We’re approaching graduation season again. So it seems like a fitting time to tell the story of the gifts Valerie de la Torre gave her children, Adam and Jessica, when they graduated from college.
She wanted to give them something memorable, something more creative than what she had received years ago.
“I got luggage,” she said.
Not that there’s anything wrong with luggage. It’s a time-honored gift — one that, when she mentioned it, reminded me of what my parents gave me.
A set of Samsonite, as symbolic as it was practical.
I remember being mildly disappointed. Today I’m embarrassed by that disappointment. If anything, I should have been giving my parents a big gift. And in an age when it seems like some parents turn graduation gift-giving into an arms race, it was heartening to sit in the de la Torre’s kitchen last week and see Adam and Jessica thumbing spiral-bound collections of letters, telling their mother how much they still appreciate the gifts.
“Books of Wisdom,” she calls them.
It started in 2010 when Adam was graduating from Duke University. He had majored in psychology with a minor in film studies (and for one year had been the Duke mascot). His mother contacted 22 men — choosing that number because Adam was 22 years old — who had been, in variety of ways and degrees, a part of his life. She asked them if they’d be willing to write something to the new graduate. It didn’t have to be long, she said. It could be just a few words. It didn’t even have to be their own words. It could be a favorite quote or a verse.
“As I got them back, I was blown away,” she said. “One of the things I found really interesting is that nobody really wrote about what they did, their profession. It was much more about ways to live their lives.”
She wrote her own note, topped by a quote from Socrates — “Wisdom begins with wonder” — to introduce what followed in Adam’s book: letters from his pediatrician, his dentist, teachers, family friends, a school administrator, a prominent businessman, a neighbor, a co-worker and, finally, the 22nd man, his father, Alberto.
Some of their wisdom was surprising. A family friend, a 50-year-old attorney, began with this blunt message about the meaning of life: “It’s Not About You.” He went on to explain that “if education enlightens, that is because it has given us the wisdom to get over ourselves and distrust any suggestion that we are uniquely important apart from serving the people we love.”
A former high school math teacher wrote: “Always have some plants growing and always be reading at least two books: one fiction and the other non-fiction. Read the Bible often each day. Hang clothes in the sun to dry. Love your wife as yourself. … Scare her and everyone else by the way you live for love.”
A head of school told the story of his own graduation gift from his mother — not a plane ticket to Europe or a Vespa scooter, as he had hoped, but a Smith-Corona electric typewriter.
“I was an English major and thought I wanted a career in journalism,” he wrote. “Mom wanted to help me get started, and I know now how much thought went into this gift. We were not a wealthy family and my father had died the previous year. It was one of my first lessons in both humility and appreciation … So, my friend, I congratulate you once more, and hope that somewhere along the line your own ‘Smith-Corona’ will bring you the same appreciation for all the good things we are fortunate to have in this world.”
Only one of Adam’s 22 letters came from someone his own age. And at first glance, it isn’t deep or profound. But, four years later, it packs as much of an emotional punch as any other. It was written by J.T. Townsend, the former Episcopal football player who had been paralyzed and became a close family friend. A North Carolina fan, Townsend congratulated Adam on Duke’s national championship and wished him well in the future, signing the letter, “Your brother, JT.”
When Townsend died in 2013, not long after his own college graduation, Adam had those initials tattooed on his back.
That same year, when Jessica graduated from Tufts University with a double major in mathematics and Spanish, her mother asked 22 women to write something.
A teacher whom Jessica hopes to emulate wrote that she really wanted to offer some advice that “English-teachery” but kept coming back to two simple words: “Be sassy. … Now I don’t mean that you should be rude, disrespectful or, God forbid, talk back to your elders. Rather, I mean that you should possess the self-confidence to speak your mind and be who you are … I guess it’s my southernized, much less eloquent interpretation of Polonius’ advice to Laertes, ‘To thine own self be true.’ ”
A mother of one of Jessica’s childhood friends wrote: “Keep learning but start teaching. You have wisdom now. You have made choices, suffered consequences, observed pain and witnessed joy. You have a place at the adult’s table now and I cannot wait to hear you speak.”
And then there was a letter from a teacher and family friend — 3 1/2 pages, single-spaced, small type — that I won’t even attempt to do justice. Suffice it to say she wrote of her own 22-year-old dreams and refers to, among other things, “The Velveteen Rabbit” and hopes of becoming “real.”
“I sat down and read all 22 right after graduating,” Jessica said. “What I like is that it’s a lasting memory of my graduation. I remember sitting on the couch. I remember what I was thinking when I read it.”
Sitting at the kitchen table last week, rereading the letters, Jessica and Adam talked about how much they appreciated the gifts from their mother at the time — and how, as often happens with favorite books, the words stay the same but the meaning keeps morphing and growing.
From the beginning, their books were distinctly different. When their mother tries to put her finger on the differences — saying maybe it’s a male-female thing and tactfully adding that she prefers the tone of the women’s advice — the children say they think it’s more an Adam-Jessica thing.
“I understand your perspective,” Adam said. “But I felt all of mine were very much speaking to me.”
“I think they knew who their audience was,” Jessica said, adding with a laugh, “and we’re totally different.”
Put it this way: While Jessica was pondering a letter about becoming “real,” Adam was listening to one that spoke to him and basically said not to be in a rush to get to the Real World. (“When all else fails: Go back to school. It’s a good way to avoid reality!”)
After Duke, he went to the Caribbean, worked at Club Med, taught sailing. Now he is preparing to enter his third year of medical school. Jessica is finishing off a master’s degree at the University of Florida and will begin teaching math at Episcopal in the fall.
Both are back home for a while. And although their mother clearly is proud of them and excited to temporarily have a full nest again, she jokes that she knows what to give them when they finish their advanced degrees.
“Luggage,” she said. “Now we know. Grad school gift.”