Back to School / Farewell to Olivia falls short on advice but not on the love

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When I was growing up, our family mailbox was one of eight neighborhood mailboxes across a two-lane highway from our house.

The traffic on the road was heavy at times. Cars and trucks would often speed, making it difficult for pedestrians to judge distances. In addition, we lived on a hill. To cross the road anywhere other than the top of the hill made for poor sightlines and a dangerous situation.

In the 1960s, long before email, my brothers, sisters and I looked forward to getting the mail each day. Our parents, fully realizing the risks involved with crossing the road, would not allow us to get the mail on our own. They held our hands, accompanied us to the top of the hill and pleaded, with love in their voice, "Look both ways before you cross the street."

It was a rite of passage when my brothers, sisters and I were permitted to get the mail on our own. All the while this advice echoed in our ears.

At sunrise on Thursday of last week I found myself sitting in a relatively empty coffee shop at Pittsburgh International Airport. After having spent a wonderful summer together, my wife and I were there to see our daughter off. Olivia was traveling to Rome as part of a study abroad program offered by Duquesne University, where she is a sophomore.

Although Olivia has been "on her own" for brief periods in the past, being 8,000 miles and nine hours away for an entire semester would certainly raise the bar. My wife and I were excited and, at the same time, feeling more than a bit apprehensive. If something were to go wrong, we could not simply hop in the car and drive to the rescue.

At the coffee shop we met Olivia's roommate for the first time -- a very nice young lady. Her mom was very nice as well. Our confidence was boosted a notch.

My wife had spent the summer in anticipation of this moment, and, at the same time, she hoped this day would not arrive. A constant moist film lay just behind her eyes. Any thought of this day would instantly trigger a tear.

I kept telling myself that this was a good decision for Olivia -- an opportunity of a lifetime. My daughter is an excellent student. She has a keen interest in classic literature, culture and architecture. To spend a significant amount of time in a place that has great appeal to her felt right.

The Duquesne staff is fantastic. They would certainly take care of her. I tried to be the rational parent and not think about the 8,000 miles and nine hours.

When the time to depart arrived, we stood. Olivia hugged her mom tightly for a long time. Not many words were spoken. Then she quickly turned to me.

We hugged. I wanted to leave her with some words of wisdom, something memorable that would help guide her. This was a struggle. In the moment, only one thing came to mind. My rational parent voice cracked as I said ... "Don't forget to look both ways before you cross the street."

Olivia looked at me and said with a smile: "I will, Dad. Thank you."

I last saw my daughter as she made her way through airport security. She hoisted her bag onto the X-ray conveyer, then stood as the security guards asked her questions and checked her paperwork. They asked her to remove her shoes.

I stood helpless in the distance. The scene seemed bizarre, almost surreal, as I watched my little girl confidently working her way through the process. She looked back over her shoulder. Our eyes met one last time; she gave me a smile, waved goodbye, turned and was gone.

She was headed off to experience the world -- a world full of poor sightlines with fast-moving cars and trucks. I thought to myself, "She will return a different person -- no longer my little girl."

God pray she looks both ways before she crosses the street.


John Reddick, an architect in Butler, can be reached at The PG Portfolio welcomes "Back to School" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255. First Published September 14, 2012 4:00 AM


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