The Common Good
September-October 2003

Rites of Fall

by Ed Spivey Jr. | September-October 2003

'Set small goals, and then put them off for as long as you can.'

Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap. And neither do they drive their daughter back to college in the fall. So I'm thinking the ravens got off easy. —Luke 12:22ish RSVP

Like death and tax breaks for the rich, autumn brings its own inevitabilities: the crisp, clean air of coming winter, the rhythmic raking of fallen leaves, and the certainty that, at some point during the day, I will drop something really heavy on my foot.

It is time to take my oldest daughter—and all her stuff—back to school, a time of the year made bittersweet by the thought of losing a child (that's the bitter part, in case you were confused), but at the same time regaining a room—a room which can finally be returned to its rightful state of order, a shrine to neatness that one can actually walk into without stepping on a cell phone, or a partially eaten snack, or a cat in the process of eating that snack. This is a room we can now give tours of when friends come over (after which we move them quickly past our younger daughter's room, with the closed door and hastily made sign we put up that says "STORAGE"). With at least one of the children's rooms clean and quiet, I can finally stop wincing at the mental picture of a daughter—my own flesh and blood—hastily vacuuming around cell phones and partially eaten snacks and then stopping to gaze proudly at her accomplishment. Set small goals, I always taught my girls, and then put them off for as long as you can.

As we packed the car—I say "we" with my usual mirthful irony—I dutifully made suggestions to scale back a little. I questioned, for example, the need for a second coffee pot, or the torn Josh Hartnett poster, or the complete Harry Potter series (in hardback). Not to mention the large clothes hamper which would be of no use since, by my observation, her dirty clothes are simply dropped directly onto the floor, presumably to protect the carpet from excessive wear. But my suggestions were met with heavy sighs of a child wise beyond (or well short of) her years.

Once loaded we drove off, heading toward the foothills of the Poconos. As always, the view out the front window was spectacular. Unfortunately, there were no views out the back or side windows, since these were obscured by carefully packed and sealed boxes which, at the last minute, were all opened and crammed with the stuffed animals that had been discovered hidden, parentally, in the closet. (I had to keep reminding myself that—despite what the rear view mirror was showing—we were not being pursued by a large brown ape with sad, twinkly eyes.)

The gorgeous campus loomed above us as only the hills of Western New York can: lush, rolling, and—depending on how many clothes hangers were digging into my hands—very painful. The campus is built on a hill—a big hill—but the parking lots were conveniently placed at the bottom to distract the parent from the fact that, no matter how far he's driven, his journey is far from over. Whereupon groups of friendly Sherpas come up to the vehicles and begin negotiating a price. Actually, I made up the part about the Sherpas, and even if they were indigenous to New York, the Sherpas would probably look at my daughter's stuff, gaze up the hill to her dorm, and chuckle—Edmund Hillary-like—as they walked away.

So the trudges began, with predictable progress (or lack thereof). My daughter would walk a few feet, then set down a box to squeal and embrace friends not seen since May. Meanwhile, I'm making five trips for every one of hers, and observing other fathers in similar straits. Sweating and groaning and looking for those worse off, we fathers silently evaluate each other: fathers of sons smirking at the dads carrying brightly colored plastic boxes of shoes, marked "DRESSY PARTY" and "CASUAL PARTY." (None, it seems, marked "LIBRARY" or "CLASS.") And the fathers of daughters shaking their heads in pity at dads dragging stereo speakers the size of dumpsters (speakers with suggestive brand names like "Anvil").

Meanwhile, their sons are caught up in their own intensely joyous reunions:

First guy: "Dude."

Second guy, agreeing: "Dude."

Third guy, with emotion: "Dudes."

And then we are finished, and I grow melancholy once more at the separation between father and daughter, and at the realization that in this, one of the nation's finest academic institutions, there's not one class on vacuuming.

Ed Spivey Jr. is art director of Sojourners.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)