Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Midlife Spices: Lesson of the red duffle bag

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Parents teach their children countless things — to say please and thank you, work hard in school and follow the rules, to be obedient when they are young and independent as they grow up. They try to instill good values, moral behavior and compassion for others. When the children step out into the world of school, sports and socializing, other teachers take over.

My husband and I walked that walk with our three children many years ago. After relinquishing the role of instructors, we became cheerleaders and models they could observe and decide whether or not to emulate. It was hard work watching the world teach them. Sometimes it still is.

I didn’t expect to revisit the poignancy of that experience, so I was unprepared for the phone call from our eldest, Andy. With a smile in his voice, he shared his journey down the same path with his daughter.

Della, 10, has just become a Girl Scout. She loves everything about scouting and was especially excited about her first campout with the troop. Andy explained that she came back from her last meeting with a list of things she had to have, as well as instructions that she pack everything — bedding, clothing and basic utensils — by herself.

After our daughter-in-law Dana assembled the supplies, Della crammed them into an enormous red duffle bag, then struggled to drag it down the steps, into the garage and finally get it into the car.

Della noticed that her father watching her.

‘‘Daddy,” she said with just a touch of sarcasm in her voice as she repeated his familiar advice, ‘‘...I guess this is one of those character-building experiences.”

Andy laughed as he related her words to us over the phone, and we joined him in his feelings.

‘‘What feelings?” I thought after we hung up. Amusement that a 10-year-old was so perceptive. Challenge to reject the desire to help her carry something obviously very heavy. Pride that Della was able to accomplish the task by herself.

‘‘Been there, done that,” I thought as I remembered letting go of her father.

Still, I continue to struggle with the stages of letting go, of letting the world teach my children. And when I see my adult children wrestle with a difficult life decision, I now remind myself to let them pack and move that red duffle bag by themselves.

Regardless of whether it’s heavy or light, it’s the way they learn. The world can be a competent, harsh or kind instructor, and it will be there to teach them far longer than I will be.

Judy Kramer can be reached by e-mail at Her column appears here on alternate Wednesdays.