Knot in the apron strings

For Mom, letting go of her college-bound son is never easy. And Dad is no help.

By Bella English
Globe Staff / August 20, 2010

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We’re traveling south on I-95, headed to the mid-Atlantic, where my son is returning to college. He is about to move into his first apartment, a cause for high spirits for him and high anxiety for his parents.

With the rare opportunity to have him as a captive audience for 500 miles, I cram in as many last-minute life lessons as a mother possibly can. I pull a news release from my bag and read 10 campus safety tips.

“A backpack lock? Are you serious?’’ My son guffaws.

I press on, enumerating all the dangers in this week’s news. I mention great white sharks, pool drownings, and Eastern equine encephalitis. Gathering steam, I launch into my “don’t drink’’ lecture and then veer off into sub-categories: Don’t drink and drive. Don’t drink and swim. Don’t drink anywhere near a balcony or rooftop.

Oh, and definitely don’t dive into any body of water. At this, even my husband cracks up. “Yeah, you might get water up your nose,’’ he cautions our son.

I’m not finished. Lock your doors when you’re in or out of the apartment or car. Never go anywhere alone after dark. Try not to be near any balconies during a party.

By this time, my son has taken the wheel of the car, and my knuckles are so white, my eyes so focused on the road, that my lectures lapse. “I can’t wait to go grocery shopping and cook,’’ says my son.

“Name three things you’ll cook.’’ I try to keep the doubt out of my voice.

“Hot dogs, hamburgers, and spaghetti.’’

“You don’t know how to make spaghetti.’’

“I do,’’ he says. “You boil the noodles and dump sauce on meat.’’

On the New Jersey Turnpike, the worst stretch of road in America, I take over the wheel. My son curls his 6-foot-2-inch frame into the fetal position, his head on the armrest between us, and falls asleep. His strawberry blond hair grazes my right elbow. It’s as close as I’ll get to him except for the occasional hug, and I savor it for the next hundred miles; we parents of teenagers take our TLC however we can get it.

Finally, we’re on the main highway that leads to his campus. “I don’t want you biking on this road,’’ I say. I turn to my husband: “Don’t you have any don’ts to add?’’ I get tired of being the heavy all the time.

“Mom,’’ my son says. “Everything you’ve told me I either already know . . . or it’s common sense. ’’

“Oh, so you agree with me! Thanks!’’

“. . . or totally ridiculous.’’

We’re now in the vicinity of his new apartment. “I’m just warning you guys,’’ he says. “Don’t expect too much.’’ We don’t.

Pulling up in front of a squat brick building, we promptly run over a beer can. In fact, there’s a folding table outside with several beer cans and cups on it.

My son’s apartment is around the rear, in the basement, and it has no living room, just two bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. “There are some with living rooms, but they messed up my paperwork, so I didn’t get one,’’ he explains. It’s the updated version of “The dog ate my homework.’’

We walk down the concrete steps. “Charmless’’ would be high praise. The linoleum flooring is stained and cracked. The cupboards are ancient and rickety. The “built-in’’ shelves in his bedroom are missing the shelves. There’s a ginormous spider in the closet. The bathroom walls are buckling, and the pipes are exposed — and not in a hip way.

Worse, the ceilings are low. So is the lighting. The windows look out at sidewalk level; I watch someone’s feet pass by. There’s little ventilation, and the sump pump right outside my son’s bedroom window hisses like an anaconda.

“It’s perfect!’’ he says, beaming. He looks at the mess and sees independence. I look at it and see five hours of cleaning ahead of me.

Too soon, it’s time to go. The apartment is as clean as it will ever be. Nick’s dad says goodbye and warns him: “Don’t go in the campus pool during riptides. And look out for the sharks; they like the deep end.’’ They look at me and laugh.

I hug my boy fiercely and try to look at the bright side. Basement apartments don’t have balconies.

Bella English can be reached at

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