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Other Writing

Lives: Ghosts of a Party School

A mother’s memory is tested in her son’s college town. 

A mother’s memory is tested in her son’s college town.

On a crisp fall day, complete with fiery foliage to satisfy every mother’s college campus fantasy, my husband, fourteen-year-old son and I drove up from Brooklyn to visit our older son for Family Weekend. Two long months had passed since he left home for his freshman year at the Ivy League school.

As we entered the New England town, a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln in the middle of a square caught my eye. Wait! Images rewound in my head like film on a spool, spinning and clicking into a frame of me atop this towering figure, hips cocked, grinning, an elbow leaning into the cold metal while I posed for a photograph. 32 years ago. The moment passed; the feeling lingered. I had almost completely forgotten. I wanted to forget.

When I was eighteen I spent a semester in this same town, but hardly the same school. In 1978 disco was dead. Unemployment was high. And National Lampoon’s Animal House opened to great fanfare. It was a celebration of what college was supposed to be: party central. More than a movie, the yarn influenced dewy-eyed teenagers from all strata. The school I went to made Animal House look cultured. It had a reputation of housing students who flaunted drugs and lower moral standards and were popular at the surrounding area schools for their roguish merry-making.

I was one of the first in my family to go to college. With little guidance I chose a college with an undefined mission based mostly on their ease of enrollment and sunny brochures with stock photo students against retouched campus grounds. I showed the pamphlets to my mother who looked relieved to see me grab the reins of my life. At a tender age she had left my three sisters in the West Indies with her parents, immigrated to the U.S. with my father, and traded her island mores for the American Dream. Four more children were born in New York, including me. Hard work and self-sufficiency were expected. If a career came as a result of higher education so much the better, but it was not overly emphasized. I had to search on my own.

The summer before my first semester began I met a guy named Manny with a rusty blue Buick. Accompanied by my older sister, I packed his car to the hilt with duffel bags and supermarket boxes filled with dorm supplies. With nothing but well wishes from my parents, a student loan and money saved from summer jobs, I was off to a college and a state I had never even seen before.

My husband parked the car on the street a short distance from our son’s campus.

“There’s a spooky-looking black gate somewhere near here,” I blurt out, squinting up the road. My husband glances ahead and then back at me, “what?” written across his face.

Long ago I walked this narrow sidewalk towards an enormous iron gate. Back then, in jeans and canvas sneakers and a brown corduroy jacket too thin for the biting October wind, I hurried along late one night following a motley crew of newly made acquaintances. Someone knew someone who was friends with someone who went to this school. There was a party in a dorm—no one was exactly sure which one. It was a hazy reverie tinged with weed and crunchy cold potato chips. The party ended up a dud, but I can remember glancing around the campus with curiosity, comparing it to my school’s dilapidated quad with bald patches of dirt just minutes away. The neat, thick green lawn. Sleepy giant stone buildings. The several hundred years of literature, theories, and equations that crackled in billowing trees. I had not heard of this university nor did I give any thought to its pedigree. Yet for a moment I felt its eloquence reach out to greet me, even as briefly as a nod to a stranger. Nervous, hollow laughter, skimpy clothing and big hair set us apart from the Ivy Leaguers we were visiting. Uptown and downtown students met not on academic grounds but on the social playground as young explorers, checking each other out like bath water before we got in the tub when we were kids.

My son met us at the black gate with big hugs and kisses. I wrapped my arms almost twice around his slender waist.

“Mom you lost weight!” He said, grinning. He was full of light, glowing with idyllic stories of campus life: staying up all night to write a paper; trying out for a play and an acapella group; convoluted details of his invertebrate zoology class. He loved his freshman experience. I didn’t. In my dorm if I stayed up all night it was listening to giddy, bumbling boys chasing girls down the hallways, spraying and slipping on poofs of medicated shaving cream. As much as it pained me, I called my mother every other day, crying. I was broken hearted, sorry and stuck; belly-aching to a woman who had a good job, a house, a husband and seven children by the time she was 31, all with just a GED. The pay phone was in the hall outside my room. It rang non-stop during mid-terms, and if you answered it half the time the voice on the other end would plead, Got any Speed? Can I cop some Speed?

I left the town and over a foot of snow in mid-December, rescued by two sympathetic old buddies who made the trek all the way from Queens. I never thought I’d ever return.

Against a backdrop of golden drifting leaves I listened to my son’s voice bounce from one topic to the next, ideas tumbling out of his mouth at a thrilling pace, the way they did when he was in grade school. We passed a familiar residence hall. A pretty Asian girl peeked out of the door and waved to my son. I took a long look at the building, and kept going.

Annette Vendryes Leach is a Brooklyn writer and author of the novel, “Song of the Shaman.”

Copyright © 2011 Annette Vendryes Leach