My mother died here in Central New York a few years ago, two months short of 98. Her life was happy, not because of material ease, which she neither coveted nor had, nor because of any absence of hardship and tragedy, of which she had a great deal, but rather because of her sense of humor and her trusting, appreciative nature. I mention trust at the beginning of this reflection because it helped to make possible the good things in my own life.
Mother graduated from high school with what was called a “commercial” degree, having learned typing and shorthand. My father had to quit high school after two years in order to work. Neither was ever able to return to school. When I allude to this background with friends or colleagues, they almost inevitably infer that my parents must have been determined that I should get the education they never had.
But that was not the case. Education in and of itself was not really on their horizon. What they believed in was not education, but me. If I had chosen the “commercial” path in high school, as my sisters did, that would have been fine. I chose otherwise, and that was fine too.
I'm not sure that any of us knew during my high school years that residential colleges existed. I applied to only three institutions, all commuter campuses in the New York metropolitan area and all of them Catholic. I chose (and chose well) in function of the scholarships I was offered. It must have struck Mother and Daddy as odd that I should want to major in French – I who had almost never been outside the five boroughs of New York City (and I’m not even sure I’d been to the Bronx). But they were supportive when as a college student I decided to work part time and save money in order to take French immersion programs in summer school; and supportive too when I began saving for graduate school. When at my college commencement they were handed a program listing me as graduating summa cum laude, Mother asked Daddy what it meant. He responded that he didn't know but he felt sure it was good. His reply reflects the sort of confidence that sustained me – the implicit conviction that I would do the right thing.
That attitude extended to non-academic matters as well. One of my first dates was with a boy who was not from the neighborhood and whom my parents had never met. When he arrived in our small Brooklyn apartment to pick me up, he asked Daddy what time I had to be back home. Daddy, a little surprised, turned to me and said “What time do you want to be back?” I said, oh, about 11, and that was that. Those were different times, of course, but Daddy’s instinctive reaction was the expression of his unquestioning faith in me.
I was fortunate in the love, the loyalty and the enormous support – both material and emotional – of my parents and three older siblings. With the first paycheck she earned as a teenager, my elder sister bought me a desk. Are lessons from my own story applicable to others? I hope that every first generation college student finds that kind of sustenance: maybe from a parent or grandparent, maybe from a sister or brother, a teacher or a coach. To all of you at Hamilton, I can say that the College believes firmly in your abilities and your potential and expects you to make us proud.
Daddy died suddenly and much too young; I never got to tell him how grateful I was. I had more time with Mother and hope I made clear to her how much it sustained me to have her undemanding, unconditional support.