Beth Dolinar has been writing her column about life, both hers and the rest of ours, for over 20 years. When not on the page, she produces Emmy-winning documentaries, teaches writing to university students, and enjoys her two growing children.

The occasion will be marked with a cake, a little glass of wine, and 21 candles. We’ll sit outside at a picnic table just off campus, and toast the birthday girl.

My sweet Grace passes into full-fledged adulthood today. While we marked 16 and 18 with enough fanfare to make the days memorable, this birthday should be bigger, with more people and more fuss.

“Just my luck I turn 21 during a pandemic,” she said on a phone call yesterday. It seems her college friends had tried to cobble together some semblance of a socially distanced and outside-seating party at a restaurant in the tiny next town over, but COVID restrictions wrecked it.

“I’m annoyed,” she said, in the mock woe-is-me voice I’ve come to recognize as typical drama. “It’s OK, though.”

It was time for a gratitude check, to remind her that some her age have it worse. She’s at a small college that’s had only a handful of COVID cases, allowing classes to continue both online and in person, when many other college and university juniors are sitting this semester out.

She’s lucky to have come through high school graduation and her freshman college year before the pandemic ruined things. I still feel sad for the high school seniors who missed proms, commencements, and graduation parties. And then they’ve had to settle for a scaled-back version of those heady first weeks of independence in the freshman dorms.

“You got to do all of that the first two years of college,” I told her. “Junior and senior year are all about the work now.”

“I get it,” Grace said. “But I’m turning 21.”

And I get it, too – maybe even more than she does. From the time Grace was 4, she’s been pushing for independence.

“I don’t like being told what to do,” she says, even now. I’ve always believed that, while sometimes challenging to parent, this headstrong, sassy and tall daughter of mine would one way grow up to be an impressive, kind woman.

All along, she has managed to walk the tightrope between righteous indignation that anyone would ever demand that she do anything, and the intelligence to avoid outright rebellion. Not once has she gotten into real trouble. It’s a tricky balancing act for any young person.

And underneath that cheeky facade is all sweetness and empathy. In my memory book are the notes she would slip under the door when she was banished to her room. The first lines would enumerate my many failings as a mother and express her hatred for me. Then she would sign her name, first and last, to be followed by four or five post scripts, each apologizing and declaring her love.

She doesn’t hold a grudge. Never has.

It’s been said that the mother-daughter relationship is fraught with emotional baggage, in ways that the mother-son relationship is not. I’d say that’s true of me and my children. I look forward to the next few years, when Grace and my relationship will evolve into something more like friend-friend.

On Monday, my own mom will bake a coconut cake and I’ll drive it to campus to celebrate with Grace. She’s asked me to bring “that sweet, pink wine,” which suggests that even after a few years of college, she doesn’t know much about wine.

I’ll take a bottle of white zinfandel, pour her a half a paper cup full, and give her the speech about moderation. And then we will toast her life that’s at once sweet and sharp – and a birthday so bright not even a pandemic can wreck it.

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