The College Good-Bye: When a Picture's Worth a Thousand Words

There's a new addition to our family's first-day-of-school-photo gallery.

There’s a picture pinned to the bulletin board in my kitchen, half hidden by silly greeting cards and bumper stickers that I fancy, which is our iconic family back-to-school photo. In it, my oldest two children stand on the front step of our old house, a basket of late-summer impatiens drooping behind them, on the occasion of the eldest’s first day of preschool, just shy of his fourth birthday.

These were the days when they dressed in what I picked out for them, so they are wearing patterned, elastic-waist shorts – his in plaid and hers are floral – with their polo shirts neatly tucked in. Pinned to the front of each shirt is a construction paper nametag that had been sent by the teacher to be worn on the first day of school. My son’s has his name on it and my daughter, who is only 17-months younger, is wearing the tag that had been sent for me to wear, but she assumed it was for her and who was I to burst her bubble? So I pinned it to her little pink top and in the picture, you would think that it was her first day of school, the way she puffs out her chest and looks directly into the camera, her lips forming the “ch” of “cheese.”  Her brother stands beside her and looks away from the camera, grinning at her as if to say “Can you believe it?”

That picture started a trend that we’ve continued on the first day of each school year since – even when our world got a little rocky when the kids’ dad moved out or the couple of years the four kids were in four different schools. And of course as they got older, everyone griped about my “obsession” with the first day of school photo op. Last year, that sweet oldest son, who looked at his sister with such love and excitement on his first day of preschool, actually flipped the camera the bird after I wrestled him to the front stoop to document the first day of his last year in high school. I kid you not.

As the years have rolled on, I have not been as diligent about documenting events in our life as I was when the kids were younger. The Christmas slideshow is no longer a documentary of each gift the kids received and really, do we need to memorialize the Easy-Bake Oven or Harry Potter Lego set?

But back-to-school photo ops I strictly adhere to. It’s fun to look back and see how the kids have grown (if, frankly, we can even locate all of the snapshots, what with the scattered photo albums and then the boxes of pictures that never made it into albums and then the digitized versions trapped in memoriam on the old hard drives of computers that now lay on my garage floor).

I got creative recently and copied my son’s first day of preschool picture and made a card for him to open after we dropped him off at college in Virginia last week. It was tucked into a bundle of frames his sisters and I had picked up at Target and filled with family photos, all tied in a big bow and left on the desk in his dorm.

In the note, I reminded him of the occasion of the photo and how proud I was of the person he had become in the years since the picture was taken. I wrote in the note that I knew he would continue to exert himself academically as he had throughout his school career now that he was in college.

The whole family had driven down to see him off and get him settled in his new world. We hung his posters and made his bed and all took a drive to the local Wal-Mart for extension cords and light bulbs. We walked around the sprawling campus with the rows and rows of imposing grey stone buildings and picked up his software for his major and the million-dollars worth of textbooks at the bookstore.

When it seemed we could do no more, I left the bundle of photo frames on his desk and had him walk me and his sisters out to the car in the lot behind the dorm to say good-bye.

As a girlfriend recently observed to me, it’s that moment you’ve kind of been working towards or anticipating your whole career as a mom. The moment when you have to push that little birdie, whose gaping mouth you’ve been lovingly placing worms in for years, out of the proverbial nest. It’s scary to imagine how hard they’ll need to flap to stay aloft. Or how empty the nest will seem without them.

We stood by the car and my oldest daughter, who had stood next to her brother so proudly so many years before, said to him, “I know you’re going to hate this but I’m going to give you a hug.” And he turned to her as she wrapped her long arms around him to say good-bye.

Then he walked in front of me and I knew the moment had arrived to say all the things I had meant to say and remind him to floss and to say no to drugs and study hard but all I could do was throw my arms around his neck and cry. Then I felt his back moving as he sobbed and was grateful that he shared my sadness, just for a minute, of leaving the family nest. And it was then, that my younger daughter snapped our picture with her camera.

It’s the newest addition to our first day of school photo gallery and perfectly captures the moment: his back is to the camera and his head leans down toward me, my face is contorted in an ugly cry and my arms hug him tight around his back, my hand wrapped around the back of his neck, the way I held him as an infant.

We pulled apart and wiped our eyes and said our final good byes and I somehow navigated the car through the traffic-clogged roads surrounding the dorms and eventually back onto the highway. The girls and I snuffled a little bit more, and then settled in for the long drive home.

I sent him a text the next day to see how he made out his first night in the dorm and if he had found the pictures and card we had left on his desk.

“Yeah I got them thank you,” he texted back, “sad card.”

His text continued, “And when you send something can you send my spalding basketball?”

It seems that his wings are working just fine.

Nancy Range Anderson August 25, 2011 at 11:37 PM
Dear Amy, My eyes are so teary that I can't see my keyboard! We did the exact same thing with the picture taking on the first day of school. Even after my eldest went off to college, we made sure that her photo was always in the background of that "first day of school" picture. My son is leaving in a week to start college and our nest will be empty! I can relate to everything you have so beautifully said. Nancy Anderson (fellow LB Patch blogger)
Ann Kiely August 26, 2011 at 02:31 AM
It's my 8th year of sending a child off to college...and it is still hard...definitely still the ugly cry and heavy heart....thank you for writing another home run...
Amy Byrnes August 26, 2011 at 02:34 AM
Ann Kiely ... sniff, sniff ... cyber hug!
Marie August 26, 2011 at 03:41 AM
I have 2 more years but many mom friends are going thru this with firstborns. Is that Virginia Tech in the background? Happens to be where is spent my wonderful college years! Hang in there - he'll do great!
Amy Byrnes August 26, 2011 at 10:47 AM
Marie ... Go Hokies!


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