With children on their own, life speeds by

August 21, 2004|By ROB KASPER

IT IS shove-off season, the time of year when kids who have spent the summer sprawled on the sofa suddenly head out the door. One day, pencil box in hand, they are headed off for their first day of school. Then, in a twinkling, they are grabbing their passports and starting out on a far-flung adventure to the other side of the globe.

Last week our two sons shoved off, one to college for his sophomore year, and the other, a college graduate, to Athens for the start of a monthlong trek through Europe. Their departures both filled me with a sense of relief and put me in a reflective mood.

I felt relief that the packing process - always a struggle between detail-oriented parents and devil-may-care kids - was finally over. As I sat on the wooden benches of Baltimore's Penn Station waiting to put our older son on a train to New York, where he would catch a plane taking him to Greece, I mused about previous parting rituals, about transitions in life.

By now, many details of these departures were familiar. A heavy duffel bag, stuffed with an inordinate amount of provisions, rested on the station floor at our feet. My wife and I flanked the departing child and attempted to cope with deeper anxieties - plane crashes and terrorist attacks - by focusing on small details.

I reminded my son once again of where he would catch the van that would shuttle him between New York's Penn Station and JFK Airport. My wife quizzed him about the operation of his new phone, purchased for this trip and programmed to work in Europe. Meanwhile our son, 23, seemed tired of being hectored by uptight parents, anxious to plug in his earphones, to get on with his journey.

As his train rolled into Penn Station, I took a deep breath and tried to think deep thoughts. I was in the mood to meditate. Being on summer vacation does that to you. Moreover, a fair amount had happened during my vacation.

Early in my time off, I had presided over the marriage of my nephew outside Boston. The wedding turned out to be great fun, a gathering of the clans, and apparently legal. Then a week later I was back in Baltimore, sitting in Emmanuel Episcopal Church downtown grieving over the unexpected departure of Davison White, my former colleague at The Sun and a neighbor.

Dave died at the age of 66 after being injured while swimming in Nantucket, Mass., where he was struck by a wave while body surfing. Fresh from the Boston wedding, my wife and I had just stepped off the ferry in Nantucket when mutual friends told us the news of Dave's injury. We had planned to have dinner with Dave and his wife Barbara that night.

It was an impressive funeral. It was held on a sweltering Wednesday afternoon in August, a month when the town traditionally empties, and yet some 600 people filled the Mount Vernon church. Tributes to Dave were offered by his newspaper colleagues Frank Somerville and John Dorsey. Moving recollections of their father were given by his son Charles and his daughter, Laura. Among the throngs of graying men, many of them Dave's classmates from his days as a student at Gilman School, sat about a half dozen newspaper printers.

One of Dave's duties during his 30-plus years at The Sun was makeup editor, a job that required working with printers in the composing room where newspaper pages were readied for publication. Closing the pages, as this task is called, can be volatile. But Dave, with his low-key demeanor and quiet competence, earned the printers' respect. And as Jim Keat, a retired Sun editor reminded me, in the newspaper business, having printers attend your funeral is one of the highest compliments a newsman can receive.

Invariably after going to a well-attended funeral, you find yourself wondering what the turnout will be at yours, and whether your relatives will have to hire mourners.

I was jarred from such thoughts a few days later by a couple of phone calls from my kids reporting on more mundane matters. They had landed at their new destinations.

One phone call came from a dorm on the Johns Hopkins campus, the other from a house in Athens. The Hopkins call was from our younger son, 19, who, after traveling around the country looking at colleges as a high school senior and completing his freshman year at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., has decided to attend Hopkins, an institution he could almost walk to from our Bolton Hill home.

He called from his Homewood dorm to say there were two vital necessities he needed to continue his quest for knowledge. Those would be his computer and a remote-control device to change channels on the TV.

The call from Athens rang in our Baltimore bedroom at some ungodly hour in the morning, which was midday in Greece. It was our older son saying he had rendezvoused with his girlfriend, who was already in Greece visiting relatives.

My son and his girlfriend began planning and saving for this European adventure last year when they were seniors at Boston University. They had bought tickets to some Olympic events, including wrestling. My son wrestled in high school, spilling blood on mats throughout the Baltimore area. Once a wrestler, always a wrestler, I guess.

So now in the shank of summer, I lay plans to catch glimpses of my mobile offspring. I might see one if the television cameras pan the crowd during an Olympic wrestling match. I might see the other at a Hopkins football game. Seasons change, and despite my best efforts to hold it in check, life will not stand still.

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