81. Finding Common Ground

81. Finding Common Ground

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

Finding Common Ground

Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.

~Jane Howard

Everything I had worked towards for over five years came down to this. It was finally my graduation day. As I took my seat, I worried about tripping; I scolded myself for wearing heels. I welcomed the new set of fears, however. They were replacing the ones I had about my visitors.

My parents were sitting out there with all of the other proud families. They weren’t sitting together, though. Mom and Dad had been divorced since the days I had started my academic journey learning the ABCs in first grade. I had enticed them to come from Wyoming with their significant others to my December graduation in Arizona. I hoped the warmer winter weather would reduce the chill that I thought still existed between them.

I wasn’t oblivious to the reasons behind the tension. When my parents divorced, my four younger siblings and I stayed with Mom. I was aware of the sacrifices Mom made for us as a single parent. All of her focus had to be on her five kids, her own dreams set aside while she struggled to help us grow up. I knew that Mom had put off her own college dreams when I came into the world. In the past few years, I had seen firsthand how important she thought college was.

When I graduated high school and applied to community college in Wyoming, she did too. We were college freshmen at the same time, even taking English 101 together. I still lived at home that first semester. I would see the light shining under her bedroom door as she worked into the night on her essays. That was after working a full shift at the supermarket, as well as taking care of the kids. A diploma in my hand was my way of saying the battles she fought were not ignored. No way did I want Mom to miss the result of her quiet influence on me.

As a child, I created my own conflict with my dad. I had cut myself off from him, often staying with Mom when my siblings went to visit. As the oldest, I was so hung up on being part of the team with Mom that I thought aligning with my own father would be a treacherous act. Later in high school I realized that letting Dad into my life did not dishonor my mom and her strength in any way. We slowly started to learn about each other’s lives. I learned that he had traded in his textbooks for tools, and spent what could have been his own college freshman year working at the mine when I came into the world, and he never went back.

It had taken a few bumpy roads to get there, but by the time the trip to my college degree was ending, I had begun to understand the pride he had for his eldest daughter. I wanted to nurture that by sharing this important day.

There were already too many important moments missed because of my childhood rift with Dad. Years ago, I refused to attend his wedding. I spent years avoiding his new wife, Debbie, while I grew up. But fate had thrown Debbie and me together.

It was when I had started to let my dad back into my life and let go of the past. My high grades in community college allowed me to score a summer job at the plant where she worked. Debbie taught me to drive a forklift and she showed me how to keep the automatic bag machines running. When I moved to Arizona, she sent money the semester I couldn’t make tuition. I wanted her at my graduation too.

This was the grand family history that my mom’s significant other would have to contend with during my graduation dinner. His name was Phil, and I didn’t know him very well at all. When I moved to Arizona, I could barely pay my rent, much less afford trips home. Besides, Phil wasn’t just new to me. After dating long distance for years, he had recently made the move to Wyoming, just in time for this little celebration.

This was going to be some evening.

Alphabetically, I knew my time was near when I heard “Gunderson.” With the last name “Haapala,” I’m almost always the first H. I was glad to see the professor announcing the graduates. I had enjoyed his class that semester, thankfully one of the smaller ones. He probably wouldn’t even need the pronunciation of my name that I’d written out.

Gunderson was shaking hands on stage and I shifted in my seat.

“Tina Ha — uh — Har-ja-la.”

I turned as red as my cap and gown at this mispronunciation. I stood and crossed the stage and shook hands, a smile on my face anyway. I could pick out the applause of my family — a little extra “woo-hoo” from Mom and Phil, and, when I glanced up, I could see Dad and Debbie smiling and clapping, my dad just a little bit taller than the parents surrounding him.

That was it. I was officially a college graduate. Now on to bigger challenges — like dinner.

We settled in to the big table at the steakhouse and hid behind menus. Talking about food and ordering from the waitress kept the chitchat at a decent level. But then the lull while waiting for our drinks turned awkward.

“So,” I said, filling the silence, “I can’t believe that professor mispronounced my name. I must not have made much of an impression in his class.” The class was Conflict in Communication. I was hoping not to need the tools from chapter ten tonight.

“Oh,” Dad said, “I’ve had to deal with that for a long time.”

“It’s okay,” my mom said, “we’re the only ones who know he messed up. Nobody else would know how to pronounce it anyway.”

“It’s a hard name,” said Phil. “I still have a hard time spelling it.”

“I’ve gotten used to just spelling it for people,” Debbie said. “‘Yes,’ I tell them, ‘it really is...’”

“... Two As!” Mom and Debbie said, almost at the same time. Both laughing, too.

I watched from across the table as Mom and Debbie laughed over the shared struggle of having a difficult last name. Everything was fine. I didn’t need to worry. I exhaled, silently thanking Professor What’s-His-Name for his stumble. That night, it helped my family land on common ground.

~Tina Haapala

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