The Strongest Pillar


This was taken when I dropped Drew off at the start of senior year.

Right now I was supposed to be packing up a rental minivan with four days worth of luggage and snacks for me and my younger boys and my husband and heading across town to pick up my mom for the trip up to Amherst, MA for my oldest son’s graduation. We planned on staying in a small and very overpriced room at a mediocre hotel, five of us crammed into two double beds and a cot from tonight (Thursday) through Sunday. But I was incredibly excited at the prospect, despite any discomfort squeezing five of us into a room with one bathroom and clearly not enough beds. I would be willing to sleep on the floor for such a momentous occasion.

I had booked a more spacious suite over a year ago, but it was twenty minutes away from the University of Massachusetts without traffic, which meant on graduation weekend, it would be roughly two hours. I wasn’t too worried being late for the large graduation at the football stadium on Friday afternoon—no names would be called, no diplomas would be handed out—in fact, my son told me he wasn’t even planning on attending. I was, though and hoped to talk him into it. And I knew we could get out of the hotel by 2:00 p.m. giving us two hours to get to campus and into our seats, even if they were in the nosebleeds.

I was, however, consumed with anxiety that we’d be late for the smaller College of Engineering graduation on Saturday morning. Doors for that one were set to open at 8:30 a.m. for the 10:00 a.m. ceremony.  With five of us getting ready (the suite still only had one bathroom) I knew it would be a monumental and anxiety-provoking, if not Sisyphean, task to get out the door by 7:00 a.m. My son would be walking on stage for that one. Shaking hands. Smiling for the camera. I thought the most important thing in the world would be to get a seat in the cavernous Recreation Center close enough to see my son’s face, close enough to snap photos…and I worried incessantly that I wouldn’t (and yes, I’m aware this screams “just right OCD”). That was why in late February when my husband checked on a whim to see if there were any cancelations at a hotel less than five minutes from the campus and actually got a room, I was thrilled. I relaxed and just looked forward to the weekend. I was even able to snag a reservation for a much coveted table at a popular restaurant in town after trying and failing to book one at any restaurant for weeks. I guessed that another cancelation was at play and was grateful. Little did I know that the most impactful cancelation was just a few short weeks away…the cancelation (or hopefully postponement) of an in-person graduation due to COVID-19.

Since my son, Drew, committed to UMass in 2016, I’ve dreamed of seeing him walk across the stage in his cap and gown, earning his degree from the same university I earned mine from thirty years earlier. Of course, my son worked way harder for his Engineering degree than I did for my English degree. Even back in the late eighties, everyone knew Engineering was the hardest major on campus. Even with the harder course load, he was a more successful student by far. I was put on academic probation sophomore year after earning a 1.89 for the fall semester. In my defense, I briefly pursued an Exercise Science degree, which involved math and, of course, science—I excelled at neither, in fact I was woefully inadequate. I failed “calculus for poets,” as it was colloquially called back then—the easiest of calculus classes. And I earned a much less than stellar D in human anatomy. To be fair, I also took all of my finals with a fractured right elbow, and I’m right-handed. Admittedly, my jaunts to The Pub on Thursday nights and then the after-parties that followed nights spent on the dance floor didn’t help, especially when I had a quiz in human anatomy every Friday morning. And while I brought my grades up more than enough to get off of probation spring semester when I pivoted back to English, I had to take a class during the winter session my senior year to graduate on time.

Drew is a social kid to be sure with tons of friends and many nights out, but he balanced it way better than I did and made Dean’s List pretty much every semester. He was even awarded Engineering scholarships as a reward for all of his hard work. In his junior year he was invited to apply to the Civil Engineering Accelerated Masters Program, because he had taken enough extra credits and did well enough to have three classes to put towards his masters before even earning his undergraduate degree. He was accepted, but decided to work first and was offered a great job in his field, which he starts next month. None of this is lessened by the fact that he won’t get to physically walk across a stage to receive his diploma on Saturday morning.

I’m beyond proud of him with or without the pomp and circumstance of an in-person graduation, which leads me to wonder why I was so anxious about everything being perfect. Why did I worry so much about sitting right up front? Why did I worry about everything—from my outfits (I bought a dress several months ago for the Engineering graduation and reception and spent lots of time thinking about what to wear for the football stadium graduation) to where we’d celebrate after? No matter where I sat; no matter what I wore; no matter where we ate…I would have been proud and thrilled. I am proud and thrilled.

This pandemic has taught me that a lot of my anxieties are completely meaningless. It’s taught me that the essence of the moment is the only thing that matters, not all the noise that surrounds it—the perfect outfit, the perfect table at the perfect restaurant, the perfect seat so I can get the perfect shot. Life isn’t perfect. And as awful as COVID-19 has been, the lesson to appreciate every single moment, perfection be damned, is a powerful one for which I’m grateful.

So…I’m grateful that even though I’m not driving up to Amherst with my family today like we planned, I am driving up with just my husband tomorrow (fingers crossed—I feel like in this world, you can never consider anything a definite). We will pick up a few pizzas (if Drew and his roommates want them) and a celebratory cake (if we can find one) and drop it at my Drew’s house…all while socially distancing and wearing masks. I don’t know if we’ll get to watch the fifteen minute streaming virtual graduation with Drew, but if I get to see him on this most momentous day, even for just a short time—I will be grateful. And if we’re watching graduation from his driveway, sitting in our car, I’ll still revel in the moment of his accomplishment, because that moment is really the only thing that matters, and I couldn’t be more proud.

And congratulations to all of the UMass Class of 2020! This is your moment, and even if it’s not what you pictured, be proud. You will have quite a story to tell your kids and grandkids. You will be the most resilient graduating class ever. From this Class of 1990 alumna to the Class of 2020, I applaud all of you and send you my best wishes. You will be the architects of a future that no one has been able to imagine yet. You will be flexible and creative. You will take things in stride. You will be compassionate. These are all gifts, and all of us who have gone before should heed the lessons you are all learning. Go forth to a bright future and be amazing. I know my son will be no less than that, and I know this experience will be just one pillar in the scaffolding of his future, but it will be a strong one.

Post Script: I did start this at around 1:30 p.m., the time I was supposed to be packing up my car to leave (see the opening sentence), but it took me until almost 11:00 p.m. to finish (and then it took me another hour to think of a title).  And I will admit – when I just reread that last paragraph I cried. My writing makes a lot of people cry, but it doesn’t always make me cry. I’m just feeling very emotional and bittersweet on the eve of my eldest son’s college graduation… I remember exactly how I felt on the eve of my graduation from UMass (it helps that I wrote about it in a novel I was working on at the time and found those pages a few years ago). I knew nothing would ever be the same again. I feel a little like that now, even if I’m not the one graduating… I will miss being a UMass mom terribly. I will miss having an excuse to go to one of my favorite places in the world. I’ll miss the amazing DC food. I’ll miss seeing the campus pond every spring as life bursts forth after and cold and dormant winter. But I’m grateful that I’m still a UMass alumna, and I will go back again…


These are photos from after Drew’s kindergarten graduation and after his college graduation (we made it up there!)…different times, just as much love and pride.

6 thoughts on “The Strongest Pillar

  1. Kathy Barstow says:

    Well said, Stephanie. Drew has always been pretty amazing and you and Jeff have given him a strong foundation from which he will soar. ❤️



    • stephaniekepke says:

      Thank you so much, Kathy! Sorry I couldn’t reply earlier – if I reply from my phone, it shows up as anonymous. Just was able to get on my laptop now. Hope you’re well and still at the beautiful lake house!


  2. Jenn says:

    This piece completely resonates. As a UMASS alumna, class of 93, I’m so proud and thrilled for my son, who will matriculate as an incoming student, College of Engineering, honors college. Also, a social guy, he is concerned about the academic rigor, however, I am not. While I wasn’t on academic probation, he is light years beyond me when I was that age. 🙂 I will also eat in the dining commons, astounded that I won’t be eating “chicken pucks” which was my favorite meal when I attended. Ha! Cheers to your graduate!


    • stephaniekepke says:

      LOL – chicken pucks were my favorite too! I loved those and the “carrot surprise.” The food sure has changed since back then! Enjoy all the amazing meals to come! Thank you so much for the good wishes and best of luck to your son! Very impressive that he’s in the College of Engineering and in the honors college! It sounds like he will have a very bright future. I apologize for the delayed reply – if I reply from my phone it shows up as anonymous. Just got on my laptop now. Thank you again!


    • stephaniekepke says:

      Thank you so much! Congratulations on your senior! Emily is graduating, right? Forgive me that I can’t keep straight my friends’ kids’ ages – I’m lucky if I remember my own kids’ ages lately. My brain is a sieve!


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