There’s a baby oak tree in the potting room sink.
Five years ago, on an August afternoon in North Carolina, I sat with JoHn (and about seven hundred additional humans) in the shade of a dozen or so massive oak trees. We were gathered to see our kids (in this case, my ‘baby’) welcomed into their freshman year at Elon University.
The opening convocation was a heady mixture of mystery and promise for young folks from all over the world. The parents, of course, were very proud. But also, sitting face-to-stage with the realization that we’d succeeded in fulfilling our ultimate job responsibility – to lay ourselves off, make ourselves redundant.
No matter how long we have to prepare for this moment (let’s say, twenty something years), it is always a moment of awe. Just is.
But this was just convocation. I told myself I actually had four years to ease myself into reality. Sure, Gabe would be down in North Carolina from late August through May, but he’d bebop home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and maybe for a long weekend or two (or seven). Then he’d be home to work during at least the first two summers, maybe three (depending on the much-coveted internship situation (this was not my first rodeo)).
The plan unfolded flawlessly, peaks and challenges along the way for sure, but pretty much as expected… right into that final semester when, you know, worldwide pandemic.
Gabe was safe, we were safe. We had a surprising number of friends who’d contracted the virus, but most of them had mild cases and were okay quickly. Only a few had worse cases, and we hoped and sent all our good juju for days and weeks as they eventually recovered. We were – are – very lucky.
That said, we still worried about Gabe and he navigated untread-upon ground.
As social beings, we gain so much from being together (even those of us who say we hate people-ing (ahem)). For young people, the social aspect of going to school and/or work is a massive part of their overall growth (so we considered that).
The students who already had jobs waiting for them, upon graduation, were suddenly getting e-mails from their new employers saying they were trying to figure out what to do. Some offers were rescinded (so we wondered about that).
So many hours in the day and night that might have been spent on a field, or a gym, or at a community service event – you know, the productive parts of college we parents want to believe (Stoppit. I said WANT to believe) takes up most of our kids free time – spent in isolation (so we worried about that).
We encouraged Gabe – who was also considering, wondering, and worrying about these things and more – to take things hour by hour, day by day. For the most part, he and his housemates and friends did okay (admirably even). For this, we were grateful.
As May approached, many colleges and universities cancelled their graduations (some opting for ceremonies on Zoom, some opting for no ceremony at all). Real life, and social media, filled with folks lamenting these decisions. No one was dismissing the fact that we were in a pandemic, and there were much worse things than missed graduations. They were just sad that something they so looked forward to, was not going to happen. I got that (and not just because I was surely about to face it myself).
Then, a very cool thing happened.
Elon let the senior class vote.
I cannot tell you how much I loved this.
The result was an overwhelming mandate. There would be no zoomed graduation. The class of 2020 voted to postpone their graduation ceremony for as long as it took to have it in person, on campus… together. The administration created a celebratory video to mark the official 2020 graduation date (and it was great), but no names were read to take the place of the graduates walking across the stage.
JoHn and I cried on that day.
Gabe stayed in North Carolina for a celebratory barbecue with his friends. We FaceTimed with him (and sent him a photo of us popping a bottle of champagne) after the video played. We wished him a safe ride back home, said we’d see him in a couple of days.
And then the tears rolled.
Rites of passage go hand-in-hand with celebrations… high fives, hugs, gatherings. None of which we could do on that day.
The thing is, our children’s victories, and the accompanying happiness and pride of accomplishment, are theirs to carry with them on their personal journeys. But watching them achieve goals and milestones, awash in the joy and wonder and love we feel for them, is our gift to savor.
I wanted my gift. And right then, dammit.
Also, I wanted my freakin’ tree.
At that convocation five years ago, each incoming freshman received an acorn. It was explained that it takes four years for an acorn to become an oak sapling (‘Elon’ means ‘oak’ in Hebrew). Hence, at their graduation ceremony, in four years’ time, the same students would receive such a sapling, representing their growth over their time at Elon.
That was totally my oak.
C’mon! First of all: Mom. Second of all, where would the kid plant it? If he had the means to buy a house (with a yard) upon his graduation, I’d make him pay us back for his tuition!
But, as the spring of 2020 became the fall of 2020 and then the spring of 2021 and there was no graduation in sight, my oak-y dreams – and memory of those dreams – faded.
By the time the September 2021 graduation weekend was announced, I wasn’t thinking about the baby oak at all. I was just excited to see how many would come back, and wondered how it would all feel?
Well, this past Labor Day weekend, JoHn and I headed down to North Carolina for the graduation of what one speaker called, “The Class of 2020… Plus One”.
It was awesome.
More than seven hundred graduates, and their families (and an impressive number of dogs), showed up for the various festivities. Then, on Sunday morning, we all sat and stood and clapped and whooped and whistled and cheered the graduates on from beneath those massive oaks.
As the first graduates walked across, and then stepped down from, the stage, JoHn turned and whispered into my ear, “They’re getting their trees.”
No, not because I got a tree (I assure you it was handed over willingly, I didn’t even have to
threaten ask). It was because that whisper made it real for me. Gabe got to graduate with his friends and peers. Because that’s what they voted for.
Congratulations, my youngest.
Congratulations Elon Class of 2020 Plus One.
Keep growing, in joy and wonder, into the world. May you contribute many and varied good stuff into The All.
Thanks for readin’.
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