First Words

Getting Through the First Year

By Nancy Grove

“Dear Liz, you’re in!” read the letter from Vassar. From now on there would be no more pretending that our youngest was not really moving away from home next year. Liz had made it abundantly clear since her sophomore year of high school that she would attend college on the East Coast and, in fact, had applied nowhere west of Ohio. And she already had a very heavy, very long black wool coat (to convey that Manhattan chic in balmy California). She would be warm enough. I joined my daughter for moving-in day. However, we spent one last, memorable night at the Inn at the Falls, snuggled under the crisp linens drinking chamomile tea and having one of those unforgettable conversations that every parent holds close to the heart. It wasn’t about saying goodbye tomorrow; this young person has always been independent, wise beyond her years, and endowed with remarkably good judgment. It wasn’t about the empty nest; I was, in fact, looking forward to whatever increased personal space I might find in a household with two careers, aging parents, multiple pets, and other obligations. It was about being, oh, I don’t know, just so damn proud of how she had turned out.

The next morning the alarm sounded at 6:30. We had to pack, eat, check out, and be over to the campus by 8:00 sharp. I wanted her to have the best corner in a small room she had been told was a double with a third person in it. We arrived at 8:10; another mother-daughter pair had had the same idea and beat us by minutes. Actually the two roommates were quite content to say hello, check in, and get their mailbox keys, while the other mother and I navigated what felt like a high-stakes business negotiation, offering up the spectrum of theoretical room arrangements, the underlying principles of how one could divvy up the tiny space equitably, and voicing profuse concern for the rights of the unrepresented third party. No surprise that after the furniture was shuffled about 10 times the two early birds took up residence on either side of the window, and the third arrival was relegated to the entryway.

Mere weeks after Liz’ arrival was September 11th — a day on which we all longed to touch and hug loved ones, whether they were in the next room or on an opposite coast. The support the Vassar community provided during this time of chaos and loss was evident in Liz’ contribution to our family Christmas letter (each member provides a paragraph). “I cannot imagine having been anywhere else than Vassar on September 11,” her paragraph began. When Liz returned home for October Break (a new college tradition for me), she announced, “I’m a vegan.” After the initial shock, we sent her once-favorite foods to the freezer (baby-back ribs and ravioli), and her father, the family chef, accommodated Liz, introducing an increasing number of vegetarian entrées into our diet. A couple of short months later, we settled into a quiet family Christmas, but by mid-January Liz was more than ready to return to school, eager for second semester. Parting, this time, was matter-of-fact.

Second semester flew by, with long, dry spells in our communication. When I did hear from Liz, the semester was a veritable record of her newfound interests. She abandoned dorm life and opted to live in Vassar’s cooperative living arrangement. Her high-school theatrical interests transformed to political activism when she attended a peace rally in Washington, DC. And she was instantly worldlier, reading the newspaper daily. She was changing so much! However, despite the change and personal growth that Vassar helped my daughter to achieve, our relationship remained surprisingly unchanged. After I picked Liz up from the Oakland Airport in May and we returned home, we ended that first year in much the same way it began: lying in bed talking and sharing chamomile tea. My words of wisdom to freshmen parents... Yes, your children will change. Yes, it will get easier to send them off every year. And yes, your children are in good hands.

— Nancy Grove, mother of Elizabeth Graves ’05