The Best Thing That I’ll Ever See Happened When I Wasn’t Looking

By Gina Holub

The summer after my son graduated high school, I threw him a combination graduation / 18th birthday party. Forty friends and family members descended on my house one Saturday afternoon to celebrate these milestones in his life. I’m pretty sure a good time was had by all, but these things are hard to gauge.

Two things about that day will forever stick in my mind. The first was I had WAY too much food. I had a full course of appetizers including wings, dips, salads, and finger foods. The crowd arrived hungry and swarmed the table, then piled into the backyard to play volleyball. While they were out there, I set out the main course, which was an enormous tray of cold cuts along with salads, rolls, and all the fixings.

No one touched any of it. Maybe three people actually made themselves a sandwich. I sent everyone home with Ziploc bags crammed full of lunch meat, and we still had enough left over to eat for a week. I don’t know what I was thinking.

The second thing I’ll always remember about that party is a video I made of my son’s life. I spent several weeks that summer converting VHS tapes to digital, then splicing them together to create a video record spanning from moments after he was born to when he graduated high school. I added pictures (many of which show him rocking his Penn State apparel – his father and I are both alumni), complete with captions, and then set it to music. I worked on it long into the night for close to a month. I burned copies for family to take, and even tried to persuade them to watch it with me that day. Yet, everyone got bored halfway through (in fairness, it is 90 minutes long). To this day, I think I’m the only person who watched it in its entirety. I don’t even think my son has watched it all the way through.

I don’t care. I love that video. I had a blast making it and taught myself a new set of skills in the process. When he went off to Penn State and I was really missing him, I’d pop that video in and cry my eyes out until I’d feel better. Now, I’m thankfully past the point where I cry when he returns to school. Yet, I still watch it once in a while. It makes me feel like he’s a little bit closer, maybe in the next room rather than two hundred miles away.

I watched it again the other day and realized something new. These events that I had watched unfold, like his baptism, the first time he sat up, and jumped on the bus for his first day of kindergarten… these were my milestones, too. Watching him achieve each step helped me to establish my own place in the world, the part related to being a parent.

He stayed in State College through the summer between his junior and senior years. Between going away with friends for spring break, and spending time with his father and his significant other over winter break, I didn’t see that much of him for almost two years. During that time, he lived in off-campus apartments and attended to all of the responsibilities that go along with that: paying bills, managing money, doing laundry, cooking, shopping for food, and cleaning up after himself. All of this was on top of juggling classes and a job at Waring Commons. During his time away, he took the building blocks he was given and worked diligently at putting them together into something that will be uniquely his. Though the final shape of that is far from complete, it’s clear to me he’s been working on it. Hard.

He finally came home again this summer. While he was away, when I wasn’t able to see the events shaping his life, he became a man. Of course, this is what should happen when a child goes away to college. Yet, it isn’t just about him. It’s about me, too.

I’m now the proud mother to a man. He is polite and caring. His sense of social conscience is far more developed than mine was at his age. He cooks like he might someday give Gordon Ramsay a run for his money. He’s inherited a green thumb from his grandmother and great-grandmother. He has no fear of hard, physical work. He’s always up for trying something new, teaching himself new skills. He’s also funny! We have wonderful discussions that veer from intensely serious to uproariously hilarious and back again in moments. We have arguments about ridiculous things that leave me breathless with laughter, eyes wet with tears. He’s got big dreams and I know he will do great things with his life.

So much of it happened while I wasn’t looking, and I feel lost at times as I have no context for it. There’s no video to watch. I don’t know much about the forces that changed him from the adolescent to the man he is now facing his last semester at Penn State. So I find myself constantly under-estimating him, thinking he can’t possibly be ready to tackle what the world is throwing at him. Then he turns around and handles it with seemingly no effort at all.

I keep telling myself not to be surprised by this quietly capable man now inhabiting the body of my son. I’m sure I’ll eventually get my head around it, but in the meantime, it’s bewildering. When we went to New Student Orientation, the speaker at the parents’ meeting said, “From here on, you’re not so much a parent anymore as a coach and mentor to your student.” At the time, I remember scoffing silently to myself, “That’s not how it’s going to be for me”. I’ve come to realize that’s exactly my role now. He doesn’t need me for 99% of the things he needed me for when he was a child. I have a new place in his life.

The video I made stopped on the day he graduated from high school. Yet, he kept going. Now I have to stop looking for the child in the video and try to catch up with the man who is now my son.

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