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Russ Kay: "Thoughts on Alex leaving for college"
Bar Harbor
Dad wrote this in 1984. Mom put a copy of it (and the referenced article) away in an envelope marked “For Alex when his kids go to college”. But I never had children, and they never went. Dad came across the envelope while going through her things some years after her death, and gave it to me then. I’ve added some editorial comments, in brackets.

September 5, 1984
[Address redacted]

Dear Elise,

After reading the latest WPI Journal, I had to write. The article about your daughter's leaving for college struck quite a chord inside me, and it's still resonating. I recall with warmth the night we flew back from the Vancouver CASE (or maybe it was still AAC) meeting a dozen years ago, and you and I stayed up for hours in New York talking about our kids--both the same age--sharing wallet photos and anecdotes, decompressing from a very nice conference.

As I read your article, I was struck by some of the superficial similarities between our two only children, at least in many of the aspects you mentioned--compassion, poise, older friends, museum-going, strong interest in films and theatre. Oh yes, untidy.

Well, two weeks ago Harriet and I took "our" Alexander off to Brandeis. We'd gotten back from vacation a few days before, and Alex had all his things packed, the boxes stacked in the front hall. We got him to campus at 8:30 in the morning, as early as possible per his request, and at quarter past nine he asked us to leave, not to help him unpack or anything else.

Of course, his head had moved out of the family (or at 1east the house) some months back, but the reality of that final pushoff was quite a wrench. I've not been a single parent (I started to say "alone," but that obviously wasn't the right word), as you have, but I'm left asking myself many of the same questions as you describe about where my life goes from here. I had no idea, at some very basic, emotional level, of what life would be like for Harriet and me without Alex around all the time.

And oh! the unfairness of it all. I don't know ... we worked as hard as we could to instill independence, self-confidence, self-reliance, individuality, and a sense of intellectual freedom into our son ... and then he turns out that way, just like we'd hoped, and it's damned hard to take. He thinks for himself, which means he only listens to us when he wants to. He's a stubborn bastard, and we have to bite our tongues and honor it. We've got to wait (hopefully just a few years) until he can, once more, be our friend ... on his own terms, as his own person.

He'll be back for holidays and occasional weekends--has been once already, in fact--but it's quite clear that things won't ever be the same. Alex is starting the grand adventure--building his own life--and we're left behind to refigure ours.

I remember the 6--year--old we used to take climbing and hiking in Maine, who named Mt. Desert "our island"; and also the 16-year-old who refused to come anywhere with us at all on vacation.

I think of the socially inept 12-year-old who couldn't adjust to the onus of being different (and of valuing intelligence) in public junior high school and who briefly contemplated suicide; and I recall with pride his prep school graduation, where Alex was the one person you could unmistakeably pick out of the crowd, as he wore his 14-foot long multicolored Doctor Who scarf over his graduation gown. The chairman of the board spontaneously doffed his cap and made a deep, sweeping bow to Alexander ... who, without missing a beat, returned the gesture and then accepted his diploma to cheers from his classmates. [I’m happy to have not missed a beat in real-time. Subjectively, that was a panic moment that went on for ever :-)]

I remember the time he emptied out his tiny closet and built a reading room in it, complete with bookshelf, chair, and lamp; then filed down a skeleton key to fit the lock, and finally disguised the door so completely you wouldn't know it's there if it wasn't pointed out. [I did not file down a key. What I did was I swapped the (non-locking) knob mechanism of the closet with the one from my room, which had a lock.]

I think about how much Alex likes acting ... and how really poor an actor he is. [HEY!] And yet he's also the very best storyteller I've ever known. Harriet used to complain constantly about how he'd read to her in the morning as she drove him to school, but carefully timed things to leave a cliff-hanger, every day.

I think of my ambivalence this year when Alex started growing a scruffy beard (they're always scruffy at the beginning). I've had one since 1972, so why did I object to seeing him with one? Bite Your Tongue Again, Russell. And if it's OK to collect hundreds of books, like his parents, why is it harder to accept his also collecting hundreds of comic books? How do I figure out the kid who buys Cole Porter records but listens for hours to-MTV? BYTA.

I remember Alex saving his money to buy a $60 broadsword from the Higgins Armory and the two of us designing and constructing a leather scabbard for it. And how he could never wear it anywhere, only briefly (in fact, for only two hours) at a science fiction convention. And just the other week he told us about the time a few years ago when he was stopped by the police for walking around the neighborhood in his black hooded cape. As a short 11-year-old, he looked too much like Darth Vader!?! [I had been walking in some not-very-deep woods. Apparently, someone called the police to report that “Darth Vader is in my back yard!”]

I think of the little (and not so little) boy who used to sleep with a collection of stuffed animals so large it threatened to push him out of his own bed ... and how he rotated them each night—equal time for all. The animals all live in a drawer now (two drawers actually), except for the newest, Herman the bat, who went off Brandeis with Alex

So many thoughts, memories and mind pictures, doubts and fears, hopes and expectations. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. If I had it to do over again, I surely would ... but then once was enough, too.

Kids. They really do a number on you

- - - - - -

Thank you for the article, Elise. I’ve always liked and admired your writing and your ability to pull things together. The timing of this article, though I suppose inevitable, has been especially nice from my point of view, and it's helping me get through an incredibly (and unexpectedly) rough patch. So is my writing you this letter.

Here's to all our new lives!



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Huh. Interesting -- the main thing I get from this is that you were quite a bit more fully-formed when you got to Brandeis than I had been. Much of his description is pretty unsurprising, whereas I got to college with no *clue* what I wanted to be like when I grew up, aside from different from what I had been. (Much of which I then figured out in the first four weeks of college: it was a time of great change for me...)

Well, I got there knowing what kind of person I was in a moral/social sense. On the other hand, I had only vague notions about career, and didn't really get anything that stuck in that regard until 15 years later! So you were well ahead of me in that regard :-)

Sorry so long until I read/responded.

" Apparently, someone called the police to report that “Darth Vader is in my back yard!"

That is really funny. Also, people don't look at things hard enough.

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