I attended my niece's college graduation recently. I'm a fan of my niece, but not so much of graduations. "Seen one seen them all," is my general take on the things, but in this case, the balance of my family had been tipped to the West Coast (a rare occurrence) and I figured a couple of hours spent on a lawn chair in sunny Southern California, listening to a few dry jokes and follow-your-dream type speeches, was a small price to pay. I knew at the very least the company would be good.
Graduations are one of the few genuine rituals we cling to these days, a coming-of-age milepost we pound in life's sand. Like most ceremonies, they are something to endure, the anticipation and lead-up is the real juice, the reception and dinner afterward when you can actually begin to have fun. Despite what the kids think, the ceremonies are not for the graduates at all, but for the families. They are in this one respect like funerals. On the day, my eldest sister and I rose early, dressed and coffeed ourselves, then drove two hours, catching up with the rain that had blown in overnight. An Oregon spring wasn't on the program - that I was sure of - but organizers had arranged for thin plastic ponchos to be handed out, evidence that the college's powers that be are more than just book smart.
As the crowd took their seats, I looked around. I realized I didn't have a single surviving memory of my own graduation. Just as well, I thought. Photographic evidence exists that my friends and I smuggled champagne into the ceremony. It also shows I wore a Cheerios T-shirt under my gown, an undergrad touch I am proud of to this day. My niece's ceremony was less than raucous, but it wasn't for lack of trying. My eldest sister attempted to get the Finns to practice our own mini wave, but concerns seemed to be focused elsewhere and the best we could manage was a feeble ebb at low tide. Even so, not all was lost. Seated in a crowd of complete strangers, poncho-transformed into pink, blue and clear plastic flowers, the rain gave us permission to laugh at ourselves and at each other and in this way saved us from the excessive politeness we would have normally employed.
It was part way through the President's remarks that the sun broke through. You've got to hand it to Hollywood, right on cue. Ponchos were abandoned as the San Bernardino Mountains marched in and I took time to watch the Ansel Adams cumulus blossom, white over-stuffed animal sequences and peaceful Hiroshimas ascending. I couldn't see to the front rows of students, but imagined them tapping their heels, tassels and the light of expectation blinding them to everything but the situation at hand.
Since my wife is in academia, I have more opportunity than most to attend such ceremonies. Which is why when my niece's name was read and my family stood up and cheered, I turned to my sister-in-law and gave her a hug, then leaned across her and shook my brother's hand - and congratulated them. I'd never doubted my niece. I was and am sure she will find her way in the world. But what occurred to me watching her and her classmates troop across the stage, hearing the whoops and hollers, was how proud I was of my brother and his wife. Because it's not easy, not for anyone. I don't wish to take anything away from my niece, but as the graduates filed out, all smiles and naked relief (pearls you could call them, entering the oyster of the world) I thought it should be the parents commencing, empty wallets and all, proud of their babies, scared for themselves, clutching what I would have imagined to be blood-soaked, sweat-stained, tear-salted diplomas and passing between the clapping avenues of their children, awash in their smiles and baccalaureate of love. I said graduation ceremonies are for the families, and I meant it. Because love is a form of suffering - ask anyone, ask yourself - and while a lump in the throat doesn't stack up against the price of tuition, it's a wonderful ache all the same.
Charles Finn is the editor of High Desert Journal. His book, "Wild Delicate Seconds: 29 Wildlife Encounters from the Pacific Northwest" will be out next year by OSU Press.