No son ever wants to disappoint his mom

No son ever wants to disappoint his mom

Forty-five years ago this very month, I broke my mother’s heart.

“But why, Michael?” she would ask rather mournfully from time to time over the course of that bicentennial summer as my senior year in college loomed. “I don’t understand it.”

The “it” in question was a decision I had made the previous spring, one I’m certain Mom believed could be undone with just the right combination of maternal wheedling and outright bribery.

And I couldn’t blame her, not really, since the last thing I ever wanted to do was disappoint either her or my father, and this thing had blindsided them both. In their minds, I’m sure, I had rebounded from a difficult first semester and had mastered pretty much all aspects of life at school, 235 miles from home.

I mean I had made the dean’s list five terms running, had a reliable handful of close friends, had even successfully dipped my toes into the serious-relationship pool, though I failed to notice the pretty freshman girl was actually a piranha until it was too late.

From their perspective, all that stood between me and the bright future they had sacrificed so much for was keeping my grades up and avoiding anything resembling a serious romance. Since they had two other kids in college at the same time, my parents probably assumed I was the least of their problems.

And then I broke the news that I would be living off campus for my senior year. I knew it was going to rock their world, and I wasn’t insensitive to their initial reaction, which was unfavorable.

But as I explained the fact that it would be good for me to experience life outside the comfort of a dormitory, that I was tired of living under the thumb of “in loco parentis” and that I knew how to get around in South Bend, Dad gradually chilled out a bit.

My mother, though, was inconsolable.

She was an FDR Democrat who had come of age during the Great Depression, had earned her master’s degree at a time when that wasn’t at all common. She was a Roman Catholic who had voted for JFK and had never quite gotten over Nov. 22, 1963.

And she loved Notre Dame. To her, the campus was a museum.

It was she who encouraged me to initiate the application process, a rigorous, Byzantine maze of academic and personality obstacles, saying things like, “It doesn’t hurt to try” and “You never know.”

Since I had already been accepted at three Ohio schools — all fine, reputable institutions of higher learning — I thought to myself, “What the hell? If it makes her happy, that’s good enough for me.”

And when — mirabile dictu — I actually got in, well, let’s just say she was the only one in the family who wasn’t flabbergasted.

I suspected my father — who had grown up in South Bend but never even considered Notre Dame — had pulled some kind of “Godfather”-esque strong-arm stunt in the dean of admissions office, holding a pistol to the registrar’s temple and assuring him either his name or his brains would be on my application.

Nothing of the sort actually happened, but you have to understand my high school transcript wasn’t exactly stellar: no National Honor Society, no varsity letters, no class offices, no glowing letters of recommendation, not even a prom date to my credit.

If you’ve ever seen “Risky Business,” you’ll remember the Princeton recruiter’s verdict: “You’ve done some solid work here, Joel, but it isn’t exactly Ivy League, now is it?”

To which Joel shouts, “Looks like it’s the University of Illinois,” and the party begins in earnest, one that involves call girls, Guido the killer pimp and a midnight ride on the El Train that made Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” one of the best soundtrack songs ever.

I’ll never know why I was accepted at Notre Dame, but that kind of misses the point, doesn’t it? I mean I understand something like 90% of all applications don’t even make it to the second round of eliminations, but who’s to say my personal essay wasn’t precisely the kind of honest, funny, well-written, clean, intelligent prose that set me apart from the others in the herd of hopefuls?

It had to have been something like that unless, as I’ve jocularly speculated, my father actually did unleash his inner Luca Brasi.

Mom never doubted her first-born’s destiny, though she must have thought she’d raised a moron when I brought home a D in American history at mid-semester break as a freshman. I soon realized the trick wasn’t learning everything being taught; conversely, all you had to do was memorize the stuff you thought would be on the test and hold it in your mind for an hour or so.

And then just let it go and head over to the student center and shoot a few racks of straight pool while the campus DJs played Tangerine Dream or Gentle Giant, maybe some James Gang too.

I earned a spot on the radio station staff, even wrote stories for “The Observer,” but left both those gigs to focus on my studies. Making the dean’s list became my life’s ambition, and I enjoyed seeing my streak go from one semester to two to three, knowing the achievement would appear in the local paper, making Mom (and Dad) proud.

And I called home every Sunday night at 7 on the dot, as promised.

But after three years of student life spent in the snow-globe bubble of Dillon Hall, the ACC, the Stadium, the Bookstore, St. Mary’s Lake, the Grotto and Sacred Heart Basilica, I was ready for something new, and when I got the chance to leave, I jumped at it.

The house wasn’t what you’d call classy, nor was its neighborhood. Mom, upon regaining her equilibrium after seeing it from the street, called it “a dump in a ghetto,” but I assured her that for its price and proximity to campus, it was among the best available.

“We’ve got a grocery store on the next block,” I said, “and the furnace is almost new, and I’ll get a bike first thing next week.”

There were five or six (or seven) of us living there, and things worked pretty well for the first semester, but then South Bend got clobbered with its worst winter in almost a half-century, and there was a Donner Party atmosphere in the house, especially when the furnace conked out and the landlord couldn’t fix it right away.

And then spring hit like a lilac lullaby, and all of a sudden, things like seminars and exams and cap-and-gown fittings took a back seat to parties on the front lawn and bike rides to the river and a rekindled relationship that flourished as the weather warmed.

Life as a student soon dwindled to a mere handful of days, and I wanted to say a proper goodbye to the place I called home for four years. Notre Dame that late April had a “Brigadoon”-like aura to it, a stopped-in-time patina of possibility that gave the campus a fantastic, if fleeting, feeling of being someplace beyond special.

As a senior who’d lived in voluntary exile since that long-ago autumn, I walked alone among the undergrads and their Frisbees, their stereos blasting Peter Frampton, and thought to myself, “Mom was right. It was never going to be easy, but now it’s time to go.”