It was an unseasonably pleasant mid-August morning of 1999 in Bowling Green, Ohio. The humidity was barely noticeable, the sun bright, and the mosquitos surprisingly absent. Good graduation weather, particularly when your cap and gown are made of black velvet and your doctoral hood is heavy enough for you to notice the weight on your back and your neck. The culmination of my 22-year educational journey would be over within the next 90 minutes.
My family began to arrive at the expansive quad area. My sister Courtney used hats, purses, and programs to reserve the 19 seats needed for my family. An older gentleman moved two of the items and attempted to claim seats for his wife and himself, but my sister handled it. Even as an adolescent, my sister was (and is) a force of nature.
I was concerned that the meeting of my various mothers could get explosive. Betsy, my doctoral advisor, had been my academic mother for the past five years. My grandmothers Sadie Lee and Mary Louise, and my Aunt Christine had all picked up the slack while my mother Ina had wrestled with addiction during years past. They knew of the debacle that was my doctoral dissertation defense meeting. Betsy had failed to maintain her sobriety for much of the 18 months prior to my graduation and by the time that my defense meeting happened in late-June of that year, she was failing to maintain her status as a functional alcoholic. During the four months that I feverishly wrote my dissertation, she was far from the brilliant scholar that I had chosen to work with while sitting in my dorm room in Clark Hall V at Pomona College back in 1994. Long story short, she arrived at my defense meeting smelling of alcohol, moderately inebriated, and without her copy of my manuscript. She threw me under the bus multiple times during the two hours of trauma that were my dissertation defense meeting.
My mother had not forgotten my tear-filled phone call to her within minutes of me staggering out of that meeting. In my devastation I’d slumped into a deep squat against the rough brick wall across from my office door and watched my tears darken the blue carpet beneath me. Knowing me as only a mother could, she snatched me back into reality by saying
If you did not let my drinkin’ and druggin’ ass to stop you from pursuing your dreams, I’ll be damned if you let some other drunk bitch to fuck up your plans. Now, get your tears out, get you some wings, and a bottle [of rum] if But, tomorrow, you will go see your other committee members like they asked you, follow their advice, and get that shit done. You’ve got six days, son. I’m proud of you and I love you.
This was reminiscent of another conversation wherein my mother chose tough love or coddling. She listened to me rant about being tired and uncertain that I wanted “to do this shit anymore.” She replied, “You knew the costs of what you what you are trying to do. Did you forget or are you tired of paying?” I told her that I needed to go, hung up, and got back to work.
Which brings me back to graduation day. Betsy met my army of mothers without incident. My mom even thanked her for “keeping an eye on her first-born,” and Betsy nodded in the affirmative. Sadly, she’d had a few glasses of gin before arriving on campus that morning, but her behavior was uneventful.
It was my turn to cross the stage and receive confirmation of my degree. Dr. Ribeau, our university president and one of my mentors, announced my name over the PA system as one of my classmates completed her descent from the other end of the chancel. I believed myself to be a model of pride and stability that morning. However, I noticed that my legs felt shaky during my first stride up the three steps to the chancel. A storm of emotions erupted from my gut as I climbed the next two steps and I was a mushy mess of tears by the time that I’d arrived on the chancel. Dr. Ribeau turned to me with a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon and joked, “They let you out.” He saw my face, lifted his arms to welcome me into his embrace, and said, “Aww, come here man. Let it out, you’ve earned it.” I had completed this journey.
I felt a bit embarrassed that I’d caused a pause in the graduation ceremony, but Dr. Ribeau held me until he sensed that I had regained enough composure to safely descend the steps awaiting me. As Dr. Ribeau and I loosened our embrace on one another, I turned to my left and saw my father Adrian waiting for me to exit the chancel. Clothed in black slacks and a crisp black dress shirt, his smile broad, and his slender 5’8” frame erect, he looked nothing like the troubled man battling his addiction to alcohol that he used to silence his own demons. It become clear to me that not only was I returning to my corps of mothers from Betsy’s care, but Dr. Ribeau was also releasing me from his care and back to my original father.