My oldest daughter just graduated from college. She did it in three years and they were the longest three years of my life.
I’m an old-fashioned, over-protective, Italian mamma, just like my mom and her mother before her. I cried the day I dropped her off for her first day of college, leaving her in a tiny, cinder block room to live with a stranger, to eat meals I didn’t prepare, to have nobody there to take care of her if she got sick, 90 minutes away. My family and friends called and texted me that day to see if I was ok- they all knew how difficult this was going to be for me. When I spoke to my mother, I asked her how she survived the day she left me at school. She told me (for the first time) how she cried the whole ride home when she and my father dropped me off at college in 1986, and for days after that. She said she knew I would be ok, and reminded me that I waved both of them away on my first day of kindergarten when she stood crying at the classroom door because I was anxious to get started, but she missed me terribly every day. In the days of expensive long distance calls before Skype and Face Time, cell phones and texting, I spoke to my parents only once a week and they each wrote me long letters that I anxiously awaited every Friday. I responded with pages of handwritten letters, trying not to let on how homesick I was, filling the pages instead with reports about my activities and new friends.
I went home on holidays and around twice a semester otherwise. My parents and grandparents would visit me every two or three weeks because my father couldn’t stand to “not see my face,” as he used to say. My mother was absolutely giddy to see me, and my grandfather squeezed my face so hard he sometimes left pinch marks.
My father said he didn’t send me to college to send me away, he sent me to learn, and expected to see me more than during semester break. I had no issue with that. We were a tight-knit Italian family-my father valued time spent with his children and never believed that they should be kicked out at age 18. In fact, neither my sister nor I dared to contemplate not moving home after college. Home was home until we had our own family- and not a second before.
My father and I spent a lot of time together, just as my daughter and I did. My mother went to sleep early because she woke up at 4:00 am to go to work when I was in high school and by arriving early, she could be home by the time my sister and I got home from school. Almost every weeknight I would keep my dad company in the family room watching detective shows, baseball or hockey games and talking. During one of those talks when I was finishing up my junior year in high school, my father told me that he was having a hard time accepting that I was going to be going away to school the following year. We had visited one school that was 90 minutes away and had a few others to check out. He said given that the programs were all equal, he didn’t want me going further away than the 90 minute distance of the first school. He didn’t put any rules on price, didn’t insist I live at home to commute or go to a religious school (after 12 years of Catholic education, he felt I had a good foundation already- whew!), just the distance. A 90 minute car ride. No more.
The bond I had with my father was very strong. I respected him, I feared disappointing him and I never really questioned the rules he or my mom set out for me. He was my hero, my rock, and my moral compass. He had a very sad childhood and did everything he could to make sure my sister and I didn’t have one like he did. Like most parents, he made sacrifices- some of them tremendous- for me and my sister, so the least I could do was not give him a hassle about distance. And he was right, the programs were all equal. He knew I wanted to be in a country setting so he shuttled me to my college visits to schools in rural Pennsylvania (this fascinated me, having spent so much time in the city and the suburbs) and made comments about turning left at the cow patch, etc., but as long as they fell within the 90 minute rule (which also happened to be the amount of time it took to get to his boat down the shore which I think is why he considered it reasonable), he was ok.
On the day my parents moved me into my dorm on August 26, 1986, my mother was appalled at the living conditions and I knew she wanted to pack up the car and take me back home. (“Does your roommate have a… TWANG?” she later asked me. No, Mom, she’s just from rural PA.) My father, having served in the Army and lived meagerly, just shook his head as he looked around my cinder block room. No, it wasn’t home, it was the complete opposite of home, and I wanted to pull at my dad’s shirt as he left like I did when I was a child so he wouldn’t leave. It was so far away from home. I didn’t know anyone. I had never had a problem making new friends, but I also had never lived away from home with nobody I knew around me. I found out much later that my parents were racked with guilt for leaving me in what they (and I) considered to be such dismal surroundings, surrounded by strangers, having to eat Pennsylvania Dutch food (shudder). But it was on that day that my dad gave me the advice that would serve me well those four years, and which I have tried to follow for the past 30: “Never forget who you are, where you came from or where you’re going.” Who would have thought that 27 years later I would be giving that same sage advice to his granddaughter when I left her in her room before crying for 90 minutes, all the way home.