Yet, it is its bloom’s celebration for my eyes to delight in that makes me forgetful of the labor it took us. Somehow, it feels the same my son graduating. I count the hours until I see him carrying our old country flag in the graduating procession, alongside the other youngsters clad in ridiculous robes and mortar caps and swinging tassels. So proud I am, content, appeased. Yet, in this hour of joy, I say he did it on his own, he did it on his own. Forget the nurturing, the scolding, the prodding, the tear wiping, the strategizing, the loss and loneliness of his being away. He did it all alone. Bloom, my darling son, your grandparents crying for joy, me boasting, my son’s coming home strong and determined.
Oh, the preparations before Graduation Ceremony Day. Making sure I don’t forget anything: new black dress shoes, new white shirt, better add two more shirts from the closet, black belt, better add two more so he can choose. Black socks, the black pullover he likes, ironing machine, tassel, HD video camera, SLR still camera, batteries, chargers, power cords, cash, credit card, debit card, bus ticket, his letter from a friend, laptop, portable WiFi, memory sticks, check to cash, shampoo, hair drier, black coat, boots and skirt and blouse, head wrap, underwear beaucoup, tights, headache pills, phones.
Is the cell phone alarm clock set? Is 6:15 early enough? Yes, it is. Morning comes, I’m on the bus among the other travelers. Two Asian parents, an Indian mother. We’re going to Graduation! Napping while bus swooshes thru gray scenery, clouds, drizzle, concrete highway, snooze. Phone rings. ‘Mom, where are you?’ ‘Don’t know.’ ‘Look out of the window for some signs.’ ‘Exit 21.’ ‘When do you arrive?’ ‘Ticket says 11:15.’ ‘Ask the driver.’ ‘Okay.’ Driver says in 10 minutes we’ll be there. ‘Hurry up. I have to be at the Ceremony Hall at noon.’
Indian mother, too, pacifies her graduate over the phone. We congratulate each other. A glorious day.
Get off. Walk to the local bus stop thru drizzle. What a deadbeat town, this Albany! When I graduated in Baton Rouge, the town was abuzz with excitement. Here, they are morose. I ask a local person how far it is to Manning Boulevard. Six blocks. Oh, then I’ll walk it. Alas, six blocks in Albany is not six blocks in New York City. Bus catches up with me. Hop on it, hop off it. Son waits for me on the street corner in a checkered hoodie; red, blue, and white. Patriotic. Embrace.
We clamber up the stairs thru the desolate floors of the house he rents with other six kids. The same deep green marble slab and yellow sponge paint roll thrown in a cardboard box were there on the landing back in September when I last visited. Various parents with various graduating roommates speak in Spanish, excitedly. I iron the white shirt in the living room on an ironing board that won’t stand up on its feet, like a newborn calf. I stabilize it by leaning it on two chairs. Dress black pants on, white shirt on. Socks on, shoes on. He loves them. He goes on YouTube to figure out anew how to make the knot on his necktie. Last time he studied tie knotting was for his high school graduation.
Polyester graduation gown, borrowed from his academic counselor. Ready? Let’s go.
I ask him if I’m dressed okay. I’m a bit nervous about the generation gap taste in clothing because, to my mind, I’m dressed SoHo style with my black texturized silk skirt, tiered rusty and black bohemian tunic, black leather boots and felt hat - trés chic, trés chic - but I don’t want to be an embarrassment on this important day, to look like a time traveler from the past. Besides, I put on the black coat with furry collar that moves in the wind like the reed pămătuf/, wispy inflorescence, because he once told me he liked it. My son says I look glamorous, like a celebrity. Whatever that means, I’m happy if you’re happy. Before, he called my taste eclectic. Trés chic. Great.
We amble to the local stop, but this is Albany, not New York City where buses run every 5 minutes. The next bus shall arrive in 20 minutes. He’s agitated, they gonna start without him. ‘No, they won’t. They told you to be there at 12 to make sure, but the ceremony starts at 1. I checked the website. They probably want to rehearse how you will proceed with the flag carrying.’ We’re proud he’s gonna be the Romanian flag bearer. It comes with front row ticket for me. He’s glad he could do that for me. Prime location for picture taking. I’m proud he’s carrying the flag. It’s a token of appreciation. He says it’s rather to show off how diverse and international the university is for recruitment. Well, that’s alright. It’s a win-win situation.
No bus. Should we take a taxi? No taxis here. It is rather disconcerting that on such a big day the town doesn’t piggyback on it to make money. In Louisiana, goodness, mega bells and whistles on such a day. Made you feel you are on top of the world. Here, grim faces.
Alex says the townspeople are upset with the students because they’ve trashed the place. They even had a riot downtown on St. Patrick’s Day Threw fridges out of the windows, air conditioning units. Drunk, piss drunk studentship. They go away from parents to sow their wild oats in the boondocks. My son had his share of dalliances. In his third year, lots of partying. He broke his arm trying to protect the girl he was tipsy with. She fell down and he held her so she fell on his arm. It took a long time to be able to go back to the gym and use that arm. He wants to be a muscle man. I hope not.
in his fourth year, he’s interested only in his classes. No more partying. All
he cares about is to get straight As and go to graduate school. In the third
year, we almost dropped out. Much pep talking, remembrance of my undergraduate
years, most of it nonsensical, dusty, useless. Must take this and that
mandatory course. Very few useful, but one has to pull thru, be done with it. God,
how I hated the Linguistics professor. A womanizer who bedded his blonde
students. He specialized in all kinds of Sex and Linguistics studies, articles.
I’m no prude, but this guy was disgusting.
But I met two professors who changed my life. One was Dr. Géher, may he rest in peace, who’d smuggle our thesis dissertations. We’d hand in one half-baked version on due date, and then he’d replace it with the finished version. In his American short story class I told him I’d prefer to write a short story as an assignment instead of a literary criticism essay. I saw no point in the parasitization of another writer’s work. He agreed and thanks to his encouragement, I became a writer. The other professor is Michael Bowman, Performance Studies. He’d beam when he’d comment on my stage performance.
Anyway, my son made it thru year three, switched majors, God, from Business to Music to Psychology, and found his passion. He can talk you under the table about Evolutionist Psychology. I don’t agree with much of it, like gay people not being born that way, that it’s a matter of choice, but when he goes on about the porcupine having needles on its penis, it’s hilarious. He’d go networking at psychology conferences to lobby and garner recommendation letters for graduate school! And now graduation! I look at him, the way he gesticulates with his hands, moves his neck, so like his father, his hair curls like his father’s. I keen, I hug him. He soothes me, asks me if I’ve remembered him playing as a small boy? ‘No, actually no, I was thinking about when you wanted to drop out, when you were heartbroken because of that girl, the Maine horse rider. But oh, how sweet you were when you were eight and you fell of your bike and chipped your front tooth and came home crying that you won’t be able, now, to become an actor and how will we be able to pay the rent?!’
Alex calls a friend for a big favor. Will he please give us a ride to the campus. Friend has to get dressed. But then the bus comes. Alex cancels his understanding friend. On the bus, all is quiet. What kind of ghost town is this?!
We cross the campus, with its modern cupolas and towers, the pool in which one summer we bathed our feet. How proud was my son, introducing me around. So many pretty girls told me how great Alex was. He was the floor supervisor in his dorm in the second year. He made paper cuts to decorate the walls in the hallway. No one noticed it. He moved out of the dorm after that.
We walk thru the Humanities building, funny drawings on the wall. There’s no time to study them. We cut thru the Quad. On endless columns, large portraits of achieving alumni, a writer for the David Letterman Show, Randy Cohen, a Nobel laureate, Toni Morrison, a Pulitzer Prize winner, William Kennedy, a one-hand man, Edward Delaney, the Gay Rights pioneer Harvey Milk, assassinated, the writer of Wicked, the Broadway musical, Gregory Maguire, then Philip Markoff, now deceased, accused Craigslist Killer, Bob Ryan, lead weatherman, David Sa, Dog-Whisperer. I confuse Sean Penn with Harvey Milk.
We cross the campus grounds with large trees. I remember that summer, their shade so welcome. We cross a track field, an athlete running in his spandex, determined face in frigid winter. Up the aisle thru the yellow bleachers, finally we’re in the hall where an endless line of family members wait for their tickets. Another open-air court, then the hall of ceremonies, an indoor stadium. A bronze statue of a dog, a Great Dane. Okay, it’s their football team mascot, like the LSU caged tiger. Everything reminds me of LSU. How we threw our caps in the air, the oldest graduate 75, the youngest 18.
Alex rushes with his fluttering gown to his flag procession rehearsal. I marvel at the graduate girls, with loud red sandals, platform shoes, barely walking on their 10-inch high heels. Why would you risk falling on your face during your most important public appearance, while on the podium to collect your diploma?!
I stay in line. It moves fast, mothers, fathers, brothers make uninteresting conversation. Grandmas step gingerly. When almost reaching the box office window, a graduatess cuts in front of us and gets her tickets for her guest, raising ironic commentaries, ‘It seems staying in line doesn’t agree with their values.’ We let it pass.
I’m not on the list! Flag bearer’s mom, not on the list?! I’m taken care of by one of the volunteers, right ear plugged in to his walkie-talkie. He hands me over to a greeter in a two-piece suit with a beige blouse with ruffles. Her face is sad and I feel sorry for her life, somehow, without knowing her. She takes me to an elevator. I tell her of my disappointment that the town is so very quiet, no fête here. She makes excuses, the weather prognosis, icy rain, people stay at home. Besides, there are several other colleges in town. Graduations galore. I inquire, how did they get hold of the Romanian flag that my son will bear? She doesn’t know.
We went down several floors, we arrive in the arena. Lots of people seated. Another greeter takes over, he shows me the rows upon rows of reserved seats. I see an opening in the first row. I ask the red hair lady if it’s taken, no, I settle in with my camera bag and wait. Most people are dressed casual, in jeans. How can you do that to your child? On such an important day, a memory for all his life, you don’t put on a nice dress, or a suit and necktie? If you don’t dress nicely now, when do you dress up? When you go to church?! Next to me a grandma and a slumped teenage grandchild, both obese, shove down tubs of popcorn. Another grandma in wheelchair, with a pink rose bouquet watches from the fence surrounding the arena. People coming, going, a father with twin babies in his arms. A large party of African-American folks, two women among them talking passionately how, ‘I don’t know when she had time to look in the cupboard, because I didn’t leave her alone for long, but she looked in all the cupboards!’ The red head next to me is quiet in her light-purple suit and pumps with rhinestones. She’s from Estonia, her son also a flag bearer.
Pale poinsettias decorate the podium.
The golden yellow and purple of SUNY Albany banner are the same as LSU’s colors.
The announcer talks ubiquitously asking us to sit down, put phones on vibrate, the procession enters the space, flags of State University of New York with coat of arms, then comes my son! I spot the Romanian flag and I melt with love. This flag now carried by my son makes up for all the wacko communist processions we partook in my childhood schooling years. This flag now carried by my son is a new page. Also, it doesn’t have the ‘89 hole in it, when revolutionaries cut out the communist insignia. This flag, now, is a flag in America. My son carries it without any heavy history marring it. It means, in case other Romanian-American graduates and patriotic folks want to join in the joy and pride of my son's graduation, that when he carried the Romanian flag in the procession and planted it among the other nations', it was our Everest, our Moon landing: We are here to stay. We contribute. Give us our Romanian Pride Parade too, New York City! That’s what I want to cry out when the flag and my son, with it, goes around the arena and then on the podium, lining up in the back in a concert of flags.
Then the speeches start. This Dean, or President, stepped down and we thanked him for his good work, and that Dean, or President, steps in, and we have high hopes.
Alex said they smell their own farts. Indeed it feels unhealthy, weaklings at work, buttering each other up. He says the previous Dean, or President, cut down the French Department, the Theater Department, he also misused some funding, something about reinforcing the cupolas that are about to fall down, and now the new one, or a politician, gave some funding to fix the campus. I read in their student paper that, apparently, some of these professors and deans take half a million a year salaries. Unbelievable. When I had my adjunct professor stint, they’d pay us $1,200 tops a course, no insurance, no benefits. Sharks in graduation gowns of wisdom and reverence.
The rabbi and a reverend give blessings. Mentioned the tragedy of the school kids mowed down by the mentally ill killer.
Then the honorary degrees are bestowed upon two long-biography intellectuals who deliver more speeches. Then a local politician who was also thanked for this and that endowment and policies, gives the grandiose speech, how graduates should go for it, like he did. Or did not. He got a scholarship for a trip around the world for one year, but at the same time he fell in love, so he had to choose between the trip and the girl. He chose the girl, but, come fall, she dumped him and he felt such a loser. Still, it all ended up well, after he informed his parents that he wouldn’t become a lawyer as was expected, but he’d run for office. And though he was only 23 and had four opponents, his mom included because she went canvasing against him, insisting that no one should vote for her son, he got elected, and here he is now, after a life of good policies, one of which he announced right then: middle class families get $2,500 tax deductions for education purposes, but those other families earning over 200,000, he wished them good luck in the general applause. ‘So go for it!’ was his message with his fist shooting in the air. ‘Go for it!’
Finally the candidates get to climb on the podium, shake hands and get their diplomas. Alex tells me they are fake, the real ones will come in the mail later. He still has to take 3 tests this week to really graduate.
Anyway, the phone rings, my son alerts me I can move around the arena to take better pictures of him. I do so. He urges me to take a shot of him when he shakes hands with the Dean, when he gets his diploma. Here he is walking up the podium, his name in the loud speakers, and damn, damn, damn, the camera won’t work! I press the button, no reaction, God, it’s stuck! He shakes hands, he comes smiling in front of me, poses, the camera won’t work. I go crazy with shame. How I failed him! He seldom asks for pictures, poor thing! What kind of photographer am I? God, I crawl away in shame. So terrible to fail your child when he needs you. He laughs, says it’s alright. No, it’s not alright, I’ll never call myself a photographer, ever. Loser. Ella is a loser in the hour of need. I rush back to my seat, I switch batteries just in case, and, of course, it works now! The battery got depleted from all the previous flash lighting. But the control screen didn’t signal it was about to die! I am back by my son’s row of chairs, taking pictures, but it’s too late, now. Too late. I missed a lifetime’s opportunity. Still the HD video recorded it all, but perhaps shakily. I look around at the other photographers with their large flashlights. I am a loser.
Never again will I be unprepared for such a fleeting moment.
I bemoan it later to a fellow photographer. He says he got divorced because of graduation mishaps. He bought a brand new sophisticated camera for his son’s graduation. Well, not one picture turned out well. The exposure setting malfunctioned. In the end he had to send the camera back. His son didn’t care. Mine says, ‘It’s alright, Mom.’ No, it’s not alright.
Finally, we are sent home packing Professors strut out of the arena, parents mingle with graduates, group pictures. I cried so hard several times during this ceremony that my eyeglasses got blurry. Other parents didn’t seem to cry, they’d scream wildly, victorious when the name of their child was announced. A grandma lady on my row she yelled proudly, but then her face quivered with emotion.
Such a glorious day to partake in, such loving event, families happy, children happy, celebrating the culmination of four years of work, of so much effort, such joy and emotion. Here in the city it’s all grunge and grump, never a celebration. But oh, I’m so content! I melt in emotion and love. Still the worries gnaw at me: Is he ready? Will he find a job now?
I take pictures of him in his mortar board cap and tassel. The chaperon kept on arranging their tassels as they went to the podium, making sure is on the right side. Which side means what? On the right, undergrad, on the left, whatever. Many of them were in jeans under the gown and in loafers. Sad. Others, girls, put on too much make up. Alex said one of his classmates turned orange for the occasion.
I must take a picture with him and the flag. We go behind the podium and I ask the workers who take them out of their holes and fold them for storage. They oblige. Alex kindly holds the flag and I snap a few pictures until a watchman comes to tell us to get off the podium, security threat that we are.
We walk thru cold to the library to figure out to which restaurant shall we go. Gresdna, our Louisiana adopted grandma, sent a check for a celebratory banquet at a restaurant of Alex’s choice. Most restaurants are too far away, no taxis, no buses. Oh, how unlike New York is the rest of sprawled-out America. We settle for baby back ribs at TGI Friday’s. Business is booming, but nothing like in Louisiana. In Baton Rouge they had menus printed specially for graduates! I still have mine. We order, baby back ribs and grilled salmon. We talk shop about the family internet commerce. Food comes. It’s alright, but nothing like the seafood banquet in Louisiana. My salmon is over grilled. The coleslaw is interesting. It has ginger in it. Walk again back to the campus bus stop. Alex’s new shoes are pinching. I feel bad for him. ‘It’s alright, Mom.’ At his house we start packing some of his stuff so he has less to carry when he comes home for good on Sunday! Shirts, towels, shoes, his late father’s guitar.
Hugs in the drizzling rain. I hop on local bus. I offer my daily pass since I won’t need it anymore, but no one wants it. I am sad for these grumpy people. I’ll never come again to Albany, I boast. Never. Morose town. My Chinatown bus is on time. We swoosh back thru the gray landscape, back to New York City, my mothership. The large avenues bustle with people even though it rains and it’s midnight. The never-sleeping subway takes you wherever you need, whenever you need. You don’t feel a prisoner like in Albany. The chattering travelers, all nations, all feisty. In my neighborhood guys help me carry my luggage up the subway stop stairs.
Home, my warm apartment.
Unpack, hang the clothing in the closet.
My warm bed.
I shall buy my son a car. I promised him this as his graduation gift. Gresdna said I should make him a scrap book about his life and growth. I scoffed. Alex said he’d actually like a scrap book. But I boasted, my son shall have a car! Albeit a used one. He said a BMW. I pointed out it’s a Nazi car. He said, his finger pointing up, attention, ‘Nazi engineers!’
What a day. Oh, what a glorious day. I’m alive in America. It was worth coming here.
New York City,
December 16th, 2012