My friend told me, don’t cry! “When you drop off your first-born at college, remember it’s her experience, not yours. You already left home once. Now it’s her turn to fledge.”
All summer before the fall when my daughter went off to college, I practiced not crying. Maudlin movies, tear-jerker books, and sappy commercials provided my training ground. As a New Englander, I like to think I had a certain stoic predisposition.
“Yeah, right!” my kids might have said.
My unemotional uncle once told me I put the “mental” in “sentimental.” So what? I could not cry as well as the best of them. Besides, I agreed with my friend, a mentor-mom who had already launched both of her children: The focus of the experience should be on the new college student, not on the woman-of-a certain-age leaving off her child at the dorm. (Sniff.)
Naturally, I recalled the first time I left my daughter at nursery school. Her teacher, a sweet and sensible woman, sent Charlotte a letter of introduction a few weeks before school began. In it was a feather. She wrote that she had found the feather on the beach. She looked forward to meeting my daughter and hearing all about her summer.
Charlotte was enchanted. I was appalled. Had the teacher mailed my daughter a case of avian flu? Eventually, I calmed down and allowed my 3-year-old to hold the feather. She put it in a special drawer with her other treasures.
Fast-forward to my poker-face training the summer before left for college. One day, Charlotte and I went to Urban Outfitters. In the sale room, we heard a keening sound. It escalated from wailing to yelling. We looked around to see a mother with a daughter who had pervasive developmental delays. Here I had been feeling sorry for myself because in a few weeks, my daughter would go to college. That woman’s daughter would never have that luxury. I gained some perspective.
“Remember, don’t cry.” I sent brain waves of strength, support, and solidarity to the mother. We moms need to stick together!”
“…I spotted something on the grass. I bent down and unhesitatingly picked it up: a feather. I enclosed it in a note to my daughter.”
A week later, I went to swim at our local university. In the parking lot, I spotted a harbinger minivan loaded to rear-view-mirror-blocking status. A nuclear family was busily unpacking. I sat in my car, frozen, observing the proto-scene of what our family was about to endure.
“Remember, don’t cry.” I sent brain waves of strength, support, and solidarity to the mother. We moms need to stick together!
When the last suitcase had been walked up to the dorm room, the mother embraced her daughter. She was doing great! Then, I saw the father. He had the impassive profile of a bas relief on a coin, but when he turned, his face was red and streaked with tears. He encircled the mother and daughter in his arms and the trio cried in unison, bound together in their contemplation of being apart. I witnessed the touching scene, struggling to remain dry-eyed.
Was that so bad? Maybe it was okay to cry, just a little. No, my mom friend assured me, what I had witnessed was an anomoly. I could wail all I wanted on the five-hour drive home, but the important thing was to launch my daughter in a cheerful, positive, tear-free manner.
The big day came. We packed, drove, and unloaded the car. We filled out forms, acquisitioned last-minute dorm items, and participated in orientation rituals. As I, alone, walked across the football field to my daughter’s freshman dorm to say goodbye, at the very same college where I had gone, I spotted something on the grass. I bent down and unhesitatingly picked it up: a feather. I enclosed it in a note to my daughter.
Fifteen years ago, before your first day of nursery school, your teacher sent you a feather, encouraging you to fly. Today, before your first day of college, I enclose another one. Soar!
As I handed the letter to Charlotte just before we left, I felt the tears surge. No, I would not do it. I hugged her, keeping a stiff upper lip, and got in the car.
It was a long drive home.