Final boarding call - Denver to Seville, Spain, via Chicago. Karen shouldered her dark-green backpack and adjusted the straps. A year ago, I'd accustomed myself to the idea of my only child leaving home for college in Portland, Ore. This trip was the first step toward her required semester overseas.
Overseas? More like over a continent, over an ocean, over five or six time zones.
Her heavy nylon duffel bag was already stowed in the airplane's belly; its zipper-teeth clenched enough clothes and necessities for four months. It would have surprised neither of us if the stuffed duffel had ruptured somewhere over the Atlantic.
As she turned to say goodbye, the expression on Karen's freckled face was a medley of excitement, anticipation, and Bambi-in-the-headlights alarm. I had to keep swallowing as a fist-sized lump formed in my throat.
This wasn't the first time in Karen's life that I'd had to be a brave and selfless mother. Had I not let her finger-paint? Ride her bike to elementary school? Drive on the freeway at rush hour? This time, however, the ocean of time and space between us might span more than my heart could bear.
As the weeks passed, I began to receive postcards and, through Karen's hand, I wandered the narrow cobblestoned lanes of Spain. Allowing only stingy space for address and stamp, she crowded the small cards with her precise printing.
Her host family's apartment overlooked the Guadalquivir River, which she crossed each day before walking along the Avenida de la Constitucin to her classes. Evenings out began at midnight and ended as the sun rose. Falling into bed at 9 in the morning seemed natural, and an afternoon siesta a necessity.
THE air in Seville smelled of oranges. In a small grove of orange trees, she watched young naranjeros shake the branches, harvesting the oranges for marmalade. Hot spicy tapas simmered on wooden counters in the street cafes. With words for brush strokes, Karen painted from her exotic new palette of colors. I could taste the sizzling tapas. The tangy perfume of oranges flooded my senses.
Encouraged by the college professors, Karen and her classmates began to explore the Spanish countryside. Crdoba. La Rbida. Cdiz. Cliff houses in Ronda had stone steps leading a thousand feet to the green-and-gold valley below. Pueblos blancos were tiny whitewashed villages clinging to the steep, rocky land.
A small group of students traveled south by train to Gibraltar. After a jolting cable-car ride to the top of the Rock, they took photos of each other feeding the furry and famished Barbary apes that lived there.
On a hydrofoil, they traversed the straits for a day trip to Morocco. At the port of Tangiers, aggressive turbaned men offered themselves as guides to the young Americans, then spat at them and harassed them when the students declined.
Karen rode a camel along the windy beach and bought silver Moroccan jewelry from street vendors who smelled of pachouli oil.
On my map of Spain I circled each city she visited with a green felt-tip pen. Granada. Nerja. Mlaga. Every postcard arrived with circles and arrows inked in, pointing me toward the beach she strolled at sunrise or the centuries-old bridge she crossed.
Every letter in its blue-tinted onionskin envelope drew a picture of this land of sunshine and oranges as clear as a photograph. Madrid. Toledo. Huelva. I circled the cities with my green pen. My daughter savored her surroundings.
Springtime in Seville brought Semana Santa, or Holy Week. Large platforms carrying antique gold-encrusted statues paraded through the streets, each paso held aloft by 20 hooded men. The religious festival drew huge crowds of onlookers that, Karen wrote, tumbled her along like a leaf in a river.
As I read her letter, it seemed so odd to imagine my child being jostled and bumped in that swift current of strangers, participating in an ancient ritual in a foreign land.
I felt a tingle of pride in a difficult task done well as my daughter's confidence and independent spirit bubbled from the pages I read.
I thumbed through her letters, reread the postcards stuffed edge-to-edge with minuscule handwriting, smelled the orange peel spilling from a blue-tinted envelope, and I realized how this journey benefitted both of us.
I learned that I had raised a daughter willing to take risks. Karen learned she could take risks and prevail. She will draw on her Spanish experiences for a lifetime. With a keen eye for drama and beauty, she shared her experiences with me.
Through my daughter, I heard the wail of the saeta singing religious praise at Semana Santa, and felt the rough coat of a desert camel under my hands. And when I am asked I can almost say, "I, too, have been to Spain."