A few weeks after Steve on "Blue's Clues" left his dog in his brother's care and headed off to college, my 5-year-old daughter, Stephanie, was pretending to work at McDonald's. As she flipped my imaginary burger, she announced, "I go to graduate school, you know."
"Really?" I replied, looking quite impressed. "You must have done very well in college."
"I didn't go to college," she explained as she handed me my fries. "I only wanted to go to graduate school."
"Why?" I wondered, although I already knew her answer. "College is so much fun."
"I don't think so," she rolled her eyes at me. "When you go to college, you have to leave your family and your dog and go far, far away like Steve did."
As she handed me my invisible tray, she continued, "My mom went to graduate school and she lived at home with us. Graduate school is much better. Thank you, please come again. I work here every weekend."
It was progress. The night of Steve's departure, Stephanie had sobbed for hours.
"How can Steve leave Blue?" she asked over and over, as she clung
to our beloved beagle. "I'm never going to college." In fact, it was tough just getting her to go to preschool the next day.
After years of watching "Blue's Clues," Stephanie, who never handled transitions well, had moved on to what she called "more grown-up shows," and hadn't seen Steve and Blue for several months. Or so we thought.
Instead, I got to comfort Stephanie as she marched into her classroom full of 5-year-olds and their moms, burst into tears and declared, "I'm never going to college!"
For the next few months, she started turning on "Blue's Clues" every day when she was home. "Joe is taking good care of Blue, isn't he?" I often remarked.
"Yes, but Steve will be back in four years when he's finally done college," she'd say. "And I'm never leaving this house, ever."
Through it all, my husband and I thought back to our own teenage years and remained certain that, by the time Stephanie is ready for college, she will want to get as far from this house as possible. We talked about the fun of college - and growing up - often. We pointed out "big kids" Stephanie admires who attend school - from elementary school to college.
Most of all, we discovered that we had to let Stephanie miss Steve, who had, after all, been a constant, familiar part of her life for as long as she could remember. And we had to let her work out her feelings about growing up - even if they were a little ambivalent sometimes.
Eventually, she stopped crying and started feeling happy for Steve.
She wrote him letters that gradually progressed from, "I miss you - Blue misses you - come back," to "Have fun at college."
She stopped watching "Blue's Clues" and went back to her big-girl shows. And she began to get excited about a big transition in her own life - graduating from preschool and starting kindergarten.
Then one night, my husband and I were talking about a neighbor who is graduating from high school this year.
"Is she going to college?" Stephanie asked.
"Yes," we replied. "She's going to college about three hours away, and she's taking a phone with her so she can call her family whenever she wants."
"That's where I want to go to college," she said. "You know, I was a little nervous about starting kindergarten, but it's a lot of fun. I bet college will be, too. And you can buy me a phone to take. And maybe a TV ... and my own computer...."
She didn't mention Steve again. Until yesterday. As she slumped on the couch flipping through the channels, she stopped at "Blue's Clues." It was a rerun - with Steve.
"Mom!" she called with a huge smile. "Look! Steve's back from college! I was right! I knew he would never stay away from Blue for four years!"
I guess we haven't quite finished explaining yet.