A friend was recently talking about their graduation from college and how it had been a difficult and uprooting experience for them. That got me thinking about MY graduation from college. In retrospect, my graduation actually was a coming of age and a sweet memory to boot.
Let me set the stage. Four years prior, my father, brother and I had driven from Washington to Connecticut. (In four days. Another story for another time.) My mother had flown out to Connecticut to join us. They were dropping me off at Connecticut College, 3000 miles from home, where I knew no one. This graduation ceremony was the next time they came out. They brought with them my recently widower grandfather — the first time he’d flown since the 50s — and my godfather (he of the had-quintuple-bypass-surgery-yesterday fame).
I was 21. I had been engaged for just over a year and was going to get married in August. I had lined up a “real job” which I had already begun working at as a programmer.
The graduation ceremony itself was typical. Hot. Long speeches. Parents hearing for the first and last times the full names they had graced upon their children on their birth certificates. My litany read “Major in English (distinction) and Medieval Studies (honors and distinction), Cum Laude”. Not the most fantastic of bylines, but respectable. I was and am proud of it. My godfather bought me this truly remarkable frame for my diploma.
The coming of age, though, begins the next day. We had rented a van with room for my grandfather’s scooter, but no room for my fiancee. We started early in the morning. I remember as we pulled out onto Mohegan Drive, I had just gotten my thesis back and was digesting the comments thereon — my last college paper. (I was affronted to have gotten an A-. If he’d told me what he wanted earlier, I could’ve gotten a A. Pbbblft.)
We drove through the Connecticut countryside towards Worcester, where we had breakfast.
It’s funny, but there are moments where you transition. That breakfast was a great breakfast. We sat at a big table and ate eggs and bacon and talked. I recall that we got into a heated discussion on when gunpowder had been widely used in Europe. Then I sneaked away from the table. For my entire life, these people had taken care of me. They had fed me, housed me, clothed me, transported me. (Including my godfather.) I went to see the waitress, to pay the bill for my family’s breakfast. It was my way of saying, “Look at me. I’m a grownup too!” It had the desired satisfying outcome of amazing the assembled, and causing them to pause for a moment to think, “Why yes, she is a grownup.”
In an aside, while I was waiting to pay, a woman came up to me and asked if we were part of some history club. No. We’re just family. But man, I love that about my family.
After our desultory and educational meal, we went up 495 to Lowell and Lawrence. We went on a tour of the historic mills, saving up facts for future breakfast arguments. We stood in the bright May sun in the brick alleyways. I think of that part often. I now work in one of those old mill buildings like those we toured. The floorboards below my desk are nailed down with handmade nails and have captured, between the cracks, hundreds of tiny shoe-nails.
Thus educated, we wended our way up to St. Johnsbury Vermont where we stayed at a terrible dive of a motel. We didn’t always stay at terrible dives of motels growing up. No, sometimes, well often, we decided that it was too much work and just kept driving.
Starting the next morning in the Northwest corner of New England, we proceeded to drive through every New England state. We drove backroads across Vermont and New Hampshire up to Portland Maine, and then 95 down to Burlington MA where we had dinner with my beau. After dinner, we continued down 95 through Rhode Island, and I was deposited back in Connecticut.
There were some other moments — my grandfather slipping off a bar stool at Rosie’s in Groton and nearly killing himself, my parents taking me shopping for my graduation-present bicycle. But soon they left. I had a month or two of in-between time, after graduation and before my wedding. But it was on that trip with the folks who raised me that I stepped forward out of dependency and into full adulthood.
It was also the moment when my grandfather realized that 86 was too young to be bounded by two oceans. He started laying plans immediately, which culminated with him and my godfather going to Scotland for a month, where he wrecked a van, broke his leg, reconnected with long-lost relatives and generally had the time of his life. I was so glad that he had these opportunities, and so impressed at his willingness to take big risks in order to live out his life to the fullest.