It was July 21, 1999, and my whole family plus three of my best friends were in the waiting lounge at JFK, hanging with me while I waited to board my flight to Buenos Aires, where I would spend the fall semester of my junior year of college.
I’d left the country once before—a 10-day vacation to Greece with my aunt, uncle, and cousins when I was 16. But although I went to college in DC and my parents lived in New Jersey, I’d never been away from them for four straight months.
“We gave you wings, and now you’ll fly,” my mom said to me with bittersweet tears in her eyes and a big hug, while not-so-secretly tucking a copy of “Oh the Places You’ll Go” into my backpack.
In typical Jewish goodbye fashion, there were many rounds of hugs and kisses before I had no choice but to board or miss my flight. As I sat in my seat on the plane—truly alone for the first time in my life—I opened the Dr. Seuss book and read my mom’s inscription, which ended with this sentence: “Lis, we gave you wings, and now you’ll fly. BSBWAAABH.” Be safe, be well, and as always, be happy. Tears streamed down my face as I stared out the window while the plane took off, watching the NYC skyline sweep away from my sight.
Her words about wings have remained etched in my mind ever since, and have carried me far. They got me through that semester abroad, for one. Back in ’99, there was no option to Instagram my every journey. There was no cell phone contact, no FaceTime, no Skype. If I wanted to fill my parents in, it had to be during our weekly call, or I had to find a cybercafé or hunker down in my university’s lab to send an email.
I remember mailing my parents eight rolls of film to develop from my trips to Machu Picchu, La Paz, Iguazu Falls, and Patagonia. As they developed the photos, including one of me standing atop Huayna Picchu—the mountain peak opposite Machu Picchu, my mom lamented that when she said I could fly, she didn’t mean to fly quite so high… but fly I did.
Throughout many different challenges in my life, her words have replayed in my mind. “We gave you wings, and now you’ll fly.” Fast-forward to 2016, and my own little girl Maya is about to start kindergarten next month. We’ve had five years of prepping her for independence, for confidence, for a positive sense of self. She isn’t college-bound yet, but she’s about to enter a truly monumental stage in her childhood—and she’s getting closer and closer to taking flight.
I noticed it earlier this summer when she finally began her much-anticipated gymnastics lessons. Instead of hunkering by the door like she used to for dance, she raced in on that first class and took to the beam/bar/mat liked she owned it. I have never seen her light up like she does in the gym—giving me thumbs ups from the other side of the glass as she tries something new, or flashing me a smile when she gets a high five from her coach.
And I noticed it during soccer camp, when—though it was her first session—she hustled with the best of them, remembering the drills her daddy had taught her. She didn’t stand in the background or wait to see what the other kids were doing; she trusted herself to know what to do. You could see a newfound confidence in her gait, a sparkle in her eye. A tacit, “I’ve got this, Mommy,” that I’d never seen before.
I noticed it in how our bedtime routine is changing. Lately she wants to read to us, more than us to her—even if it means stopping for words she has to sound out or doesn’t know. The power of literacy is incredibly strong—it is a freedom she didn’t have a year ago, and one that will only get stronger as she gets older. I see the little wheels turning as she figures new things out, and I know the best is yet to come.
And I noticed it during our recent trip to Colombia, for a family wedding where—in spite of only knowing a little Spanish—she felt totally comfortable hanging with her non-native English speaking cousins and relatives. She surprised us by being cool with being away from her daddy and me—in large group settings, in a foreign country, and with some family she had never met.
She even made it down the aisle as flower girl—something I wasn’t 100% sure she’d do, given her foiled attempt two years ago during my brother’s wedding when I, a bridesmaid, had to carry her, football-grip-style, down the aisle!
While having dinner at an open-air restaurant in one of Cartagena’s many magical cobble-stoned plazas, my husband’s cousin—a mom to three teens herself—leaned over and paid me one of the best compliments a mom can receive: that she can see just how confident and independent Maya is and how well she adjusts to new situations. Beyond touched, I put my glass of wine down, heart swelling with pride, and my mom’s wise words echoing in my head from 3,000 miles away: “We’ve given her wings, and she is flying.”
I know kindergarten is just the beginning—one chapter of many when she will flap her wings—but if there’s anything I learned from my own mama, it’s that knowing you are believed in makes the world of difference when those wings begin to pick up speed.