Monday, September 19, 2011

Going Away to College

Girls are unloading funky desk lamps, personal cases of bottled water and plastic bins of colorful textiles.  A family from New Jersey unloads a full-length mirror in store packaging.  Another freshman has a floppy stuffed dog.  Everyone carries plastic Target bags. 

Here's what my son brought:

  • Laptop, Laptop charger
  • Telephone, Telephone charger
  • Pocket Knife
  • 1 sheet set, comforter and pillow (all white)
  • 0 Towel
  • Leather Dopp Kit
  • Industrial stapler (still in packaging)
  • Extra staples
  • Allergy Medicine
  • 2 Packs of Mechanical Pencils
  • 0 Paper
  • 0 Backpack
  • 0 Coat
  • The Clothes on His Back
There was also a sample pack of Woolite that I'd slipped in with his bedding.

     "What's this?"

     "Laundry detergent."

     "Oh, I don't use that."

The only thing harder than raising this strong-minded young person is having to say goodbye to him.  I stink at goodbyes and have been dreading this one for 18 years.

On the drive up to Philadelphia we listened to music - Appalachian Spring, Fanfare for a Common Man, and Wachet auf.  I tried to engage David with stories of my own freshman year.  I told him about Marie Claire Alain, the famous French organist who gave a master class for our department.  To clarify her point about the chorale, "Wachet auf", she referred to my friend Gilbert's music score.  The one on which he had written in all capitals, "WACK IT OFF!"   Gilbert and I pressed our knuckles against our mouths, and hoped against hope that her English was not that good.  It's hard to get a laugh out of my son, so I don't mind telling an off color story to achieve my goal. 

It's also hard to make him cry.

Then I told the story of my own moving-out.  It was my 2nd moving out, or maybe my 3rd, but my parents would not let me take my rug - my own faux oriental rug that Elaine had given me. 

     "Why?"  David wanted to know.

     "Because they knew if the rug was gone, that I would be gone."

David and his father adore each other.  They still snuggle together on the sofa and walk arm in arm down the street.  I've been wondering how this separation would go for them.  David spends the car trip giving his very best effort to make his father angry.  Melvin doesn't understand the sneaky technic and keeps snapping at the bait.  David clips his long toenails and fingernails, purposely scattering the leavings all over the car seat.  David wants to stop at Starbucks for a Venti Hot Chocolate, but then he doesn't drink it.  He buys a Roy Rogers bacon cheeseburger at the rest stop, but doesn't open it. 

Do you remember when rest stops were two outhouses, a picnic table, and maybe a pump for water?  No gas station, no Quiznos, no Popeyes, no jewelry, head pillows, sunglasses or Starbucks mugs from all 50 states.  Such crap.  And still I want to buy things for David.  Even though a small fortune is being spent on his college tuition (actually, it is not that small), I still want to buy presents.  Snacks for the dorm.  A stuffed penguin for company.  Something to hang on the wall.  Even sunglasses or a set of headphones would do.  I want to give him things and make him happy.  Thankfully, he saves me from myself by wanting nothing at all.  Except, now and then, to spend a little time with me. 

Around Philadelphia, David starts reviewing the dormitory check-in information.  "In order to obtain your dragon card (necessary for food and housing) students must present valid photo identification."

     "Did you bring your passport?"

     "Nobody told me!"

     "JEESUS, DAVID!!!!"

     "This document is 20 pages long.  They can't expect me to read all of that!"

Parents launch into plans A B C and D of how to get the passport.  Drive back to D.C.?  Fed Ex?  Call his uncle?  Whose Responsibility Is This Anyway?  Send David back by train to solve it himself?  Parents disagree, sparring in the car's close quarters.

     "Why are you two getting so worked up?  It's no big deal."


Upon arrival, David insists on going to the dormitory first, even though it's two hours before his assigned check-in time and we want him to pay his tuition first and find out about the elusive dragon card ID problem.  We drive up to Towers Dormitory - 15 floors of freshmen humanity.  The street is heavily patrolled by security who hand us a yellow parking pass for 20 minutes and instruct us that we must unload in that amount of time or we WILL be ticketed.  David slowly puts on his socks and then his sneakers, which he ties carefully, evening out the shoelace ends.  He goes inside to inquire and shortly comes out with three ID bracelets.  Smiling, he says, "Come on up!"

After installing David's modest belongings in his dorm, we leave him to address the administrative tasks.  Later in the day we call to check in.

     "How's it going?"

     "Great!  I paid my tuition.  They gave me my dragon card."

     "Can we come over and give you a goodbye hug?"

     "Sure!  Duong is here."

When we get to the room, David and Duong are playing a computer game.  Why did I think those things would disappear in college?  Duong is not his roommate, but is from DC.  They  met for the first time one hour ago. 

We visit for a short while, and then I say,

     "Mel and I need to go."

     "OK.  Bye."

     "No.  No.  I want a hug."


6'3" comes over and I get my hug.  Then I scurry out the door so they won't see me teary eyed.

We leave David and Duong - two friends from the old country who have met in the new world.


  1. Lovely from beginning to end. As one who spent most of my life helping other people's children learn in college, and who went through this rite of passage with two children, I am with you all the way.

    The last sentence was perfect.


  2. That is perfect. PERFECT! Made me cry! I remember Deirdre leaving so clearly. I wish I'd written it all down. Philly is so close. Let's plan a day trip!

  3. gorgeous. i felt every collective step. pure heART. feel pulse of life's details...thank you diane. brilliant.

  4. A lovely piece of memoir. Good for you, the writer. Good for me, the fortunate reader. Write on.