Marking Time In Caps, Gowns, And Conversations

LAST month I was in Nashville for my stepdaughter Estelle's graduation from college. The trip from Florida had been thrown together at the last minute.

Even though my wife and I thought we had our act together, we didn't. Neither she nor I had called the desk at the motel to get a wake-up call on the morning of graduation, which started at 9:00 a.m. on the campus 40 minutes from where we were staying; lastminute planning had forced us to stay that far away.

It was 7:30 by the time we got up, and with two small children and our own disorder, it was possible to move only so fast. Facing rush-hour traffic, we finally left for Nashville at 8:20.

The worst of rush hour was over by the time we got to the city, but there was no place to park near the campus. Parents in high heels and suits were running toward the alumni quadrangle, where the ceremony was about to start.

I made an executive decision: I pulled over to the curb, told everyone to get out and run, and that if we got separated for the whole ceremony, I would meet them afterward at the restaurant right across the street.

My wife told me she was going to try and find another daughter in the crowd, in the place they had said they would meet. She said I should look for her ``somewhere along the right-hand aisle.'' I could only imagine what that meant.

Eight blocks later, I found a place to park. I started walking back to campus. I looked at the name of the street, Grand Avenue. I walked quickly without expecting to make any stops, but at 1908 Grand I realized that I was at the office building of a publication where my friend John is an editor.

I had hoped to see John on my trip to Nashville, but the trip had been thrown together so quickly I hadn't had a chance to call him.

I made a dash into the building, was told that he was out, and left a message that I had come by.

I had known John at divinity school. I was one of his students when he was a teaching assistant, really more of a teacher in his own right.

When Estelle decided to go to school in Nashville, I asked John if he could get in touch with her so that she would know there was an adult nearby to help her if she needed it. John and his wife, Marjorie, not only made a ``connection,'' but also befriended her, extending hospitality beyond anything I had imagined.

I ran over to the graduation and stumbled into, one-by-one, the members of my family. Misreading the program, I went to make a phone call and missed seeing my graduate get her diploma, which seemed to fit the jumble of the whole trip.

But what mattered most was that in a crowd of thousands, I had somehow found the whole family and, when the ceremony ended, got them back together for hugs and pictures.

Estelle and her parents headed over to the parents' reception (two tickets per graduate) and the rest of us went off to the big reception tent to eat appetizers and strawberries for lunch.

Rain started to fall, keeping us all packed under that tent for quite a while. When the rain let up, I told my family that I had something to do, that I wanted to go thank John. They all knew about him and understood, so we planned to regroup a little later.

I headed down Grand Avenue and went back to John's office. There he was, looking much as he had 14 years ago when I last saw him at my graduation.

He did have time to talk, so we sat down in his office. I thanked him for all he and Marjorie had done for Estelle. Then we started talking about the work of editing and writing.

Soon I began to have that feeling that I value most, given the fact that my friends are scattered all over America, and I am not a ``frequent flyer.''

It is the feeling of picking up where I left off years before, that despite the passage of time there can be a continuity of concerns between people that goes on and on. I felt that happen again as John and I talked about our vacations and our answers (rather than any final resolutions) to the question of what it means to ``produce.''

It makes me think that friendship is not just about congruent personalities, but about recognizing the enduring concerns that one shares with another person, the things that never get fully settled or fulfilled but to which we give life, each in our own way and within our own sphere of influence.

John talked about getting a publication out, and I talked about what I do. And the differences mattered much less than the yearning we share to just ``get it right'' and the sharing of what that means to each of us.

When I left John's office to rejoin my family on graduation day, I had an armful of papers, writer's guidelines, a free copy of a book, and some other things.

I GUESS that they are around here somewhere, as I unpack from that trip. But the first thing I dig out as I greet the dawn on another hot, rainy day in Florida is my thanks, not only for what my friend did for my stepdaughter when I could not be there, but also for a moment last month that affirmed the possibility of continuity in friendship, as I begin to talk of friendship not in terms of ``years'' but of ``decades.''

Just as I remain far from many of my friends, my stepdaughter leaves behind friends in Tennessee who may reemerge someday to give her life - when her life becomes measured in ``decades'' - a special kind of continuity.

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