Thursday, September 9, 2010

De filiis inter se comparandis (or 2 kids, 2 colleges, 2500 miles)

As anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the copious literature on parenting knows, comparing children is a big no-no. “Why can’t you be more like Ermitrude?” (or, as Beethoven liked to bellow, “Do you want to head down the same dark path as your brother and sister?”) is out, as we embrace the unique individuality of each of our offspring – who, it turns out, are not simply clones of each other, despite the curls that spring from each one’s head. Although Bathsheba walked on her toes from the time she was a toddler, and Tigerlily is never happier than when doing a 360-degree split, it took months of Wednesday afternoon headaches and stomach-aches before I realized that the Butterfly really didn’t enjoy ballet – and even she thought that was shameful. “But I am supposed to like it,” she confessed tearfully.

Nevertheless, it is hard not to compare your children (especially when you are a trained comparatista) when the the two oldest begin college (at two colleges each requiring a hefty drive in the trusty minivan) within a few days of each other. While some differences clearly reflect the distinct natures of the two institutions (Bathsheba is attending Agnes Scott, an all-women institution of less than a 1000 in Atlanta, while the Rockstar is at the (obviously Jesuit) Loyola University in New Orleans), others make you ponder the relative influences of gender, environment and personality.

Although the Rockstar is fond of shopping and fine clothes, he is also frugal, and either much less aware or much less influenced by the juggernaut of off-to-college marketing. After I turned down his suggestion that we stop at a Walmart on the way to New Orleans, he happily joined me at our local Target, picking out two sets of sheets and a nice red comforter – all on sale! – along with a refrigerator. His most essential purchase (on which he blew half of his summer earnings): a 42” tv. When we did go to the NOLA Walmart (the very one featured in the looting section of Spike Lee’s harrowing, “When the levees broke”), he was mainly concerned to buy bleach, Febreze, an iron and multiple pillows. We did buy new towels, but when I asked about a desk lamp and alarm clock, he said, nah, he already had those from high school.

Bathsheba, on the other hand, did not return from Spain until less than 36 hours before our departure for Hotlanta, but that did not deter her from communicating her needs. In emails and phonecalls from Europe, I was reminded that she would need a new comforter, I should not even try to buy her sheets for her, we should plan on purchasing toiletries via, she would need new towels (since the family had used hers), etc. etc. In the 36 hour interregnum between au pair and Agnes, along with two essential doctor visits, she compared sheets at four different stores, bought and then exchanged a comforter (and then a week later had me send her comforter and duvet cover from home), obsessed about the proper colors, dimensions and composition for her bins and insisted on a new lamp to match her color scheme, which is now blue, to enhance memory.

The differences in preparing for school were not limited to purchases. When Bathsheba heard from her roommate, their conversation was up on facebook for all to see, as they discussed their respective backgrounds, the required first year reading, and what it would be like to be transfers surrounded by freshman. In contrast, the Rockstar waited a week to get in touch with his roommate (in frustration, I stalked the guy on facebook, just to see what he looked like). Finally, my son mentioned in passing that he had spoken with Mr. Louisiana. “Where’s he from?” I asked avidly. “Does he have any siblings? What does he like?” (I already knew his major, from the stalking.) “Mom,” the Rock replied, in one of those moments when you wonder, is this a boy thing, or have I produced a martian, “I’ll be living with him. I can find that all out later.” “So what did you talk about?” I asked. The essential issue: Rockstar would bring the tv, while Mr. Louisiana would be bringing the Xbox.

The Rockstar’s secretive nature will perhaps serve him well in a future career, since, within a week, he had switched his major from music industry studies to international business and Arabic. But his communication style is causing the curious (some might say, nosy) Mamma Professoressa some consternation. Doesn’t he need to buy books? Who does he hang out with? Is he, in fact, doing his work? Oh, for a magic spell that would force my child to make Arabic flashcards and write out verb conjugations 5 times each! My rotors spin in vain, with the occasional blip of information appearing as a text message: “There are not enough plugs in my room – I need a power strip.” “I have to buy a couple more books.” I guess the old saw is true: Money (or the need thereof) talks.

In contrast, Bathsheba calls and texts several times a day, to discuss her major (neuroscience), how best to study biology, how to organize her time, and, most importantly, how she is feeling. We are emotionally and verbally connected in an intimacy that is impossible to imagine with the loving but self-contained Rockstar.

So Girl vs Boy, Women’s college vs the Jesuits, Atlanta vs. New Orleans, experienced 20-year-old vs brand-new freshman. Yet each child slept while I drove the first four hours of the lengthy haul, their long dark lashes curling on their cheeks. Guess siblings do have some things in common.