When Isabelle went off to college earlier this fall I was fully prepared to weep because I had seen it happen to so many other parents. After all the nurturing and guiding and teaching and helping them to become independent – poof – they were gone. You said goodbye to your child/ren and then fell apart because suddenly they weren’t there anymore and you had this big hole of emptiness and quiet in your life after 18 years of busy and chaos and togetherness (6,570 days give or take). Over the last few years I noticed my church friends come to service in August or early September after dropping off their kid at college and the tears would be streaming down their face during the Psalm or the readings or the Gospel. I am sure the weekly messages meant something to them, but mostly they were crying because they were missing their kids so much that their hearts ached. My friend Martha told me how it now hurt to even go to the grocery store because whenever she found herself reaching for the extra large tub of hummus to add to her cart she realized she didn’t need the jumbo hummus because the person at her house who ate hummus by the bowlful – her daughter Emma – wasn’t there right now, she was off at college. I wept just hearing the story.
Isabelle had also seen these men and women mourning the college transition as she sat next to me in the pew. She witnessed these silently weeping people, these “empty nesters” who were her youth leaders and former Sunday School teachers and the parents of her friends who had gone off to college and it made her wonder. I remember her asking me if I too would weep when she left for college. She asked this question long before she had decided where to go or had written a single word of her application. I recall her query because on that day my answer was a curt “No!” I was cranky with her for something that was so inconsequential I can’t even remember what it was and college seemed like such a long way away so in that moment I thought a little separation seemed like a really good idea, but in my heart of hearts I knew I would probably cry when she left. I started secretly stockpiling Kleenex every time it went on sale.
It turns out I didn’t cry. I didn’t have to as we drove down to college because the heavens opened up and it poured. Torrentially. The sky was crying, so I didn’t have time to as we scuttled back and forth from the truck carrying in all her boxes of stuff up to her dorm room, including three months worth of now worthless tampax which had become completely soaked in the back of the truck as it teemed rain on the drive down. On the way back there were so many idiot drivers that I was grateful A) just to be alive and not in an accident and B) thankful that it was Shawn and not me who was doing the driving. I was too scared by all the jerks, who should never have been given a driver’s license in the first place, to cry. However it was when we got back to our house and had our first Skype call with Isabelle that my tears really dried up because the first thing I saw as her face appeared on my computer screen were tears. She missed us, and missed the happy valley, and wasn’t really sure she wanted to be at UNH after all. I knew that we couldn’t both cry so since she was crying I didn’t. Instead I went into survival mommy mode and made it my mission to do what I could to take care of my sad kid from afar.
Around a year ago I had stumbled upon AmberLee Fawson’s blog post about Happy Mail. The basic premise is you can send anything through the US Mail if it is 13 ounces or less. An empty water bottle filled with a pen and mad libs, a box of tea bags, a package of twizzlers, a gelato container with refrigerator magnets, a plastic salad container filled with origami swans, a deck of cards, a package of Kleenex. If you can slap a stamp and label on it and the weight is under 13 ounces then into the mailbox it can go. All you need is a scale, an assortment of stamps, and an eye for things that are big enough to put a mailing label on, but light enough to come in under the weight limit. I became the queen of Happy Mail.
I also visited West Haven as often as I could and we signed Belle up for Amtrak rewards. We called and texted and Skyped. I wrote actual letters, not just emails. Some weeks it felt as if I were single handedly keeping the USPS open with all the snail mail and happy mail I was sending. I discovered USPS gives you a discount if you print your own mailing label for their flat rate boxes at home (who knew?). So I stocked up on flat rate boxes (which means the weight is irrelevant – you can send anything you want as long as you can manage to close the lid), set up an account, and started baking. Our mail lady picked up boxes of brownies and several batches of these homemade caramels.
I’ve been making these caramels for a few years now as the outer wrapping for homemade bulls eye candies (caramel wrapped around marshmallow). This year I didn’t feel up to making the marshmallows so I went with the simple, but yummy caramels – straight up. I include a dipping bowl or small package of sea salt for those who enjoy a salty-sweet taste. The original recipe came from this blog, though sadly the blogger hasn’t posted anything recently. My one main tweak is that I prefer to use organic corn syrup because I personally am not a fan of GMO corn syrup. You’ll have to search to find the organic version, and when you do you’ll need to dig deep into your pocketbook because it is 4x the cost of regular corn syrup. For me it’s worth it but know that the regular corn syrup works just fine. Also be very careful when making candies as boiling sugar can really burn.
2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups heavy cream, divided (I use a local jersey cow heavy cream with a high milk fat)
1 cup light corn syrup, 11.2 ounces
1/2 teaspoons sea salt, plus extra for dipping or sprinkling
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
In a large, heavy duty pot (I like enamel covered cast iron) mix the sugar, 1 cup of cream, corn syrup, and the 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt. Turn the corn syrup bottle upside down in the measuring cup to completely drain while you start stirring the mixture of sugars and cream over medium heat as you bring it to a boil. Make sure to use a spoon that can withstand some heat (wooden or silicon).
Once the mixture has come to a rolling boil slowly add in the remaining cream and any more corn syrup which has drained out of the bottle. Try not to have the mixture stop boiling by pouring it all in at once. Stir in the butter, one tablespoon at a time, then insert your candy thermometer and allow mixture to continue boiling. Set up a pan to pour the caramel mixture into. I use a 12″ x 9″ glass baking dish lined with a piece of parchment. Some folks say to butter the parchment, but honestly there is already so much butter in these caramels and parchment really is non-stick that I think you only need to butter the sides of the pan where the parchment isn’t (or use 2 pieces and cross them).
You now have time to wash some dishes, or read a chapter of a book, or pay a few bills, but not so much time that you can take a nap or get lost surfing Pinterest. The mixture needs to reach the Firm Ball stage which is 250ºF. We’re talking molten hot caramel at this point, so as I said before be careful. Turn off the heat and if you want stir in the vanilla. I sometimes get so excited I forget, and frankly I don’t really taste the difference. Pour the mixture into the waiting pan but DO NOT SCRAPE the bits of caramel which cling to the sides of the pot. Once your caramel is in the pan then you can scrape the clinging bits onto a plate, wait for them to cool down, and taste test.
After the caramels have cooled cut them into squares or rectangles and wrap them in pieces of parchment (which is guaranteed not to stick). If you’re going to mail them wrap up a package of sea salt and put everything in a plastic bag with a napkin or two, since they are buttery. Don’t forget to mention what the salt is for. Otherwise wrap up the caramels and when you go to serve them set out a little bowl of sea salt for those who are so inclined.
Did all of this mail and communicating make a difference? Yes it did. So did the fact that Isabelle worked hard to overcome her homesickness and find things she could love about UNH. Starting with a great roommate and two wonderful suite mates. Her criminal justice teacher Professor Schroeder made a difference by reminding her with each one of his amazing classes why she had wanted to go to UNH in the first place. Hitting the gym and working out when things were stressful got those endorphins going plus it introduced her to her new workout buddy. Making new friends helped, as did staying in touch with her old ones. Slowly as the weeks went by she wasn’t as sad, though by the time that transition happened I was hooked on finding little things to send via happy mail.
My pièce de résistance of happy mail came about shortly after Thanksgiving break. We got a robo call from the university telling us an unidentified male had been spotted on campus with guns. This is absolutely the last call any parent wants to receive. Thankfully a Good Samaritan spotted the young man with his weapons and called it in to 911. One person, who was in the right place at the right time, did the right thing and notified the authorities. The police were able to quickly apprehend the suspect, and a building-by-building search found no accomplices. How to express your overwhelming gratitude for what could have been a horrid situation? I baked some more and then spent a few days embroidering a letter to Isabelle. My inspiration was this piece of pigeon mail.
The ladies at my local post office loved it. So did Isabelle. She is now home for winter break. I’m taking a small hiatus from happy mail to focus on the holidays and the fact that everyone is home and safe and happy. I will slip a box of these caramels into the mailbox for the ladies at the post office who made sure everything I put in the mailbox, no matter how weird or crazy it was, found its way down to the mailroom at UNH. I’ll also send a box down to campus security because they deserve something sweet for doing such an awesome job of keeping everyone safe. And I’ll make a donation to the homeless woman who made that very important 911 call.