As Summer Wanes, We Settle In to September
For the first time in five years, I don’t have a child of mine settling into college this September.
I’m both exhilarated and already feeling a little nostalgic for a time that passed much quicker than I could have anticipated. The good news is that I now have lunch money in my pocket most working days — the bad is that I miss the long journeys up to Vermont and impromptu back country rambles to Elon that peppered the school months of my last half decade.
Also, technically speaking, we’re only halfway through doing our patriotic part to keep several fine colleges and universities financially afloat. One of my wife’s two sons from her first marriage is halfway through his school up in Rochester and another is on the way next fall to some ivy-walled ghetto. So hold that declaration on the lunch money a bit longer. It too may already be spoken for.
On a brighter note, friends who are sending their goslings off to college for the first time this month have asked what to expect from this signature moment in the life of the modern American family.
My first inclination is to reply, in no particular order of importance: general domestic poverty, sudden emotional drama, unforeseen academic crises, late-night phone calls, overdrawn bank accounts, ridiculous unmentioned fees, rude administrative clerks, communication only by text, exotic foreign travel, pesky alumni solicitation calls, peculiar boyfriends and/or a stream of lovely girlfriends you shouldn’t get too attached to, topped off by a growing independence that will leave you feeling at times like the bachelor uncle left at the bus station during the holidays.
Instead, I smile and reply, “Oh, it’s wonderful. Cherish it. The parents’ weekends. The football games. All these new influences and watching your progeny find their way to adulthood and personal responsibility — the last time, in some ways, they’ll need you as much as you need them.”
Funny thing is, I mean every single word of this bittersweet September song.
Rites of Passage
And even if they appear to suddenly need us less, amid the larger scheme of things, as we appear to fade into the background of their lives, we in truth will always need them more than they can ever possibly know until and unless they become a parent. Though we have resisted the distinctly modern social phenomenon, it’s easy to understand why some loving parents become helicopter pilots and hover indefinitely.
“A parent’s ordinary joys and sorrows are private,” Lord Francis Bacon supposedly observed — probably when his precious teenage daughter chose Cambridge over Oxford, the widely acknowledged party school of Elizabethan England. “We cannot speak of one. We will not speak of the other.”
We just never let on either way. We just go on keeping a stoic face and a ready checkbook.
I remember the startling contrast from my own passage to college when several families converged five years ago on Burlington, Vermont, the day after Labor Day to install our No. 1 child in her new dormitory. One of the new roommate’s mothers was busy decorating the room to Martha Stewart standards, insisting on matching bedspreads, dust ruffles and curtains while another was having an emotional breakdown out in the hall.
One of the fathers was hammering together some kind of storage contraption that took up half the available space while another pulled me aside and offered me a cold tall boy from the cooler full of brews he brought along from Rhode Island to mark the occasion. “I give mine two weeks before she heads straight back to Fall River,” he confided. “This college idea is her mother’s idea.”
Daughter Maggie’s mom and I merely brought along her clothes and a few personal items from her bedroom back home, including a bicycle that had to be left outside.
Facing a 17-hour drive back to Southern Pines, I merely hoped for a quiet family farewell dinner, but it never quite came off. We wound up wandering around a busy downtown in search of an eating place that suited the tastes of the picky new roommates, who were already squabbling. We settled, as I recall, on an ice cream parlor and a fairly quick parting. I kissed my anxious daughter goodbye, held her for a moment in the cool Indian summer evening — close enough to feel her fluttering heartbeat and nervous tension — assured her she was meant for college life and slipped her an extra hundred. As I walked away, I remember looking back and seeing her standing with her mom for their final private goodbyes. She glanced at me and lifted a hand. I waved back and grinned and drove all night back to the Sandhills with the car windows open, remembering my own September drop-off 30 years before, listening to Bonnie Raitt sing the blues. Somewhere around Richmond the next morning I got a text that simply read: “Thank you, Dad. I love you, M.”
By contrast but not all that differently, my folks left me on my assigned dorm steps at East Carolina with a $50 bill, a Sears window fan, two suitcases and one bicycle. My normally doting mom insisted that I make my own bed and put my clothes away — “Training for grown-up life,” as she tearfully put it, giving me a succession of hugs.
Truthfully, my nose was a little out of joint because I’d not planned to attend college that September, hadn’t even officially applied until late in May, had hoped to actually delay college for a year or two while I — lover of all things Hemingway and a recent winner of Greensboro’s O.Henry award for short story writing — wandered off to Paris to find a stringer’s job with the International Herald-Tribune and a probably-beautiful French girlfriend who had lots of interesting opinions and underarm hair. Only when my dad pointed out that Nixon had re-introduced the draft lottery system and I’d better apply anywhere that would take me ASAP for at least a year — time enough for the war to perhaps wind down — did I reluctantly join the college migration. That was the deal we made and how I wound up a very late entry at ECU over his alma mater Chapel Hill.
On my first full day of college I rode the bike all the way to the Pamlico Sound and back to find my roommate had stacked half a dozen cases of Budweiser in the foot of my dorm closet, officially kicking off the party until he flunked out halfway through the year, giving my GPA a substantial boost as I finally settled into — and unexpectedly fell in love with — college life and East Carolina.
This pattern of change and adjustment still seems to be the rule come sweet September — the Settling-in Season, as I long ago came to think of it. For what it’s worth, my wife reports I’m a noticeably happier fellow after Labor Day.
During the years we lived on the coast of Maine, this marked the welcome end to the summer tourist occupation season, a neat halving of shore dinner prices in local eateries, and the start of a wonderful time when I settled back into familiar rhythms of life, venturing back into town after months of never showing my face there to lunch with friends and maybe even play a little golf with my pals Terry and Sid and Tom. As the rains returned and the best weather of the year briefly revived my summer-slumbering lawn and garden, I spent many afternoons hours blissfully working the earth, digging things up and moving them about, rebuilding stone walls and planting bulbs, even getting a jump on my winter wood pile. Crazy as it sounds, I dearly loved mowing my lawn in September and working in the deep woodland silence and beautiful afternoon light among a final burst of blooms, a valedictory salute as summer’s lease officially ran out.
Down here, having resumed a Southern life once so familiar, it’s cooler weather and college football that makes these shortening September days so sweet. Sometimes I’m surprised by how giddy I feel on game day Saturdays when my bride and I rise early and don silly home-team colors and head off in the Roadmaster for a full lavish day being blissfully out of reach and off the clock. If they saw us, our worldly kids, I suspect, would be equally mortified and amused by such giddy freshman behavior. Or maybe it’s classic Old Fart Alumni.
In either case, we — well, I — think of this as a kind of revitalized courtship, our middle-aged dating days when we talk of our far-flung children and small things we still intend to do, the places we hope to see before the clock runs out, the lavish gardens we — well, I — hope to someday have again, the deeply private things two people talk about when they are bound by love and time, and the ordinary joys and sorrows of a shared life they can only speak of to each other.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at jim@the pilot.com.
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