When I was a kid, large chunks of most summer days were spent out of the house. My brothers and I, together or separately, would walk or ride our bikes to the neighborhood park, go to a friend's house, check out the beach, browse the penny candy at one of the local shops, construct a new fort in the nearby swamp, or just sort of wander. I don’t remember making any “plans” with Mom to be back by a certain time, and I don’t even remember wearing a watch when I was that young, but somehow, every time, we all made it back home safely and in time for dinner. While I assume she must have worried at least a little, Mom didn’t seem to make a big deal of the fact that we’d be gone for hours at a time. I had a friend a dozen blocks away who’s mom summoned her kids back to the house with an air horn.
As a Generation X parent, I realize I’ve been microdosed in my adulthood by news stories and doom-laden programs and social media posts about the dangers of letting our kids run “free range” in today’s neighborhoods. I don’t believe we cooped up our little chicks more than was healthy, but they have both turned out to be homebodies nevertheless. It was only a few years ago that our oldest, Leah, then in middle school, declared that she would prefer to live with us forever than ever move out on her own. Somehow, bit by bit, she began to enjoy being away from home, as long as she could come back to recharge. Then, she graduated, and, two months ago, moved into her first home away from home, 24 miles down the road.
About a year ago, Leah and I started sharing our locations with one another through Google Maps. It became really handy when she needed a ride and wondered if we were on our way, or for us when we wondered if she was still at Target and could she please pick up a loaf of bread? These days, her little avatar, a photo of one of her beloved pet rats, mostly stays put on location at her college campus. My avatar doesn't move much either, except maybe when I go for a bike ride or grab some groceries. I can only imagine what it would have been like for my mom if this technology existed when we were kids. If she’d check, she’d have to find four different avatars, each likely in a different location within a 5-mile radius of home, scattered like jacks or dice across the game board of streets and alleys.
We’ve been really lucky though. In addition to Leah being only 24 miles away, she’s been home to visit for the weekends more often than not, and she calls us many times a week to check in, typically with a play-by-play of her classes, her dorm colleagues, and what the cafeteria served that day. After one nice weekend visit with her, she got a ride back to campus with her friend’s mom, and I opened up Google Maps to watch her progress. At first, when the map zoomed in around my own location, I could see Leah’s little ratty avatar close to mine, only a half mile away. I stared at it for a while, imagining her in the car, talking about the homework she still needed to do before class on Monday. Then the map updated and her avatar teleported a few more blocks away. I turned back to my work for a bit, flipping to another tab on my screen.
A few minutes later, I checked again. This time, only my avatar showed up in the area. I dragged the mouse to toggle to the east a bit, and was just able to see Leah’s spot on the map while keeping mine there as well. A few minutes later, I checked again, and this time I had to both click the “minus” button on the screen to zoom out, and toggle over a bit to see both of our avatars. I worked some more and lost track of time for a while. When I checked the map again, I had to zoom out twice more to find Leah’s avatar on the map. The map itself showed a much larger portion of our area than before, far beyond our normal routes and destinations. Leah’s journey, now complete, marked the far eastern end of the map, while mine was on the far western side. I sighed, feeling mixed emotions of loss and gratitude. I was certainly sad not to have my kiddo as close to me as I had for the past 18 years. And I was thankful that she was still so close. I thought of other parents doing this with their kids who moved across the country or overseas for post high school adventures. A few parents, I’m sure, couldn’t simply zoom out, and they wouldn’t get to see both their own and their kid’s avatar on the same map, the distance too far for an image of a globe to show both places at once.
As I zoomed out of the map to watch Leah travel back to college, I realized what a nice metaphor that was for the “recalculating” and “readjusting” we’ve both done over the last few years to prepare for and deal with this new reality. Leah is getting farther and farther from me. I have to keep adjusting my view to see where she is as well as my own location on the map. As she continues to “spread her wings” and explore life as a young adult, the field of possible paths expand exponentially, the opportunities for learning and growth and danger and hardship show up as major highways and interstates -- and I immediately think of the word “viaduct.” A road to lead a life. To lead to a new life.
Someday, perhaps, I’ll have to really zoom out on the map to find Leah’s avatar (providing she still lets me “track” her location, and the technology is still available). And maybe someday after that, as so often happens to lucky parents, her little avatar will be within a zoom click or two again. If adjusting to these new realities is even a fraction as easy as it is to adjust the zoom level on these maps, we’ll weather the changes pretty well.