When I was two, my mom fell off a merry-go-round trying to catch me after I had fallen. She saved me from injury, but hurt herself in the process. I remember being a little girl, seeing the scar on my mother’s leg and being fascinated by its curvature and smooth protrusion.
Growing up, you think of your parents as invincible, immune to the dangers of the world they warned us about. At a certain age, and it’s different for most, you begin to see them as human. That is a sobering moment. At another certain age, you begin to see yourself as the protector of them.
When my siblings and I were younger, my mom used to take us on day trips to Six Flags Great Adventure. We’d go every season and stand in line to get our season pass membership cards. My little brother William, who is now 17 and a senior in high school, would roam the park with my mom playing the games in the boardwalk section, while my older sister, Katie, and I would try to get as many roller coasters under our belts before the summer’s end. Fall would be our favorite time to go.
Every one of us loved the Dead Man’s Party dance show the park put on as part of their Fright Fest attraction. I remember going many weekends in a row to see that same show, then running around the park in the crisp air with my mom, hiding from all the workers in ghoulish makeup. After a multiple-year hiatus, I took a friend with me to Fright Fest while I was in college.
Will, in middle school at the time, took a friend as well, and my mom took all of us. After the show, my brother and our friends wanted to run around the park as we always did.
My mom said she’d wait for us on a bench. When we were finished and ready to go we came back to her. And I saw her before she saw us. She had bundled herself on the bench and she looked small, waiting for us to return.
In that moment I thought of all the summers and falls we had spent running and dancing all through that park, and how that chapter was coming to a close. I remember thinking then for the first time in my life: my mom can’t run with us forever. I cried on the way home but I didn’t let her see.
This summer my family has been working on a home improvement project. My grandparents on my mother’s side are fixing up the first house they bought when they came as immigrants to the United States. It is in need of some TLC, but it certainly has its charm and history. It is where my mother and her brothers grew up. While the house probably gleamed when my grandparents bought it in the 1970s, now there are overgrown weeds and every room needs a fresh coat of paint.
My grandparents want to rent out the house, and so we are helping them get the place in top shape. My grandmother is just about five feet tall and weighs no more than 95 pounds. My parents and I pulled into the driveway of the house one day this summer and saw her shoveling mulch into two huge buckets that she was taking to the other side of the yard.
My mom saw my grandmother, small and frail, and leapt out to shovel the mulch herself. She didn’t want to see my grandmother do it. That’s why my mom had come in the first place so that the burden could be on her instead of her parents. Little did she know that I had come, too, because I didn’t want my mom and dad to do the work by themselves. I wanted to complete the hard work for them.
I’m 22 and heading to graduate school this month. In many ways, and my parents would assure you, I am still a kid. But I am just now navigating the early years of adulthood and part of it has meant relying on my parents less. It’s not that I need to. They are, in every single way that exists both physically and emotionally, stronger than I am.
My father goes to yoga every day. My mom and I go to Planet Fitness in Plainsboro, where we lift weights together and on average, on every machine, she lifts about 20 more pounds than I do. When I need support or advice, I go to them as a lifeline, and I know they’ll always be there. This is often the source of my strength and confidence. But as I grow, I know it will start to come from within myself.
That part of growing up is not needing your parents as your protector, but being your own, and then theirs, and maybe even one day, your own children’s. I also know that for a parent, the role of the protector never ceases. That my mom would jump off the merry-go-round tomorrow just as she did 20 years ago, only now I’d hope to be the one who catches her.
Molly grew up in Plainsboro and attended Wicoff, Dutch Neck, Millstone River, Community Middle, and High School North. A 2015 graduate of Vassar College, she is heading off this fall to the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she will be working on a masters in Comparative Politics. When she’s not writing this column, she loves playing golf and singing at the Thursday night open mic sessions at Grover’s Mill Coffee House in West Windsor.