It was during the middle of a January snowstorm when our 19-year-old daughter, Megan, drove out of our lane in her Jeep filled to ''just legal'' weight limit.
I waved goodbye long after she was out of sight. I had waited nearly 20 years for this moment, but as always during these tender times, found myself out of film. Her father chose to remain inside after their brief hugs.
Megan was on her way to Santa Fe, N.M., as a January enrollee at a college specializing in classical studies. Northeastern schools offering the same courses held no appeal to Megan. Santa Fe, on the other hand, beckoned to her sense of wanderlust, her love of the Southwest, and her desire to be as far away from home as possible.
I walked into the house and carefully picked a path through the last of the boxes to be shipped to Megan's dorm room. The sight of all her things stuffed into boxes temporarily filled the void of her absence.
A quiet settled over the house like the stillness after a storm. To fill the emptiness, I turned on both the radio and the television for storm updates. As the weather reports worsened, I poised myself by the phone. I waited, then called the state police to see if they had found a bulging Jeep stranded along the roadside. A surly officer referred me to the Turnpike Commission. I looked at my watch: She had only been gone 45 minutes.
With telephone duty proving futile, I went to Megan's room. I entered her inner sanctum without competition from scattered sweatshirts, tennis shoes, and textbooks. No sounds of Tracy Chapman or the Indigo Girls bounced off the walls.
As I looked out at the snowfall, I realized that the time had come to let go. The wise words of Hodding Carter came to mind as I ran my hand across Megan's pillow. He said that there are only two things of real value that we give our children: one is roots, the other wings.
Roots were a basic part of life at our tree nursery, where trees weren't all that we raised. In the same way that roots give life to a plant, they give life to our children. Roots shape identity. Wings offer the means to shape dreams.
While roots give stability, wings spur us on to accept challenges. Most of Megan's early winters were spent on the ski slopes of Vermont. Throughout her childhood, we fostered her love for skiing while she developed a love of speed on the slopes. Her skiing skills led her to Waterville Valley Ski Academy in New Hampshire, where she competed in downhill and slalom races.
We worried about her safety each time she left the starting gate. Yet with every race, she took a chance, while we cheered her on in her personal challenge.
Roots are most often nurtured in everyday happenings like a warm embrace when things have gone awry or in family traditions forged year after year.
Wings are carefully groomed with every encouraging word and loving nudge in the right direction. With roots our children can face the sometimes crazy influences of the world. With wings they can seek the opportunities to change the world. Roots and wings -- a paradoxical pair -- together render balance.
Would Megan be aware of these intangibles? More importantly, would I be able to handle what Megan left behind? After years of parenting, would I be able to meet the challenge that comes with letting go? My identity had been deeply rooted in nurturing my child. Now I had to find a balance of my own. The time had come for me to value my own roots and embrace a new sense of freedom that comes with using one's own wings.
I was busy taping and labeling Megan's boxes when her first call finally came. She'd been gone for eight hours and had driven a total of 200 miles, 100 or so across snow-drifted turnpike. At this rate, with Ohio, Missouri, and Colorado snows yet to weather, I calculated her arrival in Santa Fe at about mid-March.
But after a week -- not months -- on the road, Megan finally arrived in Santa Fe, a mecca for artists, intellectuals, and anyone who feels a kindred spirit with mountains and desert.
''Hi, Mom! I'm in Santa Fe,'' she said. ''I made it! It's great! Oh... I met my roommate. Her name is Anja.''
She told me about the ''cool people'' on campus and about her roommate's pet boa constrictor, and I expressed my concerns about her safety with a snake on the loose.
''Mom, you worry too much,'' she said.
''Meg, this is not worry in my voice, just concern.''
''I know. Remember how you freaked out during my first downhill race? You said it was concern.... Mom, I was fine then and I'll be fine now.''
There was a long pause before either of us spoke. And then, as though she had been reading my mind, she said: ''Mom, thanks for giving me wings. I love you.''
''I love you, too. Just watch where that snake sleeps at night!''
''Okay, Mom. I gotta go.... There's a party tonight for the incoming freshman. Love you!''
She hung up before I could remind her about her roots. A silence rung in my ears with the echo of her words. The time had come to tend my own roots and wings.