Ellen Freeman Roth                      

May 15, 2011

Terms of endearment

“Love you” was my daughter’s sign-off, a confection she bestowed on me before hanging up or waving goodbye. So sweet, I thought, that between logarithms and diving practice, my 17-year-old had brimming affection just for dear old mom. But then something caught my ear. “Bye, Victoria. Love you,” I heard Maddie say one day. She’s that close with Victoria? Soon I heard it again. “See you, Dara. Love you.” And again. “Later, Claire. Love you.” Apparently Maddie wasn’t sharing some precious comfit with her cherished mother but pouring liberally from a jumbo bag. Did such endearments so freely dispensed mean anything? Surely at her age I had reserved “love you” for people who would remain fixtures throughout my life. Yet “love you” seemed to be Maddie’s rubber stamp for everyone but the postman.

Then the postman left me a package – inside were letters from my 17-year-old self. An old friend had tracked me down online after finding these relics that I’d written to her when we lived in different states. I’d constructed envelopes out of ads from The New Yorker, artfully folding each so that a plane landed just above my handwritten address, a ship sailed below my ZIP code.

What a trove, these bygone shouts and murmurs. I thought I would give Maddie the letters and ask her to read them as though she were the intended recipient. My younger voice could serve as her magnetic north of sorts, I figured. Maybe the letters, alive with my intellectual hunger and sparkling wit, would draw her from Facebook and cultivate her interest in The New Yorker of today. Maybe she’d see the merits of starting school assignments early and yearn for fluency in another language. (I must have jotted some French. I loved to parle francais!)

Was it too big a leap to suppose that these letters might even dissipate some friction between us? Her vision of herself and what’s possible might expand when she saw that I had passion like hers, close friends like she has, and the imagination to see opportunities. If she and I wanted the same things for her, and we agreed on how she could achieve them, we wouldn’t be at odds. I would no longer be Judgmental Mom.

So I arranged the letters chronologically and began to flip through them. “Despite the fact that I have 235 pages to read in a book due tomorrow, I’ll write this letter.” Another: “So much schoolwork to do – I’ve procrastinated and now I have a term paper to write, a French book to read … and I may go away this weekend.” Mon Dieu. The details about my day read like Maddie’s Facebook posts.

Sure, I mentioned a few constructive pursuits – a program on Soviet Jewry, fund-raising for cancer research, various youth group activities – but I devoted large swaths to “David called me” and “Isn’t Dan a doll?” and “I think Eric likes me.” (He did – we dated for several years.) Even the most minute detail of each story included paroxysms of excitement.

But where were my classic bon mots? My fiery intellect? I slumped, seeing that my letters were filled with sexual asides and drivel. And I signed every one “With love.” I even closed the last one with “I’m thinking of you and I still love you.” My friend and I were that close! Except that a month later, as students at the same college, we hardly saw each other.

I never showed the letters to my daughter, but I’ve kept them as reminders that 17 is just 17. And one letter, the penultimate one to my friend, also reminds me that a “love you” that seems flippantly dispensed may be anything but.

I wrote the letter in July after graduating from high school. My friend had been away, so she might not have known that my mother had died two months earlier. I related the painful details of my mother succumbing to cancer and revealed feelings that I rarely confided to anyone. I wrote of her enormous strength and that “I got much closer to my mother in her last 10 months.” I hadn’t remembered that. “My only wish in the whole world,” I added, was to “walk into the house and see my mother.”

Thinking back to those last months with my mother, every “love you” I offered her must have been so precious, so weighty. A lightly tossed endearment to a friend, to each other, would have been a privilege for us both. Just as, once again, I realize each “love you” from my daughter is a perfect sweet nothing just for me.