Thirty years ago today I started college.
Today I dropped my son off at the very same campus.
My parents came to my college exactly twice: that first move-in day, and graduation. I don’t remember having all that much stuff to move in: a bunch of t-shirts and flannel shirts, a couple of pairs of jeans and cords; a handful of sweaters; a couple of nice outfits; linens and toiletries; and of course the stereo (which includes the record collection) because naturally the first order of business upon arriving in a dorm room is to generate music.
I was a first child, but the kid I just took to college was my last, so he had the benefit of the wisdom of his elders (sibs, that is) as well as the smarts to listen to them, so his stuff fit easily into the van. His necessities included the microwave and TV, as the roommate was bringing the fridge and game system, plus his laptop, printer and calculator — which of course included the required cables, surge protectors, power strips and other accouterments. He spent the evening in the hotel the night before move-in copying the entire travel case of CDs onto his laptop.
As soon as we got to his dorm room, the first thing he did was whip out that laptop and fire up the music.
My folks helped me carry stuff to my room, but didn’t seem all that anxious to watch me unpack. My mother wanted to make my bed, but I didn’t want to let her. I loved them very much and was glad that they were there, but I couldn’t wait for them to leave so I could go do things like pick up my ID and check out the bookstore.
The roommate arrived, complete with parents to whom you’d be tempted to apply the term “helicopter”, except that the connotation of “hovering” implies more space than they seemed to give him. I sat quietly by the window watching as they unpacked and arranged and organized, knowing that both boys were just waiting until we left to re-arrange it all to their liking. The roommate seemed very easy-going; I think the Nestling and he will hit it off very well indeed.
When I began college, there weren’t any “family” activities. “Parents’ Weekend” didn’t even exist yet. I don’t think my parents even expressed much interest in wandering around the campus, although it’s not like I knew my way around yet either.
We headed off to get his ID. “Where is this building?” he asked me. “Way up at the other end of campus. I’ll show you.”
As we headed off, he was quickly joined by two girls. They all introduced themselves and headed up the hill much faster than I could go anymore, so I huffed and puffed a growing distance behind them. Only when I yelled after them, “Turn left here” did they turn and acknowledge me. We found our way to the ID office where, after filling out a long, complex form (4 x 6 inches; “Last Name,” “First Name”) on orange paper under a sign that read “Please fill out the orange form” we proceeded through a fast-moving line where his picture was digitally recorded and his college ID card duly issued, complete with his meal plan stored in the magnetic strip.
At the entrance to what was the main Student Union building in my day was a large white tent covering a collection of tables that housed assorted University services and offices felt to be of interest to Families. It was named, not unreasonably, the “Family Resource Tent.” Most of the stations were offering goodies of one sort or another (frisbees, keychains and lots of candy) so we made the rounds. I offered myself as a resource to the Pre-Health Professions Advising department. What better time to infect docs-to-be with the assurance that Primary Care is worth it, despite what they’re going to hear in med school and beyond.
Next stop was the bookstore, where we dropped $300 on the rest of his books (the ones he hadn’t been able to find on ebay.)
There were orientation events to which families were invited all the way up until 4:30. I still had a six-hour drive home, so I had no intention of staying for them. By about 1:00 I could tell that although he was still enjoying my company, my kid was ready for me to go. He helped my schlep the empty plastic tubs he’d used to pack his stuff back down to the car, where he tossed them in the back to rattle around the huge, empty expanse.
I’ll never forget the actual farewell to my folks. My dad hugged me, said goodbye and went to get the car. My mother hugged me too, and then said this:
Be good, and have fun. And if the two don’t go together, “have fun” comes first.
Unexpected words, especially from a mother in 1977. I’ve treasured them for thirty years.
Today I said those same words to my youngest child as I sent him off into the world, from the same launching pad as I, thirty years ago. This time, though, I was headed home and he was the one staying behind, unbearably eager to begin this next phase of his life.
I remember my mother’s face dripping with sweat as we said good-bye. Even in New England, August is hot as hell.
I was pretty sweaty myself, and I looked forward to getting in the car and cranking up the A/C. The dorms aren’t air conditioned, but at least he has a fan for these last few sweltering August nights.
Soon enough the air will turn salty-crisp, and he’ll walk to his classes — in the same buildings as I did thirty years ago — under verdant greenery transformed into that magnificent explosion of reds, oranges, yellow, golds and purples that annually grace the Northeastern United States. This fall foliage will peak for him first up in Boston, then roll down the I-95 corridor like a raging tsunami of color down to me in Philadelphia, where I’ll be basking in the glow of the end of my children’s childhood. It will continue down to Washington, where my father revels in the accomplishments of his descendants; and then a little further, down to the cemetery in northern Virginia, where my mother rests in peace.