Just returned from the University of Virginia, where we dropped off my younger daughter. She begins her first year studies on Wednesday.

Life moves too fast. It was only yesterday, it seems, when we four would gather round the dining room table, the three of us (father, mother, and older daughter) at the one end of the table, and R. at her end. We would move her food about an arm's length away from her because of her disconcerting willingness to face-dive into her plate of food. R. was without peer in her ability to make us nervous at the table. She would grab plates of food, hot beverages, cold beverages, anything that slid, really, and pull it off the table. She would do this joyously and then look at us with a triumphant smile. We responded by putting her plates of food further and further away from her, like the food that surrounded Tantalus. We weren't teasing her. It was merely to inculcate into her the importance of table manners.

My wife repeated crucial lessons on our minimum standards of table manners over and over again with R., who was a tough nut to crack. But my wife's constant lovingness and her unfailing good humor and laughter won the day. She bore R's abysmal behavior with good cheer. Slowly R. changed from a temper-tantrum-prone devil child into a human being.

R. thought life moved too slowly. I recall her term for most people she met when she was in first or second grade, reading three or four grade levels ahead and doing pre-algebra problems in her head. She called them "The Stupids." We laughed. R. liked roaring through life. She still does.

I invited my older daughter to climb a mountain with me when she was seven. J. was all for it until the actual day, when she had a change of heart. R. heard her older sister bail out, and with her little voice piped, "I'll go with you, Daddy!" I looked at her. R. was four, still not over her baby fat. She was still wearing J.'s hand-me-down My Little Pony sneakers. I said, "Are you sure? It's a lot of walking." She had all her gear packed in five minutes.

She walked up Mary's Rock without complaining. Her stamina impressed me and all the other hikers who saw her. The page-boy bowl haircut she used to favor made people laugh. (She truly was a funny funny kid.) She was fascinated when she saw me hang up our food from a branch so bears wouldn't sniff by. She loved sleeping in our tent. I can still feel her warm breath by my face and her hand on my neck.

She invented her own little language when she was in kindergarten, then taught her older sister the rudiments. At dinner time if they wanted to make fun of Mom and Dad they'd shift into alt.language mode and babble away, laughing slyly. R. usually had food in her mouth, which was sprayed across the table. Many was the evening she'd be sent to her room for her table manners. She didn't care. Sometimes she got mad, but mostly she just laughed at us. J. would sneak food up to her, with Mom's blessing.

Her zest for life never left her. We may have bent the branch slightly, but we were careful not to break it. She pitched full tilt into any activity she embedded her self into: sports, academics, socializing... it was never too much for her. She ran leaning forward.

In eighth grade we were a bit surprised when she asked us for a ride to a test. What test are you taking, dear? To get into Jefferson, she replied. That was the highly regarded science & tech magnet school in our region, thought to be among the best public schools in the country. Ooookay... We didn't want to discourage her. It was a difficult school. She made the first cut, then she made the second cut, then she got her junior high school teachers to write letters of recommendation, and then she was in. Among the high school crowd, this was like getting into Harvard or MIT.

A miserable two and a half years ensued. She went from being the best in her class to being a middling student. She thought about bailing out twice. Jefferson was just plain hard. Every evening was spent studying: calculus, literature, biochemistry, genetic stuff I never learned about. Her parents said, if that's what you want to do, we're behind you 100%, but it's your decision. You got yourself in, you can take yourself out.

She stuck with it. (I knew she would.) She graduated in June as an 'athlete-scholar' one of perhaps a hundred seniors to earn that honor. She was the co-captain of two varsity sports teams.

For one so young, she has been to the funeral home far too many times already. She can't remember her uncle dying, but she's heard all the stories. A classmate of hers in junior high committed suicide. In her first year at Jefferson, on September 11, the young man sitting in the desk ahead of hers lost his father in the airplane that kamikazed into the Pentagon. R. saw the plane crashing while on a PE run, and saw the cloud of smoke rise up from the flames. A fellow Jeffersonian died of a brain aneurysm on her way home from college.

I don't know how she has survived all of the hardships and tragedies that have touched her life, but she has. This father is very proud of her.

She's all grown up now. The page boy haircut has been replaced by long brownish-blonde hair. She dresses like her stylish older sister. It takes your breath away to look at her smile. She's grown into womanhood quite well.

And now she's off to her next adventure. I don't know how this story will end, but it's been a great adventure so far. Keep going, R. Keep leaning.

unperson sez: "Touching node, although clearly a fabrication, as it does not reveal you to be the hard harded autocrat we all know you are. ;-) "