Behind my daughter’s furniture and under her dirty dishes, bits of insight

I figured we’d learned our lessons last spring, when I showed up to retrieve my daughter from her dormitory at San Francisco State and she greeted me sleepy-eyed, in pajamas; not packed and not prepared.

It took us two days of stuffing, sweeping, hauling and tossing. We were part of a zombie-like procession of frustrated parents and clueless freshmen on the endless loop between car and dorm.

This year, it would be easier, I thought, as I packed my car with empty boxes and bins for the six-hour drive north from Los Angeles.

My baby girl is older and more responsible now, after living off-campus for a year in an apartment with three friends. And I’m older, wiser and more protective of my own aging knees and aching hands.


This time around, I hired movers to lug her furniture down the narrow stairs from her second-floor flat and truck it to my brother’s house in Palo Alto, where we’d store it for the summer.

But it was déjà vu, from my fruitless search for nearby parking to my daughter’s appearance at the door in pajamas, not packed and not prepared.

This time I skipped the finger-wagging.

We had three hours to organize, pack and separate what goes in storage and what goes home. By the time the movers knocked, we’d given up on labeling stuff and were cramming dirty dishes into cardboard boxes.


It’s got to be one of the most dreaded rituals of parenting a budding grownup. I’m no stranger to the process, but eight years of moving children in and out of college and apartments hasn’t made me much better at it.

That’s because it’s a task that requires more than brute strength and packing skills; it’s a clash of wills and egos and visions, of authority versus independence. The process takes place in an odd sort of limbo, and the partnership it requires between parent and child has a way of threatening boundaries.

For that moment, our children straddle the line — they are adult enough to live on their own, but dependent on parents to help make that happen.


Without husband or father to call upon, moving is a drill my daughters and I have always managed on our own. And it always makes me contemplate all that I have — or haven’t — taught them.

In my daughter’s nearly-empty apartment, I saw an unmade bed, piles of clothes on the floor, dirty dishes stacked on the kitchen counter. The hallway was carpeted with clumps of hair. The kitchen suggested that she and her roommates survived on cheap wine and gourmet coffee.

But this time I allowed myself to see more:

The notes in my daughter’s careful print tacked to the kitchen bulletin board, about whose turn it is to buy garbage bags and who owes how much on the cable bill. The paycheck stubs from her part-time job, piled in a corner on her desk. The writing assignments spilling from her backpack, scrawled with professors’ superlatives.


I imagine this hasn’t been an easy year for a girl who, until now, had never paid a bill, cooked a meal, made a grocery list or mopped a kitchen floor. She’s been the baby, coddled and kidded about her lack of responsibility.

But here, in the rough-and-tumble of the San Francisco neighborhood called Inner Sunset, she has learned to venture out with a fearlessness her family had never seen.

In fact, she’s more resilient and level-headed than we ever called upon her to be.

Among the errant papers I swept up on moving day from behind the desk on her bedroom floor was a crumpled copy of a police report from an evening I’d managed to forget:


That night, my daughter had been on her way home from campus when a fellow rider on the Muni bus struck up a conversation intense enough to be alarming. When she got off, so did he. She quickened her pace and he walked faster. She ducked into a clothing shop and he came in behind her.

She signaled to a clerk that the guy seemed to be following her. They came up with a plan; the manager would engage him in conversation, while my daughter slipped out and ran. She saw the stranger emerge as she turned the corner. With shaking hands, she unlocked her door and rushed into her empty apartment.

She sat in her bedroom alone and scared. Every creak and noise seemed to herald danger. She called her roommates and told them to be careful. She called police and described what had happened. Only then did she call her mother — her voice so calm and sure and strong, I could barely register her terror.

I waited with her on the phone until the doorbell rang and police arrived. She called me back once they were gone, and promised to text when her roommates came home. I gripped my cellphone like a talisman, trying not to call and stoke her fears, but unable to quiet mine.


I took a peek at her Facebook page, looking, I guess, for some connection. And there, serving as her status message, was a droll and satiric account of her encounter with “the creeper on the loose in Inner Sunset.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But at that moment I understood: Her resources are as great as the challenges she’ll face.


The move was not as bad as it could have been. We had enough boxes, the movers were efficient, and we managed to make it through the afternoon without either of us yelling or crying.


We both learned new lessons. For her, it was never be the last roommate to leave. It fell to us to figure out what to do with the refrigerator full of food, the bags of trash left on the stoop, the bathroom landfill of half-empty bottles of face wash, shower gel and shampoo.

For me, it was make a note of where you park, especially if you’re driving a rental car and searching for non-existent parking on unfamiliar streets larded with tow-away spots.

When the last box was packed and the movers pulled away, all that was left for me to do was bring the car around and load the suitcases in. Except that I couldn’t find it. I walked down one street and up another, for blocks and blocks in every direction, holding aloft the key remote, clicking the panic button like a homing device.

Every time I called to report that I still couldn’t find the car, my daughter would say, sarcasm dripping, “Retrace your steps!” I suspect that she was smiling because that’s what I’ve always said to my daughters when anything of theirs is lost. But I was so exhausted, I couldn’t even remember what the car looked like, much less landmarks I might have passed.


I finally flagged down a police car; my car must have been stolen or towed, I thought. The officer directed me to a side street to take a report … and there was my rental car, right where I parked it.

I was too relieved to be embarrassed, just thanked the officer and drove off, making a mental note not to read my daughter’s musings on Facebook this week.