In Gratitude: Thoughts from a College Graduation

Returning last week from our oldest daughter’s college graduation, I feel somehow aligned with those graduates, as I am a parent moving from one major life phase to another. During the very joyful weekend, my husband, more literal and fiscally oriented than me, kept repeating  “one down, two to go” referring to our younger two children. Meanwhile,  I tried to silence my more sentimental thoughts for fear of getting weepy, or sounding cliché and down-right old.


Graduation day, college graduate, cap and gown

It doesn’t  feel like yesterday that I brought this child into the world. Remembering those early days of motherhood seems more like walking around a neighborhood I lived in long ago — quite familiar, yet vaguely dream-like, with some of the important details completely elusive.  On the other hand, it actually does feel as if I just dropped off my daughter as a college freshman.

While shockingly mature and transformed today, she was then an anxious and already-homesick girl. Mixed emotions aside, throughout the college graduation weekend I experienced an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the support my daughter and I have received along the way.   Much of it came in the form of likely candidates such as family and friends; other people, though, crossed our paths for just a moment in time. There are unnamed people who I hardly knew or were completely behind the scenes.  Lastly, there are those forces of the universe that are hard to name, but I will try.

Much like a commencement address, here is my top ten list of the people and support systems to whom I wish to express my deep gratitude:

1. Teachers, educational professionals and staff

As I watched the procession of robed academicians, whom I had never met, I thought about all the teachers who I knew well: that first nursery school teacher who lured my shy child out of her shell, the English teacher who introduced her to her favorite Hawthorne novel, the middle school learning center director who taught her to use color-coded note cards (a system she used in high school and college) and the high school math teacher who sat on the sidelines, cheering at her games.  Since her high school graduation, there were advisors, professors, mentors, health center professionals, cafeteria, maintenance and security folk who kept her safe, healthy and on track, but I will never meet them.

2. Generations of good parenting

Perhaps they might not measure up to the latest parenting trends, but our two long lines of loving parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles have provided my husband and me and, in turn, our children, with wonderful examples of family devotion. We have always had a sense of being loved beyond the boundaries and limitations of our nuclear family.  We did not need to look far to find role models to teach us about commitment, working hard, contributing to society, and caring for others.

3. My husband and our partnership

His steadiness coupled with my emotional intensity provided balance and allowed us to navigate parenting, often through trial and error.  He was the no-nonsense disciplinarian and I was the listening, coaxing, advocating mom.  My kids began many conversations with “Don’t tell Dad but….” What they really meant was that they had absorbed his high standards and the lesson that actions have consequences….all while downloading on me.  Other mantras he and I adopted were: divide and conquer, find your own parenting style,  there is more than one way to change a diaper, and communicate, disciple, and hug your children.

4. My biological sisters

They have always been there when the parenting was fun but also when it wasn’t.  They were the ones who were on my side worrying about ME. When parenting took its toll, our code to indicate we needed encouragement was. …. “feeling like a dry husk.”

5. My peer mom girlfriends

Thank goodness for those friends who shared in endless strategy sessions covering the latest, usually mundane, often neurotic, but sometimes substantive issues …..from pacifiers to life and death discussions such as teenage drinking and driving. I’d venture to guess that some of these lifelong friends can still join me in singing “The Wheels on the Bus!”

6. My girlfriends with “tongue in cheek”

Some made me laugh when I was feeling low, others taught me to smile at the absurdities of being a mom or just laugh at myself and a few, wisely, taught me to use humor as a way to communicate some very important messages to my children.  I used this line from a friend with my own son as he was leaving for a dance:  “If you throw up on your father’s’ suit, you will have to buy him a European hand-tailored one.”

7. Those mothers, and friends, who were five or even ten steps ahead of me

Somehow my eldest managed to make good friends with girls who were often the youngest in their families and I was able to glom onto their mothers for some advice about what to expect, what was just a stage, when to give in and panic.  Especially important were the rules they conveyed to me so that we parents we could create a united front. Later, one friend showed me that when giving advice to kids approaching adulthood, less is more and often just listening and asking questions does the trick.

8. My pediatrician

After a few years of rotating through a big medical group (all three children were plagued with allergies, asthma and ear infections,) I found a female solo practitioner who was a mom herself.  Even though we joked about how I should qualify for her “frequent flyer points,” she once turned to me after I apologized for visiting yet again and said “You have never brought your children in when they didn’t need a doctor.”  Bless her!

9. The stacks and speakers

My favorite outing with my little ones, hands down, was going to the public library. There is nothing more satisfying than watching your four-year old recite Madeline, cover to cover, by heart.  Much to their dismay, I also loved reviewing and discussing my children’s summer required reading lists, offering thoughts that I extrapolated and found useful in my life.  But it worked and my son now inquires about my book club’s reading list.  We even discuss what I am reading in the context of his college courses.  And of course I am indebted to the parenting books I read (some good, some not) and solid advice from professional talks and PTA presentations.

10. The Unknown

This is my catch-all category for the mysteries of life. This certainly does apply to the God to whom I prayed, giving thanks for my children and seeking solace when I was fretfully worried. By the time my oldest two were in college,  I had learned  to “turn my worries over” and fall back asleep. I also include those inexplicable and perfectly timed, quiet, kind gestures from an acquaintance or stranger who I believe was sent our way.  Discouraged after a series of a sleepless nights and lists of incomplete tasks, I would resort to a walk with my children in the double stroller.   It never failed that someone would comment on how beautiful they were, and my entire outlook for the day would be changed. There were those unidentified moms with sympathetic smiles and comments who got me through a public temper tantrum or a kindly shop assistant who helped me with a meltdown of an adolescent girl in a dressing room.  Once stranded for three hours on a runway with my eighteen month old son sitting in my lap, the man next to us (father of four) fed my son his entire dinner to keep him happy.  Recently, I visited a park that had a plaque honoring an unnamed gentleman who came on his own accord, almost every day,  to clean up the park for others.  I wish I had a plaque for all the unknowns in my life.

In every commencement address, there is both a reflection and a call to action urging the graduates to venture bravely into the world.  Last month, during a week-long school holiday, I volunteered to make phone calls for an upcoming event.  During those calls, I commiserated, reassured and encouraged quite a few overwhelmed moms with little children at their heels. It was then that I considered what I could do to share something of what I had the good fortune to learn along the way.

I hope that you will brainstorm with me on how to do this…..”in gratitude.”   Have to go now…. I need to open the door for a mom with a stroller.

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