Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Graduate

She looked a bit like a plucked chicken when she arrived on Planet Earth. Frankly she sounded like one as well-she was red faced and scrawny and she was my first real one on one experience with a newborn. She came a little early to what we now call, "A mother of advanced maternal age" the maternal in question was my college adviser, Nadia, and the baby girl she let me hold that long ago April day was a miracle for me then and now.

Nadia and her husband Ed are both academics with doctorates in Religion. They are brainy to the nth degree and they met and married amidst the heyday of their academic journey at Vanderbilt. I had never contempleted them being people who might actually want children and so the day Dr. Lahutsky called me into her office after class-I was not expecting a birth announcement-I was expecting a thorough ass chewing for the pitiful excuse for a term paper I had turned in. I was never close to being the scholar I could have been at age 20-not even in the ballpark, and I have no doubt, my lack of academic temerity was perplexing to Nadia.

To her credit though, she cared about me, regardless of my grades, and she extended herself to me after my own mother died midway through my Freshman year. She challenged me and what I believed, she fussed at me when I needed it, and on that day when she called me in to her cluttered office it was not to tell me what a poor specimen of the written word I had turned in, but rather to tell me, somewhat conspiratorially, that she was pregnant and would be needing a babysitter.

I was amazed, delighted, and thoroughly overjoyed that she had brought up the topic of childcare-with me! Good Lord I couldn't manage to write my way out of a box, but she wanted me to care for her child?

When the little chicken arrived I started going over to their house to sit and rock and feed and coo while her mom and dad went about teaching and researching. We developed a routine and over time I started singing "Sweet Baby James" to her as a lullaby-but I changed the cowboy to a girl and her name was Jean. By the time she could say my name she called me,"Pa" and she would request,"Cowboy" at naptime for her song.

She wandered the campus with me and as she grew older I would take her for outings in my car and become hysterical when she would sing along to her Father's oldies station. Roy Orbison was a favorite, and a three year old bellowing, "Mercy" at just the right moment in Pretty Woman can certainly make your day complete.

By age 6 she would tell people she intended to become a herpetologist, and most anyone who spent more than 5 minutes with her didn't doubt she could become one. I met and married my first husband with her as my flower girl and still treasure the little present she made for me on my wedding day.

But she is no longer that little chicken. She is all grown up, or at least well on her way, and about to graduate from college next month. She is brilliantly smart, poised, speaks Russian, will graduate with honors, and most important she is a lovely young woman who will leave her part of the world far better than she found it.

She hennas her hair, has had her heartbroken, knows how to curse and when not to, has traveled on her own to Russia, and knows from firsthand experience that she does not want to work at IHOP for the rest of her life. (I actually told her that before she took the job, but waitressing certainly does make the stress of college appear very appealing after a couple of weeks.)

What I like most about her though is that she is thoroughly and uniquely her own person. She likes herself and it shows. She exudes a kind of respect for her ownself that demonstrates to me that whereever the feminist movement may have missed the mark-we have made some progress in the years since her own mother graduated from college and had to push and prod her way into academia and overcome the sexism of her own family to become the mother she has been to Jean.

Jean and the other women she graduates with don't know a world without Title IX athletics, without women in every profession or leadership role, women who don't have to choose to have either a profession or a family. To be sure there is plenty of room for the world to continue placing women on equal footing-but for Jean and her comrades-they expect to be treated fairly and they expect to be treated that way regadless of their ovaries.

That alone gives me hope that the world can continue ever so slowly to change for the better and that one little girl, now a woman, will remember the journey her mother traveled to make it possible and one other girl who got to grow up taking care of her too.

"There is a young cowgirl who lives on the range, her horse and her cattle are her only companions, she works in the saddle and she sleeps in the canyons, waiting for summer, her pastures to change. As the moon rises she sits by her fire, thinking about fellas and glasses of beer, and closing her eyes as the dogies retire she sings out a song that is soft, but it's clear, as if maybe someone might hear. She sings, Goodnight you moonlight ladies and rockabye sweat baby Jean, deep greens and blues are the colors I choose, won't you let me go down in your dreams? and rockabye sweet baby Jean."

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