I drove him to the airport myself — the latest in a long string of self-sabotaging acts designed to separate me from a boy I wanted never to be out of my arms’ reach. It was early; we were quiet. I concentrated on my driving, remembering to signal every time I changed lanes to set a good example for my son.
At the ticket counter, one of his bags weighed in at 52 pounds. “You’ll have to take something out,” the agent said. “Just leave it on the scale here and start pulling stuff out.” Emerson unzipped the top of the bag, and a soft brown nose poked up.
“Looks like the bear’s got to go, Mom.”
“Bufter doesn’t weigh anything,” I protested.
“You’d be surprised,” the agent said. She was blonde and tan and confident. Younger than I but old enough to have a 20-year-old son heading to Ireland for nine months with a teddy bear in his overstuffed suitcase. Emerson pulled out Bufter and a couple of T-shirts.
“Take your hands off the bag now,” she told him. The digital readout flashed 50.1. “Good. Take this one off the scale and put the other one on.” She glanced at me. “You can put those things in this one.”
Ever since my dad died and left behind a lot of stuff I don’t know what to do with, I’ve been reading psychological literature and research focused on the meanings people attach to special objects or possessions at different stages of their lives. I’ve learned about things like “transitional objects” — the soft toy or “blankey” that young children use to help them feel secure when their moms (and their moms’ breasts) aren’t around. A person who is making such a transition from one life stage to another — say from procreative younger mother to menopausal older mother — is said to be in a liminal state.
The night before I drove Emerson to the airport, he was packing clothes fresh from the dryer, rolling them up the way they recommended in a New York Times article I’d emailed him.
“Aren’t you going to take Bufter?” I asked him.
“You have to,” I said. “Trust me, Emerson. You need a transitional object.”
Emerson noted that he was taking his iPhone and his guitar and his laptop, and I suppose those things are transitional objects for young men these days, but I ran upstairs to his room that was soon to be my study again and grabbed the two bears, one large one small, both referred to as “Bufter,“ that I keep on the bed when he is elsewhere. I had to look under the bed and a pile of corduroy jeans to find them.
“Here,” I said, holding them out. “You only have to take one. You can choose the mama bear or the baby bear.”
He looked at me with exasperation and a touch of pity.
“Bunky,” I said. “I have to give you something.”
He took the bigger bear and stuffed it in next to the rolled up T-shirts.
Major role transitions are crucial times but little is yet known about the consumption behaviors of liminal people.
I found this study about about the consumption patterns of liminal women while looking for stuff on transitional objects. Although my own consumption behavior as a divorced, newly fatherless, nearly empty-nester has involved quantities of Marker’s Mark and Pinot Noir, these researchers were looking at consumption of goods, not booze. They found that women today use things they purchase to help them make the transition from necessary caregiver to unnecessary consumer, although that’s not exactly how they put it.
Here is exactly how they put it:
The reconstruction of self, that began with separation from the parental role and the end of the original child-parent relationship, is assisted through the disposition of consumer goods, the reconstruction of identity played out with material objects and communitas formed with other consumers also in this transitional phase.
Basically, women cope with losing their kids by buying stuff for them and relating (if you can call jointly responding to marketing media “relating”) to other women who are buying stuff for their departing children.
Plagues of “back-to-school” ads and promotions play this out every August. Hordes of liminal moms descend on Targets and K-Marts and Bed Bath and Beyonds to outfit their college students’ new homes in high-rise dormitories with extra-long twin sheet sets and microwaves and mini-fridges. The phenomenon is not a new one — one of my best memories of my own mom is the one where she takes me to Steketee’s basement to purchase a set of plush towels and two coffee mugs (one for a friend) the summer before I enrolled at Smith College — but, like every other cultural movement taken up by the baby boom generation, it’s reached a new level of intensity.
Perhaps because my departing children are boys who never noticed whether their sheets were clean, let alone what color or thread count they boasted, I haven’t fully participated in this modern rite-of-passage. As for communitas, most of my friends are women who don’t have children of their own or are stepmothers who have never been charged with provisioning the coolest dorm room on campus. Recently I attempted to gain some shared psychological support for my liminal state from my friends Heather (writer and college professor) and Mary (artist and outdoors woman), both of whom are stepmothers of sons my boys’ ages. We were having dinner and an MBC (My Brilliant Career) meeting on the rooftop of Mary’s 1920s apartment building in Kalamazoo.
“Where’s a good place to buy rain gear?” I asked them. I had been reading in the Burren College of Art Student Handbook the chapter on “Guidelines for Overseas Students: Essentials to Bring.” Under “Clothes,” I read:
One thing you can count on is that it will rain and the only safe prediction would be to make sure you have a good waterproof jacket, leggings, and waterproof gear for cycling. Always have a hood or hat close to hand for the unpredictable cloudbursts. The rain is often accompanied by wind, making umbrellas redundant. You should also bring reflective armbands/sash to ensure visibility when walking/cycling in the dark.
“I was thinking of some kind of rain-suit like joggers wear,” I told my friends, who, unlike me, have been known to bike for miles, sometimes in the rain. “You know, the matching windbreaker/warm-up pants with reflective stripes?”
Mary looked at me with some empathy, but Heather shook her head disdainfully. “He can buy what he needs when he gets there and sees what the other students are wearing.”
“No self-respecting 20-year old is going to get within a mile of anything that has reflective tape on it.” Heather told me. I might think I was packing up my boy for summer camp, but he thought of himself as a serious third-year art student. And art students don’t let their mothers dress them, not even when they’re four years old.
Yesterday I paid a visit to my high school best friend’s daughter and brand-new granddaughter. Tracy had the luminous skin and hair of a new mother and Charlotte had that musky sweet new-baby smell that makes even 56-year-old women feel as though their milk might let down at any minute.
While we chatted, Tracy fed the baby formula from a bottle. Nursing had been interrupted in the first days of Charlotte’s life when a false-positive on a test for some genetic disease had forced Tracy into pumping mode until it could be determined that her milk wouldn’t harm the baby. Although they had resumed nursing two weeks earlier, the lactation consultant had decided that Charlotte wasn’t getting enough nourishment from her mother and advised Tracy and Dan to supplement with formula.
“It makes me feel so sad,” Tracy told me. “It makes me feel like I’m not a good mother.”
We looked down at the baby, who had fallen asleep with the nipple in her mouth. Tracy set the bottle on the table and turned Charlotte’s head gently to the side. Formula dribbled from the baby’s open mouth and her translucent eyelids fluttered lightly. I thought: She looks like Emerson. And like Dylan. And Eliot.
“You’re a good mother,” I told Tracy. “You are.”