Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Coming Of Age

I graduated from high school a year early. Thanks to yearly summer school attendance -- as an extreme nerd I had virtually no life -- I had enough credits to graduate. The problem was, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I wasn't interested in any of the universities that would have me, and I didn't know what I wanted to study. Above all, I dreaded the thought of staying in my hometown and attending our local university. I was bored and miserable and itching to get away from the familiar. And I was dying to have adventures.

One evening, I saw a notice in the university commons. Cuba was struggling to find enough workers to harvest their sugar cane and they were recruiting students. Anyone with the airfare who was willing to work hard was offered free room and board.

I couldn't believe what a good deal this was: free room and board and the chance to have the adventure of my lifetime! And living among Cubans, I would be forced to learn Spanish. It seemed almost too good to be true.

To my irritation, my mother did not see things my way. "Don't be ridiculous, you're much too young."

When I protested that I was seventeen, she snorted. "You're too soft."

This got my back up. "I am not!"

Every summer, my sisters and I helped our parents in the fields where my father and his colleagues conducted experiments on peppers. When I reminded her of this, my mother rolled her eyes. "You can't compare what you do in the pepper fields to real field work!"

She pointed out that we could take breaks when we wanted to, that we could sit in the head house and drink water, that during the worst of the heat, we were at liberty to sit in the shade. And finally, that we occasionally got taken out for hot fudge sundaes after our labors. "There are no hot fudge sundaes in Cuba," she concluded, raising her eyebrows.

"I don't need hot fudge sundaes!" I lied. "I can work all day if I have to!"

My mother laughed. "Can and do are two different things. You're the first one to plead exhaustion when we're pulling weeds."

"That's because pulling weeds is boring."

"Listen to me," my mother hissed, "because you don't know what you're talking about. Sugar cane shreds your hands and cutting it is hard work. The bugs are fierce, your co-workers would be veteran field hands who would mock you with your pale skin and soft hands and squeamish ways. You'd be a rabbit among wolves. Give up this crazy idea."

I had too much pride to back down, but she had me with the bugs. In fact, she'd had me with no hot fudge sundaes. I stopped talking about Cuba and sugar cane. A month later my cousin invited me to come and stay with her in Miami and my mother readily agreed. I ended up getting a job there and staying a year, and my mother was fine with that too. Ironically, I met a lot of Cubans and actually managed to learn a little Spanish.

Fast forward to now. I'm on MSN with Eldest Daughter, age seventeen, and she informs me that she has a great plan: she wants to backpack around Asia. "South Korea!" she writes. "Vietnam! Laos! Thailand! Cambodia -- and Chiiina!"

I suddenly feel week in the knees. "You can't go to all of those places if you're starting university," I hastily write back.

"Duh," comes her answer. "I can too. I'm saving up for it."

We're at it, back and forth, for half an hour or so -- "You can't...!" from me and "Oh MOOOOM" from her. My one advantage is that I'm a much faster typist than she is: I can say more in less time. I don't win the argument -- I can never win arguments with her -- but we finally agree to disagree. A week passes and there are no mentions of Asia. Then one day, she logs onto MSN in raptures of joy. "Mom, I've just found the coolest au pair job in Japan! It's starting next month!"

She arrived in Tokyo four hours ago. Ah well, her Japanese will definitely get stronger. And maybe she won't need to backpack around Asia after all...

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27 comments:

Kappa no He said...

Oh, the irony! But I'm sure she'll have a great time exploring Tokyo. And think of all the good advice you can give her. If she needs anything tell her to e-mail me (madderblue(at)yahoo.com). I'm a few hours outside the city but close enough if she needs anything.

terrie

poppy fields said...

The au pair job does sound tamer. I wonder what my girls will be wanting to do in a couple of years?

Tigermama said...

Au pair in Japan sounds much better than backpacking around Asia (to a mother's ears). Although, she'll be in perfect position to start backpacking NEXT year! :P

Carolie said...

Oh my goodness! I had no idea she was headed back in my direction. Guess you don't need the giant bundle of green tea I've got for you! Ha ha! (But I do have it, along with some good shoyu, and would love to send both if you'd send your address... nudge, nudge!)

We really do have an astonishing number of things in common -- I graduated a year early as well, though was unable to convince my mother that a gap year would be a good thing. Oh well!

Rita Gelman, author of "Tales of a Female Nomad" has a new pet project that sounds pretty amazing to me, and speaks to that desire you had to "get out there and have adventures!" Check out www.thegapyearsite.blogspot.com

Mary Witzl said...

Kappa -- Thank you! I've sent her your e-mail address and it is comforting to know that there are people I know who could help her in a pinch. But as for the good advice I can offer, it will be wasted on her: she likes to do things her own way. She is stubborn and single-minded: she figures that if I could do it once, she can too... (Kaeru no ko wa kaeru...)

Poppy -- I hope your girls will aim to have meaningful but relatively safe adventures -- like working as au pairs, come to think of it. Let's hope they never hear about sugar cane harvesting.

Tigermama -- Doesn't it just? And the family she has chosen to work for sound like lovely people so far (fingers crossed). I'm hoping that the backpacking won't take place until she's graduated from university.

Carolie -- Green tea? Oh yes, please! And I feel silly: I thought I'd sent you my address! You will have it within the hour, I swear! And I will definitely check out that female nomad site. The only thing I like as much as having adventures is reading about other people's.

Charles Gramlich said...

Like mother like daughter eh? Or, what goes around comes around.

Anonymous said...

Ehehehe. YOU WISH, Mom! The backpacking is still on, biiiig time. ;)

Eryl Shields said...

Having to let them go off and make their own mistakes is the most difficult part of motherhood; good luck to both of you.

Bish Denham said...

Isn't there a curse all parents pass on to their children? Doesn't it go..."Just wait till you have kids..."

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- Yes, or as they say in Japan, 'A frog's children are (also) frogs'. It might have been easier if my kids were turtles, but I guess I'll never know...

Eldest -- Yay, cool, it's still on! Where shall we go first -- Vietnam or Laos? I'm hungry for a spicy sweet potato curry with coconut. Was the Philippines part of that deal? It had better be.

Eryl -- Thank you. She says I can come with her now, but it's just possible she thinks I'll wimp out when push comes to shove. Maybe by that time I'll be tough enough to let her go on her own...

Bish -- That curse has cost quite a few people their grandchildren. I've tried to keep its use to a minimum, but don't think I haven't thought it a good number of times.

Kit said...

History repeating itself!

I announced to my mother that I wanted to go and help Mother Theresa in Calcutta - I've no idea where that came from, as I was way too soft! I ended up with a family in Italy, supposedly teaching their kids English and learning Italian myself. The Italian teenagers were quite enough of a culture shock - India would have freaked me out I'm sure. Isn't it a shame how our mothers were always right!

Kim Ayres said...

If Eldest heads for Bali in Indonesia to let me know, as my niece lives out there.

debra said...

These are coming of age years for our daughters and ourselves, Mary. As they find their way, we find ours.

My daughter traveled to Mexico and Argentina during her gap year. She now wants to study abroad----photography in England is her latest dream.

Christy said...

I think it's terrific! You raised a strong, independent woman who is not only ready to find her way in the world, but she's actually doing it! Way to go, Mary!

(Now save this comment and send it back to me in 14 years when my baby girl is heading out into the world. )

C.R. Evers said...

LOL! funnny how things come around, huh?

cute story. :0)

Mary Witzl said...

Kit -- I wanted to help Mother Theresa too! The only thing that kept me from going for this was an absolute terror of cockroaches. I'm pretty sure Mother Theresa could have killed them with her bare hands.

Odd about mothers, isn't it? Mine was right about 85% of the time. Later, I found out she was right about most of the remaining 15% too. I wonder what my percentage will be...

Kim -- Your LUCKY niece! I will certainly tell Eldest that, and thank you.

Debra -- The whole thing is a learning curve, isn't it? We send our kids out into the world as soon as we let them go to kindergarten, and even then, it's not entirely safe. But the final letting go is the hardest of all.

Being a photographer in England sounds like an interesting dream. If we're back in the UK when she's there, maybe we'll meet?

Christy -- I can't really take any credit for it -- she was like this from the word go. Of course, I did supply the genes and the role model, but she did everything else herself...

I hope I'll be here when your little girl is ready to spread her wings and fly!

CR -- Thank you. It seems like this happened awfully fast; I feel a little like Tevye singing 'Sunrise, Sunset'.

Robin said...

I love your mom! She had such a coherent argument. I wouldn't have known what to say other than, "That's a dumb idea, you idiot."

I'm so glad the au pair job opened. She'll be a chip off the old Japanese block. And she won't be backpacking around Asia. Oy. Just the thought gives me diarrhea.

adrienne said...

I imagine I'll be facing this in a few years - my daughter is stubborn and independent and itching to see the world...

Mary Witzl said...

Robin -- I can't martial my thoughts when I'm upset either; "That's dumb, you idiot" is just what I'd say myself. My mother always knew her way around an argument. This skill bypassed me and went straight to my kid. Who claims she's still planning the backpacking around Asia thing...

Adrienne -- Encourage her to make strong, clever friends! Then when she strikes off on her adventures, she'll have the right sort of company.

Charlie said...

If your daughter has the same dislike of insects that you do, wait until she gets a load of some of the creatures in Vietnam. I still have nightmares about this one flying thing . . .

Robert the Skeptic said...

My step-daughter was an au-pair while attending college in Lyon. Then three years of teaching English in Japan. We visited her in both countries and have great friends and wonderful memories as a result of those experiences.

She then brought my two daughters (her step-sisters) to France when they were teens. This opened the door for Kara to spend her junior year in high school in Denmark. Kara has traveled extensively since. Kara's last trip was to Hungary and Romania. The year before she was in Morocco.

I, of course, worried about my girls traveling alone, but I am confident they always keep their wits about them and they have always come home safe and sound and wiser for the experience (though Kara returned with a tongue piercing!)

It will be totally cool one day when you and your daughter are standing in the check-out line at the grocery store conversing in Japanese to each other in front of astonished on-lookers. That alone will be worth the experience!!

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- It's not all insects I'm afraid of, it's cockroaches. I'm fine with grasshoppers, moths, katydids, butterflies, sow bugs, cicadas, crickets -- all sorts of insects -- and even spiders. But cockroaches get me up on the table every time.

I'm interested in that bug you saw in Vietnam -- as long as it wasn't a cockroach!

Robert -- Lucky Kara, spending her junior year in Denmark! I wanted to do that, but they wouldn't let me because of my crappy P.E. record.

I love the idea of my daughter making interesting memories and friends, but she has a tendency to be a little impetuous in her decisions. That was what gave me pause.

She already speaks Japanese, thanks to having grown up in Japan, and when she's in a playful mood she sometimes speaks it with me in public. (Everyone thinks we're speaking Russian.) After her time in Tokyo, she'll probably be correcting MY Japanese. She'll love that.

kara said...

my mom went through the same thing when i demanded to be an exchange student at 15. high school bored the crap out of me. i was in denmark by 16 and everyone was happier.

Leigh Russell said...

You're certainly an enterprising family, and I'm sure your feisty daughter's going to have the time of her life. I wish I'd been more adventurous when I was young. Your daughter won't look back and think, "I wish I'd had the guts to go." Good for her! And as for you, sitting at home worrying - well, you could be doing that just as well if your daughter was living 20 miles away.

laura said...

Cutting sugar cane in Cuba?? Good God! And why does work in a foreign country always sound more glamorous than work in your own back yard? At least your mother had the advantage of being able to get right in your face with her refusal to let you go, I would think an electronic argument might lose some punch over the miles. It seems to me the au pair job is a good start for now.

Mary Witzl said...

Kara -- Honestly, I would have LOVED to do that! High school didn't just bore me, it depressed and demoralized me. My best friend got to go to Denmark for a year when she was 13. I was beside myself with envy and longing.

Leigh -- What you say is true. We weren't as worried about her as we were irritated with her; she left a fairly stable situation with very little notice for a rather uncertain one. But she seems to have landed on her feet and you're right: she'll never look back and regret a missed opportunity. Nothing makes a person more bitter and miserable than the thought of a missed opportunity.

Laura -- I wonder why I thought I'd be able to cut sugar cane when five minutes of weed-picking exhausted me. Teenage idiocy, pure and simple. You're right about the electronic argument thing. I'm damn lucky my kid didn't want to cut sugar cane in Cuba.

Barbara Martin said...

I remember days like this with my mother: when I applied for a job right out of college in my field and was requested to attend an interview. There was a distance problem was it was in Port Moody in British Columbia and I was in Alberta. Only 700 miles away and with not enough money to pay my fare there and back, my mother said an unequivocal 'no' to providing the money and my going.