Instead of writing this summer, I made it my (unofficial) job to oversee the bargain bins at Target and extend awkward greetings to friends and strangers alike over unnecessary, but nonetheless enchanting items, like glitter toiletry bags and chalkboard garden signs. Mind you, I don’t garden and there is no amount of glitter than can make my early morning make-up routine more festive. The bags under my eyes are best categorized as sinkhole making a rope ladder a more appropriate tool than a swath of highlighter.

Even so, I do hope you all chose the correct length of charging cords and are enjoying a theme candle in each room of your home this Fall. More importantly, I hope you met “College Move-in Day” with an abundance of electrical strips and sock organizers. These things are important to 18-year-old boys who are leaving their Mammas. Right?

They still need us, right? I mean, if the mountain of lost socks pouring onto my bedroom floor is any indication, those sock organizers are safety precautions for frostbite — as important as road flares and waterproof boots. Apparently, I feel a moral obligation to protect all the toes I brought into this world, even if they do struggle to fit into size 13 shoes.

And this is where I am, you guys. I have a 6’5, 18-year-old college-bound son, who is coincidentally also a trained United States Solider, and I am emotional about the future status of his toes. (Somebody in an Army uniform just spit out their coffee in disgust).

I hate it. I love it. I hate it….because I love him. My heart is one great big, clumsy, knot of emotions.

Remember, teaching our babies to tie their first shoelaces? “Make a tree with one hand, a make a rabbit with the other hand. The rabbit goes around the tree, under the roots and pops back out the other side!” Tada! A tidy bow!

With great concentration, those chubby little preschool fingers made weeping willows, with very large branches and very small, but zealous, rabbits. In these first days, untrained shoelace rabbits burrowed too many holes, got lost in the woods and produced a knot the size of an everlasting Gobstopper on the top of every single pair of shoes. We were forced to make critical decisions like cut out the laces of new shoes or cut off the muddy foot.

I still remember the look on their faces, unsure of the reference, when I said, “Well, at least you have one to spare!” Laces were sacrificed quickly.

The excitement my son felt in the mudroom, good or bad, was directly related to the size of the consequential knot. So, to, my heart now.

Here I am, a novice, in my own emotional mudroom. I am supported with encouragement and instruction, and yet, my fingers are fumbling, over and over again. My trees are tired. My rabbit needs a Xanax. I just want a blue raspberry Popsicle and a nap. In that order, please.

One minute, I am a cheering connoisseur of mini-refrigerators and matching dorm towel sets and the next, I am weeping into his his old fleece baby blankets with enough mascara trails down my face to rival Liza Minelli. All the laces are tangled, and the more I pull, the tighter the knot grows.

I am bursting with pride for this kid, and I can’t wait to witness how he will choose to walk through this world. I am excited to see how and what continues to make him light up. To watch him grow into a man is the greatest blessing.

This is exactly what we hope for, right? The gift of watching them successfully grow into adults?

And…it is a tender torture.

I knew this day would arrive. I knew one of the four kitchen stools at the countertop would eventually spin empty. I knew the gallon of milk would be full and the driveway would be empty. I just didn’t know this ache would punch the breath out of my lungs on such a regular basis. This unlacing may be necessary, but it is not without pain.

This is more complex than just feeling his absence in our home. After all, I have missed him before. I missed him for twelve weeks last summer at Boot Camp and another eight weeks this summer at training. This ache is different, it is a voice telling me something is over. Something I loved so very dearly, is no longer in my reach: his childhood.

All I know, is there are not enough bargain bins of sandalwood votive candles in all the world to distract me from the empty toothbrush holder in his bathroom. The toothbrush is always the last to be packed.

With practice, my heart will learn how to tie the new laces; when to move slowly, when to add pressure, and when to simply hold on.

Parents, be gentle in the mudroom- with you and with your child. Trust, the next steps will be good, and those shoes will continue to call your mudroom “Home.”

Marny Stebbins lives in Stillwater with her husband and four children. She is a stout believer in early bedtimes, caffeine enhancement and humor therapy.

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