Twenty years ago, nearly to the day, I packed my mother’s Subaru Forester with everything I would need for my first year at college. My future roommate and I had corresponded all summer and agreed that in addition to clothes, bedding, and school supplies, I would bring the mini-fridge and CD boombox and she would bring the microwave, fishtank, and blacklight. After all, a dorm room just isn’t a dorm room without a black light. So, with a car packed to the gills, my mom backed the car down our gravel drive as my father and brother waved good bye, dogs circling their legs and barking.
We sped through two lane highways that twisted and turned through treed hills and the iron-packed rocks of the Upper Peninsula, always moving south.When we finally reached Lake Michigan, we fell into blinding sunny beaches where the lake shimmered and the low sandy dunes pushed back against the waves. We crested a steep hill and the Mackinac Bridge stood before us; 500 foot tall ivory columns rising out the water. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles sped across the five mile long span where lakes Michigan and Huron met.
Halfway across the bridge, nearly 200 feet above the water, my mother reached over, squeezed my knee and said, “Say goodbye to the UP, Gator.” Cheekily, I looked over my shoulder, laughed and waved, “Goodbye to the UP Gator!” Of course, now I know what my mom already knew – I would never really return to the backwood and backwards place that was my home. Sure, I would visit. I came home in the summer to swim in clean lakes and walk in the dark woods. I came home for Christmas to get snowed in for days and ski to the store for fresh milk. And years later, I came home to say goodbye to my mother and celebrate her life after she succumbed to cancer. Even then, I never really returned. I was a different person from that 17 year old girl.
So, two years ago, almost to the day, I drove my little Ford Focus, packed to the gills, through Arkansas on my way to my first real job after graduate school. I crested a low hill and saw the impossibly long and wide Mississippi River spanned by the two silvery white arcs Hernando de Soto Bridge. Instead of trees and dunes, the buildings that made Memphis’s skyline rose up from the shores of the river. I sighed with relief because I was nearly to my new home. And, as I crossed the bridge, I could almost hear my mom whisper in my ear, “Say goodbye to the UP, Gator.”
Next week, we’re going to meet over 300 young people who’ve crossed bridges – both real and figurative to get here. They may struggle with the demands of college. They may be crossing a bridge to a new life with a trailer full of baggage behind them. However, we have the unique privilege to greet them when they arrive and help them make new lives for themselves.