Sharing all but the tears
When he was a freshman, I sometimes sent clippings from the local newspaper to keep Gavin apprised of recent events, but as his college years progressed, I learned that it was easier and faster to type “check the Anchorage Daily News online for a story about the new ski trails.” In return, he’d send a link to something he’d read, a recent photo from a digital camera (rather than waiting until he came home at Christmas to get a roll of film developed), and even a paper he was especially proud of (something he’d never have done if it required a copier, an envelope, and a stamp).
The Cyber Age helped us share a lot. And because Gavin saved our exchanges, it has provided an archive tracing his development as a classics scholar — from an excited note after the inaugural Hum lecture to his first translation of an Ancient Greek sentence to his selection of a thesis topic. Thirty years later, I enjoyed a second Reed education. We used to joke that he did all the hard work in a linguistics class, for example, then shared the insights he gained about how languages work. I got the best anecdotes and most important points without logging the hours.
Email also enabled us to share stories and feelings in a timely fashion, more directly than mothers and sons might be able to do face to face or on the phone. There was no week’s wait for letters to crisscross the continent or awkward hesitation about confiding. He could tell me about Renn Fayre exploits or ask my advice on a major life issue, and I could answer with almost the immediacy of a dialogue. I could share some of my triumphs and disappointments and clue him in to low points in my life without choking up or crying. The emails chronicle remarkably open and honest exchanges about death and breakups as well as joy and successes.
I used email to check in when I was worried because I hadn’t heard from him in a week. Typical end of semester emails from me read, “Hi, are you alive? Are you surviving? Hit reply and say yes, then get some sleep and write more when your papers are finished.” And he would dutifully type a reassuring sentence or two in reply and promise more details later. Once, when his end-of-semester projects coincided with a major work deadline of mine, I was still at the office in the wee morning hours, while he labored in the Reed library. The emails in this instance moved from my casual search for life (“are you there?”) to mutual consolation to instructing one another that it was time for bed.
Not that email has totally eliminated the need for the postal service. Both Gavin and my younger son, Dylan, who followed him to Reed in 2003, think one reason that mothers exist is to send them something they left in Anchorage and cannot live without, like a favorite sweater or the other bicycle. Dylan in particular became the master of the email that read, “You’d be the world’s greatest mother, not that you aren’t already, if you could possibly go into my room and find the (fill in the blank) and send it to me.” So the package clerk at the post office and I are well acquainted.
I sent unsolicited packages too, especially at the end of the semester when I thought a treat was in order. I’d wander the aisles of my favorite yuppie store and buy high quality chocolate or tension-tamer tea and ship them to Portland. When each son moved off campus and started cooking for himself, I sent exotic curry paste and odd-shaped noodles. There’s not much in Anchorage that isn’t also available in more cosmopolitan Portland, but student life gets busy, and being saved the hassle of shopping seemed to mean that even something ordinary in the mail was appreciated. Sometimes you don’t need words to say, “I love you and I hope you’re doing well.”