The line of cars stretches all the way up the exit ramp. Bearing tags from Cobb and Cherokee, Fulton and Fayette, the cars are loaded down with suitcases and boxes and teenagers chomping at the bit for their first taste of freedom. They idle, then inch forward a few feet at a time, their occupants totally unaware that this is the pace of life. That, despite the adrenaline threatening to send them into a Tasmanian Devil whirl, they will not be able to make everything they want to happen happen within a day or, at most, a week.
I know to watch carefully and, sure enough, at the last possible moment, a small white sedan accelerates to dart across my lane and turn left toward adventure. “Go ahead,” I mutter. “You will learn soon enough how much you will have to depend upon the wisdom of the people you don’t know to get you safely and productively through the next four — or five or six — years.”
It was August of 1974 when I made that turn, off a different interstate and toward a different college. I wore jeans and leather sandals and what we call a smock top, one Mama stitched on the Singer sewing machine whose hum had been the bass note of my childhood and the memory of which can still lull me to sleep on a summer night. The four of us — Mama, Daddy, my brother, me — set out from the farm that had so recently become our home as though this trip was just another ride to church or to visit my grandparents. As though everything about us would not be different at the end of the day when they returned without me.
Watching the white sedan and the silver compact and the blue SUV pulling a U-Haul trailer, I couldn’t help remembering that 17-year-old. She stood on the sidewalk waving goodbye, calculating how long before the car would be out of sight under the canopy of oak trees and she could return to the room where the people in the car had deposited a trunk, a plastic milk carton of LPs, the portable record player on which to play them and a couple of plants that Seventeen or Glamour or somebody had suggested would help make the room homey.
She stood on that sidewalk, over which she would eventually take thousands of steps, confident that she was ready and certain of what she was there to do.
She imagined that she would learn many things in college, but — to be honest — she thought it would probably be only a slightly more difficult level of memorization of facts and recitation of other people’s arguments. She figured the friends she would make — because, of course, she would make friends — would be very much like the friends she already had. She supposed she would hear opinions on politics and religion that were different from those with which she was comfortable and she was sure that she could consider them without any real danger to the truth as she already knew it. She had no idea.
The memory makes me patient with the white sedan. I can slow down, I can refrain from blowing the horn, I can wave on the child inside to all the big moments awaiting him. I can do that because, despite the fact that my textbooks were actual books and my exams were taken on paper and the only telephone to which I had access was at the end of the hall, I understand everything he is feeling, everything everyone in all the white sedans and silver compacts and blue SUVs are feeling.
And, because I am old now, I also understand everything the parents accompanying them are feeling.
I learned a lot in college and I hope all those who have come to our town for their great adventure learn a lot, too. I hope they learn that stillness is just as important as activity. I hope they learn that knowing how to pay attention is essential to happiness. I hope they learn that beginnings and endings always overlap. And I hope — please, Lord! — that they learn how to drive.