November 7, 2013 | Feature
Handle with Care
unwrapping my first semester of college
My mother has sent me three packages during my first two months at college. The first was 45 pounds, the second was 35, and while I haven’t picked up the third, I suspect it will weigh in somewhere between scoliosis and a herniated disc. These boxes have contained things that I specifically asked for (like clothes left at home or more chocolate, which I eat in bulk), but also a range of things whose presence might, with effort, be traced back to an off-hand comment in a phone conversation. A request along the lines of “I need a winter coat that covers 80 percent of my body and some dried fruit and a Swiffer duster would be nice” will result in a box that includes at least two coats, leggings, mugs, utensils, cleaning supplies, an extensive collection of food, and shoe polish.
Lest I paint an image of Mama Wu as a woman prone to unreasonable bouts of anxiety, let me establish that my end of the conversation deserves liberal scrutiny. I almost always answer “How are you?” with “All right,” or “Could be better or worse.” “How’s school?” “Busy.” “Have you made friends?” is possibly the most troublesome of all: “With my charming personality? Course. ”
I am, of course, content to crack open a box and lift out enormous boxes of trail mix, different assortments of tea, and 200 packs of pre-mixed instant coffee. But although my first gleeful response is to catalogue my worldly goods and think “I have 40 packs of ramen and I will live life eternal,” I also find the packages a little panic-inducing. They practically scream, “I think something will happen to you that is so bad that you will literally need to stay in your room and subsist exclusively on packaged foods, emerging only for water after dusk has fallen.”
My practical needs are in fact the aspects of my life I am able to articulate with most ease. It is an art to talk about the first months of college without confusing or worrying the listener—a skill I have not yet acquired.
There are conversations that will slip away from us, like “You like cookies? I like cookies! You shower? I do that—occasionally!” followed by exchanges of numbers we will never call and names we will not remember. There is such aggressive and consistent good-nature at first that you would think we all came from severely dystopian backgrounds. There is the fear that we will catch like burrs on the fibers of social fabric, and the confusion when we instead find cheer and goodwill toward men, bland and hard as glass. There is the smoking and drinking and sex at a level of frequency among first-years unrivaled even by older students, perhaps because they serve as needed social lubricants—or as self-medication. And there is confusion as we realize that loneliness and solitude are not the same, nor are happiness and pleasure. But I wouldn’t presume to quip these aphorisms to my mother.
Nor could I describe all the things that make me smile. The occasional puppy on the Main Green that doesn’t know what to do with its paws. Graffiti on bathroom walls, from the small comments (“Everything is so hard now, but still I am so grateful”) to the loud dialogues (“I like hugs! Well, do you like drugs? And pugs? How about mugs? How about muggers?”). Tall, good-looking boys who all look like they’ve inherited Caesar’s nose. Offerings printed on the cement walls of the SciLi, like a quote from Thoreau, or a recipe for macaroni and cheese. The smell of old books. The crisp colors of things dying all around us. The desire—not ambition, but desire—to be more than you have been. But these are not the answers to my mother’s questions, and if I make her worry any more she’ll send me the house.
In the pick-up line at mail services, I see a girl to the side standing next to a large and well-taped package. She is on the phone. “Hey Mom, is this the package you sent me? It weighs, like, twenty pounds more than I thought it would. I was just going to stick it in my backpack but I suppose I’ll bring it back. … What’s in it?” She walks away, shuffling the box out the door with her feet as she holds the phone to her ear.
When I call my mother, I will tell her just the things I can know to be true. I will tell my mother that I love her. I will tell her that school is busy. I will tell her that I am fine. She will in turn try to send me as much of her love as FedEx can carry, and maybe this is as much as mothers can do for their children. And maybe this is as much as one person can do for another, I think as I slice open my package, and look at the irrefutable evidence of how much she cares.