On Dropping Our First Child Off at College

Part I

I had never been to the college our daughter had chosen. Sofia had visited Kenyon with my parents, and I knew that my grandfather and uncle had gone there, but my April visit was canceled due to the outbreak. So when it was time to go on August 26, I wasn’t sure where she was leading me.

The route we normally take to Ohio got us only halfway, then we had to turn north toward Uniontown. We climbed the jagged mountains of Pennsylvania past historic battlefields, pre-colonial stone houses, and painted images of young George Washington in his ruffles and blue velvet, and I felt the same rush of awe and drama that I did when I went to college in New England. The East, with its founding history, plaques and pedigree, felt majestic and weighty. I instead felt like any girl from the cornfields of flyover country.

Kenyon told kids to pack light in case they had to move to a quarantine dorm, so the car was only half-full: a full-length mirror, a fan and a lamp, an area rug and a duffle bag of clothes, plus some photos to decorate the double Sofia would occupy by herself on a campus populated with only freshmen and sophomores.

When I went away to college, the kids I met who grew up in cities along the coast were worldly and impressive. It was easy for me to go from a silent admiration of Manhattan, Boston, Exeter or Choate to a full summation of the associated person as intelligent, powerful, even heroic.

As Sofia and I drove over the National Turnpike, American flags flapped around historic inns and famous taverns and I pictured revolutionaries in ragtag uniforms 300 years ago mapping attacks against the British. On this day, much of the red, white, and blue was supplied by yard signs and flags emblazoned with “Trump-Pence 2020.”

The problem with sanctifying people is that everything else becomes profane. My idols shone so brightly there was no choice for me but to be dull. Destined to chase after them, waiting for benediction.

After Sofia and I crossed the Ohio River into my home state, I felt the let-down of the Shoe Carnival strip mall where we stopped to get coffee. The freeway we took, bland and monument-less, was wet from a storm, but I couldn’t help notice how the water streaming over the concrete shimmered like platinum in the late afternoon sun.

An hour later we would slow down at a college campus of Gothic Revival sandstone that tapered into a row of clapboard markets, Victorian houses converted into academic departments, and a post office with a weathervane cupola.

But before that — when we first bumped onto a 2-lane country road and I knew we were getting close — I rolled down the windows. The air smelled like watermelon and hay, wet fields and crickets. The road tossed us up then held us tight, like a swing at the elementary school playground. We drove past velvety blue soybean fields and tin roof silos, barns taken back into the earth by vines and houses with their paint all rained off, piles of wild honeysuckle and fences fashioned of hay rolls.

Here was the Ohio countryside I couldn’t wait to leave when I was 18. It was so beautiful, in the quiet way that home is. Something I wouldn’t have recognized back then, even if it were right in the mirror in front of me.

Part II

On a day that started with covid self-testing in an athletic center but had no departure deadline, I didn’t know how long to stay. Sofia didn’t seem to need me to leave — except for when I walked too slow or the time I said “micr-o-wave.” There were so many things to do: hang up mirrors and smooth on sheets, unwrap new duvets and take ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. I wanted to buy her everything that was missing — a phone charger, a box of tissues, the books she hadn’t ordered yet — as if currency would cease to exist when I left. 

Then her Reebok’s came unglued, the only warm shoes she had brought, and there was still time after eating General Tso’s tofu from the dining hall on a secluded spot on the lawn to drive out to Lowe’s for contact cement (and another fan for her room). 

When that too was assembled, and I could see that the new lightbulbs made her room a little cozier in the darkening evening, I said, “Well, I guess I’ll get going now.” 

She gave me a long, long hug, and said, “Thank you so much for helping me get everything all set up.” She insisted on walking me to the car and, in that moment I became unsure of who was leaving who.

As I drove away toward the hotel, shirred clouds of peach and rose and amber glowed against a sea blue sky. It felt like traveling inside a conch shell. Was launching an 18-year-old like spiraling deeper into life or opening outward?

I thought about how delicate she seemed: her slight frame, her porcelain skin, her detailed and careful ways. I wanted to cradle her and deliver her to the next person who would take care of her. But as she had watched me drive away, she was calm, contained. She didn’t look like she was searching for idols.

It was a quiet freedom that she was getting, a sober one. Not the wild one of my college days when I expected a pinnacle, lashing out against life if it didn’t deliver. It was a freedom that we were aware could be taken away at any point. I had the feeling that she would take every day gently in her hands.

I tried to take pictures of the sunset outside the hotel, but the camera only captured the telephone poles and the taillights of a car driving away. The sun went down and the fountain kept tinkling and pickup trucks kept rumbling around the square as if nothing had happened that night.

Part III

On the drive home, sadness did not come in a flooded rush. It was more like a thread, a thread that had to stretch so far it would always be tight.

Like a spider’s silk, it is only visible in certain lights, when it shines like a sliver blade. You feel it when you’re trying to go somewhere and you get all tangled up. But even if no one else senses it or sees it, I know it is there. It is always there.