Dropping off the college freshman

I thought I would cry when we said goodbye to Daughter in her dorm room, but I didn’t.

I  was too exhausted.

Move-in day came after a week of visiting various family members back east. I love them all, but three different houses in nine days — two beach communities and one city — is a lot. Then there was the expedition to Ikea in New Jersey followed by two separate trips to a three-story Bed Bath & Beyond on the Upper East Side that made our little Oakland BB&B look like a malnourished Dickensian orphan. It was the biggest BB&B I’d ever seen.

(Until we ended up at yet another BBB downtown that was even bigger, but I’ll get to that later.)

I’d never pictured taking a child to college in a taxi, but in true New York spirit, that’s what we did. Sunday was move-in day not just for Daughter but for approximately 5,000 other NYU freshman. Considering the numbers, the university did an impressive job of organizing things and keeping order, with move-in times allotted by floor number and vast hordes of cheerful house elves – oops, I mean student volunteers — directing people where to go. But it still took three trips by elevator to get all Daughter’s stuff up to her 8th floor room, with a twenty-minute queue for each elevator trip, preceded by a queue to get her room keys, and followed by another queue in a building about eight blocks away to get her student ID.

Sam with our daughter’s Stuff / Photo by Ilana DeBare

I had worried that Daughter was bringing too many clothes and would look like a spoiled princess to her roommates. But it quickly became apparent that her Everest of stuff was just an average mountain, or maybe even a foothill: We weren’t toting any microwaves, coffee makers, cross country ski poles, big screen TVs or wheeled duffels the size of Great Plains bison.

But there was time to remedy our failings. NYU was running continuous shuttle buses from its various dorms to the nearest Bed Bath & Beyond (yes, the downtown mother ship). And these weren’t little vanlike shuttles – they were inter-city-size Greyhound style buses, the seats filled with freshmen families and the luggage compartments jammed with their BBB shopping bags.

One of the buses from NYU to Bed Bath & Beyond / Photo by Ilana DeBare

The buses turned out to be so crowded that we couldn’t get on, so we hopped another cab to get last-minute necessities like a shoe rack and a bin for under-bed storage. The BB&B was festooned with Welcome NYU Students banners, purple-and-white balloons and baskets of free candy;  signs announced that it would stay open until midnight; employees had been drafted from corporate headquarters to help handle the swarm of parents and students. We scrambled for our merchandise and joined the columns of freshman families trekking across Greenwich Village with big plastic shopping bags of stuff. It felt like ants leaving a picnic. It felt like a middle-class looting spree. It was a vast, decentralized transfer of millions of cubic feet of housewares from Bed Bath & Beyond to 5,000 individual dorm rooms. It was the free market at work.

It contributed to a bizarre day. So much frenetic motion, buying, schlepping. So much high emotion swirling through the throngs of parents and freshmen – 18-year-old excitement and nervousness, 50-year-old heartache and pride. Toasters and shoe racks became surrogates for care-taking: Our children will be on their own in the big scary world, but at least they will have buttered toast and orderly shoes. 

By the time we returned to Daughter’s dorm and assembled the shoe rack and filled the underbed storage bin and made one final shopping run to the Strand bookstore for old National Geographic magazines to decorate her room, all three of us were ready for Sam and me to leave. We were utterly exhausted. Daughter wanted to hang out with her roommates. We said a quick goodbye. We didn’t take a photo. I didn’t cry. (Sam did.) We retreated to a nearby gelato store and collapsed in a corner and devoured about 1,200 calories of creamy fortitude.

My friend Ellen was dropping off her daughter at college over the weekend too, and wrote as her Facebook status, “Labor pains.” It’s an apt metaphor. I spent a lot of the past year anticipating this separation – thinking “this is our last soccer tournament,” “this is our last Halloween,” and so on. Just as my body took nine months to prepare for Daughter’s arrival, my mind was taking nine months to prepare for her departure.

Then the past week felt like the end stages of pregnancy, when you are so physically uncomfortable that you just want the damn baby to arrive already. By Sunday, after a week of seeing relatives, Daughter was desperate to be around teenage peers.  Sam and I were desperate for our own bed.

Labor pains, yes, but also relief on both sides that move-in day was finally here.

Now after a 3,000-mile plane ride we’re home, minus one child. Things are different but they’re not. It’s easy to imagine she’s simply away for a day or two: The house is quiet right now, but she’s out with friends and will be back late tonight. She’s at sleep-away camp for a week. She’s upstairs in her room with the door closed, happily ignoring us. 

But tonight after dinner, there was no one to unload the dishwasher, which had been her chore. I can’t count how many times over the past few years I had to badger her to unload the dishes, or growled at her sudden disappearance and grumpily unloaded them myself. But in fact, the vast majority of the time she did unload them. And it made household life a little bit easier.

Sam and I looked at each other over the racks of clean dishes as it hit both of us: Now there is nobody except us to unload them.

Not even anyone to badger or growl about.

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14 Responses to “Dropping off the college freshman”

  1. susie m Says:

    You made me laugh and cry, Ilana. Kudos for being the amazing mom that you are. She’s got everything she needs for a successful year (and beyond) AND organized shoes. Thanks for giving us the fly-on-the-wall view. Hugs to you (and Sam from Mark and me) as you transition into this next phase of parenthood!

  2. nankiber Says:

    xxoo
    Love to you both. It’s hard (and the doing it transcontinentally/seeing your whole family on the way/NYC piece sounds completely insane…) but you’ve done it. And you’ll all be fine, just not all at once. Be gentle with yourselves; there’s just nothing easy about this. Much love.

  3. Elizabeth Stark Says:

    My kids are starting kindergarten this week, and I have to say that your post here made me choke up. I can see, though, that you have had not only nine months but, really, 18 years, to do the work of getting her ready and, perhaps, in turn, yourselves. And the journey continues. I love hearing about it in your blog.

  4. susanito Says:

    Awww….! We’re doing our drop-off on Wednesday. (although flying tomorrow) I sure hope that Portland has a BB&B AND a Target and an Ikea because we’re going up there with almost nothing. I cried a little bit on my way to work today, which took me completely by surprise. But that’s how it is. It never is how you think it’s going to be.
    I think what we’ve learned is that even when they go away, they always do come back. (just like we told them when we took them to preschool)

  5. KC Chew Says:

    My dear Ilana, what a beautifully written journal of this rite of passage. We did this with my eldest Shao Min at Cambridge three years ago, and get to do this another two times with No. 2 and No.3. sometime in the future. A touching and vivid snapshot of a peculiar slice of American life. warmest hugs, and to Daughter when you next have the chance, from an old friend of her mother’s she’d never met. KC

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      KC — yes, doesn’t it feel like two years ago that we were the ones at college rather than the ones dropping off?

      It turns out that one of my daughter’s three suitemates is from Singapore. I restrained myself from a “do you know…” but just barely. :-)

  6. David Schuchat Says:

    Does “Daughter” have a name? Did you get a “NYU MOM” sticker for your car?

  7. Deb DeBare Says:

    It’s a treat to have been part of your experience through your facebook postings and blog…. hard to believe it has happened! you two have done a remarkable job in the toughest job in the world! xoxo

  8. Christina Baglivi Tinglof Says:

    You’re such a great, descriptive writer. Thanks for this. I have twins who are juniors in high school, and I’m already saying, “Only two more times of this…only two more years of that.” I guess I’m having Braxton Hicks, not labor pains.

  9. Kaveh Says:

    Enjoyed reading this, Ilana. Phew… hope you are rested now. We did this two years ago with older daughter–though not quite this hectic, as we drove her and her things to Davis. I remember the feelings… sharp excitement as well as melancholy. (BTW we have another girl at home, so maybe we haven’t felt the full impact yet.) During these two years, we have gradually been rewarded–as I know you will–by snippets of communications and images that show our daughter’s steady growth and maturity in college–as well as amusing reminders that she has ways to go to reach full adulthood! She is in Madrid for the Fall now, so we feel the separation even more. Thank goodness for the internet, facetime, Facebook, and her blog–even though with all this I think we get only a glimpse of some the things she experiences. This is the way it has to be, them making their own decisions and seeing where those lead them, without any parent watching over their shoulder or questioning them at the end of the day. Anyway, mazel tov–job well done! (though not over, obviously!).

  10. debra solomon Says:

    I had the same experience at the same time. Lily and I went to the ikea in Brooklyn and had to take a ferry to get there. Several days in a row. We hit the BB and B twice as well. The “mother ship” as you call it. I’m exhausted and relieved. We also were at the Jersey shore. Long Branch.

  11. Lucy Hornstein Says:

    Rite of passage indeed. Somehow it seems to lend itself to wonderful writing. One of the best pieces I’ve every written (IMHO) was about the same thing: “Thirty years, then and now” (http://dinosaurmusings.wordpress.com/2007/08/26/thirty-years-then-and-now/)

  12. Susan Ito Says:

    We did our drop off last weekend. I cried! But I fiercely waited until I got into the car to let it all out. We did a very slow, agonizing 4-day pulling-off-the-bandaid farewell, which I thought was a little tortuous but which daughter said Helped. It WAS exhausting, and of course included two trips to BB&B.

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