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Birth pangs


WE RECENTLY dropped our first-born off for his freshman year of college. I am now sufficiently recovered to relate our experience, though the pain in my back has not yet gone entirely away.

Our first chore was to pack roughly 8,000 cubic feet of stuff into a car with maybe 50 cubic feet. In our family, high-level packing of this kind requires a tight-knit, two-person team, consisting of one person to put things in the car while the other points out that it's in the wrong place.

We have quality people in both these important roles, but the turning point came when our college freshman actually assisted , showing yet another terrifying sign of maturity.

Stuff yearns

With his help we soon had the car tightly packed with a wide variety of crushed stuff, with a bike hanging off the back. You couldn't have added a paper clip. I was afraid the car might explode from the outward pressure of compressed stuff, yearning to be free.

In the midst of packing, Hurricane Fran blew through. A large tree limb came down, breaking a downspout off the house, but we barely noticed.

The next morning at 5 we were on the road, headed south, grateful that the rain had stopped, and oblivious to the rising floodwaters of the Shenandoah Valley, which just happened to be our destination.

Time-honored tactic

We arrived at the college about 8: 30 a.m. Russ had soccer try-outs at 9, which left us to carry most of his stuff up two flights of stairs to his room. The memory alone causes lower-back pain. The upper-class, move-in helpers we had been promised didn't show up until noon, by which time the real work was done. Offering to help after help is needed is a classic, time-honored younger-generation tactic, one I remember perfectly myself. How nice to see it continuing among tomorrow's leaders.

Soon the dorm was alive with activity as baby-boomer parents busied themselves transforming drab rooms into palaces of comfort. I thought we had stuff; we were minimalists compared to some. We saw big TVs and sound systems, computers and furniture of all kinds, including sofas.

Some parents spent the morning on their hands and knees, utility knives in hand, cutting wall-to-wall carpeting and padding to fit. One kid was filling his aquarium.

We saw elaborate floor-to-ceiling shelf systems being assembled by eager parents as their bored offspring stared into space, no doubt gleefully thinking, "In just a few hours they'll be gone."

The biggest surprise was the popularity of cinder blocks for bookcase building. Is this some kind of cruel after-effect of a childhood centered around Legos? I saw diminutive middle-aged moms carrying big cinder blocks up two and three flights of stairs, huffing and puffing in ways that suggested Lamaze. I wanted to say, "How about a nice cleansing breath?"

But then I thought, maybe this is a type of birth, after all -- the birth of a new stage of life for parent and child. (Hout, hout.) And as with most births, it's messy and there's some pain. (Push! Push!)

We, too, were marching in this parade of parents fussing endlessly over their nearly grown children, and wondered, "Are we industrious and caring, or is this just a sign that we're having a little trouble letting go?'

Placing the bed

When Russ got back, totally exhausted by a grueling soccer practice, we got right in the spirit of things by quizzing him mercilessly over meaningless things. "Where do you want your bed, Russ? Over here? With the headboard that way? Or against that wall? How about behind the door? What do you think? More private? We could put it closer to the heater, if you want. But maybe it's better to be far away. What do you think?"

What does he think? He thinks we're nuts, is what he thinks. And he's right. Clearly it's time for us to leave, but we don't. We hit the local WalMart for a cheap bookcase. We have dinner in the dining hall, and then, finally, we do some surprisingly clear-eyed farewells at the car. I tell him for the 50,000th time not to do anything stupid. And we leave.

Though the weather is clear, the rivers are rising and our emotions with them. The day has gone well but for 50 miles we yell at each other over nothing. At Harper's Ferry, I notice big water on the Shenandoah and Potomac, though it would be another day to the crest that would make national news. Our own personal news is much less dramatic; there's one less kid at home and it feels like a loss. We sneak across the river, and drive quietly toward higher ground.

Russell George is a freshman at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Dick George is a writer in Baldwin.

Pub Date: 9/19/96

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