My son went to college with merely two suitcases and a backpack in tow, following Cornell’s creative Coronavirus packing policy. The limited load was so that he could move himself into his room alone to quarantine once he took a COVID test. We said goodbye briefly in a car pool line to keep possibly infected parents out of the dorms.
I am very grateful to Cornell’s cautiousness, although it is giving me unsettling flashbacks to my own solo send off when I left for Oberlin College from New York City traveling with only a high school friend and a duffel bag. “Just pack like you’re going for a few weeks” was my mother’s sage advice. It seemed reasonable to me, as I filled a big weekend bag for a semester of school. When I arrived with my one bag to the sight of my roommate’s neatly placed plethora of possessions, I felt like I was on my own Island. And away from Manhattan, in many ways I was.
My City friends and I were the product of a different parenting planet. We were brought up by liberal folks who were more focused on social justice and free child rearing philosophies than the conventional right of passage college drop off. We marched alone in DC, figuring out our own transportation. We drove cross country, having never driven on a highway before. We figured it out.
While I appreciated the freedom our parents’ laid-back style afforded us, their unconventional approach to parenting has left me with a surreal dorm move in memory. In fact, it feels so unbelievable that I recently checked with my friend I flew to college with on it’s veracity. Reminiscing on a walk around the Reservoir, she confirmed it was true. To make myself feel better, I laughed about another friend’s marathon three-way drop off saga, in which he drove his belongings to college, returned his parents’ car home, and hopped a train back up to school.
Cornell’s pandemic policy required us to ship anything beyond my son’s two suitcases and backpack ahead of time to a specified moving company near Ithaca, NY for pre-arrival delivery to his dorm room. We had intended to bring the boxes to a local UPS store, but in keeping with Cancel 2020, our circumstances went abruptly south with tropical storm Isaias’ sweeping force winds plowing through our suburban street, downing multiple trees and our electricity.
In the blazing heat of a blacked out house the next morning, I spontaneously said to my son, “Let’s drive your boxes to Cornell. Right now!” He eagerly agreed, anxious to flee New Jersey for some AC and a phone charge. Following our nearsighted fight-or-flight response, we set out on a eight-hourlong round trip road trip from Northern New Jersey to Upstate New York with the absurd goal of dropping off four boxes and getting home in one day—a feat that could have been accomplished in eight minutes at a local shipping site.
But it was in the chaos of this outlandish dress rehearsal drop off that I realized there is no right rite of passage and that we got to actually have the ideal unimagined one twice. Our impromptu semi-send-off allowed me to let my extra long hair down and let my loose self soar. Leaving on a dime, eating takeout in my lap, belting lyrics to radio songs out loud.These were my specialty, and the joyful and unbounded ways of being that I got to model for my son in eight laissez fare, up close hours.
And on our bleary late night drive home, I could see clearly that I was now in sync with myself and my son. With conventions stripped aside, pulling out of a desolate drive through, surrounded by Mack trucks and stretches of highway, I felt a shift. A lefty mom and a middle-of-the road son discussed politics for the first time without fighting. The chaos and spontaneity had created a closeness that allowed us to meet each other halfway. And it occurred to me, as we gently exchanged ideas, that my son’s sweet departure reminded me of his entry into my world. The middle of the night nursing’s that broke boundaries of time and space to form closeness and connection were exactly like our journey now. Letting go of structure on our time-defying drive had created the same against-the-grain bonding where we were the only two people in the world.
Before the pandemic, I was hoping to correct my isolating college drop off experience by being more involved with my son’s send off. Yet now after the upheaval in the world and our road tripping, I can’t and realize I don’t want to. From my parents’ hands off philosophy, I gained a sense of freedom and a killer knack for problem solving. These qualities have been instrumental in navigating through life and will be particularly helpful in muddling through today’s uncertain times. I hope from the unconventional conditions before us that my son gains these important coping skills at college, starting by moving himself in and unpacking his own two suitcases. And if he can’t figure it out, I am just a FaceTime call away.