Loco Parentis: So Far Away

My daughter is having an adventurous life of her own, without me. Is it time for me to follow her lead?

A homestay in Mexico City’s Santo Domingo, the largest “squatter” settlement in Latin America, provides a first-hand experience with grassroots activism as community development.

Holy Mary, Jesus and Joseph. I text-message Marcy frantically: Whatz this homestay in the squatter city?!?!

She texts me back: I know! Doesnt that sound cool?

BACK WHEN I was one of Marcy’s Girl Scout leaders, we took the troop on a field trip to a high-ropes course. Some of the girls clambered eagerly up the ladder to get started; others required urging. A good Girl Scout leader would have gone up the ladder herself, as an example to the reluctant. But I’m afraid of heights.

One Scout, Marcy’s best friend Clarissa, made it all the way through the course before balking at the final step — a zipline down to ground level. She stood on the tiny platform from which the zipline launched and refused to budge. Other girls gingerly climbed around her to zip down, then called back up that it was fun, it was cool, she didn’t need to worry. Nothing doing. Eventually, our high-ropes guides leaned a ladder up against the platform and brought Clarissa down.

Marcy finished the course, but grimly. Nothing about it was fun, she told me later; she was terrified from start to end. Quitting, though, wasn’t in her nature.

She doesn’t get that from me.

For the past five summers, my husband Doug has taken her on backpacking trips along the Appalachian Trail. I’ve never had the slightest wish to join in this adventure. Nothing sounds less fun to me than hauling a heavy pack up hills, sleeping where bears can get you, boiling water to brush your teeth, digging holes in which to defecate, and dining on beef jerky and dried pineapple bits.

What it’s taken me some time to grasp is that it isn’t fun for Doug or Marcy, either. It’s something they do, like the high-ropes course, to prove to themselves something about themselves: that they’re strong and brave and not made hopelessly soft by modern life (unlike me). Sure, there are stretches where their hiking isn’t actually painful, and nights when the sky is so quilted with stars that their hearts quicken. But mostly it’s one sore foot in front of another, again and again.

At holiday gatherings, my siblings frequently joke about how cowardly we are as a clan. We’re not physically brave; we don’t like bodily fluids. None of us are doctors or nurses; we’re writers and teachers and mathematicians instead. It still astonishes us that our dad survived World War II, that he trudged through snow and mud, shot at people, hunkered down in foxholes. He was a man who couldn’t stand for his peas to touch his potatoes; at dinner, his plate would be ringed with moons of smaller bowls.

Last July, I thought the backpacking tradition might be coming to an end. Marcy didn’t want to leave her boyfriend, or the friends from high school she’d been reunited with for the summer. She sighed at the prospect of all the prep work: shopping for food, measuring it, sealing it in baggies, rounding up tents and water purifiers and the little stove, loading packs, trying them on, weighing them, balancing them, trying them on again …