I sat at the kitchen table. The maple syrup that I had poured onto my oatmeal still shined on top, and one of my hands shaded my eyes from the reflection of the sun’s sudden glare. I held my spoon against my mouth with the other hand and watched hoarfrost fall from the trees and the bushes and the garden fence. Long chunks of frost broke off and dropped silently to the ground, leaving a criss-cross pattern on top of the early November snow.
“Interlochen,” I said to my fifteen-year-old daughter Nina, who stood at the kitchen counter, bouncing on her toes as she always did when she was excited.
“It’s in Michigan,” she said. “It’s a boarding school. For musicians, mostly, but they have visual artists, too. And dancers.”
That morning was one of those rare winter mornings. I had woken up to an otherworldly quiet: the same muffling silence that you experience when fat snowflakes fall onto an already thick layer of snow, although that was a rarity for us. In Montana, snow fell diagonally, sometimes horizontally, always driven by the wind. It was fog that brought morning stillness, or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, I could sense the presence of the fog before it was light enough to see it.
And then the question was: when the sun emerged and dispersed the fog, what would be revealed? Usually, it was the same landscape that greeted me every morning, just more damp. But every once in a magic while, the sun rose, the sky cleared, and the world would be transformed, covered in a delicate white crystal feathering: hoarfrost.
I set my spoon down in my bowl and turned away from the window to look at Nina’s face.
Hoarfrost is really the wrong name for it. Hoary—grey or white as if with age—it isn’t. Hoarfrost is youthful, childlike. It makes the world a fairy tale, one that glints the most invitingly in the sun, but which is also ephemeral, disappearing at the height of its beauty.
My ten-year-old son Thomas came thumping down the stairs, carrying our new puppy, who slept in his room. He slipped on his boots, and they hustled outside where he set her down, quickly but gently. She squatted to pee, and I could see his mouth moving while he hugged his arms around his waist—there had been no time to put on a jacket. “Good dog! Good dog!”
Nina raised an eyebrow at me. Thomas wouldn’t be alone.
* * *
We drove an hour to Billings that year, four days a week, for more advanced ballet lessons for Nina, and Thomas came once a week for his guitar lesson, which fit conveniently in between dropping Nina off and picking her up.
The week after Thanksgiving, Nina was at her ballet class and Thomas’s guitar lesson was about to begin. I had just finished telling Thomas’s teacher, Mary, that Nina had surprised us with the announcement that she was thinking about going away to boarding school the next year for eleventh grade: Interlochen Academy of the Arts in Michigan. Miss Laura, the director of the local dance school in our town, had once asked me if we would ever think of sending Nina away for dance—she was that talented. At the time, I thought Miss Laura was nuts.
“Interlochen?!” the guitar teacher said. “I went there for summer camp when I was sixteen. For guitar. I loved it.”
Mary continued: “Everyone was working hard—the painters, the musicians, the singers, the dancers. It was the first time I felt normal.”
Thomas had his guitar out of the case by then and waited with it resting on his knee. We were in the practice room at Mary’s house. It was in her basement, but its high windows faced south so it was sunny. Several antique stringed instruments hung on the wall. I recognized a lute but the others were unfamiliar. There were framed posters of Mary’s classical concerts and one of her playing the bagpipes with the Billings Caledonian Pipes and Drums. She had made a life with her music.
Thomas set his guitar down on the floor, happy to put off his warm-up scales.
In theory, my husband and I supported the idea of Nina going away to school. The confines of our small rural town had become stifling for her, and she had taken dance about as far as she could with the limited resources available to her in Montana. But was she ready? Would it be better to take a year to prepare, we had asked her, and then go for her senior year? Yeah, that was probably a good idea, Nina had said. It would be hard to leave home because it was so comfortable and cozy.
“Maybe,” Mary said, leaning down to her guitar in its case by her chair, “maybe you’ve made home life too comfortable.” She hooked her heel on a rung of her chair, rested the guitar on her leg and placed her hands on the strings.
I opened my mouth to make excuses: if she had only known what we had gone through, if she had seen my daughter suffer through years of bullying—homeschooling put some distance between Nina and the bullies, but it hadn’t ended it, if Mary had known what it had taken to achieve “comfortable.” But I stopped myself. I could already hear how discordant it sounded.
Mary was absolutely, exquisitely, horribly right.
The next day, Nina asked me to talk with her. We sat at the table in the upstairs room, where we normally had our homeschool lessons. The bookcases overflowed with books and skeins of yarn. Thomas’s drawings of plants from our botany lesson were tacked above the chalkboard. The large double window framed the yard below with its swing-set and rail fence. Fields and thin stands of cottonwoods stretched out to the base of the Beartooth Mountains to the south, and the sky lifted from there, no end in sight.
One of my father’s oil paintings hung to the right of those windows. It was the one of my two sisters and me. We were tiny—specks really, but with characteristic gestures to identify us—and we were walking through the sea grass at the top of a dune. Most of the canvas was sky.
He had covered the canvas in orange first. I watched him slap it on all over in haphazard strokes.
“Why?” I asked, standing in the sun of the dining room where he had his easel set up in the corner. “To give some contrast,” he told me. “So I can see what I’m doing.” And then I watched as he painted blues and whites together over most of the orange. When are you going to get to the “painting?” my seven-year-old self had wondered, meaning: the “picture.” Meaning: us.
I waited for a long time, looking at both skies while Nina looked down at her feet. We both started talking at once.
“No,” I said, waving at her. “You go.”
“I feel…” She paused and took a deep breath. “I feel like I’m letting my dream slip away. That if I don’t go now…” She covered her face with her hands. Her slender shoulders shook. “It’ll be too late.”
I put my hands on either side of her face, over her hands. “I think you should go, my Sweet Pea,” I said. “I don’t want to give you up, but I think you should go.”
What did that mean?
It meant we had two weeks to mail her application in to Interlochen and schedule an audition before the deadline. It meant I had two weeks to put together a transcript for the last four years of homeschooling, seventh through tenth grades. Whatever I might have been feeling about the sea-change in our lives was put to the side in a frenzy of sorting through old records and book lists to come up with course descriptions and grades, of making it look right, dammit, it had better look right because she had worked so hard.
Nina didn’t have a long list of school clubs and extra-curriculars to fill in on the activity sheet. “You’re focused,” I told her. “You’ve taken four days of dance class every week for years. You do your chores and are home for dinner every day. Tell them that,” I said, daring them, in my mind, to find her wanting because she couldn’t pad her list with Pep Club or a Say No to Bullying rally.
I proofread her essay about finding inspiration in Marianne Moore’s poem, “I May, I Might, I Must.” (If you will tell me why the fen/ appears impassable, I then/ will tell you why I think that I/ can get across it if I try.)
My husband took her for a dance audition.
We crossed our fingers for financial aid.
In February, the big manila envelope came in the mail. She was in. And that was that. She was in.
* * *
How did it feel when my child would be leaving? When she would be leaving two years earlier than expected? How did it feel when I knew that this was the best thing possible for her? When I knew that this would be the next step toward her becoming more fully the beautiful person she was meant to be?
I couldn’t help but wish that she would wait. Another month. Another day. Yes, I was not beyond begging: just another minute. But I knew I couldn’t ask for any of it. That I wouldn’t.
I had known this time would come. We parents all know it.
We cultivate a certain level of denial.
I didn’t have the words to describe how it felt to let Nina go. I still don’t.
But Nina did have the words. It wasn’t what she ever intended—to leave early or to write about how it felt to let someone you love go, but she did both: the leaving and the writing.
During that last year of homeschooling, tenth grade, we studied the architecture of poetry, and Nina wrote several poems of her own. Among the poems we read was Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” about the famous hero (Odysseus is his more familiar Greek name) returning home after his long journey back from the Trojan War.
I said to Nina one day, offhandedly, when she was stuck and couldn’t think what to write about, “Why don’t you write a response to Ulysses, as if you were Penelope (his wife)? You could tell him what you really think about him being gone for so long.”
I expected that Nina would let him have it, old Ulysses. I was ready to read a long, hilarious, pissy list of complaints. Maybe that’s what I would have written. Nina wrote something else.
She hadn’t left for Interlochen yet. She hadn’t yet packed her pointe shoes and her leotards and her pillow and her notebooks into the pick-up truck, and we hadn’t yet driven for two days across a thousand miles to Michigan, and we hadn’t hauled her stuff up to her new dorm room, and we hadn’t met her roommate, and we hadn’t fitted the sheets onto the thin mattress, and we hadn’t realized yet that it was time for us to go— right then—to leave her at that school that was bustling with deliciously nutty and creative teenagers who were all dreaming their dreams. We hadn’t driven those thousand miles back from Michigan yet, without her in the truck. We hadn’t arrived back home to realize that it wasn’t just for a week or two. It was permanent. She would be back for Christmas, maybe for the summer, but mostly she would be gone, and that was the new reality. That was our new life.
No, Nina wrote a poem in her room at home with the door closed, coming out several hours later, looking tired and even a little dazed. I turned from stirring a pot on the stove and wiped my hands on a dishtowel, well, truthfully, I wiped them on the seat of my pants like I always do.
She handed me her poem. My daughter handed me—there in plain old black and white—my heart, so that I could see how it was, how it would be.