On a hot Sunday in June, a grandmother climbs up to a backless seat in the bleachers of a high school gym whose air-conditioning has conked out. Students are handing out water bottles to the sweating crowd. She fans herself with a sun hat and listens to the principal testing the mic. The graduates in their caps and gowns have lined up in the corridor.
The band begins to play and the smiling graduates march in. The grandmother knows that most of them are wearing sneakers or flip-flops (except for a few girls who have saved up to buy Jimmy Choos or Manolo Blahniks). Under their robes, many wear shorts and T-shirts, not the fancy clothes she would have expected.
As the speeches begin, she waves to her grandson, who tips his cap to her. Her daughter and son-in-law hold hands as they watch the ceremony. The grandmother shifts in her uncomfortable seat and remembers the growing-up years of the young man whose achievement she has traveled 1,200 miles to celebrate.
He was such a tiny baby that the rabbi and mohel who officiated at his bris insisted on consulting a pediatrician before going ahead with the event. Now he is six feet tall. He was a friendly child who introduced himself to other kids easily at the playground when he was three or four. On holidays, he loved to lay out cookies on a platter in her kitchen but his nose barely reached the table top. Somebody had to put him on a chair to do the job.
His family moved around a lot and somehow he did not get into a Hebrew school at the right time. His great-grandfather saw to it that he was enrolled in a special program for kids who fell through the cracks and might not otherwise have received a Hebrew education. His bar mitzvah was a gala event and the grandmother remembers unexpectedly weeping with joy.
In high school, this child blossomed like a flower. His grades were excellent and he began to read voraciously, both assigned books and those she often fed him. His grandfather discussed science, astronomy, astrophysics and current events with him. His friends were children of many cultures, races and religions. He got involved in politics when the mother of a friend ran for local office and he volunteered to work on the campaign.
In the summer following his junior year, he won a scholarship to study globalization in the 21st century at Brown University. Now, he knows the facts about the issues of the day and is familiar with the problems affecting other countries. He speaks Spanish and French and is teaching himself Chinese. On a televised program with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, he asked questions that prompted compliments by the governor. On his feet, the boy thinks fast and is comfortable at a lectern addressing school assemblies of 500 people.
Now, as she watches him stand with his fellow graduates and toss his cap into the air, the grandmother knows that it’s only a few months until he is gone – off to college to study international relations – probably leading to a life among people of other cultures with whom he is already quite comfortable. Undoubtedly, he will do something to make a difference in the world – something meaningful. She is proud of him. Yet, she is concerned about the economy and the job situation he will face. She worries about outside influences in the freedom of a college campus for a child who has never been on his own before. She prays that he will be safe.
Already the grandmother misses him but she has been through this leave-taking with her own three children. She missed her artistically inclined boy who drew pictures on his bedroom wall. She remembers her other little boy who stood on his bed and insisted that he saw elephants when he had a high fever. She thinks of the lovely girl who baked hamantashen from scratch in her kitchen. All three of them are married now and have children of their own, but the grandmother has not forgotten the feelings she had when they went away to college.
She remembers mailing packages of salamis, bagels and cookies. They lived in expensive dorms with cockroaches and bees. She visited them at college in sloppy rooms with all their clothing strewn across futons on the floor.
“How do you know which stuff is clean and which is dirty?” she asked. “Easy,” the boy said. “You pick it up and smell it!” He was straight-faced and serious. Yuck!
Sometimes they came home for holidays. Other times they went on trips or partied in some exotic locale that hosted spring break for young people. The grandmother had gone to college, too, but she had traveled by subway and had worked after school. At that age, she had never been anywhere but the Catskill Mountains.
Now, she looks at her daughter and son-in-law, remembering how it feels when the last child, like her grandson, goes away. There is no point in telling them that, after the child leaves, an emptiness settles on the house. The clock ticks louder. The silence in the mornings and at mealtimes is deafening. You close the door to the child’s room and do not go into it for weeks, even to clean up the mess left behind. You’re all choked up when you finally do it.
The grandmother will not tell her daughter and son-in-law that the hardest part of raising a child is the letting go.
Toby J. Rosenstrauch is an award-winning columnist and a resident of Florida. Her first novel, Knifepoint, was recently published.