Something about the drone of the highway, the sterility of our homogeneous hotel room, and the sodium level of three days' of restaurant food numbed me to this moment -- my second awakening as an empty-nester. We have deposited my stepson in the halls of Rhodes College, after a last Target run for the few things that I forgot and the microwave he had declined but which it became apparent would be wanted.
I cannot overlook the irony of moving him to Memphis at the same time as hordes of Elvis-worshippers descended on Beale Street in fake sideburns, clutching PBandB sandwiches and wailing notes of the long-dead crooner. As we searched for Memphis barbecue on the night before the opening of the dormitories, we encountered detours and limousines, and ghostly manifestations: Elvis posing for pictures at the entry to Marlowe's Ribs, a silk rose left on our windshield. Thank you, thank you very much.
Only a few bumps rose in our the road, including misplaced car keys and an unpleasant, grease-filled breakfast at a place alleged by some website to be among the ten-best of morning joints in town. My stepson smiled throughout, patient, only a slight tinge of anxiousness apparent in the set of his jaw. I watched the two men -- the young one, an inch or two above six feet; his father, several inches shorter -- each trying to appear nonchalant. All the while, I fought my own ghosts, thinking of the son who had left for college with little fanfare the day before our southern voyage, bound for the start of his last year on the Indiana campus at which I hope he has found the first gold brick on his path to fulfillment. I've cried a thousand tears since Patrick's convocation, in August of 2009, and I daresay, I will cry a thousand more. Some of them fall from overwhelming joy, some from the burden of worry.
The dorm room in which we unpacked Mac's belongings -- Mac, who chose to revert to his birth name of Ansel for the start of college, but whom I met as Mac and grew to love as Mac -- had quite a few square feet on the one in which I ensconced Patrick three years ago. On one side, his new roommate had already staked a claim, with inspirational posters on the wall, and a bible on the bookshelf. The air held stifling silence, broken by the occasional enthusiastic proclamation from my husband or myself -- avowals of pleasure at the correctness of a choice in ordering, assurances that something which did not quite fit the need would nonetheless suffice, exuberant thanks to the roommate and his sister for lending a helping hand. Most of the time, our son worked without speaking, and the roommate sat in his chair, alert, smiling, awkward, while his sister swung her legs on her brother's lofted bed and chattered.
A helpful pair of green-shirted Peer Advisers directed us to Cafe Eclectic, where we ordered soups and salads, and pretended it was an ordinary day. We wandered the length of campus afterward, found the room where he had to take his laptop to get certified, and waited for an hour while he did so, making small talk about the difference between his college enrollment and my husband's experience in 1974. I answered some email and drafted an opposition to a motion for continuance, wishing for a real cup of coffee. An hour later, after eating a bad imitation of a Dream Cycle, we left our son. He had located the friend from Orientation Weekend whom he felt would give him a way of surviving the difficult first few days, and seemed to be letting down his guard. For the moment, he had no need of us.
We could not find a parking place on Beale Street, so we ate dinner at Huey's, grilled chicken with pineapple for me and Buffalo wings for my husband. The onslaught of emotion left us giddy and testy in turns, but we rode the waves and found our way back to the hotel, and, eventually, the sun rose on the morning of Convocation. I had my Kleenex ready. I've been there -- done that -- and I knew I could not navigate the experience with dry eyes.
And so we sat, shoulder to shoulder; and stood, the same. We watched the Rhodes College Class of 2016 process, and halfway through the group, spied our student, dark head rising above those around him. My heart clutched, as I saw that he had chosen to wear a blue Oxford shirt and khakis, while many around him donned only shorts and T-shirts. Thank you, thank you. He learned well.
The strains of music slowly receded, and the college president rose to welcome us. A faculty award or two was announced, and the keynote speaker introduced. A fiery, vibrant speaker, he told the entering freshmen to honor three pillars of success: Strive for excellence, be conscious of the community, and persevere. I could not do his fervor justice by description. His powerful voice and strong emotion filled the auditorium.
The college anthem was sung; a blessing spoken. And then the moment for departure arrived. Our son allowed one photograph, his practiced smile beaming, his father's less bright, as they stood in the aisle, other weeping parents filing past us. We made our way to the open air, and exchanged embraces. Within minutes, we had walked away, he in one direction, we in another, to our car, to the highway, to the rest of our lives as parents whose children have gone.
I felt the stab of the moment less keenly this time around. I have a companion now; the house does not sit in silence, free of the voice I had heard for eighteen years and the strumming of my son's guitar with nothing to replace them. While the door of Mac's bedroom will not slam and his bounce will not creak the floorboards, my husband's tread while fill the empty spaces each morning. And I only had a hand in raising Mac for eighteen months, since I married his father and he came to live with us full-time.
But my mother's genes tingle nonetheless. I spoiled a lace handkerchief and half a packet of Kleenex during Convocation, and allowed myself only that last small hug, not nearly enough, not nearly adequate to quell the motherly longing until Thanksgiving. I miss them both: Son by birth and son by marriage. I feel the stillness in their rooms, and see the empty places at the table, and I wonder, what will become of them?
The black cat has come home for breakfast and a cuddle, and slipped from the porch to wander in the coolness of the morning air. A magpie calls in the distance -- or a crow, perhaps; I am not even sure if magpies exist or live in Missouri. But the call of the bird to its mate sounds through the otherwise unbroken quiet. I raise my head and listen, waiting for the answering song.
Saturday, August 18, 2012
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The Missouri Mugwump™
- M. Corinne Corley
- I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.
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