Transcontinental Togetherness, '90s Style

FEW weekend hosts would dare to issue an invitation asking house guests to B.Y.O.S. - Bring Your Own Sheets. But when the host is a young woman furnishing a post-college apartment on a tight budget and the guests are her parents, the request seems perfectly normal. Of course they'll bring sheets, and even an extra pillow for good measure.

A first apartment, like a first date or a first car, remains an experience indelibly etched in many adult memories. For a novice renter, any apprehension about signing a lease - All that money every month! All those scary legal terms! - is quickly offset by the heady prospect of independence and a place of one's own.

For parents, visiting an adult child's first home-away-from-home in another city involves a role reversal that brings unexpected pleasure to both generations. The decor may be low-budget - a patchwork of second-hand furniture and found objects that gives new meaning to the word eclectic.

But the mood is definitely upbeat. The unstated message in the air is: This is mine. I too can be domestic and creative. Just look at the cheerful canvases I painted to hang on these bare walls. Just look at the flowers I bought for the dining-room table. Just look at the breakfast I cooked for you.

Launching a career and establishing a home have always involved complex choices and decisions - about location, work, housing, and companionship. For women graduating from college in the '60s - the mothers of today's recent graduates - a first apartment and a first salary were often characterized by a sense of impermanence. We thought in terms of jobs, not career tracks. A one-year lease seemed an impossibly long commitment. We regarded independent living as a temporary state, a holding pattern until we married, often within a year or two after graduation.

Today, in the career-oriented '90s, as work options widen and marriage gets delayed, many young singles of both sexes appear to be adopting an impressive attitude of settling in for the long run. Daughters no longer wait for a hope chest and bridal showers to supply them with dishes and domestic items. Sons no longer make do with the proverbial Spartan bachelor quarters that spawned a thousand jokes about terrible housekeeping.

Their addresses and roommates may change from time to time, but in an age of restlessness and rapid change, their desire for roots and stability still runs high. Call it a consumer culture or call it a nesting instinct. Only the sobering necessity of living on entry-level salaries tempers their desire for abundant creature comforts and a pleasantly decorated place to retreat to at the end of a busy workday.

For parents of these independent nesters, the challenge is not so much that their own nest is empty, but that their fledglings often land so far from home.

As members of a mythical group that could be called POFO - Parents Of Faraway Offspring - these mothers and fathers must learn to accept the likelihood that their family connections may forever revolve around long-distance calls and airport reunions, always too brief, always too infrequent. They know that first apartments and first jobs, however temporary these might seem initially, have a way of becoming the first step to permanent roots in an area.

The final irony for parents may be to measure their success by how little their adult children depend upon them. But, in fact, both generations still need each other, though in different ways than before, evolving toward equality. And so geographically distant children and parents end up reaching out to each other by phone, by fax, by e-mail, sending up cheers at the hint of a fare war that will make another visit possible. Tantalizing in its sense of never-enough, this will have to do as transcontinental togetherness, '90s style.

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