It’s been 50 years since I set sail for college!
Getting there had been a struggle.
My parents helped load my earthly possessions into the trunk of our ’57 Dodge.
I was breathless with excitement as we left the driveway of the family farm, stones crunching under the wheels.
The trouble began as we approached Martinsburg, West Virginia. On Route 11, of course. I-81 had not been completed yet.
I said to my father, “What’s that funny noise the car’s making?”
“Hmm,” said my father. (He was a man of few words.)
The knocking sound got worse. We drove to a filling station with a garage and a mechanic who took a look and said, “It’s the rods. Not much to do about it. But I got a friend who sells used cars.”
Long story short, after about three hours, we were back on the road in a blue Mercury. And long about midnight, I arrived on the first floor of Northlawn Residence Hall for Women.
The car problems were actually the least of the effort it took to walk through those big double doors for the first time.
I am the tenth generation of Hersheys in America. No one in all the generations before me, and probably in many previous generations in Switzerland and Germany, had ever gone to college or university.
My parents would have been happy if I had followed my mother’s path, staying home after high school graduation, saving up money for a wedding, and getting married at age 20 to a farmer, who, like all the farmers before him, worked on land that had been passed from father to son for many generations.
All of which is to say that it took effort to convince my parents to let me come. They weren’t sure they would ever get me back once I left Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
And they never did.
I understand their fear better now than I did then. And I am grateful that they trusted me enough at age 18 to let me go. I’ve never returned to Pennsylvania to live, but I hope they know I am still theirs.
My memoir is my tribute to them.
Once safely arrived in Virginia, I assembled the things I brought with me the way all first-year students do, hoping to symbolize my identity in my room. Fortunately, one of my cherished possessions was a Polaroid camera, and I thought to take a picture. Let’s look at it more closely now.
There under the window is the bookcase my uncle made in shop class, my mother gave to me, and I filled up with books, some of which I had already read, some of which I had purchased from a list of “books all college students should read,” and some of which were aspirational — a book about opera, the first three (free?) books in the Harvard Classics series I had sent for by mail.
I had imagined a life of high culture there on the farm and wanted to be ready for it when it hit me.
The wooden tennis racket and hockey stick were there to remind me and others that I loved playing sports even though I I hadn’t been allowed to try out for them in high school. This would not be the last time I would bring unfulfilled dreams from the past with me, hopeful that I would find a creative way to adapt them.
“It’s never too late” is one of my favorite sayings.
And on the wall above my desk, I hung a picture of John F. Kennedy.
If you read my childhood memoir Blush, you know that my interest in politics began in the 1960 election when I chose to go against the tide to defend Kennedy in debate. His assassination had rocked my sheltered world, and I developed a keen interest in leadership.
Fifty Years Later
I am again packing possessions into a car, hopefully one that will not break down along the way. I’m heading to three destinations on my way to the campus of St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota.
Books will take up even more space in the car than they did 50 years ago. Once again, I’ll take more than I will actually read, but they won’t be Harvard Classics or opera plots. I’m not trying to impress anyone. They will be books about vocation, aging, and death. Sounds grim, I know.
But I have that same fluttery anticipation I had fifty years ago.
After studying my dorm room photo above, I’ve decided to take my tennis racket. Will I use it more than I did in college? I doubt it. It will be there to remind me to live in my body and enjoy physical exercise and not to let dreams die.
On the wall? I have chosen another kind of leader to take with me. A woman. No, not Hillary (though you can discover what I think of her here),
I chose this small icon to place somewhere in the space I can’t yet envision in Minnesota. We leave tomorrow. I expect to arrive Sept. 6.
The icon comes from the Julian Centre next to the ancient church where Julian lived in her cell. My trip to the Collegeville Institute is taking me to a long-anticipated visit with my pilgrim sisters who are forever in my heart, like the one Julian holds above.
I’m on pilgrimage again.
The leader above my desk this time will be there to remind me.
“All shall be well.
And all shall be well.
All manner of thing shall be well.”
Well, I’m off to do final packing now. It will be delightful to read your comments as we traverse the country in the days ahead. Lexington, KY; Indianapolis, IN; Urbana, IL; Minocqua, WI, and finally Collegeville, MN.
Do you have material objects that hold the continuing power to inspire you? Are you anticipating any journeys? What are you “moving in” to next? What is “never too late” in your life?