The First Day of College
(The photo at left is Melanie Heuerman and her daughter Natalie Nyquist.)
Forty-one years ago my dad helped me carry my dictionary, box of clothes, and graduation-gift typewriter into the sparse basement dormitory room: two bunk beds, two desks, and two closets with curtains covering the doorways. A lounge had a television with a few local channels and a pay phone for calls home.
We shook hands and my dad, who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, left. My college days at the University of Minnesota, Morris branch, began (Morris, Minnesota is a town of approximately 5,000 people in western Minnesota). I didn’t have a car; when I wanted to go home for a weekend, I would get on the highway and hitch a ride.
Yesterday we moved Natalie, my step-daughter, into her dormitory room at the same small liberal arts college in Minnesota. When Natalie began to think about college a couple of years ago, my intuition told me she should consider Morris. She visited and it fit her—small, intimate, academically excellent—she will blossom in this nurturing environment where people care about students and learning.
The campus—still recognizable—had changed in significant ways in 41 years: more buildings, more dorms, and a state-of-the-art fitness center. Two giant wind-mills furnish much of the power for the campus. As I could in 1965, Natalie can walk anywhere on campus within five minutes. I felt like I was in a time warp. Memories flooded back to consciousness.
We carried her graduation-gift laptop computer into the room ready for wireless and high speed cable internet. Student volunteers helped and made the job fast and easy. We carried her new television (with DVD/VHS capability) into the room wired for cable television with HBO. An iPod replaces the stereo of days past. A cell phone with built-in camera is a necessity.
A refrigerator, groceries, and futon follow into the coed dorm (Thank God, Matt, Natalie’s brother, was there to put the futon together). A modern cafeteria replaced the lunch-room of the past. Her mom traded cars with her; Natalie will drive the sporty Pontiac Grand Prix and Melanie will take over the Ford Taurus.
Two weeks earlier:
I noticed the tension begin to rise as moving day approached. An emotional young woman, Natalie began to cling to her mother. “I love you” began to fill the air more often than usual.
Melanie got quiet and cranky. The “I can’t wait for Natalie to be gone” comments turned into “I will really miss her when she is gone.” I began to feel irritated with Natalie too. I then realized that what I felt was the anticipated loss of her energy that fills our home. I will miss her too—a lot. She is one of my children, and I love her.
I’ve had this experience before: I drove my oldest child, Becky, to San Diego when, at 19, she moved West. The sense of loss was deep. I helped my second daughter, Cari, move into her dormitory room at the University of Minnesota. I looked into her empty bedroom every day for months. I cried as my son Michael drove his new Nissan Pathfinder out of our driveway on his way to be a ski-bum in Mammoth, California months after graduation from high school. I know the feeling of loss. Jokes about renting their bedrooms cover the male sense of loss.
Natalie worked two jobs her senior year in high school, banked her money, and was an A student. Natalie is gifted in science and language. She didn’t have to study much in high school to do well and is nervous about her study habits in college. She already has 20 credits from her high school advanced placement courses. Like her mother, she is a hard worker. She will be a star in college.
I took Natalie to lunch to give her my advice. I told her that her generation would have the job of saving the planet for future generations. Her goal, right now, is to major in marine biology and Spanish. I told her that I believed her core purpose in college was to learn all she could about whatever she discovered she loved to learn about.
If she still wanted to be a marine biologist as time went by, there would be lots of jobs in that field for people who worked hard and did well in college. She has a dream of doing graduate work in Australia, and I encouraged her to begin to make that dream a reality from her first day at college.
Natalie is a beautiful young woman. He eyes talk; an angry glare from her sends shock waves through my emotional network. A tearful, plaintive look tugs at my heart. Natalie is also mature about relationships and emotions beyond her years. She is creative. I hope she surrounds herself with bright people who help her be her best self. And I hope she requires the men in her life to treat her with the respect she deserves.
Natalie wonders how she will say goodbye to her mother—her anchor, as she says. Melanie is the “go-to” person for her children: she sacrifices for them, she is always there for them, and she always helps them grow as people.
Melanie wants her children to follow their own paths in life (not her unlived life—she will live that for herself) and she frees them to do so even as she grieves that their relationships will never be the same after the kids leave. Melanie will take care of herself after the children are gone; that is her job. Their job is to find their own way in life with the foundation she gave them. Letting go is necessary for parent and child alike as relationships change. Natalie will say goodbye to her mother and the parting will be bittersweet. They will say goodbye to a stage in their relationship—not to their love for one another.
Back to yesterday…
It was a good day. Melanie and I feel good about this college. Now it was time to say goodbye. Melanie, Natalie, and I, walked to the car. Tears rolled down Natalie’s cheeks and then Melanie’s. I hugged Natalie and told her she would have a great time. I went to the car to give mother and daughter time alone. They embraced for a long time—a mother freeing her daughter to go and live her life.
And a good life it will be.