The girl is packing to go away. She has become an expert in this, a self-sufficient packer of bags, an independent traveler between cities and parents. She is equally comfortable in airports and bus stops.
Her mother watches this ritual preparation from the doorway. She is no longer needed to supervise this task, to oversee the table of contents, to act as conducter, ushering the items all aboard this suitcase. The thought fills her with a certain kind of pleasure and a bit of nostalgia.
She observes the traveler. The girl has grown lanky, adding inches, minute by minute. In another minute or two, mother and daughter will be eye to eye. Like some Alice in Wonderland, she shoots up another inch into adulthood with every sip of life.
In all this independent packing, the mother sees a different leave-taking. It has begun -- the growing up and away.
Overnight the girl has shed braces and grown a telephone in her ear. Overnight she has turned into a walking, talking communications center. Overnight she has become remarkably busy, involved in this growing, in this life.
During the spring, home was a pit stop between rounds. The girl tooled in for a quick refueling, nodded in the most friendly fashion at the woman handling the pump and then took off again.
"Now that you know the address, drop in any time," the mother said, only once. She was kidding. Sort of. Watching her now, all arms and legs, the mother thinks that it must be confusing to be Alice; it is surely confusing to be her parent.
A while back, they ran a story in Newsweek about a teen-age project on child care. Each teen-ager was given a hard-boiled egg to take care of for a week. If they dropped it, cracked it, left it alone for an hour, they lost the fitness test. "If they can't take care of an egg," said a leader, "how can they take care of a baby?"
Somehow or other, most parents learn to take care of their "eggs." Real infants are harder to care for then their hard-boiled substitutes, but more engaging. Being lovable is a saving grace unshared by the egg.
Somehow or other, most parents learn to think, act, live, as a unit. They adjust to the responsibility, respond to being needed.
But later on they have to figure out how to respond to being less needed, how to give up responsibility, stop intruding. It comes in fits and stops, pushes and pulls. One minute this Alice is 17, the next minute 10. She may wear nail polish to school and take teddy bears to sleep. But the direction is set.
Sooner or later, the same parents who worry about being neglectful begin to worry about feeling neglected. The parents who struggled to schedule in some time alone now try to pencil in some time with the children.
The guardians of any egg-fant crave their time and space. They fantasize about the luxury of a bath alone. They remember reading in peace distantly. Then, inevitably, it is the child who gradually begins closing the doors and pressing for independence.
This particular mother and daughter spent the morning as tennis partners. Two years ago, it would have been a chore for the mother to be tolerant and patient. Two years from now it would be a chore for the daughter. If history repeats itself, the girl will be less tolerant, less patient.
The girl finishes her packing. Together they manage to close the bag. One holds the edges together, the other zips and it is done. In the morning they will carry it to the car together.
The mother remembers how much she likes all this growing. She has sloughed off half the guilt, a third of the anxiety that comes with worrying about infants. They still have time, both of them, to slowly move onto their own.
She tucks the tail independent traveler into bed. This is, after all, only the beginning of the endings.