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Married with Kids: The hospitality of strangers

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University of Western Ontario (Flickr photo)

Like many Jewish Canadian parents of 18-year-olds, I travelled to a college campus in late August, helped my kid unpack and tried to fight back the tears, as we said our farewells.

Logically, I knew this was the right thing for my son, as it will foment independence, growth and learning. Emotionally, though, it was a wrenching time, and for weeks after I returned home, emotional outbursts were a frequent companion. His empty bedroom called me relentlessly, well after it had been cleaned, sorted and tidied.

“Think of it as a successful launch, rather than an emptier nest,” a friend counselled me, as I declared my heartache for my firstborn, who is now a full day’s flight from home at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. Then routine set in and I reluctantly accepted my new reality: an empty (but clean and tidy!) bedroom, a significant reduction in laundry and a fridge that stays fuller, longer.

Back on campus, my son was learning how to wash his own clothes, manage a full university course load without any parental prompting and maintain a balanced lifestyle – which, for him, includes working out at 5:45 a.m. He’s making new friends, joining university clubs, planning summer internships and coping beautifully. But there are also times when I hear loneliness in his voice and wish I could whisk him home for a good meal, a loving embrace and the kind of encouragement that just can’t be delivered by phone, text or email.

These days, I find myself so grateful for the hospitality that complete strangers have extended to my son. Chabad of London, which hosted over 100 students for the first night of Rosh Hashanah, provided a lively, friendly, welcoming atmosphere for my son and many others. I’m grateful for the Jewish professor who opened his house to any Jewish students who cared to come for the breaking of the fast on Yom Kippur. He fed my kid and others from the generosity of his own heart, expecting nothing in return. And then there’s Hillel of Western, which serves Friday night Shabbat dinner that include challah and roast chicken – a welcome change for students accustomed to cafeteria food – in a warm, Jewish environment, where they can socialize safely and easily.

I’m thankful for the mother of one of my son’s friends, who invited him to join her for dinner and shopping when she visited town. And for the Jewish family in Toronto that hosted him for a night during reading break, when campus became a sudden ghost town and my son walked the halls alone and frustrated.

READ: MARRIED WITH KIDS: MY KIDS DID WHAT AT SUMMER CAMP?

The saying, “it takes a village to raise a child,” was a platitude to me until now, something that felt closer to a kibbutz environment than to my suburban Canadian context. For the first time, I’m aware of, and grateful for, this invisible community, this safety net of support that’s often neither organized nor deliberate, but whose combined gestures add solace, friendship and sustenance in a myriad of ways. To the community of kind strangers I’ll likely never meet: thank you for helping to nourish, guide and feed my son as he experiences the world alone for the first time. You should know that your kind gestures make a world of difference for a kid who’s far from home – and for the family that loves and misses him.

I’m booking his next flight home, counting the days till we see him again and feeling grateful for the embrace of strangers, who are supporting him on this journey far from his Pacific Northwest home.