It’s late March, 1992. My mother is standing by the piano with an overturned hat in her hands. In the hat are four folded squares of paper. On each square, she has written one of each of these names:
- Allegheny College, Meadville, PA
- Centre College, Danville, KY
- Miami University, Oxford, OH
- Ohio Northern University, Ada, OH
I’ve applied and been accepted to eight different schools, although I’m not sure why I went after so many. I guess I want options, option, options, and now that I have them, I’ve narrowed them down to the four that “fit best.” I don’t exactly know what that means, but I can say the past four years have been tough ones. (Isn’t high school tough for everyone?) I want to go somewhere new, completely start over. I want to go by gut feel alone.
My mom shakes the hat and peers over its brim. “Are you ready?” she asks.
“I think so.”
In the middle of the dining room table there sits a large bouquet of purple and white hyacinths. The room is steeped in their sticky-sweet scent. I breathe them in as my mom reaches into the hat.
She opens the square slowly at first, then quickly and triumphantly. “Allegheny!” she says with naked delight.
My mom hails from Pennsylvania. She hasn’t said so, but I know Allegheny is her first choice. She and my dad took turns slogging through all the campus tours and overnights with me, and at Allegheny, she was different. She was more relaxed, maybe, like she’d found the place she’d feel comfortable enough to let me try myself out for a while.
Now her eyes squint. Her face is flushed. “Allegheny!” she says again.
“Allegheny!” I say to let it roll around on my tongue. It doesn’t feel right. I say it again just to be sure.
She watches me for a moment. Then she drops the square into the hat and reshakes the collection. “Best two out of three,” she says brightly.
I hold my breath as she pulls the next square.
“Centre College!” she says.
My heart skips. I grin all over myself.
She surveys my response. The square goes in again. And then it comes out.
She holds it up to my face and then places it in my hands. I feel sure of this square, sure of her handwriting, sure of this final decision. And while part of me feels guilty—Centre is the farthest away, the most expensive, the one with the smallest scholarship—the other part of me wraps my life around it.
My mother smiles. She gives me a hug, and for a while neither of us lets go.
I think about how impossible it must be to let your children strike out on their own. I know it’s impossible because I can’t bear the thought even now, with the boys as small as they are. Occasionally, I drive them past Ohio State University. “There it is, guys!” I exclaim. “Look, Ohio Stadium! Maybe one day you’ll be Buckeyes just like Pa. It’s close to home; I’ll bake you brownies whenever you want them.”
They kick their feet happily and peer through the car windows. I nod smugly, because I’m not above brainwashing. I’m not above doing whatever it takes to keep them here.
This is how I know my mom is a better mother than I am.
You can’t know at 18 what it means to tell a college to expect you in the fall—how the next four years will influence the decisions you make from that point. You’ll cull your knowledge and prospects and social mores from those first years of adulthood, and those years will shape everything else. I look around me and know that everything I have, everything I strive for, all my beliefs and convictions—everything, everything—comes from the foundation my parents set for me, and the person I grew into at school.
My mom helped me prepare, helped me pack, helped me go. She helped me come home when I needed to, then helped me go back out again.
In my life, I’m grateful for so much. But that moment in the dining room, with my mom and the hat and the hyacinths and the hope I held in my hands—that’s the moment I’m most grateful for, because it led to everything else.
Love you so much, Mom. Thank you for everything. A very happy birthday to you. Here’s to your finest year yet.
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