I climbed into the attic, a nervous venture because I fear slipping off a joist and crashing through the ceiling. But I stepped carefully, and squinted at only a few boxes labeled “Baby Books,” “Taxes,” and “Letters” before I found what I was looking for.
Then I had to groan, because on the front of my diary from summer 1975 I wrote, “I keep thinking I’ll find what I’m looking for, in the sand beneath the dawn.” This saccharine line is from Jackson Browne’s “Farther On.” I was enamored of him and his treacly lyrics 38 years ago, but now I think, “Seriously, Treacy?”
My son is off to college in four weeks, later than most of his peers whose classes have started. He’s working full time, so along with thinking about my long-ago bosses when I was his age, I’ve been recalling the summer before my freshman year of college.
In this run-up to Christopher’s leaving, I’ve wavered between wanting to impart all kinds of advice and keeping my mouth shut, opting for the latter for now. I wanted to dig out my diary from that summer, because I was curious to see if my parents had offered any counsel, and to review what I’d written about leaving home.
A funny, embarrassing, and sad chronicle of that summer, the diary is written on lined notebook paper in an affected cummingslike style with no capitals, the pages filed in the left-hand pocket of a blue folder. I was prone to terrible hippie parlance, writing about when I was going to “split” and how I was “freeking out.” I understand why I was “freeking out,” a state I documented frequently that summer, but the two e’s? No idea.
In the right-hand pocket of the folder I tucked newspaper clippings, lists of books I read, and poems I wrote that summer. I must have been going for a Jackson Browne-ish, maudlin style, as I laced my poems heavily with phrases like “naked soul” and words like “darkness,” “loneliness,” and “despair.” I read them, laughing and cringing. I read things I hadn’t thought of in years, and would rather not have remembered, like giving my mother the $50 I’d received from my great aunt for graduation so that she could buy new tires for the VW, and calling my father at work and being told, “I’m sorry, he is no longer employed here.”
As I read, I remembered keeping that news to myself. We’d been through this many times when my father was sent packing for drinking on the job, but that summer I wanted to spare my mother for as long as I could. She found out eventually, of course, and I wrote that her face was “bitter and set” the day she learned that he’d been feigning going to work for the previous couple of weeks. I wrote about how badly I wanted to leave home, and about my feelings of guilt over leaving her in the wreckage that was our family life.
There were sweet recollections, too, of the Joni Mitchell album my dear friend Linda gave me as a going-away present, and of hearing Emmylou Harris sing “Corrina Corrina” at Wollman Rink in Central Park. The tickets were $2 and in the gritty New York of the 1970s, the Puerto Rican ice cream vendor at the concert entrance chanted softly, “icecream-coldsoda-hotpretzel-loosejoints.”
Although I didn’t write a word about saying goodbye to my parents at Newark airport, I remember that my mother’s eyes were wet, my dad looked boozed up, but none of us cried. Maybe it was too painful, and maybe that’s why, instead, I noted the polyester-clad Tupperware saleswomen who stuffed the plane, laughing riotously on their way to a convention in Indianapolis.
Teenagers are inscrutable creatures, and parents generally can’t divine what they’re thinking. I don’t claim to know what’s going on in Christopher’s mind as he gets ready to go to school. But I’m glad he doesn’t have to worry about parental job loss, or spotting us for tires. Sometimes I roar “turn it off!” at him if I hear something about “bitches and hos,” and even though I hate that music, I’m glad he’s not listening to mawkish lyrics about the sand beneath the dawn. And, thank God, I know he’s not writing about his naked soul.