The day before graduation. Everywhere you look, young people are wearing their long black gowns and those silly flat-topped caps. They seem unrecognisable - so formal, so poised, so clean-cut - you wonder what has happened to the scruffy undergraduates you know, and where these impostors have come from.
Meanwhile, an invasion of parents is underway. All across campus, small processions of families make their slow, staring way along the leafy walks. It's as though we have been attacked by an army of witnesses. Small detachments of their troops trail past in single file, eyes alert for the slightest sign of things to wonder at. The air is thick with the need to see and be seen.
The soon-to-be graduate comes first. Looking a little embarassed, a little awkward. He is bursting with happiness now that the moment has finally arrived, but true liberation is still some hours away. For now he must wear the straitjacket of ceremony. Like a wandering sailor who sights land, he wants to exult, wants to go wild and celebrate, but he must be careful, must steer with caution.
He wants to show off, to his parents, everything about this place that he is finally escaping from. He wants them to see and share it with him. But he wishes they wouldn't ask so many questions. Why can't they just enjoy the place with him, why do they always want to know things? There is so much he cannot afford to tell them. All through the last days rooms have been tidied, empty beer cans and stale pizza thrown away, clothes laundered and carefully ironed, girlfriends / boyfriends kissed and warned of the parent's coming. On this beautiful spring day, it seems as though the campus itself has cleaned up its act for the occassion - shaved, got a haircut, put on a new shirt.
Oh, and the parents - no less awkward, no less frightened of saying or doing the wrong thing. Moving ever so cautiously in this alien world, stopping to read every plaque, pointing to every building or statue. The father dressed in his best suit, carrying his camera like a weapon. The photograph by the big metal peace sign. The photograph under the bust of Ben Franklin. The photograph next to the sculpture that looks like a broken button. All the endless procession of smiles and poses that will end up at the bottom of some family album, only to be dredged up decades later by his grandchildren, who will point at the pictures and laugh and say - "look how young Daddy looks in this one. Look how much hair he has."
This desperate need to capture the passing moment.
But perhaps it is the impossibility of that task that this man with his camera is trying to fend off. As if every picture were control, as if every picture brought him closer to accepting the unbelievable fact that his son is now a man. As if every picture were his way of saying how proud he is.
And the mother, trailing along behind these two. Quietly proud in her immaculate sari / dress / trouser suit. Wearing her best pearls. Waiting patiently as they argue about camera angles, try to settle on what photographs are worth it. Beaming at the other families passing by as if wanting to include them in her triumph, in the warmth of her moment. The instinct of one who wants to whip out pictures of her family and start showing them around, only for once she doesn't need to because the pictures are right there, walking beside her. Taking first her husband's arm and then her son's, the slight weight of her hand on his arm telling him everything he needs to know about how she feels.
Whatever language they speak, or clothes they wear or distance they come from, parents and children are the same everywhere. And that's good to know.
Categories: Life, Whimsy