Pomp and Circumstance

graduationThis time of year, friends post pictures of their kids’ proms and graduations. Better than cat videos, it’s something you just can’t turn away from. These teens are transformed for prom. The girl who slouched in her jeans and hoodie looks svelte in a form-fitting dress. The scruffy boy who was caked in soccer mud looks dashing in his tux and shiny shoes. Graduation is a joyous collection of action shots: getting the diploma, jubilant kids tossing their caps in the air, hugs and group shots with proud families.

I was in college before I realized that my high school prom and graduation were different from most. I attended a coed public school, but it had started as a school for girls. I always assumed, but can’t confirm, that the girls’ school beginnings were the reason graduating girls wore white dresses. Yes, 250 girls in long white gowns, each holding a dozen red roses. The 250 boys wore white dinner jackets with rose boutonnières, bow ties, and black pants. Not a mortar board in sight. This was a proud tradition that we didn’t question, though now I wonder if we looked more like a mass wedding.

It was probably a long, long ceremony for our families, as each one of us walked up to collect our diplomas, but we all had something else on our minds: prom. A couple of hours after graduation, we were going to our prom at a downtown hotel. I’ve never heard of another school scheduling prom on the same day as graduation – were we even still considered students of the school since we graduated? But it seemed to make sense at the time; we could get more mileage out of our debutante-grade white dresses, and it certainly made that one day a huge high point of our high school careers.

In college I had plenty of opportunities to dress up for dances, collecting a rainbow of gowns. And when I graduated, I was thrilled to finally wear a black robe and mortar board. I love pomp and circumstance. I’m ready to cry for anyone’s big day. Congratulations graduates!

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Prodigal Daughter

Girl-and-SuitcaseSpring semester is over and our daughter is flying home from college. Being about 750 miles away, it never seemed practical to drive her to campus or pick her up, so we flew instead. For her first semester, we traveled with two suitcases each to manage all of her clothes and books, and piled into a large rental car to buy bulkier supplies and ferry them to campus. Since then, we’ve visited, but she has handled the move-in and move-out work on her own. Not because we wouldn’t help, but because she was resourceful and capable. This week she shipped some things she’ll need over the summer, and packed up other items for a storage facility near school. Neat and tidy.

I went to college 500 miles away from home. For my first semester, the entire family drove to campus to move me in with my stuff. It was exciting, and bittersweet. They helped me shop for linens, made up my new dorm room bed, met my roommate, saw the cafeteria, and then they were gone. I made lots of new friends, but after a while, homesickness crept in. I was too far away to go home on the weekends, so I made do with Sunday night phone calls from the dorm’s hall phone and looked forward to flying home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring break. Starting my sophomore year, I had a car at school. I packed up my ragged Ford Galaxie 500 with albums, plants, and everything else a dorm room needs, and barreled through the Smoky Mountains. I remember singing at the top of my lungs, whether I had radio reception or not.

During visits home from school, I began to notice a little friction. I was accustomed to coming and going on my own schedule, but my family still expected me to be home for meals, and share details about where I was going and with whom. From my current vantage point I understand that parents are often the last ones to notice their children have grown up, and are managing to make good choices and informed decisions on their own. And I also understand that empty-nesters develop their own routines that are altered when kids reappear.

We don’t have a fatted calf to slaughter, but we’ll celebrate. Dinner out, soaking in all her news, delighted to have her at home for a while.

Derby Day

IMG_1309The first Saturday in May is a holiday for us, like Christmas or Thanksgiving. Special foods, serving pieces, decorations, time-honored traditions. Derby parties are a great reason to celebrate wonderful spring weather, but they’ve become an enduring connection to my hometown. Where ever we’ve lived, we’ve had Derby parties to share this shining Louisville moment with friends and family.

To host a Derby party for non-Kentuckians, there is pressure, as cultural ambassadors, to represent the very best Kentucky has to offer. Since most people only know about mint juleps, everything else on the menu seems exotic. Benedictine sandwiches, cheese grits, country ham, Derby pie, Henry Bain sauce. And if I’ve thought ahead enough to order them, modjeskas and bourbon balls from Muth’s. Country ham is usually the hardest to come by – no one in Delaware had even heard of it – so I’ve had to settle for lesser pork, but the sandwiches are still yummy.

We have a collection of Derby glasses – the inexpensive ones that juleps are served in at Churchill Downs. There’s a new design each year including a list of all of the past Derby winners. While silver julep cups would be classier, we proudly use our Derby glasses. It’s also a great time to pull out all of the Hadley Pottery and Louisville Stoneware serving pieces.

Guests get a Derby pin and a horse selection when they arrive. My husband has tried to learn the intricacies of para-mutuel betting so he can run the betting pool. One year we had a lawn-chair Derby on our drive-way: guests towing a lawn chair competing like the horses, governed by a roll of the dice (you had to be there). We awarded Derby Festival shirts and cups as gifts.

While watching the coverage on TV, we add color commentary based on our memory: people in the neighborhood around the track sell parking spots on their lawns, the infield is a crazy sea of humanity, natives go to the track on Friday for the Oaks, the dirt on the track is soft and deep (we know this because we ran a 10K that finished on the Churchill Downs track).

Then everything focuses in on the main event. The trumpeter calls the horses to the track, everyone stands to sing My Old Kentucky Home (cue me crying), and “they’re off!” No matter how many times I watch “the most exciting 2 minutes in sports”, I still hold my breath until they cross the finish line.

When you leave Churchill Downs, the ground is littered with discarded betting tickets. Trampled by the overflow crowd, they’ll get swept up the following day, as the city begins the adjustment back to normalcy. So we eat our leftovers, make room for a jar of mint simple syrup in the refrigerator, and carefully pack up the Derby glasses till next year.

Seeing What’s Next

binocularsLooking backward, you can see the patterns and trends of your life. Decisions that altered your path, and how things turned out. But seeing what’s next is hard, and a little scary. I think I know what I will do next weekend, this summer, and next year. It’s a shock when you realize the future is getting close.

Retirement is a mythical state that I can’t really picture. Puttering around on a golf course or standing on the deck of a cruise ship seems foreign. No longer having the structure of a job strikes me as unimaginable. And yet, if I stretch up on my tip toes and concentrate, I can almost see retirement on the horizon.

Deciding when to stop working feels like stepping off a cliff blindfolded. We keep doing the math, but it’s still hard to imagine that life. To make it a bit more concrete, my husband got an app for his phone that counts down the days and hours till a future retirement date. I’m not sure I want to look. My entire working life I’ve saved for retirement, but will it be enough? Ah, but when are we ever, really prepared for what we can’t foresee?

In those rare moments when I think about retirement, I imagine there will finally be enough time to read all of the books (and not think about that Twilight Zone episode with Burgess Meredith), time to travel, and to indulge our hobbies (hand-knit sweaters for everyone!) The future I see assumes we stay healthy and active. Maybe we’ll ride bikes through the midwest, or take an Airstream trailer cross-country (my husband is protesting that idea).

For now these are idle thoughts. I’m focused on work and what I need to do next week. But this new preoccupation is growing in my mind. I’ll inch closer to that cliff edge, and one day, step confidently into space, hopefully with better results than Wile E. Coyote.