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Watching children grow after they grow up

December 16, 2004

JOSEPH N. BELL

Driving Sherry and me to the airport in Denver last Sunday evening,

my youngest daughter, Debby, cut off the freeway and drove for many

miles over dark, deserted back roads that made me uncomfortable. She

called it her "shortcut," and when I asked her if she planned to

follow the same route home alone after she dropped us off, she

verbally patted me on the head and said, "It's all right, Dad. It

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really is."

She said the same thing to me 33 years earlier, when I took her to

the airport soon after her graduation from high school. She had

earned her airfare by waitressing during her senior year and was

going to visit the family of an Italian exchange student with whom

she was clearly enchanted. From there she was going to Denmark to

visit the family of a student we had hosted. The plane was late in

departing, and as we stood around rather awkwardly in the waiting

room, I felt there were things that -- in my role as father -- I

should say to her. She sensed this, and to my great relief patted me

on the head and delivered that all-purpose line, "It's all right,

Dad."

I didn't then understand the importance and satisfactions and

sometimes heartbreak that can grow out of getting regularly

reacquainted with children as they approach and then deal with the

complexities of adulthood. I thought I'd arrived at this

understanding a lot sooner than I really had, and it took some

fumbling years before I found that out. Now, I welcome the kind of

opportunity I had for a fresh look under changing circumstances when

I made my annual Christmas trip last week to Boulder, Colo., where

Debby has lived for almost three decades.

Watching and listening and participating briefly in her lifestyle

set me to wondering at what point, if ever, in the lives of our

children do we embark on the process of reacquaintance when we know

it might challenge the familiar -- and mostly comfortable --

relationship and visions we tend to carry of the child we've raised.

I probably approached this backward, because instead of wanting to

keep my children young, I tended to hurry them into adulthood so I

could talk with them about what I considered substantial matters --

like when to sacrifice rather than swing away, or whether to hit a 17

with a dealer's 10 showing, or why Adlai Stevenson should have been

president of the United States. Such talk was my fantasy, and it was

probably as stressful to push it on my growing-up offspring as living

up to the Ozzie and Harriet family fantasy that was laid on other

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