"If you bungle raising your children, nothing else matters in life."
Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (1929-1994)
(Originally Published September 1, 2002 by the Irascible Professor)
It's been a tough couple of days. My husband and I drove our oldest son to the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Actually, we followed our son who was driving his pickup truck filled with his stuff. We were in our Jeep filled with more of his stuff. Our son has been shopping all summer for college things that seem to be the retail world's newest niche market. From a computer to plastic stackable color-coordinated crates to extra-long sheets to a dorm-sized microwave to foods especially made for dorm-sized microwaves, the cost of a college education has taken on a completely different perspective in 2002.
"Are you buying carpet for his room?" my neighbor whose daughter is attending the same university asked.
"I didn't think of that," I admitted.
"Did you get her a coffee maker?" I asked.
"I didn't think of that," she admitted.
And then there are the ads on TV: "Dude, you're getting a Dell." In our case, it was a Dell laptop with speakers and a subwoofer, CD/DVD burner, and more bells and whistles than are on my husband's Jeep Wrangler. We agreed that a laptop was the computer of choice since the campus was designed with computer ports everywhere, even next to park benches. My son's girlfriend opted for a similar laptop but hers has wrist rests in midnight blue, which coincidentally match her comforter, sheets, desk lamp, and collection of plastic crates.
On our drive to Tucson, we stopped once on the road and ate breakfast while my husband and I reviewed the rules of credit card usage and anything else we could collectively remember to nag about in our son's direction. I had decided I wasn't going to nag about anything, but everything that came out of my mouth was some sort of directive. I blame it on nerves.
We, as did hundreds of other parents, helped our kid get his things up to his mini dorm room that fortunately is on the second floor instead of the eighth floor of one of many buildings filled with excitedly nervous students and their suddenly choked up parents. We met his roommate and his roommate's parents. On first impression, I don't think they will drive each other crazy or make each other as unhappy as my college roommate and I did when we were younger and less tolerant. I made my son's bed for him although it was unnecessary and stopped the mothering thing when I got a stern glance from my husband as I started hanging up his clothes in his mini-closet that is next to his mini-dresser.
"You made his bed?" my neighbor asked.
"Yes," I answered.
"I forgot to make her bed," she said. "I feel so bad."
"Don't feel bad. She probably didn't even notice."
"Maybe I should drive down and visit her. Would you come with me?" she asked. "I feel so guilty."
"I'm sure she's made her bed," I said, trying to cheer her up. Then we both got choked up knowing we won't be driving down to visit them until Parent's Weekend at the end of October.
My husband, my son, and I took a walk around a very 21st century campus. He picked up his pre-ordered books at the bookstore. "You know this is what you're here for" foamed out of my mouth before I could stop myself from making another unnecessary nagging comment. Our son treated us to super-sized sodas at the Student Center using his prepaid food card that we paid for. And then we left.
On the ride home, my husband and I made awkward, choked-up small talk. We agreed that the University of Arizona is a fine choice of schools. We agreed that if our son works hard and takes advantage of what the university offers, he will have a fine future. There were uncomfortable silences as my husband continued to drive us home and I wiped tears from my eyes as I looked out the window. We agreed that the school makes many things much easier than when we were in college. Our son registered for classes online after a mandatory orientation he went to in late May. He ordered his required books online. I paid for his tuition, books, food, and parking online. Last week he went to his personal account at the University of Arizona's web site and found his schedule in list, graph, and map formats. He (and I) can access anything he needs from this site including his bill, a calendar of events and deadlines, degree requirements, a directory of students and professors, and his grades.
When we got home, I showed my husband the site since he rarely gets a chance at home to get online. After showing him the University of Arizona's impressive web site, we looked up the universities we attended so many years ago and were equally impressed with their web sites. We also felt very old. My husband and I were shocked at how the universities we attended had grown and reminisced to each other about this dorm or that building and things that happened almost 30 years ago. In addition, we reminisced about the agony of getting approval for and registering for classes back in the pre-computer age. We also remembered our parents receiving our grades via snail mail. Back in the Stone Age, the requirements for comfort in our dorms consisted of bringing our torn jeans, an 8-track player, and a typewriter and carbon paper. At the end of the corridor in our son's dorm, there were two old phone booths for pay phones that are no longer there. We remembered the phone messages we each found taped to our doors from our parents when we were in school: "What's the matter? Is your finger broken?" That won't be the case with our son who will be able to be accessed via email or phone at any hour. In our son's dorm, each room is wired with phone access with call waiting, cable TV access, and Ethernet capabilities connected to the university's huge computer system. My son already has a list of reading for one class where he simply clicks a link and an article from the university's main library is accessed. He never has to leave his dorm room. He can access it from any port on campus using his personal pin number. He also has copy machines in the lobby of his dorm. In the days of the dinosaurs, we spent endless hours waiting in line for the required book our professor wanted us to read. My husband made comments when we were in the dorm about how with all the electronic paraphernalia, there was no room to actually "write" on the desks. My son and his new roommate both looked at him cross-eyed as they continued to hook up their printers.
I know I'm supposed to be proud of my son's achievements which gained him acceptance into such a fine university and excited for his potential opportunities, but instead, the shock of my son moving out and being on his own hit me like nothing I ever expected. In fact, I spent the last two days cleaning his room, drowning out the sound of maternal sobbing with a powerful steam carpet-cleaning machine. Not that his room was that dirty, although there were Dr. Pepper stains on his carpet and other questionable marks on his walls hidden from me when he suddenly decided to rearrange his furniture a year ago. So I moved his bed back up against the windows where it used to be so my cats can look out and chase blowing leaves, flying birds, and the occasional lizard that races from one safe spot to the next. I went through my kitchen cabinets and pulled out items no one else in my house eats for my son's first care package. I cleaned the bathroom so my younger son can't say, "He did it!" when it gets too disgusting in there. And I anxiously kept the computer on, hoping to see my son's screen name pop up on my buddy list. It didn't. Instead, the phone rang last night, and my husband, younger son, and I each had a short conversation from our son away from home. We learned that he will be driving home to get his bike. He had originally planned to bring it, but while packing, he made the decision not to. I can't say I'm unhappy about his error.
Then my younger son got on the phone. "We've rented your room," he said. "to a Swedish exchange student named Inga."
It was the first time I laughed in days.
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©2002, Felice Prager. All Rights Reserved. This blog is copyright protected. No item on this blog, including this essay or any photographs, may be used without the author's express written permission.