That thing on the floor -- the thing that looks like a dirty dust mop -- that's the dog.
Howard the Wheaten terrier has always spent these chilly days following sun patches around the house and then taking a nap. Usually, he finds the sunniest spot closest to where I'm reading or working, but lately Howard has been taking a different path. He's spending more time up on the third floor, outside the room where his buddy used to be.
That buddy -- our son -- has been gone away at college for nine weeks now, and Howard's starting to look for him. If I close the door to the top floor, he'll plant himself there. If the door's open, he'll wander up and pace around, sometimes nosing around the mess under the bed. I know what he's doing.
"Howard misses you," I told Cooper the last time I saw him on campus. "It's been months."
"I miss him, too," Cooper said. But I'm learning that missing doesn't necessarily mean a trip home.
He's been at college since mid-August, and has not spent a night at home yet. Such prolonged separation would be expected of a student who is far away, but Coop's just across the river, a half-hour drive away.
He's busy and happily entrenched in college life. He's got a work-study job as a camera operator for sporting events -- remarkable for a freshman. I text and ask if he's ready for a night at home and a home-cooked meal, and he texts back "I'll let you know," which means "no!"
We should be happy about this. Friends report their freshmen children are coming home every weekend, which feels like something less than a total launch into adulthood. But I'm a bit envious. It would be nice to have him at home for a night.
This would be worse if I never saw him. Because I teach at his university, I see him about once a week when he drops by my classroom with a bottle of water or a Diet Pepsi for me. He stays for exactly 90 seconds, gives me a semi-kiss if no friends are around, and then he's off to do whatever it is that's so urgent. Last time it was flag football.
In those 90 seconds, I try to glean as much information as I can: Are you attending class regularly? Getting enough to eat? Sleeping? Doing your laundry? Flossing? (OK, that last one goes too far, but he's still my kid.)
It annoys the heck out of him, but this college thing has been a sharp learning curve for me. He's 18 and on his own. That first week he was away, I texted him twice a day, as if he had to report to me. Now I text twice a week, each time to ask if he'll stop by my class to see me that day. He doesn't always show up.
We raise these kids to be autonomous adults, and then when they become that, we get all mothery.
And I don't mean motherly. Motherly is cooking the meals and making the bed. Mothery is clinging and nagging about flossing.
"You're off all of Thanksgiving week," I told Cooper the last time I saw him.
"I'll be home for part of the week," he said.
"It's been so long, you won't recognize Howard," I said. "He's all hairy. He needs a shave."
Cooper asked that I wait until he's home. By then, the dust mop will look like four dust mops, waiting in the sun for the boy to come home. We'll all be waiting.
Beth Dolinar is a former Riverside resident and Pittsburgh television reporter who is staying at home to raise her two children. She can be reached at cootieJ@aol.com.