Every summer, for twelve years, I've gone to the same writers' retreat in the mountains of Southwest Virginia at a place called Nimrod Hall. The main house was built in 1783 and the property has slowly expanded into a number of outbuildings. There's running water and electricity -- but little else has changed over the years.
Families and writers and artists stay there because there's not much to do except create and be together. The beds are metal framed. There's no air conditioning. Dog-eared paperbacks, the Cowpasture River, and an old VHS player are pretty much the only entertainment.
Last year, I brought my daughter for one night. I held my breath as I watched her take in the place. She knew how much I loved it and I couldn't help but wonder what she would think. The minute we drove up she said, "This is amazing, Mommy," in a tone I hadn't heard since she was little, all wide-eyed and full of wonder.
She clung to me for a few minutes, but soon two girls her age asked if she wanted to play. She disappeared, and it wasn't until the bell clanged, signaling dinner hours later, that I saw her again. I have never seen her eat so quickly. "Can I go meet my friends?" she asked. Friends she called them. Girls she had known for a total four hours. Nothing could have kept me from saying yes.
She came to bed late that night full of stories of catching fireflies and playing on the see-saws in the dark. This kid who loves pop music and had to have Uggs. This kid who prefers TV to books. This kid who can't be anywhere without her phone and who lives in her Juicy sweats. This kid who had always been way cooler than I was at any age was breathless about running wild in the country.
I was glad it was dark in the room as she excitedly regaled me with the details because I could feel the tears sliding down my cheeks. This was my girl.
Having a kid is a strange and wonderful thing. No matter what you feed them or what classes you sign them up for or how many books you read to them, you just never know who that kid might grow up to be.
I do my best to parent by example. I make choices and admit to mistakes. I tell her that there's no "right way" to do things despite what others might say. I hold the door and I say gesundheit and I yield to the ramp. But still, you never know what that formula will yield when mixed with the elements over which you have no control.
Twenty four hours after arriving, it was time for her to leave. She wept. Actually wept. "Please, Mommy. Please don't make me leave." But I was there for two quiet weeks of writing and her grandmother was expecting her and so, despite feeling as if I had just excised a tiny piece of her heart, I hugged her tightly and said, "Next time, baby."
Tears streamed down her face as the car disappeared down the drive. And for the past year, not a week has gone by without her asking when she could return. None of the other writers bring their children. In fact, most come in order to get a break from them.
But I was instantly taken with Nimrod the first time I stepped foot on the property. The ancient trees, the familiar faces, the home cooked meals. It felt like home. And I can't say that about many places. Actually, I can't say that about any other places. How could I possibly deprive her of it?
It was amazing. All of the choices we had made as parents, all of the things we had done. We had raised this little person who even at twelve years old wanted nothing more than to spend a few weeks of her summer swinging on the rope swing, tubing down the river, chasing turtles in the pond. She wanted to run wild.
So I said yes. And as we arrived at Nimrod this year, those same girls came to the car yelling her name. They embraced her and I started to cry. I never had any preconceived notions of who I wanted her to be. I just wanted to raise someone who was comfortable in her own skin. And we did it. This was the test, previously unbeknownst to me, and we had all passed.
Because even as much as I wanted her to be her own person, I also always wanted her to be at least a little bit like me. And, because Nimrod is the place that defines me, that makes me happy, that represents the things I value the most - connecting with people and having the time and space to simply be, I wanted her to love it.
And she does. She loves it as much as I do and for all of the same reasons. You could almost literally see her shed her skin as she leapt from the car and into the sun. And from the minute she said, "Bye, Mommy," and ran off with those girls, I knew she understood what a big deal this was and appreciated what it meant for me to bring her.
It's hard to know whether or not you're a good parent. Often, you have to simply hope for the best. But as I watch my daughter tiptoe by when she sees me writing and wave at me as she races across the green, her long, blond hair and her high-pitched giggles streaming behind her, I know that we're on the right track.
When the child you raise respects what you hold dear and longs for a piece of it for her own, you have no reason to question the road behind you and every reason to anticipate with joy the journey ahead.