Sand In My Shoes

Best College Lesson: No Place Like Home

Ryan’s son was coming home from college.

And so, as Ryan mowed his green grass and the May sun shone from a blue Delft sky, he watched two squirrels playing tag like he used to with his son Rory on the way home from pre-school. He steered the Black and Decker away from the daffodils, dandelions, and wild sunflowers and then shut off the loud motor to listen to an acapella doo wop group of birds belting out solos and harmonies from a tall leafy red maple.

He gazed up at the happy feathered family on the high, safe branches near a sturdy winter nest.

Ryan smiled.

His own nest would no longer be empty by nightfall, and for the next 10 weeks of spring and summer, until the fall again separated his son from him like the trees would lose their leaves. But Ryan would save the melancholy for the season of shorter days and yellow lawns and a silent kid’s room.

Ryan danced through the rest of the lawn singing “School’s Out for Summer,” that was a hit when he was in college.

The mailman smiled at Ryan, stuffed envelopes into the mailbox, and said, “I remember that one,” and strolled on in a pair of shorts.

And then Ryan parked the mower, jumped into his beat-up old jalopy, steering northwest into the verdant hill-crumpled vistas of upstate New York to pick up his son from his sprawling campus nestled on the banks of the sparkling Hudson where Rory was taking his last final exam of his freshman year.

Ryan realized that after 15 years of precious father/son time driving Rory to and from three schoolhouses, this would be the very last time he would pick up his son from school. Rory’s college did not allow dorm freshmen to have cars. But this summer, Rory intended to get his driver’s license, vote in his first election primary, work a full-time summer construction job, save for a used car, and then room with three other school pals in an off-campus pad in his sophomore year.

Ryan’s radio remained mute on the long trek, cherishing the soundtrack of memories. He thought of the day last summer he and Rory spent together in Bridgehampton, visiting the School Street boyhood home and Cooks Lane potato farm of Carl “Yaz” Yastrzemski, visiting a fascinating Bridgehampton Museum exhibit of the great Red Sox slugger. They ate lunch at an Italian place in town, and Rory talked nervously about leaving home for the first time on his own.

Going away to school was his son’s decision, and although Ryan dreaded the idea, he was happy that the kid had made the adult decision to leave the nest. “I don’t wanna go, Dad,” he’d said. “But I feel like I have to, because I’ll always regret it if I don’t.”

Ryan’s mother, who’d crossed the Atlantic from Ireland at 18, had given all her seven kids the same advice in life: “Travel and take chances while you’re young.” All of her American born kids heeded and benefited from that sage advice.

Still, the night before Rory left for school was a mournful time. The morning ride up to drop him off at college was filled with goofy jokes to keep from weeping, long silences, and reassuring glances. The goodbye was brief, and heart aching.

On the ride home, Ryan kept glancing at the empty seat beside him.

In those eight months away at school, Rory came home for holidays, long weekends, and spring break. Ryan noticed his son grow more confident, world wise, independent in word and deed. He had become, well, smarter.

Planning to be a political science major, Rory would initiate long informative conversations on the policies of FDR, the poisonous effect of politicians from both sides of the aisle accepting corporate money, especially from special interest groups of Big Pharma, energy, and banking. He’d share YouTube lectures by Noam Chomsky and discuss with informed opinions the current state of affairs in Washington, D.C. and the nation.

But he was still a kid.

Still a teenager who loved shooting hoops with childhood pals, texting and Snapchatting with girls, binge-watching “Friends’ and “Two and a Half Men” reruns on rainy days, and raving about the latest Star Wars, caped crusader, or horror movie.

Beautiful.

Few college kids realize it, but in that parenthesis of time between childhood and adulthood when you are carefree, single, and stoned on dreams would often be the best days of their lives.

Until they had kids of their own.

When Ryan arrived at the campus parking lot Rory and his dorm mates — who would be his pad-mates next semester — lugged down bags of dirty clothes, comforters, a TV, desk lamp, computer, microwave, books, toiletries, and assorted junk and piled them into Ryan’s SUV.

Then Ryan drove south with his son.

“How you doing?” Ryan asked.

“Tired,” Rory said. “Writing papers and studying late all week for finals.”

“How do you think you did?”

“Very well.”

“Proud of you.”

“Thanks, Dad. And thanks for picking me up.”

Ryan didn’t mention that this was probably the last time he’d ever pick his son up from school.

“Any regrets about going away to school?” Ryan asked.

“No. I learned a lot. Had some great teachers. One who was amazing. Learned a lot about myself, too. No regrets. Thanks for giving me this opportunity, Dad.”

“Sounds like it was worth every penny.”

Then Ryan listened to his son say the words that have guided courageous explorers, astronauts in peril, war-weary soldiers and seasick sailors, and great characters of fiction from Homer’s Odyssey to Steven Spielberg’s ET.

“But I can’t wait to get home . . .”