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Just The Other Day

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Just the other day I remembered a mother, father and daughter walking down the halls of the college where I used to work. In my memory, the trio is alone, their pace slow, hesitant. They are obviously new to campus, and for the moment without guides to show them around.

They are also on their own this day, away from familiar surroundings of neighbors, pets, and the home they had known together for many, many years.

As they walk, they peer into classrooms, check out display cases, smile casually at strangers, looking for teachers, students, anyone who would speak to them and intrude upon their quietude.

I watch the family as I eat my sandwich, feeling the paradox: the daughter’s shyness, their anxiety, her forced laughter, their bright faces, her alienation from all she knows, their stalwart focus on their child’s next steps, no one really wanting to complete this particular assignment yet all three acknowledging the inevitable march of time and so willing to take on what’s next.

Because I have been there, I know what’s coming next in the lives of these three people and can see so clearly the twin emotions of pride and heartbreak playing equal roles in the drama of this little family.

Preparations for high school graduation and the promise of a cherished child’s next steps happen at some point to almost all of us this month. Those of us who are lucky enough to see a son graduate, a daughter plan her final parties, hear endless phone conversations, pay for car trips with dubious destinations, and watch gangs of eager young people hover in our kitchens, all looking ahead to lives beyond the home that nurtured them, know that June is the cruelest month, not April, as the poet claimed.

While I eat I watch these parents try to mask their hollow look, feigning pleasure at Technicolor opportunities for their child stapled to a bulletin board, eagerly relieved at the handshake and welcome intrusion of the new advisor. Perhaps they are wondering where her steps will take her, where she will end up now that the past is already past and that new horizons are right here, right now, in the shape of unfamiliar brick buildings and new ideas. And on some level they know that they, as another poet reminded us, are just the bows from which their children, as living arrows, fly into the bigger world.

I recall the Junes of many years ago, when each child was at the threshold of his newness. I watched even then as each clung to his friends with a kind of adolescent frenzy that masked his own apprehension about what might happen after cap and gown.

I have June photos of each one, virile and resplendent, eager and open, proud, handsome, confident, and I knew even then that my years of guidance were over and that I was sending them forth into a uncertain world where there were no guarantees, no nest to come back to, no rewind.

As June parents, we still speak to our children with the language we have always used, personal and intimate, familiar and presuming, unconsciously shielding them more somehow than we did in May, before lilacs and black flies. We set dates for them, remind them of dental appointments, make plans and rules for them, engage them in new conversations, new activities, involve them in remembered events, hold on a little tighter than we should.

Our brains are now living scrapbooks. We have pasted 18 years of life on the pages of our minds and each clipping comes swirling back with a clarity that defies science. We say, “Remember that?” Or “”Wasn’t that great?” Or “You remember her…” And they nod but don’t seem to attach the same importance to these memories as we do. “That was a long time ago, Mom,” they say. “I don’t remember it quite that way.” And they laugh and look at their cell phones.

Who, in June, hasn’t remembered first steps, first words, first real tears? Who hasn’t felt again the small hand which once held ours so tightly and now see it jauntily waving to a passing car? Who hasn’t known the quiet terror of all-night porch lights, missed curfews and broken agreements, as reckless youth, dreaming of amusements, forget road rules and promised phone calls?

We laugh to each other that we are eager for our children to leave home, to take the worry off our shoulders, to let their absence permit sleep once again. But that isn’t really true. We are secretly relieved that they have made it this far and still fret that the worst days may be ahead. We know other parents for whom this June will make sorrow fresh again, and we are thankful for all moments our children allow us.

Our June children are immortal now. They know no cares, no fear, no obligations. They are between worlds. We are merely the umbilicus that connects old days to new; we are people to love and to leave behind.

Lunch is nearly over and the three visitors are finishing theirs. I linger, hoping to catch some conversation. The mother sees me and smiles. I go over.

“Is your daughter planning to come to this college?” I ask. They nod, she says maybe. “It’s a great school,” I say; “Kids get a good education and they seem to enjoy it.”

“Do you have children?” the mother asks. I nod. She asks whether my children went away to college and I tell her yes. She waits. I say it was a difficult time for me, especially the first time, leaving my child alone, in the hands of strangers. That’s all I say. There is a tear in her eye. I smile and tell her that we all got over it and everybody is all grown up now.

We laugh; I wish the young woman good choices, and turn to go back to work.

“I think I’ll like it here,” the girl says; “My boyfriend goes here.”

It is another June. This year’s parents are hoping to catch the big moment on camera, when their 18-year-old holds his head high and with a scream of joy tosses his high school days into the air. My sons are men now with graduations behind them and families of their own, all living in other cities with jobs that take them to many lands, far away from me, away from all they have known.

“It’s the beginning of the end of our little family,” my youngest cried when his oldest brother left for college. “We won’t ever be the same again.”

And we never were.

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