Graduation . . . from the folding chairs

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I recently ran across a photo album that holds my senior pictures.

Of course I laughed because I looked ridiculous . . . a sentiment I’m sure we all share after several decades of evolutionary maturity.

However, there is one picture in that album that is phenomenal – it’s one of my most prized possessions.

It’s a picture that I assume was taken by one of my aunts during my high school graduation. It’s simply labeled “Cheri listening to Melanie’s speech.”

In the photo, there’s my mother, sitting amongst a sea of other parents in the folding chair section that was designated only for them. She’s wearing a bright blue dress. Her hand is slightly touching her chin and there’s a faint, wistful smile on her face.

I remember when I stood before that gym of people to deliver the graduation address, I focused on her face.

I have no idea what I talked about, it was so long ago. Probably ideas about what our future was going to be like, the aspirations we had for our lives.

I do remember there was a segment of that speech that caught my breath and choked my throat as I tried to express gratitude for all my mother and the other parents had done in getting us to that point in our lives.

I held back tears as I glanced at that section of folding chairs where the parents sat – and saw my mother sitting there, smiling at me with quiet pride.

In small schools back then – and I suspect many still to this day – there was a portion of the commencement proceedings in which the graduates presented their parents with roses. That day was the case as well.

I remember staring at the blue dress in that ocean of teary mothers as I made my way through the folding chairs. I remember her tight hug and a soft whisper that said something about love.

Graduation is about the kids who are leaving high school and embarking on their journeys into the world. But let’s be honest . . . it’s also very much about the parents and guardians who reared those children, encouraged them to do their best and prayed for a successful outcome.

When my brother, Terry, graduated from high school, my mother was not only thrilled . . . she was surprised. We all were. The kid had missed so much school after our dad died, the educators could have easily thrown him away. But the administration and instructors were understanding about the need for him to spend time working on the farm – and somehow, with their help, he completed the coursework.

When he presented that rose to Mom, as she again sat on her folding chair, I’m guessing their conversation was about how he was now free to concentrate on cattle and crops instead of algebra and history.

My mother gave birth to seven children and her intention was to sit on her designated folding chair year after year until they all left the nest. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be the case. She never sat in the folding chairs section again.

Mom died just a month before my brother, Steve, graduated from high school. The other parents made a sacrificial decision to be integrated with the rest of the crowd and to forego their rose presentations so as to not amplify my brother’s anguish.

They tried to make that graduation as unemotional as possible – which was hard to do in such a tight knit community where the elephant in that room was certainly present.

So on that day, there were no roses and no special folding chairs. Just diplomas and an effort to move on – with a gentle push from the other mamas.

More graduations arrived in our family – but on those occasions, it was me and my husband who sat on the folding chairs. One by one, the younger sisters made their way through the rows of chairs, roses in hand.

Each time, I cried with sadness. I cried with love. I cried with frank relief that another one made it at least that far. And I cried with fear as each set out on her own to make a life for herself.

After the last little bird flew away, my husband and I remained sitting on our folding chairs while everyone else left the gym. There we sat, shocked that the last 10 years had finally passed and our job was nearly done. Mostly, we thought about my mother as I sat in her chair and wished she could have seen that day . . . and the thousands in between.

But it was with pride that I was able to stand up from that folding chair because I had been given the opportunity to finish what she started. Sure, I might not have been very good at it – but those kids turned out pretty fantastic anyway.

So now that graduation season is here, let’s pay attention to not only the graduates but the people sitting on the folding chairs who produced those wonderful kids and poured their souls into helping form our future.






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