A Bittersweet Season
Editor’s note: Writer and former Wall Street Journal columnist Ralph Gardner Jr. P’11,’16 recently reminisced about Family Weekends spent at Kenyon with his daughters Lucy ’11 and Gracie ’16. His essay, originally broadcast on WAMC public radio, is excerpted below.
I shouldn’t be talking to you right now. I should be at parents weekend. That’s where you could have found me on this weekend, or thereabouts, for much of the last decade.
We have two daughters, both now beyond college. They attended the same school in Ohio — Kenyon College — but there’s a five-year age difference so they didn’t overlap.
That adds up to eight years dodging the tractor-trailers on Route 80 from New York City, across the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey, through the entirety of Pennsylvania — it feels a lot larger and longer than it looks on a map — and finally into the Buckeye State.
So it seems strange, slightly disorienting and not a little melancholy not to be on the road at this moment.
There was something Zen-like about the 10-hour journey, especially across Pennsylvania. It’s beautiful in the colors of autumn and feels like one giant straightaway when you set the SUV to cruise control.
And while challenging to your backside, what propelled you was the knowledge that at the end of your trip awaited a smiling child, genuinely happy to see you.
When we arrived at Kenyon, it was typically with a bottle or two of wine in hand, our children joining us for cocktail hour. My feeling is that if you expect your kids to act like adults it doesn’t hurt to treat them like responsible adults.
From there we’d head to dinner, our options extremely limited. Kenyon’s campus is commonly rated as one of the most beautiful in the nation. But the picturesque main street of Gambier, Ohio, where the school is located, consists of little more than the college deli, bookstore, the Village Inn restaurant and Wiggin Street, a coffee house.
But we didn’t feel deprived in the least. The food at the V.I. as it’s known, was good, the prices laughably reasonable if New York City is your frame of reference.
The following morning we’d head off to class with our daughter. I’d be lying if I said they didn’t suffer some mortification to have us sit in. But at the price of college tuition these days, they could stuff their pride while we got some indication of the education our money was buying.
A road trip to Columbus was usually indicated. Having attended small, rural liberal arts colleges ourselves — my wife went to Denison, also in Ohio — we could appreciate that college can occasionally feel like prison; seeing the same faces and eating the same food day after day. So leaving the campus behind feels like a temporary furlough.
Somewhere in there we’d manage to wedge a second cocktail hour, this one including our children’s friends and their parents in our daughter’s dorm room. This served the purpose of making you feel part of an informal community. It also gave us confidence that our children’s friends weren’t criminals or drug addicts, and led to several lasting friendships with fellow parents.
The weekends also included the obligatory play, dance performance or art show, some of them including our children, and a breakfast or lunch in the student commons. The facilities are a lot swankier, boasting a lot more glass, vistas and salad bar choices, than in my day.
To our children’s credit, they didn’t let our presence inhibit their social lives. After we left for the night, returning to whatever inn or occasionally distant bed and breakfast had availability, they’d go out and party with their friends. Miraculously, they’d manage to be reasonably presentable and coherent the following morning.
Parting was always bittersweet. But far less so knowing that our daughters were happy and in good hands — their own, their professors, and those of their loyal friends.
Every stage of life has it charms. And the challenge is to find those of the phase you happen to be in. But college presents a rather singular, inimitable experience — both as a student and a parent. However, I fear I might be pushing my luck if I showed up at some future grandparents weekend ready to party.
• Whose Weekend? “Our October trips to Gambier for Family Weekend have become one of the highlights of the year,” writes Elaine Lipworth P’16,’21.