The flight of my flock of 'daughters'

The phone rang the other weekday morning at 7. It was Lucy, one of my daughters.

"Our shower's broken - can I take a shower at your house?" she asked.

"Sure, honey! C'mon over," I said.

Lucy is one of a group of young women, all friends of my 18-year-old daughter Joanna, whom I call "daughter." I've known most of these girls since they were kindergarten tots wearing striped leggings and plastic barrettes. They sail in and out of our house as if it were their own place. I've weighed in on their prom gowns, fixed a few lunches, given them lifts to school, and even showed some of them around Europe.

There's Maya, who has her own spoon in our silverware drawer. It's a tiny baby spoon, plastic-coated, that she uses to eat the chocolate pudding I buy just for her. I've promised her I'll never throw it out. When it slipped into the garbage disposal and got a bit mangled the other day, I worried about whether it would be ruined. It's still fine.

There's Liz, who made me feel much better about a fashion faux pas I made at my high school reunion. I had shown up in a flirty sundress while others were wearing jeans and shorts. "But did you own the dress?" she asked me. I knew exactly what she meant.

And there's Roshana and Emily and Rachael and a gaggle of others, all of whom, I hope, would feel perfectly comfortable calling me in the middle of the night to get them out of a jam. We had a few of them visit us for spring break the year we lived in Brussels. I called it "Camp Euro." We still laugh about almost missing the train from Paris to Brussels because we stopped for crepes. That mad dash through Gare du Nord is one of our favorite memories.

At Joanna's birthday this year, I pulled out the videos from her first 17 parties. There they were, 4-year-olds cowering in fright from a particularly creepy clown I hired that year. As we watched through all those parties in the early years, we saw little but a pink haze of fluffy party dresses. Later we had a series of celebrations involving scavenger hunts and dressing up to act out parts in a mystery game. As the girls approached adolescence, we began the fondue tradition. One year, it was chocolate fondue with strawberries. Next, cheese with bread and broccoli.

As the girls sprawled around the family room watching their younger selves on the TV screen, they seemed pretty tolerant of my nostalgia-wallowing. Joanna's only comment was, "Fast forward, Mom, fast forward." (Funny she should say that: It's exactly what I want to avoid.)

These days, it's all I can do to keep track of where each girl has applied to college, where she's gotten in, which school she's finally chosen, what kinds of scholarships she's been offered, what her parents prefer, and what her friends think is best for her. I could use a flow chart. We've all talked endlessly about cold-weather locations, preppy images, vegetarian options, and girl-guy ratios. I cheer when one of them gets a scholarship, and sigh when one gets turned down or wait-listed. How could they do that? Don't they know how wonderful she is? More recently, I've found myself bragging about where all my daughters are going.

In fact, as my daughters grow, I realize that I've worked up a whole new definition of motherhood. Yes, I've mothered my own child, but by definition that umbrella of mom-hood has extended to cover all the gang. It adds to the joy, but it also adds to the list of things I can fret about in the middle of the night.

I'll miss all my daughters when they go to college in the fall. And I'm happy that at least one of them has decided on the same school as Joanna, so I can take her out to dinner on parents' weekend. And for those who are going elsewhere, at least I'll know exactly what to pack into each care package. One of them will be less than an hour from my parents' home - I've told her that she's got grandparents nearby.

For now, I'm trying to enjoy the commotion and buzz of their comings and goings. Anyone who happens to be around when I pull up with a carload of groceries is expected to help schlep bags in from the car. I never know, when I get home from work, if I'll be stretching a salmon filet to feed a couple of extras. Sometimes I can tell they've been there because there's a light sprinkling of soda cans on the end tables and dirty dishes in the sink.

Hearing them all together in one room is a lot like hearing the chatter of starlings settling down in a tree for the night. If they're all talking at once, who is listening?

Maybe I'll actually appreciate the quiet of an empty nest. The other day, after daughter Lucy finished her shower, she did leave a wet towel on the bed.

Debra Bruno is a freelance writer in Washington.

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