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Learning to Fly

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KRISTIN SHAW
Kristin Shaw
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The robin is plump and strong, her orange-red breast flashing across the yard to the nearest tree when we approach the front door. She built her nest there, above the porch light, while my parents were on vacation. It is made of sticks and straw and spit, and it is here she has chosen to have her babies and launch them into the world. We have peeked inside to find three blue eggs, more beautiful than three nestled boxes from Tiffany's.

My sister, my mother, my nieces, my son and I watch and sneak looks into the nest, careful not to touch anything. I lift my son onto my shoulders so he can look, and we are awed when we see that one of the eggs has hatched, two days later. The newly-born baby bird is moving around the nest blindly, his beak wide open, waiting for mama to return.

It is here, in the house where I grew up, that I was a baby bird too. It has been a long time now; decades, even, since I grew up and flew away to feather my own nest. A series of memories flood my mind in this space, and one in particular reminds me of the ways I learned to fly.

In this memory, I am standing with Tina and Angie in front of Angie's early 1980s-model Corolla in her driveway, ready for our graduation present to ourselves: a week on the open road. The car wasn't particularly road worthy or exceedingly safe, for that matter. But it was the newest car of the three of us, and the most likely to take us on our journey without incident. With any luck.

Tina and I were already 18, having turned the milestone earlier in the year. Angie was still 17, and we planned to celebrate her birthday while we were traveling. In that picture in my head, I can see our smiling, excited faces to take that week and make the best of it.

At least two of our other friends were not permitted to go with us; I felt lucky that my parents said yes. Just a couple of years before that, they said no to me driving down to Indianapolis, three hours away, with friends to see U2. See, mom, I told you I'd never forget that.

Our parents saw us off from Angie's driveway, and we waved until we couldn't see their faces anymore. Armed with travelers' checks, cash, maps, snacks and the best mix tapes we could create, we headed east. Times were simpler, in a way, because we didn't have cell phones, and our parents knew that we could not be reached in a moment's notice, as they can now.

Angie collected money from each of us in a Ziploc bag for community funds for things like fuel and hotel rooms. On a very tight budget, we had planned on only one or two hotel room nights and plenty of gas. We dangled our arms out the windows and laughed and talked all day.

Starting in northern Indiana, we drove all the way from our hometown to Delaware, our first stop on the map, where we stayed with Angie's uncle.

Making our way up the coast, we cruised by the New Jersey shore, but didn't have a place to stay. We decided to veer over to Philadelphia for the night, and convinced a hotel clerk to rent a room to three teenagers with cash in hand. It took some convincing; we didn't have any other option but to find a hotel or sleep in the car.

The name of the hotel has long since left our memories, but the sign had a large red apple atop the roof. We had a balcony, and we took the chairs from inside the hotel room and set them up in the hot summer air, each drinking a beer we had procured before leaving Indiana. We felt so grown up.

Venturing onto the old streets of Philadelphia, we happened across a palm reader in a tiny house on a side street and impulse drove us inside. Walking in the front door, bells jingled and beads tickled our heads on the way in. Madame Palm Reader gave us our readings separately and told us our fortunes; we compared notes in the car later and gave each other our own fanciful readings as we drove north toward upstate New York. None of us could have dreamed how life would really turn out.

We left New York and approached the Canadian border with our driver's licenses in hand, because we could do that back then. None of us had or needed a passport, at the time. The border crossing was uneventful, and we noticed the beauty along the highway on the Canadian side, all green and gorgeous. We kept going and going and going, opting to drive all night. We didn't want to finish our vacation sleeping in the car, and we were out of money. After some discussion, we agreed to a plan.

Motoring back across the border into the U.S., we arrived on the other side of Michigan at Warren Dunes State Park, a place we knew well from Senior Skip Day and so many other weekend days as teenagers; we stopped and stretched.

We slept on the beach at sunrise, huddled together in towels and sweatshirts against the cool morning. Peering into our plastic community bag, we had just enough to buy breakfast. Tired, happy, spent, we ate quietly, readying ourselves for the transition back to our safe nests.

One week. 1,600+ miles. Three teenagers, flying on their own.

Changed.

Angie is now the mother of eight, and I see her every summer when I go home to Indiana. Tina lives in Texas, a few hours from me, with her beautiful family. They are still in my heart, often.

I asked Angie's mother, when I saw her last weekend, if she had been nervous to let us go.

A little, she admitted. But I knew you were going to stay with a couple of relatives along the way, and you promised to check in.

It's hard to let go, isn't it? I said, inclining my head toward my 4-year-old, building a sand castle next to me. I'm trying to learn how to do that even now.

It is very hard sometimes, she said. But it's necessary to give them wings to fly on their own.

I thought of those baby birds hatching above the porch light, pink and new and mouths open wide. Soon, they will get their feathers and fly, and their mother will watch them go, proudly, if all goes as planned.

I thought about this gift of freedom we were given to explore and wander.

As my son grows, one of my greatest challenges may be to learn to let him fly, little by little. I may not always like it. I will worry, and there is no stopping that. But I will boost him onto my shoulders and let him see the world and what it has to offer, and he will decide which direction to go.

It will be terrifying.

And exhilarating.