My parents’ visit began with a wake-up call at 11 a.m. “We just landed,” my mother told me. “We’ve got to pick up a rental car, but we should be there in an hour. I’m sure you’re already up.”
I could hear my father laughing in the background.
The writer with his father, Mark Gerchick '73
By the time my parents arrived at Cohan Dormitory, I’d managed to fully prepare both my room and myself. My hair was merely damp. I’d made my bed. I’d folded most of my clothes, shoved the rest in a bin under the bed frame, hidden my beer and found, behind my printer, the phantom container of shrimp fried rice I thought I’d been smelling for a few weeks but hadn’t been able to locate.
My father, an Amherst graduate from the class of 1973, was taken aback as soon as he walked inside my dorm-room door: “It’s like a three-star hotel!”
“It needs posters,” my mother countered.
Having never lived in the Amherst Chi Psi house during the early 1970s, Mom apparently couldn’t appreciate the carpeting and relative immaculateness of a Cohan dorm room in the way my father could.
My parents, who’d arrived on an early-November Saturday for Family Weekend, took their seats, Mom beside me on the bed and Dad in the wooden desk chair across the room, preparing to speak face-to-face with their son for the first time in more than a month.
“Look,” my dad began, “there’s no way anyone’s going through all those free condoms in the bathroom, so when the sign says to call the dorm counselor if they run out, I’m guessing that’s aspirational.”
It was good to see him, too.
A family makes some noise at the football game.
A quick survey of the Amherst stands found them filled with students’ parents and siblings, and it was strange to see my classmates—those whom I regarded essentially as self-managing adults—sitting between their mothers and fathers, skulking behind them into and out of the field and taking direction from them on where to stand for family photographs beside the end zone. Like the children next to their naval rescuer at the end of Lord of the Flies, we were all, in a sense, diminutive again.
That night, as we dined out, I was reminded that there are certain traditions that come with a Gerchick Family Weekend Dinner. These are the Food-Quality Survey, the Academic Inquest and the Love-Life Review.
“Val’s getting better, right?”
“You’re doing well in class, right?”
“Look, I know you’re going to hate me for asking this, but that girl from Mount Holyoke…?”
My father likes to offer what he calls his “moments of Polonius.” On this night they were, compared to Shakespeare’s, lacking: “I don’t have the dough to buy you into law school, so don’t go shooting up and blowing all your classes.” My father’s advice was, admittedly, easier than Shakespeare’s to follow.
A family walks beneath the fall foliage on campus.
The next morning, the call came early. “We’re coming,” my father said in his most ominous voice, giving me fair warning that he and my mother were about to leave an alumni brunch. They were in my room when I got back from the shower.
“You’re getting a gut,” Mom told me as I walked in the room.
“Morning,” I offered.
“See!” my dad said, gesticulating toward my mother from his newly preferred spot at my desk. “I’m no worse than her. And your hair’s too short.”
We decided to go for a walk. My parents would be flying home to Virginia that evening, and my dad suggested we visit the Quabbin Reservoir’s Windsor Dam, the half-mile span we had crossed the day before my freshman orientation two years ago. And so, after lunch, we drove the 12 miles to the reservoir.
We arrived around 3:30 p.m., just as the sun was getting low enough to hit the surrounding mountains with a yellow glow, bringing out the New England autumn in their leaves. The park was virtually empty, and we walked the length of the dam, talking about grandparents and vacation plans and prospects for summer jobs. We stopped to watch a lone mallard dive into the water, and we waited, each unwilling to admit we were concerned for it, for several minutes until we realized it had re-emerged several dozen yards away.
The walk led me to think about the real virtue of family visits. It’s not that they let students see their families, and it’s not that they let families see that their students are all right. These visits show parents that the college is all right—that Amherst, not as an instructive institution but as an environment and a community, can serve its students well. For new Amherst families, a visit offers some level of assurance, a confirmation that the college is a safe, stimulating and satisfying place in which students can pursue their talents, develop substantive relationships and ultimately live, and learn to live, well.
But for my father and the fellow alumni who repeatedly return to campus, these weekends are a chance to revive their relationships with Amherst. Perhaps not with the classes or the social dorms or their former classmates, but with the spirit of the institution. As much as he had come back to see his son, my dad had come back to visit his college memories, and the weekend was as much his as it was mine.