Ralph Gardner Jr: A Bittersweet Season

Oct 21, 2017

I shouldn’t be talking to you right now. I should be at parents weekend. That’s where you could have found me on this weekend, or thereabouts, for much of the last decade.

We have two daughters, both now beyond college. They attended the same school in Ohio -- Kenyon College -- but there’s a five-year age difference so they didn’t overlap.

That adds up to eight years dodging the tractor-trailers on Route 80 from New York City, across the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey, through the entirety of Pennsylvania – it feels a lot larger and longer than it looks on a map – and finally into the Buckeye State.

So it seems strange, slightly disorienting and not a little melancholy not to be on the road at this moment.

There are those who will dismiss my lament as a case of Baby Boomer helicopter parenting. And perhaps they’re right.

My mother and father attended parents weekend at Middlebury College, where I went, on two occasions: the first time and the last time. It was freshman year and I have the photos to prove they were there, and not having a particularly good time.

In one of them my mother is wearing a fashionable suit, my father a double-breasted navy blazer and tie. They look like unrepentant city folk photoshopped onto the Vermont countryside. And their grim expressions suggest they have no clue what they’re doing there in the first place.

The second image shows them from behind stumbling through the field where the photo was taken, undoubtedly vowing never to return, at least not before graduation.

Our parents weekend experience with our own children was entirely different and altogether more life-affirming. Starting with the drive.

There was something Zen-like about the ten-hour journey, especially across Pennsylvania. It’s beautiful in the colors of autumn and feels like one giant straightaway when you set the SUV to cruise control.

And while challenging to your backside, what propelled you was the knowledge that at the end of your trip awaited a smiling child, genuinely happy to see you.

There are several plausible explanations why our parents weekend experiences were so radically different and more joyous than those of my parents’ generation.

I don’t think they loved us any less. I know they didn’t. But I suppose the generation gap was more pronounced back then. Their music was different than ours. Their vices, too. Or rather, my parents had none to speak of.

To paraphrase a classic line from Robert Altman’s movie “Nashville” – though searching for it online I see it attributed to Dean Martin -- the way they felt when they woke up in the morning was as good as they were going to feel all day.

When we arrived at Kenyon, on the other hand, it was typically with a bottle or two of wine in hand, our children joining us for cocktail hour. My feeling is that if you expect your kids to act like adults it doesn’t hurt to treat them like responsible adults.

From there we’d head to dinner, our options extremely limited. Kenyon’s campus is commonly rated as one of the most beautiful in the nation. But the picturesque main street of Gambier, Ohio, where the school is located, consists of little more than the college deli, bookstore, the Village Inn restaurant and Wiggin Street, a coffee house.

But we didn’t feel deprived in the least. The food at the V.I. as it’s known, was good, the prices laughably reasonable if New York City is your frame of reference.

The following morning we’d head off to class with our daughter. I’d be lying if I said they didn’t suffer some mortification to have us sit in. But at the price of college tuition these days, they could stuff their pride while we got some indication of the education our money was buying.

A road trip to Columbus was usually indicated. Having attended small, rural liberal arts colleges ourselves – my wife went to Denison, also in Ohio – we could appreciate that college can occasionally feel like prison; seeing the same faces and eating the same food day after day. So leaving the campus behind feels like a temporary furlough.

Somewhere in there we’d manage to wedge a second cocktail hour, this one including our children’s friends and their parents in our daughter’s dorm room. This served the purpose of making you feel part of an informal community. It also gave us confidence that our children’s friends weren’t criminals or drug addicts, and led to several lasting friendships with fellow parents.

The weekends also included the obligatory play, dance performance or art show, some of them including our children, and a breakfast or lunch in the student commons. The facilities are a lot swankier, boasting a lot more glass, vistas and salad bar choices, than in my day.

To our children’s credit, they didn’t let our presence inhibit their social lives. After we left for the night, returning to whatever inn or occasionally distant bed and breakfast had availability, they’d go out and party with their friends. Miraculously, they’d manage to be reasonably presentable and coherent the following morning.

Parting was always bittersweet. But far less so knowing that our daughters were happy and in good hands – their own, their professors, and those of their loyal friends.

Every stage of life has it charms. And the challenge is to find those of the phase you happen to be in. But college presents a rather singular, inimitable  experience – both as a student and a parent. However, I fear I might be pushing my luck if I showed up at some future grandparents weekend ready to party.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.