* Editor’s note: Marion is taking the week off. This column first ran in June 2004.
For those of you who remember the columns I wrote when my daughter was leaving for college, it may be more than a little shocking to hear that I attended her graduation two weeks ago.
But that’s reality and reality is a fast-moving train.
Memory is another matter. Memory is like water, sometimes a trickle, sometimes a flood.
My husband and I discovered that neither of us remembered much of anything about our own college graduations. Although my daughter’s graduation coincided with my 35th reunion at the same college, Brown University, I did not expect a levee break of memories.
The first morning, however, something weird happened when I put my feet on the floor.
My husband and I were housed in a dormitory, in narrow beds separated by bookshelves and desks. When I awakened, I swung my bare feet out of bed and placed them on what felt like dirty ice. The linoleum was cold, very cold, with flakes of grit on it, left by departing students or the ones who were hired to clean up after them.
My feet touched it and suddenly I was back in my daughter’s first week of college as if someone had pressed a big red button in my brain.
I was in Target again, Warwick, Rhode Island, crying in front of the rug display. My daughter’s first dorm room floor was linoleum, just like this one, and her roommate’s parents drove up from Delaware with a big, thick carpet that they laid out on only one side of the room. (This was the first sign of a difficult relationship.) I wanted to buy my daughter carpet but decided, for cost reasons, that a runner was better.
It was a mistake. Rug, even cheap rug, makes a place feel like home.
The dorm didn’t feel like home to my daughter all that year, because leaving Davis was difficult, and my home didn’t feel like home to me, because she wasn’t in it.
Eventually, though, we both adjusted.
The tears at Target, a private moment, receded into the background. Now I had returned for graduation, a very public dividing line between past and future.
As the weekend built up steam, Brown University gathered its 235-year history around itself like a great big crinoline petticoat and showed off. Tradition marked every activity, from the food at the dining commons to the President speaking in Latin as she conferred the degrees.
The high point for me was the parade of faculty, grads and alumni, about a half mile long and at least 3,000 strong.
At the front of the parade was the oldest alumnus, Class of ’29, a small, ninetysomething gentleman, walking quite steadily. After him came faculty in colorful robes, and then more alumni, starting with older classes (lots of spry 80-year-olds) and reaching mine at the midpoint (Class of ’69).
The beginning of the parade was disturbingly white, but the more recent classes reflected the colors of America. As the front of the line stopped and moved aside to allow the next generations to pass, everyone waved and shouted and clapped for each other with enthusiasm.
I watched the younger faces as they streamed past me, and I wondered if, seeing us, they were imagining themselves in the future, returning for their 35th reunion someday.
My own daughter almost slept through the march. She awoke in horror 15 minutes after she was supposed to have fallen into line.
It was out of character for her to be late for something important, but perhaps that will be the detail that adds juice to the memory, that helps her recall the day.
I can’t predict what she will remember.
The past seems solid, written down in books; only the future should be uncertain. But our individual brains don’t go by the books; they make choices of what to remember. The past is different for every one of us.
Of my daughter’s college years I remember rug, my loneliness, the names of her friends, my adjustment, my joy at her triumphs. Of her graduation, I will remember the march, time itself passing in the faces of the participants, past and present, as they wildly applauded each other.
Of my own college years, I recall little of how I looked and sounded back when the trees on this campus were shorter. I wonder where the time went between then and now. I spent that time well, and it’s certainly better to spend it well than badly, but the result is the same. It is spent. My daughter has those years now, precisely the ones that I have no longer.
May she enjoy them. May life be kind to her.
May she return 35 years later and if I am no longer alive, may she remember how much I loved the parade and how much I loved her.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org