On a small stage in the corner of Parisi’s Restaurant, a fortyish woman sways to the music. She cradles a microphone lovingly, as if it were a crystal champagne glass.
Baby love, my baby love. Her hips, wrapped in a white sequined dress, swing left on “baby” and right on “love” in amazing synchroneity.
“Please tell me that is not my mother up there doing that,” pleads Kory Klem. “Tell me she is not singing the Supremes.”
Kory’s mother is the first in a long list of moms to step up to the karaoke machine and embarrass their children. As the night progresses, sons find themselves singing too, and dads serenade their daughters with songs like “My Girl.”
“I never realized my mother had a tolerance level,” says George Bullard, watching his mother dance with one of his roommates. “You don’t think about your mother having a buzz.”
Later, Bullard and his mother sit on a windowsill ledge, holding hands and talking, their heads close together. “We talked,” said Bullard later. “We were just talking, you know.”
The scene was typical of Junior Parents Weekend last February. If JPW’94 could be summed up, it would be the image of Bullard and his mother in the corner of that restaurant, holding hands.
A lot of hands reached across familial boundaries that weekend. Parents saw where their children worked and learned, who their friends were, and what Notre Dame was all about. Students finally met their parents – not Mom and Dad, but Margaret and Tom, or Elaine and Roger – or, for me, Suzette and George.
Anticipation had almost overshadowed the weekend itself. My mother was in touch with me daily the week beforehand. Something always needed to be confirmed or, as my mother put it, “I just want to make sure you’ll remember.”
Students had to decide whom they would sit with at the weekend’s dinners, what restaurant they’d go to on Friday night, how they would organize places like Parisi’s for late-night Saturday. Most students had things under control, yet some parents, including my mother, wouldn’t believe their children had anything under control.
That Friday my parents’ plane landed two hours late. “Did you wait the whole time?” my mother asked when she entered the terminal. “Didn’t you call ahead? You should have called ahead.”
“Well hi, Mom. Good to see you too.”
“Leave him alone, Suzette.”
After my parents checked into a hotel, we headed to Bruno’s for pizza with my roommates and their parents. Hordes of juniors were showing their parents the Italian restaurant, a current favorite of Notre Dame students. Bruno’s is one of many places I plan to tell my as-yet-unborn children about, just as my father tells of great nights at Kubiak’s and Rocco’s.
“You know, Tom got a couple of scholarship offers coming out of high school, but nothing big,” reminisced the father of one of my roommates. “But I didn’t push him. I had a lot of fun watching him play football for Moeller. He gave me my fun.”
It amazed me how quickly the parents dove into familiar conversation across checkered tablecloths: “…and so there was Jason asleep in the bathtub,” one woman concluded a story to a barrage of laughter. Jason shook his head and rolled his eyes and smiled, which is about all you can do when your mother is telling strangers about your childhood.
After Bruno’s our group joined a flood of parents and students at the Joyce Athletic and Convocation Center for the Gala, the weekend’s official opening. It was intended as a dance, but most people just mingled, nibbling at food. For the event, the JACC was a colorful mélange of lights and electric décor – movie paraphernalia, large plastic fish, Mexican singers, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and Monk Malloy, armed and ready to pose for pictures. Say “cheese.”
The Gala was people-watching as much as socializing, a pastime at which my mother excels.
“Georgie, there’s a cute girl,” my mother remarked as a short, dark-haired junior passed by – the first of Mom’s many sightings during the night. “What’s her name?”
“I don’t know.”
“You should. She’s cute.”
“George, get me a beer,” my dad said.
Saturday was a blur of hall luncheons and lectures and workshops. The colleges sponsored seminars with titles like “Paths and Prospects for Engineers” and “Themes in Philosophy” and “What Is American Studies?”
“My parents left really reassured that I had made the right decision about my major,” electrical engineering major Mark Naman reported later. “They knew a little about engineering but they didn’t know exactly what was available after school or what I was getting into. Now they do.”
Instead of attending the Saturday lectures and luncheons, my parents and I met up with some of my roommates and their families and headed to Coach’s Sports Bar.
“Football, Dad?” my friend Tom McCarthy said, baiting his father in the middle of lunch. The elder McCarthy bounded from his chair and within seconds the two were flinging rubber footballs through a hole as a machine kept tally. A few minutes later Tom was at the bar asking for more quarters and hoping he would not suffer further embarrassment by a father who had manhandled him in three quick games.
“I guess I wanted to take my dad to Coach’s to show him where me and my friends hang out,” said McCarthy. “That was what I wanted to show them more than my classrooms or the computer labs.”
And how about the football game?
“He always beats me. For as long as I can remember he has always kicked my butt.”
Whether you were introducing your parents to a professor or showing them your favorite bar, there seemed to be an urgency to the whole affair – a desire to display the current details of your life to the people who had shaped it. After Coach’s, some parents went to dorms, classes or other planned activities; my parents and I went to the Observer offices. I wanted them to see where I spend all my time and, although they hate to admit it, why they sent me to college.
“So we write stories here and then they are sent back to the production computers to be laid on the pages.” I ushered them around the office, trying to make my job seem complicated and important. My mother noticed that my desk was the messiest of all. “You need me here to tell you to clean it up,” she said.
Everything the University planned for the weekend was written in pencil. The students added or erased what was needed to give their parents a vivid glimpse of their world. The Observer was at the top of my list. But it was only a small piece of what I was trying to expose to the couple whom I’ve always tried to impress.
“My parents and I talked about things we never really talked about before,” Lisa Mancuso said later. “I remember talking to them about my brother and sister and the relationship I had with them. It was just very different, but they were things I need to talk about.”
Saturday night: The JPW herd filed into the JACC Fieldhouse to face an endless vista of 400 tables. “Honey, we’re number 165.” The search began.
The junior members of the Glee Club were performing, each member introducing a song with a special message for mom. The crowd reacted to each with sentimental “Ohhhhhh”s. “This reminds me of one of those long-distance phone commercials,” one father said.
After a meal that each student pointed out “was not like they serve in the dining hall,” Monk Malloy spoke about gratification and the sacrifice parents make for their children. But his speech was redundant; junior class president Bryan Corbett had already said it all. He’d started in about his parents and then his voice cracked – Bryan the politician, 6-foot-5 and a serious stare, with a crack in his voice. It had nothing to do with being nervous.
After the dinner, parties sprouted at restaurants and apartments and bars around South Bend. A group of Lyons Hall women rented Parisi’s Restaurant and invited friends and their parents to celebrate into the early morning. My parents and I went to Corby’s first; my dad said he wanted to buy his son a beer “at a real bar.”
A band was playing at the crowded bar. My mother slipped onto a stool and my father and I edged in on both sides of her. As we huddled together, drinking beer and smiling, talking about the future and my brother and my summer job, I liked my parents very much. More than I ever thought I did.
“At JPW students finally get to become friends with their parents,” 1993 student chairperson Laura Niemann has said. “Parents are introduced to the life of their children but from the perspective of friendship.”
The next morning, tired parents and their offspring assembled in the JACC one final time. It was the Farewell Brunch, and Lou Holtz was the speaker. He talked about expectations, when to push and when to step away. He got a standing ovation before his speech and after it.
A slideshow followed, featuring student-submitted shots of everything from tailgaters to hall dances to indecipherable “inside joke” scenes. “When the slideshow started, my mom sort of lost it,” Mike Robson recalled later, “She started crying, telling me how proud she was of me. I kept telling her to stop, but she cried more.
“It was like that the whole weekend. My parents started to see where I was going with my life and we got to talk about stuff you don’t talk about at home. And then my mom would start to cry.”
My parents and I slipped out in the middle of the slideshow in order to make Mass at Sacred Heart. We hurried across campus, a brisk wind sweeping around familiar buildings. I hadn’t been to Mass with them in a long time and had stopped going at all except when home on holidays. I felt strange being in a church and dressed in a suit, like on Christmas.
But that day I liked being at Mass. It was the first time I can remember feeling that way in a long time. I do think it was something spiritual. I think my mom and dad felt it too. Mom got teary-eyed in the middle, and I gave both of them long hugs at the part when you’re supposed to shake hands.
After Communion, my mother took my hand. For the rest of the Mass and afterwards, walking across campus, we held hands as we did when I was young – at that innocent age where all females are “gross” except for mom.
As we walked toward the library, then down near the stadium, we started a serious talk, stepping back to what they had done and what I had become.
“You know, church today was the first time I’ve gone in a long time,” I confessed. “I don’t go to church anymore.”
“It’s all right, you’re not ready yet,” my father said. “But when you have a family, you will want to go to church.”
My mother finally asked the question she must have been holding back for a long time: “Georgie, did we do a good job raising you? I mean, did we push you too much or not enough? Like Lou Holtz was talking about?”
“Mom, I don’t do drugs and I’m in college. Sure, I think you did a good job.”
“I feel really lucky, George,” my father said. “All my children have turned out great. Sometimes people ask me what I did right. And all I can say is something that my father told me: ‘The best thing you can do when raising children is love their mother.’”
At that moment I believed it too. I was sure I would take my children to church and I would love their mother. As I walked with my parents, talking with my father and holding my mother’s hand, I felt sure of so many things. Sure of myself and of my parents. Not sold on the whole image of the Notre Dame family, maybe, but sold on my family. Which may be one and the same.
George Dohrmann is a Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of the newly released Superfans: Into the Heart of Obsessive Sports Fandom. When this piece was originally published, he was a rising senior and the incoming sports editor of The Observer.