Skip to main content

I just returned from a beautiful trip to northern California to attend my only daughter’s college graduation. It was such an important occasion and one that I wasn’t always sure we would reach. My mom and stepdad made the journey for the event as well as my husband and me, and it was so wonderful to have three generations there to support my daughter in her grand accomplishment.

We were there for about five days, and on one of the days, my mom, stepdad, husband, and I walked downtown from our VRBO to do some shopping. There are a bunch of cute shops, and in one, I found a little nicknack that I wanted to take home to Montana with me, and so I went to the register to purchase it. At the register, I noticed Class of 2024 refrigerator magnets with my daughter’s college on it and a hand painted shot glass with the school name on it. I picked up two magnets, one for her and one for me, and a shot glass for her. The cashier asked if I wanted any of the items gift wrapped. I said, “Sure, you can wrap one of the magnets and the shot glass.”

She said, “Do you have a graduate?”

At that moment, tears welled up in my eyes and escaped down my face, and I answered, “Yes, my daughter.” The two cashiers congratulated me, and I started laughing and said, “I didn’t expect that question to make me cry, but it’s a big deal.”  They agreed, wrapped my gift, and congratulated me again.

Then I walked down the street to meet up with my family for beers, and when we sat down, I was telling them about my experience at the gift shop, and then my mom started crying too! We laughed at each other, and it was another beautiful moment. It reminded me of a line from one of my favorite movies Steel Magnolias spoken by one of my favorite people of all time, Dolly Parton, in her role as Truvy. She said, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” And it is.

Later, I was thinking about why graduations make me so emotional, and why this graduation seems to carry with it more emotion than even I expected. There are quite a few reasons.

  1. Graduations have been making me cry since I attended my own graduations and since my own daughter was born. I’ve been looking forward to this moment her whole life.
  2. Education is so important to me. My husband and I are both educators and have been teaching for 30 and 26 years respectively. I believe firmly that you can never go wrong investing in yourself and being a life-long learner.
  3. My daughter was a 2020 high school graduate. My husband and my parents had to watch her high school graduation livestreamed. My ex-husband and I were the two guests that were allowed to attend while she sat on the football field in our town six feet apart from her classmates. We were lucky because that was more of a graduation than many 2020 graduates got to have. But even so, having an actual graduation where her whole family could attend was such a needed milestone.
  4. It was such a challenging four years for my daughter. Her senior year of high school ended in a very lonely way. Her first year of college was entirely online. She moved to her college town anyway and got an apartment with three other girls. They all got COVID within a week of being there. She had a boyfriend in Salt Lake. She spent most of her freshman year of college in Salt Lake taking her classes from her boyfriend’s apartment and spent almost no time in the town we had just moved her to. This was not the college experience we all had signed her up for.
  5. She’s learned so much navigating these last four years. She finally had some in-person classes during her sophomore year. I remember on the first day of class that year, she called me from the parking lot at the college crying because she couldn’t find a parking space and was going to be late for her first class. I told her to take a minute, keep driving around, and that she would find something, and that I was sorry there was nothing I could do to help her from Montana. She eventually found a spot. She may have been a little late, but now she navigates that town and the parking situations like an old pro. The growth in these years is not something that could have been replicated if she’d been home with me.
  6. I’m just so darn proud of her. There have been so many hurdles: challenging classes, challenging roommates, boyfriends and ex-boyfriends, anxiety, loneliness, getting a puppy (my granddog Moosey that I love so much), budgeting money, cooking, cleaning up, maintaining a vehicle, homesickness, finding friends, losing friends, and coping with other people’s judgements. Sadly, there’s a stigma about college right now. Some people think no one should go because everyone should go to trade school. Some people think you haven’t fully earned the accomplishment if your parents helped you by paying for it. Some people think that colleges are only in place to indoctrinate. To hell with other people and their judgements, I say. I am so proud of my daughter, and I know that what she has gained from this experience can never be taken away from her.
  7. She got a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in creative writing. She now will need a 5th year to get her teaching certificate. She didn’t enter college thinking that she would be a teacher, but she quickly realized that was the direction she wanted to go. Even with all she has seen with parents who are educators, she still wants to enter that field. She wants to help others learn, and that makes me so proud too. The education field desperately needs people like her.
  8. I’m proud of my husband and me. We got married when Mallory was in third grade. We spent the next six years on the Dave Ramsey plan of paying off debt. When she was in 8th grade, we could finally start saving for her college. We stuck 1000 dollars per month into a college savings plan for five years, and her grandparents also contributed. That all would have been enough to cover tuition, but room and board is a whole other thing. And there were travel expenses so she could come home a few times a year so we could all see her. We’ve gotten her through four years of college debt free. We didn’t anticipate a 5th year being needed for a teaching certificate, but that is how her program was designed. She’s kept up her end of the bargain too. She got her bachelor’s in four years, and she passed all her classes. My husband and I have been a little in the poor house during this time, but we’re almost there, and I am proud of us for being able to help her this way. I just got done paying off my student loans when I turned 40. She’s very fortunate to not have that weight upon graduation, and I know she appreciates that. I’m proud of all of us.
  9. We got the picture. After graduation, we walked to the front of the oldest building on campus. It wasn’t without a slight mishap. I had ordered a graduation outfit from Stitch Fix. They sent me these ridiculous high-heeled wedged sandals that are apparently all the rage right now. I don’t wear heels. I much prefer flats. But I decided in the interest of fashion that I would wear the heels. Well, as we were all happily walking the campus after the beautiful and sunny 9AM graduation ceremony, my ankle just wobbled a bit, and the next thing I knew I was rolling on the cement walkway. I recovered quickly. Only my daughter, all her friends, my other family members, and everyone around us saw me fall in heels and a dress. So embarrassing. But I got back up and escaped with skinned elbows and knees and otherwise in OK condition. My dress didn’t even get dirty. It could have been much worse. And no, I hadn’t consumed a single mimosa that morning. It was all the fault of those damn heels. I’m going back to being more out-of-fashion. It’s safer. Anyway, after that, we got a perfect spot for the iconic graduation photo. The old historic building in the background, the green campus, and the blue sky, and my daughter in the center of her parents and grandparents, beaming with her arms full of teddy bears, flowers, and that diploma that she worked so hard to earn. It is a moment that none of us will ever forget. And we got the picture.
  10. My mom is turning 70 this year. I was so glad that she and my stepdad could make the trip. Spending time with them was priceless, and I know how lucky I am to have them in my life. We had so much fun staying at the VRBO together. They had a bocce ball court in the backyard. We had a barbecue at that house with my daughter and her friends and had some competitive bocce ball matches. There was also a jukebox in the house. It was my parents’ first time visiting that California town. It was so great to get to show them around. I honestly didn’t know how it all would go combining the energy of the college-age people with the parents and grandparents, but it was a lot of fun, and I think everyone understands each other even more after that experience.

So, with the weight of all this emotion on my heart, I found my seat in a folding chair on the field for graduation. I first stopped at the stand where they were selling graduation bears and bought one with a t-shirt with the names of every graduate in tiny print attached to it. That lump rose in my throat again when I purchased it. But no one could see the tears through my sunglasses.

My daughter’s friends arrived and sat with us too. A nice lady advised us about where to sit because the graduates would be marching right by us on their way into the ceremony. I got up and stood near the barrier as they came in, hoping to catch a view of my daughter. I was recording the procession on my phone and my daughter’s boyfriend came up and started videoing too. He said, “Have you seen her yet?”

I said, “Not yet.” But a minute later, there she was. We shouted her name, and she looked over and waved. A big smile on her face. She was so proud, and I know how glad she was to have us all there to witness her big day.

I then took my seat to enjoy the ceremony. There were tears in my eyes for most of it but thank goodness for sunny days and sunglasses. I heard them call her name on the stage. She did it! We did it. And I could not have been prouder.

Over the course of the last few days, I’ve had time to reflect on my feelings about this big day. When I have something big to think about, songs tend to get stuck in my head. This last week, these were the songs:

  1. “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World” – Ronnie Milsap
  2. “Hey Look Ma, I Made It” – Panic! At the Disco
  3. “You Can’t Lose Me” – Faith Hill

That last one by Faith Hill really starts the waterworks for me. The journey as mother and daughter has not always been the smoothest for my daughter and me. There was a period that it was rough, really rough. But we made it, and the older she gets, she realizes more and more that she’s got a mom who is her biggest fan, and no, she can’t lose me. I will be cheering her on, taking too many pictures, and being there for her forever and beyond. I think that is why I cry so much at graduations, especially her graduations. It was a very big deal.