May is the month of graduations. All over the country, thousands of young men and women will stride across a stage, shake hands with various school officials, take their diplomas and proceed to go out and conquer the world.
The fact that, year after year, droves of young people have been setting out to conquer the world stands as a stark reminder that the world is a pretty tough old bird. Here it is, 10 years into a new millennium and the world has not been sufficiently subdued, apparently.
So I would like to use the space allotted to me here to address that new wave of would-be world-conquerors.
More specifically, I would like to address one particular world-conqueror.
On the evening of May 22, Abigail Nicole Smith will stride across the stage during the graduation ceremonies at Harrison Central High School in Gulfport, Miss., to accept her diploma.
For most of those in attendance, she will be one among many.
Ah, but I know different.
She was not always the tall, graceful, self-assured young woman who will glide across the stage to the applause of a small army of family and friends.
In fact, I have it on good authority that not so long ago, she was short, impossibly plump, virtually non-communicative and blissfully unaware that the world needed to be conquered.
How far she has come. And, so quickly, too.
I guess that’s the way it always is with dads.
I do not understand it, but as the day of her graduation approaches, I’ve found myself reliving memories of her childhood.
It is not a conscious effort on my part. I’ll be making breakfast on morning, and I’ll remember the day when she was 13 and had a friend over to spend the night. The girls disappeared into the bathroom for about three hours to apply make-up and emerged looking like two clowns on acid.
Or I’ll be standing in line at the bank, and I’ll remember the day when she announced she was going to be a vegetarian. As a life-long Southerner, the very idea of someone being a vegetarian seems foreign. But here was this 10-year-old swearing off meat. I didn’t even protest, so certain was I that the lure of a pepperoni pizza would quickly cause her to repent. Two weeks, I figured.
Well, it’s been seven years and she’s still a vegetarian.
I’ll be feeding the horses and I’ll remember how, as just a toddler, she would command my attention by holding my face in her little hands, looking me dead in the eye with wide serious eyes and saying “This is important!’’
For some reason, most of my recollections are dominated by her early years and of the front-porch swing. Getting Abby to bed was my duty – and my privilege - and the front porch swing was where we always greeted the sandman.
When he was just a little bundle, I would swing her on the porch and sing to her and she looked up at me with those big blue eyes. She seemed to favor “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,’’ or so I fancied.
As she got older, the front porch swing was where we could be totally silly.
It was there that she told me her first joke:
Question: Why did the cactus cross the road?
Answer: It was stuck to the chicken.
OK. As jokes go, it probably doesn’t floor you. But to hear her tell it, laughing so hard that she could barely get it out, was to me an eternal pleasure. She would tell the joke over and over and almost collapse in convulsions of laughter, the kind of laughter only innocent children can produce.
It was Abby’s first joke, so it will always be my favorite.
Just before we left the porch swing to go to bed, we played the “I Love You Better Game.’’
“I love you better than chocolate cake!’’ I would say.
“I love you better than a million beanie babies!’’ she would respond.
We would exchange “I love you betters’’ until it was difficult to find comparisons.
Since we did this every night, the game soon became scripted, more or less.
And it always ended with the silliest one:
“I love you better than a dead goat!’’ I would say and she would wrinkle her nose in mock horror and cackle with laughter.
The porch swing exists for us now only in memory.
Circumstances have intervened and I have missed a lot of her teen-aged years, so I’m loath to take any sort of credit for the strong, spirited young woman she is now.
I will not be able to attend the ceremonies, such are my present circumstances.
At the graduation party, someone else will have to make the traditional Smith family toast noting the attainment of a high school diploma with the words, “This don’t mean you’re better’n us!’’
But as she walks across that stage, shakes hands and receives her diploma, a little of bit of me will be there, too.
And at that moment should you see me and notice a tear or two, do not mistake it for sadness or regret.
It’s just that my heart got too full, so a little bit began to leak out.
My porch-swing buddy is all grown up.
But if she’ll permit it – in fact, even if she won’t – I have to say one thing lest the night be left incomplete.
Abby, I love you better than a dead goat!