds gross. She is right--attempting to mix virtue and tastiness is a failed endeavor. I have ordered badly, she has ordered well, and we both eat her meal.

I don't realize it until we sit down to eat, but over the course of the week I've stored up things to tell her: my frustration over a new story I am trying to write for my fiction-writing class, the birth of my roommate Janet's new nephew, and the curtain time of my orchestra concert next week (I know my parents will be there, waving frantically from their seats in the balcony).

"Listen, Mom," I say. "There's this new boy I like. He's tall, handsome, I always see him riding his orange bike. He's Swedish..."

"He's blond?"

"Of course, and he has French class near my Shakespeare class and we've gone out on two dates."

"Coffee and a play?"

"Right...and I like him, but something is holding me back. I don't know. Maybe I'm not ready."

My mother eyes me over the top of her root beer. She drains it and asks, "Are you asking my permission to have a boyfriend?"

"No way," I spit out.

The waiter hovers over us with our steaming cups of tea, not wanting to interrupt what seems to be an argument.

"Well, in case you are asking for my permission, you've got it."

"I'm not. But thanks, anyway."

The teacups hit our table with a clunk. And deep down I know she is right, that in a fundamental sense I am asking her permission, trusting her opinion, and seeking her advice. I look to her as my touchstone: the dictionary for my misspelled words, the periodic table for my questions about the elements. After all, it was my mother who said I could go to college anywhere I could bike to--but it was I who chose Harvard.

Sometimes I wonder if I am holding onto something that other students may have let go--that while they severed the umbilical cord upon moving into the Yard, mine has stayed firmly attached, staving off the transition from high school to college, and adolescence to adulthood. But I want to say that "college-age" is an arbitrary marker for independence and solitary self-reliance, and that including my family in the growing-up process can be a sign of maturity, too. My session of symbiosis, therapy, and mother-daughter bonding officially lasts only one hour each week--that's all the stern parking meters on Garden Street will allow. And the meetings are on my turf; I've found a way to bring my mother to Harvard while I stay here, firmly rooted.

I have needed my parents most when the going got tough and the tightrope was wobbly and I was uncertain. There is a safety net that my parents keep under me that Harvard does not, and perhaps cannot, hold. And while my mom is happy to hold her half of the net, and wave and smile at me when I look down fearfully, she makes it clear that she wants me to stay up there, that the net is really there only for emergencies. At the beginning of each school year she issues a moratorium on lunches until I have "had time to adjust." My parents don't call that often, but wait for me to call them. And my mom knows only two ways to drive into Cambridge--via Fresh Pond and Garden Street, or off Memorial Drive onto Plympton, and then to Dunster House on Cowperthwaite Street. Once she had to drive over the median strip because she missed her turn.

In some ways I've had to work even harder to make Harvard my own and to make it distinct from Brookline, because, after all, I shopped in Harvard Square as a 15-year-old in flared jeans and Doc Martens. The intellectual act of studying what really interests me--English literature, creative writing, and art history--is a breakaway from the umbrella of my parents' immediate influence. Now my routes to, and through, Harvard don't just begin in Brookline. My map connects the classroom to the library to the common room where my roommates and I watch Cosby Show reruns and eat pizza. Along the way I've learned to swallow my fear or my pride and go to a professor's office hours to ask about the relationship between Ovid and Shakespeare. I traveled alone for the past two summers, to France and the Czech Republic. I have a wonderful group of friends here at Harvard, as crazy and different as the day is long, who only occasionally give me radically different advice than my mother dispenses, and certainly encourage me to do things she would disapprove of (i.e., drink beer and stay up late). Still, sometimes I go down one-way streets the wrong way, drive over the median strip, and, when I am hopelessly lost, call my mother.

I remember when I was in kindergarten, I went to a friend's birthday party, two blocks from my house. We were running through her sprinkler, and I stepped on a bee and was stung. My mother came running even before Jenny's mom had time to call her. "I thought I heard you crying," my mom said. "I'd know that cry anywhere."

I'm a senior now, and when people ask me what I am going to do next year, I tell them, "Anything but live in Boston." I have dreams of London or Paris or somewhere warm and west of the Rockies, but few misgivings about being more than 20 minutes away from home. I know my mother won't be able to run to California if she hears me crying, or hop in the station wagon and drive across the Atlantic (though she certainly would try). I know that the safety net will always be there--I want it to be, because it's the kind of net that ensures I'll bounce back after I fall. But more importantly, it makes me feel safe trying new tricks, no matter how high up I go.

When in Cambridge, Sara Houghteling '99, one of the magazine's Berta Greenwald Ledecky Fellows, lives in Dunster House.

Read more articles by: Sara Houghteling

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