The Empty Nester Chronicles, Part I: Drop Off at Tulane.

Left with him.  Came back without him.

That was the main objective of our 941-mile journey there and back to the Crescent City, where Aidan had his first day of classes as a college student at Tulane University today.

We accomplished it with remarkably little drama, no tears and a series of smiling hugs.

We packed up the fire-red Jeep Cherokee the night before departure – a process that left our hallway/dining room more than a tad messy and the back of the Cherokee filled with more stuff than Dunreith said she and her brothers took to their colleges combined.

Illinois gets rural fast outside of Chicago, and the miles and miles and miles of cornstalks and green farms came into focus shortly after we got onto Route 55 outside of Chicago.

We arrived at our friend Michelle and Glenn’s place in Memphis shortly before evening and instantly headed over to Central Barbeque for a full slab of wet ribs and pork nachos, the first I had ever eaten.

After having slept most of the day in the car, Aidan was a tad dismayed to realize that New Orleans was nearly 400 miles away from Memphis, rather than the 100 or so he had anticipated.

This meant that we would have to get on the road by 4:00 a.m. in order to arrive at his dorm by 10:00 a.m.

Dunreith and I let him know that our purpose was to get him there when he wanted. Although the ribs, nachos, beer and wine sloshing around in my stomach meant that I got even less sleep than the time I was in bed, we all did our parts and got rolling at the designated time.

The New Orleans humidity smacked us in the face as we pulled into campus just after 10, and were directed to Sharp, Aidan’s dorm.

We unloaded the Cherokee’s contents-in an arrangement that echoed Noah’s ark: two large suitcases, two travel suitcases and two gym bags, one green and one blue, highlighted his possessions.  They were instantly toted upstairs to the fourth floor by green-shirted orientation volunteers.

This was just the beginning of Tulane’s version of Southern hospitality. Students gave directions to lost parents like Dunreith and me when asked without a hint of imposition  and held the doors open for us to pass through them.

Aidan set right to work getting his room in order, and, in what was not quite as much of a shocker as The Crying Game, he got everything to fit in the appointed space.  His printer, computer, toiletries, linens, clothes and books all fit onto his side of the linoleum-covered floor.  In no time at all, in fact, Aidan’s space looked as if he had been living there for months.  The suitcases were in the hallway, ready to be returned to Evanston

Dunreith and I set off for the French Quarter, where we stayed at the Iberville, a Ritz-Carlton affiliated hotel with Ramada-like prices, thanks to a Tulane parent discount.

Aidan took the St. Charles street car line over to meet us for dinner, and we headed to Felix’s Oyster Bar, one of several restaurants in the Quarter that Dunreith’s brother Josh had recommended to us. The grilled oysters were absolutely drenched in garlic and a gruyere-tasting cheese. Although they may have succeeded in closing my heart’s arteries, they also provided plenty of pleasure along the way, as did the bayou sampler of crawfish etouffee, jambalaya and gumbo.

The three of us took the St. Charles trolley line through the Garden District back to Tulane; the breeze that came through the windows and cooled us as we sat on the wooden seats a welcome relief from the thick heat.

Dunreith and I walked most of the way back to the Quarter, passing under the hundreds, if not thousands, of beads that hung from telephone wires, nearby trees and trolley wires, vestiges of last year’s Mardi Gras festivities glinting in the moon and street light.

The Quarter was in full weekend swing, the sounds of street musicians on Bourbon Street mingling with the smell of sweet alcoholic drinks and vomit from those who had enjoyed the Big Easy too much.

The goodbye that we all knew was coming hung over the next day like a rain cloud. It threatened to cover us as we had an unexpected lunch with Aidan after attending a Business School Orientation meeting for parents and purchasing some last-minute computer supplies before heading back to his dorm with the 10 reams of paper we had bought at Office Depot earlier in the morning.

Yet somehow it never burst.

Aidan, who had seemed understandably nervous on the ride South, smiled as he put his hands on his hips before reaching out to Dunreith and hugging her.

I handed him a letter I had written and placed in an Iberville envelope.

“I should have seen that coming,” he said before we hugged, too.

We told him we were proud of him and hugged a couple more times before he walked toward the dorm after telling us not to call him until today.

And so, 48 years after a King shared his dream with the nation, and the day before the six-year anniversary of an epic hurricane lashed the mouth of the Mississippi with biblical fury, we watched our son walk away from the car that had delivered him to his college and the site of the beginning of his adult life.

I had expected sadness and tears, but, somehow, seeing him settled in, happy to meet new students and dive into the adventures ahead left me feeling uplifted, light even and present.

Dunreith and I muddled around the directions to get off campus and onto the detour that would take us around the closed I-10 West and back to our home in Evanston.

Our life as empty nesters had begun.



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