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Dogs Don't Understand College

Telling our dog that our daughter will be home from college at Thanksgiving provides no comfort because she doesn't know what ten weeks feels like.
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Yesterday our dog walked into our daughter's bedroom by mistake, walked right in as though there were someone there to lick or play fetch with, and I watched, an anthropomorphic horror, as she took a couple of steps and stopped dead in her tracks. She sat down, befuddled, she scratched, and then she turned around and walked out. Bella is a herding dog who has managed somehow to lose her primary sheep. She lay down in the doorway and waited for that sheep to return.

The problem with dogs, as well as their saving grace, is that they have no sense of time. Telling Bella that Sarah will be home from college at Thanksgiving provides no comfort because she doesn't know what ten weeks feels like. On the other hand, she's happier than we are for exactly the same reason -- because she doesn't know what ten weeks feels like, which at the moment is pretty much eternity. When Sarah walks back in the door for the first time, it will seem like right now to Bella, which is why there are moments when it would be nice to be a dog.

The first week of a child's freshman year in college is a good one, particularly if that child has been kind enough to write out her class schedule, because there's a touchstone every day. Allowing for the span of time zones, I can have my morning coffee and conjure up Sarah walking to her calculus class, or I can take a break on Thursday afternoon and imagine the lively debate that must be going on in the medical ethics seminar. It's a thin link, but it anchors the day.

It makes up, a little bit, for the surreality of no longer knowing what she happens to eat for dinner, a profound disconnect in a family that prized sitting down to the evening meal. Every family must have a short list of idiosyncratic gaping holes; ours tends to revolve around food, even if dinner was only a quick half-hour between homework, even if it sometimes included calling out the questions on "Jeopardy" while we ate.

The flip side of our ignorance? A third of our collective culinary preferences is missing, turning the simple question of 'what's for dinner?' into a lopsided duet. The breadcrumb imperative no longer exists, and corn pudding has lost its biggest fan. I can't even talk about portion control without getting upset. If I continue to prepare the recipes that have fed this family for eighteen years, we will have to buy an extra refrigerator to house all the leftovers. The re-calibration of a household's needs is not a calculation I enjoy, and in defiance I plot to carry the ingredients of her favorite birthday dessert on a cross-country flight, to create a food oasis where I do what I always have done.

I wouldn't be thinking of any of this, though, if it weren't for the first weekend -- or rather, the first Saturday, which gave me way too much free time to reflect. On Sundays we're committed to this generation's version of the five-minute long-distance phone call -- the iChat, which is more comforting than I ever could have imagined. It makes me understand why I dislike email for anything more personal than the confirmation of a coffee date, and why I refused to instant-message my niece; subtract both eye contact and intonation from a conversation, to say nothing of punctuation and complete sentences, and it's easy to miss someone's meaning. Phone calls are definitely better, though it's hard to recover from a misunderstanding when you can't see the other person. iChats? I live for the amused rise of an eyebrow, even for the telltale tightening of the jaw, for a daughter's glorious, heaven-splitting smile. Sunday chats are the best movie I've ever seen.

Saturday, like I said, is the desert. Saturday, if I'm honest, is closer than the other days of the week to the way of the future, a day to be endured and at some point enjoyed without any promise of information from the departed one. I do not know anything about Sarah's Saturday unless she deigns to tell me, and since my husband and I have a pact not to hover any more than is absolutely necessary, whatever that means, we try not to call on Saturday, no matter how much I crave even the slightest tidbit of news.

The first one went on forever. At eleven in the morning I decided my watch had stopped, because surely it was two p.m. already, and in her time zone Sarah was starting to think about the evening's plans. By what was really two o'clock, I felt like I was stuck in a remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still." I'd already done enough work to feel sufficiently self-righteous, so I did what legions of left-behind moms do in the days following separation: I cleaned.

I am hardly alone. My informal sampling of friends and acquaintances tells me that this week, around the country, otherwise sane women are washing walls, cleaning closets, folding and re-folding sweaters, attempting to impose the illusion of order where there is only chaos. This may not seem deeply pathological to you, but trust me [or trust my mom, or some of my neat-freak friends], I am not by nature a compulsively clutter-free person. In the old days, when Sarah lived here, I espoused a philosophy once voiced by a woman much older and wiser than myself: If a house with children is too neat, then someone is not having a good time. Now I stack and discard -- and until I stop, until I achieve equilibrium and go back to leaving my shoes by the couch, you can assume I'm still overcompensating for the emotional muddle of back-to-school.

If the world is a tidier place in early September, it is in great part because of the yawning maw that is Saturday, which was once upon a time the day when a daughter might sleep in, until the impatient dog jumped on her bed to wake her up.