As our van backed slowly out of the parking lot and turned toward the street in front of the dormitory, I sat in the passenger seat with my eyes glued to the second floor, first window on the left. Part of me hoped a banner would appear outside my daughter's room that read: "Please don't leave me here all alone." But there was no banner.
To make matters worse, I'd returned to the car without saying all the words of wisdom I'd planned. I hadn't trusted myself to say anything as my husband and I left Kristi's new, closet-sized room piled high with boxes and tidbits of home. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to slip any words past the lump in my throator worse, that only sobs would escape. This was a happy day for my first-born daughter, and I wanted it to stay that way.
So I put on a big, brave smile and hugged her tightly as we left. But I didn't feel cheerful or brave. I was leaving my precious daughter on her own for the first time. Throughout Kristi's college yearsand as her sister and brother entered college a few years laterI coped with their absences by thinking of ways to stay connected with them.
Here, then, are several field-tested ideas I'd like to pass long to you as you prepare to send your own child off to college.
Getting Ready to Go
You don't have to wait until your kids have left home to remind them they're in your thoughts. As you're helping them pack, include some framed pictures or a small album. Bookcases are good for books, but they should also hold a few memories of home!
As you help pack linens, slip a note of encouragement between the sheets. Go through the box of toiletries and place a few stickers on some of the frequently used bottles and boxes. When my oldest daughter left for college, I put a rose sticker on the lower corner of her television. Rose is a nickname that my children gave to me years ago. Now, I often place rose stickers on their things as surprise reminders that I'm thinking of them.
I also found a small Scripture plaque and placed it on the dashboard of Kristi's car. So each time she hopped in her car, she would know I was praying for her.
When you arrive on campus, find a spot in your son or daughter's room like a drawer or cabinet, and hide a favorite candy bar with a little note. Or leave a 100 Grand candy bar with a note that says "You're worth so much more than 100 Grand to me."
The simplest things can be very comforting to your kids. When we helped my daughter Ginger move into her dorm room, I folded her towels. Ginger later told me that after I was gone, just seeing her towels folded the way I did them reminded her of home.
During the Semester
It's never fun to check an empty mailbox, so I try to drop a card in the mail to my college student a couple of times a week. Every now and then, I try to tuck in a surprise, like a gift certificate to a favorite restaurant, a gas or discount store gift card, a newspaper clipping from the hometown paper, or, of course, money!
If you live close enough to your child's college, take him or her out to lunch occasionally. My son Jeff's college is about an hour away from our home. Every now and then, I make the two-hour round trip to take him out for a quick hamburger.
Of course, you can't go wrong with a care package. My husband John started the tradition of sending each child a variety tin of popcorn around the time of first-semester exams. It was such a hit that even though two of our three children have graduated from college, they still look for their "exam popcorn" around the first of December!
Log on with Love
Technology has opened up a whole new world of communication. Send an occasional e-mail greeting. It doesn't have to be long. Just a note to say "Hi, I'm thinking about you today" or "I remembered you had a big test. I'm praying for you."
Cell phones also make it easy to keep in touch. If your family has a relatively inexpensive family cell phone plan, call your student every once in a while to just say hi. Leave a message and he or she will feel special. Text messaging is also a good way to say a few words. Although I still need practice with this one, I have become fairly proficient in sending a short message such as "Hi, ILY" (I Love You) in a reasonable amount of time.
When Kristi entered junior high school, I made it a point to read books assigned by her English teacher. As it turned out, we continued to do this occasionally once she was in college. "Mom, have you ever read The English Patient? My class is reading it. Want to read along?" As we read and talked about the issues in the books, we often ended up sharing opinions on issues and topics we probably would have never otherwise discussed.
Recently Kristi and I were discussing her first day of college. As it turns out, just as I was feeling like I was deserting her, she was feeling deserted.
She said, "You know, Mom, I watched you walk out that door and stood there in the middle of that strange dorm room and all the mess. I thought to myself, What do I do now? They have just left me here to fend for myself. But then I turned to start doing something, anything just to get my mind off of how I was feeling. And you know what? I saw a rose sticker you'd placed on my television and it made me smile. Your presence was very real. I knew everything would be OK!"
Linda Gilden is the author of Love Notes in Lunchboxes: And Other Ways to Color Your Child's Day (New Hope Publishers).