KOH2RVA: Day 245

2013-05-11 12.18.51I confess: I did not bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, yesterday. Instead I drove to Fredericksburg for my daughter Catherine’s college graduation. But there was something heavenly about it all the same. I found myself full of emotion, and every time a family cheered for a son or daughter whose name was called a lump would rise in my throat. I thought about how many hours were represented by that moment: hours of caring for those children, watching them grow, teaching them to tie their shoes, taking them to school for the first time, and now this—this culminating moment when all those hours were rewarded by the calling of a name.

When Catherine’s name was called I stood and cheered as awkwardly as all the other parents. I wish I had done it better, more enthusiastically. I wish I had brought an air horn. I wish she could have heard my voice above all those other voices and known just how proud of her I was in that moment and yet, somehow, no prouder than I have been in every moment of her life.

No, I didn’t bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond yesterday. I hope somebody did. I was busy in Fredericksburg, holding on to the heaven I have, and storing up for those times when heaven seems far, far away.

I love you, Catherine.

First in the Family

4540_1109598855489_1092360328_30340570_8257125_nLast Saturday my daughter Catherine graduated from high school (the appropriately named St. Catherine’s school for girls here in Richmond, where instead of the traditional cap and gown graduates wear full-length white dresses and carry bouquets of daisies).  We teased her about being the first in the family, and in some ways it’s true.  I went to college after my junior year in high school; my wife Christy finished high school a year early; my daughter Ellie finished a semester early.  None of us completed our senior year or went to the senior prom.  Catherine did.  So, when Ellie went to pick up a cake for dinner on the night of Catherine’s graduation she asked the baker to write on the cake, “Congratulations, Catherine: First in the Family!”

All the celebration of the day brought to mind a quiet, family celebration when Catherine turned 13.  We called it her “coming-of-age” ceremony.  I’d like to publish part of it here in tribute to that thirteen-year-old who has become such a beautiful eighteen-year-old, and the first in our family to finish high school.

I love you, Catherine.

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A Litany for Catherine’s Coming-of-Age
December 18, 2003

Jim:  Catherine, today you are a teenager. 

No longer a child, not yet a woman, you have entered that unique, in-between, stage in which you will some days want to climb up in your mother’s lap and have a good cry and other days want to go to Kenya, zip around in a Land Rover, and shoot pictures of stampeding elephants.  That steady tug-of-war between childhood and adulthood is necessary: it makes you strong, and someday it will make you strong enough to leave the home of your childhood and start a home of your own.

But not yet.

Now is the time to explore your new freedoms and wrestle with your new responsibilities.  It will be good work, but it will be hard work.  As your family we commit ourselves to loving you and supporting you in this challenging time of transition. 

Ellie:  Catherine, I will do my best to be a good big sister to you, teaching you what I have learned along the road you are getting ready to travel.  Your experience will not be exactly the same as my experience, but if I can help to smooth out some of the rough spots, know that I will.

Jim:  Catherine, as your father I will feel the pain as I watch you grow up and away from your childhood.  I will miss the little girl you were.  But I will also rejoice in your new accomplishments, and your new maturity.  I will tell my friends proudly, and with some amazement, that I am the father of not one but two teenaged daughters.

Christy:  Catherine, the heart of your mother aches with the loss of her little girl—the one whose wispy blonde hair and bib overalls were so cute.  Sometimes I hardly recognize the tall, beautiful woman you are becoming.  But even as I lose that baby girl I look forward to sharing womanly secrets with you and someday being a best friend to you as my mother is to me. 

Catherine:  I accept the gifts of your love and support.  I will cherish them now and depend on them in the years ahead.

Jim:  Catherine, in the Jewish tradition, when a girl reaches adolescence she becomes responsible for her own soul.  As a baptized believer you have already accepted that responsibility: you have made Jesus your Lord and pledged to follow him in faithful discipleship.  But as you turn thirteen the responsibility for your life of faith, for your moral choices, will be yours more than ever before.  I pledge to let go the reigns of my own responsibility for your “religion” more and more and to let you explore the boundaries of your faith with joyful abandon.  I also charge you to take full responsibility for your spiritual life: whether you continue to live as a committed follower of Jesus Christ will be up to you now, and not your mother or me.

Catherine:  I accept responsibility for my soul with fear and trembling.  I accept responsibility for my soul with joy and gratitude.

Jim:  Then let us celebrate Catherine’s coming-of-age, and let us seal this moment with a solemn, apple juice toast:

Ellie: (raising her glass): To Catherine, may you enter this exhilarating, exasperating “in-between time” with courage and with grace.

Christy (raising her glass): To Catherine, may you become to me not only a dear daughter, but also a loving sister, and a laughing friend.

Jim (raising his glass): To Catherine, may you continue to make me proud by the way you travel the road between childhood and adulthood.

Catherine (raising her glass): And to all of you, for all you have been, and all you will be, to me.

Clink!  Clink!  Clink!  Clink!

SOMERVILLE, ELEANOR G.

DSC03153On Saturday, my daughter Ellie graduated from the College of Charleston in South Carolina.  It was everything a Charleston graduation should be:  a warm, spring morning with plenty of sunshine, but also with delicious breezes swirling around proud family and friends as we sat in rented chairs beneath a shady canopy of live oak trees.  The faculty processed in their regalia, and the graduating seniors came out by the hundreds, with the women in white dresses, holding roses, and the men in white dinner jackets and black bow ties. 

Very elegant. 

It was while I was sitting there, listening to the commencement speaker and waiting for my daughter to walk across the stage, that I remembered her first day of school, some 16 years ago.  I wrote that experience up in a column for the church newsletter that was later re-printed in the local newspaper.  I’d like to post it here as well, and dedicate it with excusable pride to that little girl who has grown up to be such a remarkable young woman:  Eleanor Gray Somerville.

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Monday was my daughter Ellie’s first day of school. 

Because we don’t live very far from Wingate Elementary we decided to walk.  I put on my coat and tie for work and she put on her almost empty book bag and picked up her nap mat. 

“Ready?” I asked.

“Ready!” she said, probably with more confidence than she felt.

We said goodbye to Christy and Catherine who waved to us from the window as we crossed North Main Street and headed down Elm.  We had lots to talk about and before we knew it we were there, standing in front of the big double doors of her school.  I think we both took a deep breath before going in.

We found Ellie’s name on a list with all the other kindergarteners in Mrs. Deese’s class.  She pointed it out—small, block letters that read: SOMERVILLE, ELEANOR G.  “That’s me,” she said in a whisper.

We made our way to Room 20A through a sea of boys and girls in Room 20, all of them wearing book bags and clutching nap mats to their chest, all of them looking around wide-eyed at their new classroom, some of them holding tightly to the leg of a parent.  In Ellie’s room Mrs. Pierce was collecting lunch money and notes from the children as they arrived while Mrs. Deese bent down and said hello to each one.  I led Ellie to an empty chair.

“What’s your name?” I asked the girl next to her.

“Mmmfgh.”

“What?”

“Mimmzff.”

“I still didn’t hear you.”

“MEGAN!” she bellowed.

“Oh, Ellie, this is Megan.  Megan, this is Ellie.”

And then, with introductions completed, there was nothing to do but leave.  I put my hand on Ellie’s shoulder.  “Are you going to be all right?”  She nodded slowly.  “Okay,” I said, helplessly.  “Have a good day.”  And then I turned and walked away, resisting the temptation to look back.

I know what I would have seen.

My daughter, sitting in a plastic chair with her back to me.  That slender frame.  Those small shoulders.  That delicate neck.  My daughter, separated from me now not only by distance, but also by independence.  My daughter, on her own and doing fine.

Parents of kindergarteners have this fear, you see, that their children won’t be able to make it without them.  That’s why they hover, and ask questions, and hesitate to leave.  But there is another, greater fear, and that is the fear that their children will be able to make it without them, in fact, that they will get along just fine.

As I stepped across Bivens Street and back onto Elm I realized that from now on there will be in the heart of this earthly father the question that must always be in the heart of the Heavenly Father:

“Do you need me?”