06/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011


Last Sunday, Ben -- our youngest -- graduated from college. As the weather reporters say, it was unseasonably cold. We sat on folding chairs in the "quadrangle," behind a sea of 583 black mortarboards and black gowns which, I thought, should be cleverly marked with giant red question marks on the backs. These ceremonies inevitably make me cry. I used to cry unabashedly when they (and I ) were younger -- smiling and applauding through tears for nursery school diplomas. As I've become older, I'm more buttoned up, fearful that emotion will become a tsunami rather than a dribbling of tears down my cheeks patted dry by my husband's handkerchief. This last ceremony was a rough one -- a poignant grand finale as the youngest is launched. Yes, it was about Ben, but it was also about me disbelieving that I am now the mother of three college graduates though often feeling there is a question mark on my back as well.

Having three twenty-something children who, of late, chart my emotions and demeanor in much the same way I once charted theirs is unsettling. And I'm a lousy actress. In particular, my daughter, is both mirror and mind reader. Now a homeowner with her boyfriend with whom (she informed me this weekend) is her common-law husband under Massachusetts law, Ellie has grown up a lot in the last month. Conjecture: It is Ellie who appears to be the most profoundly affected by my loss of innocence since I became motherless. It is not sympathy she gives -- rather it is projection, and I am powerless to protect her from the grim reality.

Ellie and I were walking down a narrow flight of stairs to the rest rooms before the ceremony when she turned and cautioned me: "Careful, Mom. Watch your step." It was the sort of remark I said to her as she took first steps, rode a two-wheeler, got her driver's license, had her first date.

My retort, visceral and untempered, astounded even me, "What am I -- 90?"

It was the first time I perceived an age-related warning from her. Am I suddenly the "older generation?" She talks of the prospect of grandchildren in the near future, and I think, Oh God, I'm not quite over motherhood yet. I alternately feel both too young and too old to be a wife and mother - it depends upon what day you catch me.

With Ellie's caution came a Polaroid of time and place as I recalled cautioning my mother in much the same way when she was roughly my age, stepping down curbs with her high heels, and recalling her annoyance with a pronounced "tsk," a haughty look coming over her face as she said, "You just stop that nonsense."

And so when my husband leaned over during the graduation and said, "You've done such a great job with these kids. I love you," I managed to merely choke out "Thank you." More words felt impossible as I avoided the public display of emotion that would ensue had I struggled to say anything more. Ellie chastised me for my response, "Mom! That was bitchy." And I thought, "You don't know my marriage. You don't know that this man you call Daddy understands the reason for my understated response." I said nothing, but again, felt myself channeling my mother as my blood boiled.

It wasn't but an hour later that Ellie and her boyfriend had "words." And when I made a suggestion to Ellie she said, "You know what? You don't know him the way I do. Don't tell me what to do."

And she was right. So there it was: Two women, "duking it out" with restraint as mother and daughter -- both knowing the mother's husband and the daughter's boyfriend in entirely different ways.

But then there is the invisible line where Ellie can tell me to "back off" about her boyfriend, but my husband happens to be her father and so at 24, can she recognize (and is she even supposed to?) that we share an entirely different, yet intimate relationship, with the same man? Did I realize that when it came to my parents' marriage? Never.

What we don't know about women in their fifties when we are in our twenties is that we can not only make it down a flight of stairs, but our hearts and souls still feel as they did in our twenties. What we don't know in our twenties when a marriage (common law or otherwise) is younger is that marriage isn't as linear as we foresee.

In the five Fridays since my mother died, there is an unquestionable change in me -- a new category in the outline of Major Life Transition. For my children, my husband is their father; for me, he is my family as well as the boyfriend I unwittingly fell in love with in 1980 when the road ahead was clearly marked and straight ahead. Living with a woman 24/7 who in the last four weeks has lost her mother and had her youngest graduate has not been easy for my husband; conversely, living with a man 24/7 who would like you to be that same woman he met in 1980 is a tough-go when you often feel like disappearing into pure reflection.

This coming Memorial Day weekend, we will all be together with my sister and her husband at their upstate retreat: our kids, their kids, all of the significant others. My sister and I have coordinated the supplies -- foods and wines and beer, and loosely planned every meal from breakfast through dinner. Truly, I can't wait -- not only for a happy reunion, but to see what else shows up on the menu. Knowing what I know now about life not being linear, I can't wait for all the surprises that will show up at the family banquet. I'm bringing a notebook and lots of pens -- planning to look back, look ahead, and mostly stay in the moment.