Here’s a letter I wrote to my daughter when she graduated from high school this spring. The story in the letter was part of a toast at her graduation dinner.
June 5, 2016
Today is graduation day, here at last. You have worked hard for it, and I’m sure have some mixed feelings about the occasion. I expect positive sentiments outweigh negative ones at this celebration.
As we prepare for this evening, I’d like to write down some thoughts for tonight’s after-dinner toast, or roast. You remember your Sheehan school days ten years ago. Here’s your dad’s account of a young daughter, growing up. You’re looking toward a new future this week, and saying goodbye to Westwood High, but return for a moment to the time when you wore the Campus Cutie T-shirt to school for your first grade class picture. That would make you six, actually seven when that picture was taken.
Mom worked downtown on Newbury Street, so I was in charge of getting you to school in the morning. That’s a lot of tasks: get dressed, prepare breakfast, eat breakfast, get your school things together, pack lunch or lunch money, brush hair, put on shoes. Those last two items caused legendary friction. They were the last two items on our morning to do list.
At bottom, I think you did not want to go to school. I have no alternate theories. As we got close to going out the door, we would have remarkable struggle sessions. Painful hair brushing and shoes of proper tightness became two morning stumbling blocks. We both had plenty of lung power to prosecute our cases: go to school or not. Sometimes I would put one hand on each shoulder, your back to me, and guide you straight into the entryway. On those mornings, I knew the end was near. At least we would get out the door.
By the time we climbed into the car, we were both played out, so the drive to school was fairly quiet. It was certainly quiet when he pulled up to the curb at Sheehan, as all the other cars in the drop-off zone were gone! I pulled into the horseshoe-shaped driveway with no interference from other parents, to drop you off right at the door. It was actually pretty convenient.
It also meant another tardy marked down in your record. Those tardies became an issue of note at our evening dinner table, especially when your report card came in the mail. Whenever I heard the tally for the latest quarter, I thought, “That can’t be correct. We had way more than that.”
Good for both of us, those difficult morning sessions faded away after two years or so. Only a few of them turned truly dramatic, but quite a few of them resulted in another mark in the tardy column. You clearly did not mind walking into your classroom late. I think you probably arrived before your teacher sent the attendance sheet down to the secretary, so you could take your seat without reporting in to the office. For my part, I decided pretty early to follow a minimalist standard for brushed hair.
By now you know the conclusion of the story. You became super conscientious about not missing any school, in the morning or any other time. We could not persuade you to miss school. You devoted yourself to school with the same force of personality you showed when you resisted going to school in first and second grade. Mom and I stopped talking about tardies at the evening dinner table.
Today your school and your family honor you for all of your accomplishments over the past twelve years. You deserve every plaudit and more. In fact, you honor us with your diligence, joy and determination to do good work, and in all the qualities and skills you’ve developed to succeed in the course of growing up through three Westwood schools. You have everything you need now to be independent in a new life. Both Mom and I are completely confident you’ll succeed in the next chapters just as well as you have succeeded in the previous ones.
Thank you for managing all these transitions so well. We will miss you, and remember all the joy you brought to us.
Moreover your hair is always well brushed, your Birkenstocks don’t need to be tied, and they don’t take attendance at Georgetown.
Love and congratulations,
Mom and Dad
P. S. Here’s another remembrance, from the summer after second grade.
Interlude in August
Yesterday as I drove home from Maine, I thought about that sad topic again. What bothers me so? The prospect of my daughter leaving. Her leaving home, that will happen soon. That will happen before summer’s through, A happy childhood wrapped up and stored away. What brings these thoughts out of memory’s safe? I visited Reid State Park on Georgetown Island yesterday. My daughter visited Georgetown University that very day, To decide whether she would attend the school in the fall. So I already thought about her and her future, An impending adventure far away from home.
I glimpsed a mother scamper around a patio With her children just twenty-five yards away, Just beyond the bathhouse and a nearby wall. They appeared for only a second or two. How quickly my mind traveled back To a happy time with my daughter, years ago. Every summer, Emily and I rested up north in August, One week together before another school year starts. We slept in our tent, with bees on the outside, And daddy longlegs on the inside. Then we chose beds, bathrooms and maid service, Over sleeping bags, flashlights and campgrounds.
So in the summer of 2006, we drove to Lake George, A place in upstate with a wonderful amusement park. For our last place to stay, at the end of the week, We drove north to escape the traffic and noise a bit. We arrived at a modest motel on a golf course, Well away from summer traffic, go carts and gift shops.
Across from our room, a hundred yards or more, We spied a little rise, grassy, as you may see next to a tee. We thought, “Let’s wander over there, to explore a little bit.” The slope fell way down to a quiet gravel road on one side, Sloped gently into the golf course on the other. We looked around and thought, “We have some room here!”
We played on that little rise for almost an hour: Running, tackling, rolling in the grass, Laughing and shouting to each other. Boisterous play and no one cared.
What a magical moment in the late afternoon. Youthful exuberance and energy After a long trip in the car, to cap a busy week. She was so happy, her happiness became mine.
We played the way two people play When you are the only two people in the world – Freely joyous under the blue sky, Open air over the thick green grass.
That was the first time I played With my daughter like that, and the last. Before then, too young to play that rough, After, too old to play that rough with me. An unrepeatable hour in her life and mine, Touched with little-girl magic, Too special to happen again. My heart feels sad and happy whenever I think of it.
My little girl went away shortly after that interlude.
The golf course north of Lake George, that little hilltop, Captured the last few weeks of her overflowing childhood. Presently a young woman, ready to leave home, She won’t know how thoughts of that afternoon Rise up from sunny places in my mind. I blink, and a tear or two rolls down my cheek.