By Wendy Hodge
It is a Saturday, and I am standing in the end zone in Jordan Hare Stadium. Don’t worry – I have not decided to try my hand at college football. It is graduation day, and my daughter will be receiving her diploma in less than an hour. I’m at the edge of a sea of parents and grandparents and second cousins four times removed all crowded together. Some are holding handmade banners; others cradle bouquets of flowers or balloons. There’s even a dad with a giant bottle of champagne and a stack of plastic glasses. He’s ready to celebrate.
It’s the first of May, and already the Alabama sun is set on broil. Ladies are glistening, makeup slowly beginning to melt in the heat. Grandpas are breathing open-mouthed. Babies are squawling. Teenagers are asking “What is taking so long?!” It’s shaping up to be a real party.
My best friend is with me because he thinks my daughter is just as great as I do. He’s trying to find the right angle to take the perfect picture so I can just enjoy the moment. He’s thoughtful like that.
All of this is happening around me. I can hear it, but all I can focus on is the program in my hand. COMMENCEMENT is printed in huge letters across the top. Commencement. It’s an elaborate sounding word for such a simple concept. Commencement – a beginning. This is the beginning of my daughter’s professional life. She has earned a degree with the highest honors and has so much ahead of her.
But with every beginning, there is an ending. And that is what my heart is feeling right this moment – an ending. An ending of the childhood that I was privileged to guide my daughter through. She’s been grown and on her own for quite a while now, that’s true. But she was still “my child who’s in college.” And today that ends.
How on earth did we get here? My youngest is 22 years old, wearing a cap and gown with golden cords for every accomplishment, with high heels and a woman’s face. Where did my little baby Abbey go?
Abbey entered the world calmly on a Wednesday morning just after midnight, and she’s been calm ever since. Her delivery was an emergency C-section with all the panic and alarms and chaos that goes along with that. But you wouldn’t have known it looking at her newborn face. I swear she smiled at me within the first hour. Her middle name is Carol, in honor of my sister who would have been Abbey’s biggest fan. And her first name Abbey just fit her, like the right musical note in a symphony. “It’s Abbey with an E,” she used to tell everyone who misspelled it.
Her brother and cousins were delighted with her – this girl child among all the boys. They danced to make her laugh. They brought her toys and fed her bottles and didn’t complain when her diaper smelled like a toxic chemical spill. I sat in the rocker holding her while she slept and marveled at her perfect little fingernails and the rolls on the back of her neck. She charmed us all.
She walked early and talked in long rambling sentences way before all the baby books said she should. She would do her “eye thing” when her brother and cousins requested it – squinting her eyes and tilting her head, making us all laugh. By the age of two, she was playing Mario Party on the Nintendo with all the boys in the house, saying “I won, Mama! I won!” but blissfully unaware that her controller was not plugged into the system at all. We would all cheer her on and proclaim her the winner with a wink and a smile at our secret.
When she was four, her brother, Thomas, was a third grader. Her cousins were in higher grades, becoming adolescents and teenagers. Every morning we would drop Thomas off at school, waiting in the line of cars until it was our turn to wave goodbye and watch him walk in the building. Abbey would keep her eyes on him until he was safely inside, coveting his school time with every molecule of her being. She wanted to go to school so bad she could taste it. She wanted a backpack full of pencils and clean, white paper and books to read and a desk all her own.
One morning the drop-off line was especially long. Construction was underway. While we waited, Abbey watched a crew of men working on the roof of the building. Tiles were being lifted with a giant hook and thrown in a pile. She was mesmerized. As we waved goodbye to Thomas and pulled away, she turned in her seat to keep watching the work on the roof.
She was silent a moment and then said, “Guess what, Mama… When I grow up, guess what I want to be.”
“What’s that, sweetie?” I asked.
“A hooker,” she replied in her sweet little girl voice.
I blinked rapidly a few times and tried not to swerve off Highway 51. “A hooker?” I asked, trying not to sound horrified.
“Yep. Like the man on the roof. I would be a really good hooker.” She smiled at me in the rear view mirror.
And she promptly repeated that line to her grandparents and anybody else who would listen. I believe we may have been the subject of a couple of prayer meetings that week.
When she was a bit older, we took a trip to the aquarium in Atlanta. She left there with a stuffed dolphin, a stomach ache from all the popcorn and a burning desire to be a deep-sea diver. “So I can feed all the sharks,” she said. The next summer, on a family vacation to Disney World, she wore a princess hat but declared herself a future queen “because they’re smarter than princesses.”