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The other day in class, we were working on putting sentences in order to tell a story. This was the basic story: Wilma and Carl met at a party. They talked for a long time. They fell in love. They kissed. (The teacher’s book put these in the opposite order) She met his parents. They got engaged. They got married. They had two children.

Without exception, all my students (Iraqi and Korean) put the kiss after the marriage.

Donn and I were having fun with that later. “She met his parents. They got married. They met at a party.” We laughed, but the humor stems from the fact that this is typically how it’s done in Iraq, although of course there are exceptions. Back in class, we found out how everybody met their spouse or, if not married, how their parents met. The stories contained a lot of similarities. Some were married to first cousins, or second cousins. Some first saw their spouse at their own house, where their future spouse was friends with their sibling. Several met their spouse for the first time at the engagement. But no one met their spouse completely on their own, at university or at work or online.

When you spend a lot of time in one particular culture that is not your own, you will begin to take on characteristics, add things in, to create your own hybrid of culture. This happens gradually over time, and certain moments will cause past events to suddenly make sense. I remember planning a movie night at Oasis Books in Nouakchott, years ago, and asking a friend for movie suggestions. “Anything is fine,” he said, “but no kissing.” Donn and I were mystified, as we knew our friends watched all kinds of movies, and got French stations on their TVs. And of course kissing is very innocuous in our culture and shows up in even kid movies. But somehow, realizing that everyone put “kissing” after “marriage” helped me to understand this, and suddenly I felt embarrassed at all the kissing that takes place in movies, which is not a reaction I’ve had since I was about 10.

As it is, I move uneasily back and forth. The best part is when you mistrust yourself. Which culture is this rude in again? I’ll be sitting pointing my feet at an American friend, or eating with my left hand, and I think, “this is okay in American culture. It’s not rude,” and then I’ll think, “right?” Usually I just stop, just in case. I have written before of getting confused about whether or not I can acceptably double-dip my samosa or my chips, of whether I can use my own private spoon to eat from the common bowl. (Rule of thumb: fine with Arabs; not fine with Americans or Canadians; certain exceptions apply) It took me ages after we moved back to America to remember that the stores don’t close for lunch here, that the bank is open at noon (although even as I type that I’m not 100% certain. Right?) The twins’ pediatrician closes for the noon hour, which has only confused me further. But Fred Meyer is open. (Right?) (No, that one I’m sure of)

Kissing, however, is fine in American culture. Even the teacher’s book thinks you typically kiss before you fall in love. Right?

The title of this post comes from an obscure poem by John Keats, and it’s not even a poem I like–full of vague imagery of diamond jars and pink wings, the sort of thing his friends probably mocked him for behind his back. Basically he walks off into the dawn and has a moment, as the romantic poets were prone to do. But I couldn’t think of a title appropriate to sending my eldest off to college, and that seemed as good as any I’d come up with.

…and I wonder why my SEO ratings are so low, after leading off with a paragraph like that!

The thing is, from the moment the nurse wraps your squalling naked baby in a much-washed hospital blanket, plops a hat on his head, and hands him to you, you know two things. One, you are totally messed up now, your life will never be the same again and you don’t even care, that’s the thing. You want this. And two, this is temporary. This will not last. What makes things beautiful is their fragility and transience. A flower, a wave, a toddler–they are with us only for a flash of time.* Every mother knows this. Babies change before our eyes. Two weeks on, we haven’t aged a bit but there in front of us, our alien-newborn is plumping out, staying awake a bit more, eating better.

So, one’s child leaving for college is not such a shock. “Where have the years gone?” “How did this happen?” ask my friends on facebook. I know how this happened; the earth went around the sun, the seasons changed, Elliot grew up before my eyes. Yes, in some ways it feels like he was just starting his first day of Matranelle last year, but at the same time I do remember all the intervening years: when he was 6 and read about how to attend a childbirth in the graphically-illustrated Where There Is No Doctor; when he was 8 and wrote a dictionary of medieval weaponry, because that’s what history is all about; when he was 11 and went through his sensitive stage and couldn’t handle sarcasm; when he was 15 and in his first year of an American school and the kindness of the teachers was a source of great stress to him. These were all good years–well, maybe except for 11, but even that year had its high points. It’s not that I don’t miss the years when he had soft little curls and chubby cheeks and a funny turn of phrase that kept me amused, but I also love my wild-curled muscled young man, who is kind and thoughtful and generous with his time.

It’s weird, having him gone. The milk lasts forever. And I opened the fridge yesterday and realized the tub of salsa I bought last week was still unopened, which has never happened before since as far as I could tell, he used to drink the stuff. Cereal is lasting longer, and we’ve had to have leftover nights to use up all the food in the fridge. I’m doing laundry less often, mostly because Abel’s method is to let it all pile up on his floor until I make him clean him room, and he fills an enormous laundry tub with a mix of all his clothes both clean and dirty. The twins took us out to our favorite pizza place for our birthdays (Donn and I have birthdays only 3 days apart) and we only had to order one large pizza for the 4 of us.

I think the transition has been eased by the advent of cell phones and texting. (Aside: how can spell-check not know the word texting?) At least one of us texts, talks to him on the phone, or FB messages him every day–usually 2 or 3 of us. That makes it a lot easier. Gone are the days of long-distance calls made collect on the one phone on the corridor, standing in a draft wrapping the phone cords around your finger, longing desperately for home and a decent cup of tea instead of the weak schlok served in the school’s one cafeteria, now closed. Elliot has myriad restaurants on campus to choose from, including a restaurant with an espresso bar in his very own dorm. He has a fridge in his room. (In my day, you weren’t supposed to even have an electric kettle, although I did. I had 8:00 classes and I needed a cup of tea to function in the mornings, and I still remember how the powdered milk would curdle in the cup. He of course has no idea how spoiled he is.)

I remember when I left for college. My father died when I was in Grade 10, and my brothers had already left home (they’re quite a few years older than I am), so I was leaving my widowed mother alone. She and my brother drove me down, got me settled into the dorm, and left. That was it. I think I called them that weekend, 3 days later. My mother was stoic, sadly kissing me goodbye but managing a cheerful wave. Not for our family the waves of emotion, although I knew she would miss me bitterly. I feel that was more normal then. What do you think? Have we as a nation become more sentimental, or are we just more comfortable with showing every single emotion? Or was it just my British family? Did your mother dissolve into tears when you left?

Our Iraqi friends view us with some bemusement. In Arab culture, it’s normal to live with one’s parents until marriage, and maybe even afterwards. Once a woman pleaded with me not to kick my daughter out when she turns 18. I promised not to, but I also explained that if Ilsa wants to go to college in another city, or even if she wants to get an apartment with friends, that’s her choice. Another couple were surprised that Elliot didn’t want to commute 4 hours a day to classes and still live home, have me cook and clean for him and do his laundry. I’ll admit that Arab culture is looking better and better the older my kids get, but at the same time what I want for Elliot is to experience university in all its glories of football games and late-night study sessions and libraries and teacher-mentors and that feeling I can’t distill into words but that even now makes me read a course catalogue and want to be 18 again myself, off to university to forge deep friendships and fall in and out of love and learn what it means to be an adult.

*oddly enough, lately I’ve read several unrelated things on this subject (an Atlantic article, a short story in a collection). Guess a bunch of us are sending kids off to college.

e and dElliot and Donn at lunch just before we dropped him off.

October 2013

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