It is still pitch black, too dark to venture onto my porch, so I am writing this from the breakfast nook of my airplane bungalow in Brookside.
For those of you who have not visited Kansas City or who are otherwise unfamiliar with the Craftsman Airplane Bungalow, this is a style of house that has its porch on the side, making the house resemble a one-winged airplane. In all of the houses in my neighborhood, the living room and dining room form an "L" shape, and there is a small nook, usually with original built-ins, between the dining room and the kitchen.
When I bought this house, the nook contained a white formica-top table, custom-built by the previous owner's father. Four sturdy white ladder-back chairs surrounded it, and at that table, my son ate most of his meals until 1997, when a small bequest from his uncle Stephen allowed us to get our first computer. Thereafter, meals were taken in the dining room, and the nook became Corinne's grotto.
You could not call this a room, although we often refer to it as my "office", in the Les Nessman sense of a private space that no one can invade without permission. I keep my angel collection on a shelf on the west wall, and to the east is a two-tiered wooden cabinet containing some Limoges and Haviland pieces that I inherited from my mother, including the seven-inch salad plate that my brother Mark and I purchased for eight dollars and gave her for Mother's Day forty years ago. My writing desk and an oak printer stand are crammed against the northwall, where the window opens onto the neighbor's rose trellis.
On the wall to the left of the window in front of me is a picture of my son at age 8, beneath which is a picture of a radiant Uncle Steve taken years ago, when we were all too young to know what the future held. To the right of the window is a small plaque that Patrick made, which reads, "Many hands make light work,". Beneath this wise observation is a picture of my son at age 6, framed with a poem written in his hand, constructed from his the letters of his name, which reads, "Patient, Adventurous, Talented, Remarkable, Intelligent, Casual, Kind".
You knew I'd get there, didn't you -- how could I not?
But let me tell you something else first. Let me tell you about a cartoon called "Ed, Edd and Eddie", which is the story of three boys who are constant companions in one wild adventure after another. My son and I used to watch this cartoon together. In one episode, Ed is going to move out of the neighborhood and Edd laments the impending departure, wailing: "Who will push me on the swings? Who will butter my toast?" We found this line amusing, mimicking it whenever one of us left for the store, or work, or to go to the movies. Who will butter my toast, we had only to say, and peals of giggles or laughter would follow.
Patrick left for college this weekend. Penny Thieme and I drove him to Greencastle, Indiana. It is only fitting that Penny should be the one who accompanied us, since his summer and winter breaks during elementary school were spent with Aunt Penny and Uncle Ben. The two of them are golden threads shot through the tapestry of his life, and hers weaves long and strong through the patterns emerging from each motion of the shuttle. All of his aunts, by birth and by choice, have had special places in Patrick's formation, but Aunt Penny in particular imparted many lessons to Patrick that mothers just cannot convey. They share art, and they share memories of late-night movies, and they have an ease of being that I quite frankly envy. And she is calm and accepting, a perfect foil for my fussy personality. I knew I would need her strength on this trip.
The mound of stuff that we jammed into the Saturn astounded me. A refrigerator, a microwave, a cofee pot, a suitcase, three jam-packed duffle bags, an amp, two guitars, the pedal for the electric guitar, $150.00 worth of food from Costco, a butterfly chair, bedding, towels, a lamp, a waste-basket, and every drug store item that Katrina or I imagined he might need. I cleverly packed all the little things inside of containers that could serve duo purposes in a dorm room, and with Patrick and Penny, I leveraged each item into a nook, cranny or airpocket.
Only a few things got left behind, most of which were replaced in Greencastle. The electric guitar stand, I discovered on the hearth on my return last evening, and it will get shipped, along with his Dali posters, in the first care package.
The trip from Kansas City to St. Louis was uneventful. We found the Iron Barley without incident, and enjoyed an hour or so with my sister Joyce and her daughter Lisa. By seven Friday evening, we had arrived at the Holiday Inn in Cloverdale, where the three of us, hyped to the gills with road buzz, ate bananas, reminisced about Patrick's childhood, and talked of college until much later than we should have.
The system for off-loading freshman belongings is pretty remarkable at DePauw University. The parent is instructed to pull up as close to the student's dorm as possible, and to then deposit all of the student's possessions onto the sidewalk. The student -- or an auxiliary family member -- stations himself by the pile while you park the car, and then you commence sequential trips with armloads of boxes, bundles and baggage to and from your allocated square of cement. In that way, everything you've gathered to make the next nine months as comfortable as the first nine, gets transferred from sidewalk to room with an efficiency that amazed me.
In case you haven't seen a dorm room at DePauw University -- or anywhere else -- a single is 7 feet, 5 inches by 11 feet, 4 inches. It is a cement-block cube which contains a super-long twin bed, a plain desk with obligatory hutch, a bookshelf and a dresser, all made of solid, very heavy wood. As arranged by the housing staff, the dresser flanks one wall, across from which are the desk with its chair and two-shelf hutch, next to the dresser topped by the bookshelf. There are 18 inches of floor space between the two ordered rows of furniture spanning the length of the room.
While Patrick and I engaged in some parent-and-entering-freshman task, Penny decided that a different arrangement would be more commodious, as a consequence of which, the desk, bed and dresser formed a "C" and allowed for three square feet of moving room. With that framework, we were able to unpack everything, including shoving the bookshelf into the closet to serve as shelves for all that food, while stacking the fridge and microwave on the dresser. A corner was co-opted for the folding canvas chair; and the six inches between the bed and the dresser held the amp.
With everything unpacked, hung up, stashed and stored, we left the room to go to the convocation. As he locked the door of his room for the first time, I remarked to Patrick, "It's like you have your own apartment." Came the rapid reply: "Yes, a really really tiny one." As I laughed, he asked, "Do you know how many square feet the room is?" I had to confess that yes, I did -- about 77-1/2. "Yeah," he sighed. "But at least my amp fit."
We all have our priorities. I had felt the same way about the Costco goods -- my boy can surely survive the first month, I kept telling myself. Club crackers and peanut butter.
The students separated from their parents for the convocation. Penny and I drifted casually down to the performing arts center. A large volunteer, the first nominally unfriendly one I saw, tried to prevent me from entering the auditorium. "You can go to the balcony," she said. I looked at the two steep flights of open metal stairs. Impossible. She then gestured to a side room. "Then go over to Moore Annex, and you can view it on video."
Video? Watch the convocation on video? They had to be joking.
Of course, I did not yet know what a "convocation" was. Had I been quick, I might have explored the Internet to learn the meaning of this word. However, I knew from the weekend activity guide that the school president would be speaking, so I assumed it was an important event. This, I would not watch on video.
I am not ashamed to say that I played the ADA card, and got a seat on the main floor.
There we were ushered, Aunt Penny and I, into the midst of parents who had arrived early enough to get a seat in the best section without being pushy. Luckily, several chairs were still empty in the middle of the second row beyond the bank of seats reserved for the students, and into these the chastened volunteer led us. As we waited, the lights dimmed, and a huge screen dropped from the ceiling. A video began to play, depicting various members of the academic community talking about DePauw in reverent tones, or with animated voices, or with quiet confidence. I found their enthusiasm intriguing, and began to suspect that Patrick had chosen a very good place indeed.
And then the screen went blank. A hush descended over the assembly.
Seconds later, live feed commenced. I didn't understand what I was seeing, at first. But the parents around me began murmuring, and the sound of applause swelled. I squinted, furrowed my brow, peered intently at the images before me and suddenly, I realized what was happening -- and my friends, I began to cry.
The entire faculty of DePauw University had formed two lines in the long hallway outside of the auditorium in which I sat. The doors to the Center stood opened. Through those doors, one by one, in slow single file, came the Class of 2013, and as they processed into the building, they were given a standing ovation by their professors.
As the eight-hundred members of my son's class entered the auditorium, the waiting families began to clap as well. The acclamation resonated through the high-ceilinged room; the thunderous praise rang from the seats of parents, grandparents, guardians, siblings, uncles and aunts in the lower rows, rising to meet the roar from the balcony. My hands ached from clapping and still the students came, and still the faculty applauded, and still I cried, until each freshman had entered. Then the faculty entered and the students returned the ovation as the stage filled with professors, and deans, and assistants, and even the student body president. The applause continued until each and every one of them reached their designated place, and then, in one grand moment, everyone sat -- and the hall was silent.
Speeches followed, some of which were tender and poignant. Poetry was read; advice dispensed; greetings spoken. In due course, we exited the hall and our children continued with freshman activities while we shoved soggy handkerchiefs into our pockets and marveled among ourselves that DePauw surely knows how to do things right.
At the appointed hour, we returned to the smallest apartment on the planet, for the hour designated on the written agenda to Say Goodbye to Families. The last few items had been purchased at CVS in a mad dash, and promises had been extracted -- take your medicine, wear your glasses, listen to your mentor, study hard, take good care of yourself. I walked out of his dorm room, followed by his beloved Penny.
I would not have heard him if the suite had not been empty, but it was. And so, I did hear him when he said, in the very quietest of little-boy-whispers, from inside his allocated seventy-seven square feet,
"Who will push me on the swings. . . who will butter my toast?"
We laughed, then, my nearly-six-feet tall son and I; and he let me hug him, and we all went down to the car. A few last things were shoved into his hands -- more cash; the paper from the freshmen service project; a copy of the housing contract. We scrambled to find his glasses; Penny teased him about girls; and, too quickly, with a casual flick of his hand, he turned, and walked back into Hogate Hall. I was left standing on the sidewalk where once his pile of stuff had been, wondering what on earth I was thinking, leaving my only child in a strange place eight hours from home, with nothing more to protect him than his inherited charm and unlimited Verizon Wireless texting.
In my heart of hearts, I know my fears are unfounded. He will suffer no more indignities than any young man starting college; and he will have as many glorious moments of stunning self-discovery. He will come home taller, more self-confident, and with a new hair cut that some cute freshman girl decides to make him to get. There will eventually come a holiday that he does not spend with me; and then he will do a winter term abroad; and, eventually, I will turn his bedroom into a sewing room, or a library, or a storage space for broken suitcases.
The weaver chooses her patterns, and the threads from which her work will be constructed. Not so the parent. We are more akin to the sculptor -- or perhaps the puppeteer. Like Giuseppe, I wanted a real boy, and that is precisely what I got. He has come to life now -- and I would not stop his dancing if I could.
Mugwumpishly tendered, written on my iBook G4, in my empty nest, in Brookside, Kansas City, Missouri, on this 24th day of August, in the year 2009.