05/26/2015 10:26 am ET Updated May 26, 2016

Graduation Season: What Your Parents Were Thinking Last Week

This time of year everybody talks about the ritual of college graduation. But no one seems to focus on the other college right of passage that's unfolding now, the move out of the dorm and back home for the summer.

Perhaps the dorm thing gets less attention because it happens more than once; three or four times (we hope not too many more times) for most traditional students. But humping boxes and suitcases out of my daughter's dormitory like a roadie for KISS had as much to say about college, life and parenting as any commencement. And without the long speeches.

Making sense out of moving out of the dorm only makes sense in the context of moving into the dorm. That far back in history, everything was folded neatly, socks were in pairs and kitchen supplies still smelled of Walmart. Roommates were all friends-for-life to be, full of fun comments about how much the same/how different everyone looked from the Facebook profiles that had been stalked mercilessly all summer. Empty notebooks, clean dorm rooms, all that hope and promise-ahead stuff.

We parents moved in heavy things, and exchanged friendly chat about how all that could fit into a dorm room, about how we were all sure the girls would become friends-for-life, and said "Oh, this is nice" in a tone we hoped sounded credible in reference to the bathroom. We (the parents) exchanged quiet words about some silly thing from our kids' childhood before they (the kids) turned to ignore us when another kid stuck his head into the room to announce a crucial floor meeting. A tear or two (ours exclusively) marked us, subsequently, being shushed out the door. There seemed to be so much to talk about on the way up there. But it turned into a long trip back home with my spouse as we had not a word to say.

And then nine months later we were back.

If any packing had preceded our arrival, it consisted of tangled clothes, some still damp from the gym, stuffed into suitcases. New things -- clothes we hadn't bought her ourselves, including a very adult black dress -- made an appearance. A fresh coat of grime has been applied to the tub. What one hoped was part of that hard-won A -- in Advanced Biology that we'd heard about -- was left in the refrigerator. No, we didn't need to take the Tupperware home, thanks.

The friends-for-life roommates turned out to be people, with all the good things and bad things people bring along into dorm rooms. Some goodbyes seemed to mean more than others. We parents watched awkwardly; we've heard it all, or at least a very, very one-sided version of it all, from our kids. Parental eyes refused to meet. The tales I've heard about so-and-so and her acrobatic boyfriend might have twin sister versions that involved my own kid. It was, therefore, better to simply ask the other dads about traffic on the way up, until...

Damn, I just saw her not too long ago for a visit, and we had two weeks together at Christmas, but what happened to my daughter? The kid who needed to be pushed and shoved a year or so ago to finish a university admissions essay that tragically failed to tie together the symbolism of the river in Mark Twain and some boring summer job now wants to talk about the Cold War mistakes of the Truman administration (cool) and 19th century French poetry (I just nod.)

We'll all be together for the summer, but only the parental side of the equation can see the clock running. There used to be a lot more summers. Now there are just a couple more dorm move-ins and move-outs to watch as time runs away. One of those moves will mark commencement, and that'll be an emotional day of its own. But everybody knows commencement is a big deal. My worry is it's too easy to miss the three years of early warnings signs that precede it.