The curly-haired woman rounded the corner, stopped, then shouted gleefully over her shoulder to someone we couldn't see: "Greg, there's a piano!"
And there was a piano, a baby grand in the common room of this residence hall of this college in this Midwestern town. None of us were thinking about the piano, though. We were thinking about the curly-haired woman and the tremendous faux pas she'd made: showing excitement, showing any emotion, in this setting.
It was freshman move-in day, and feelings were running high on all sides. Some parents were dealing with the fact that they were old enough to have a college student. Where, we wondered, had our youth gone. Others were contemplating a nest that was finally emptied, or that was one baby chick closer to that day.
But it was the freshmen who were most roiled by emotions: familiar adolescent urges mixed with twinges of adulthood. No matter how much you love your parents, no matter how proud you are of them, there are times when you want them invisible. Freshman move-in day is one of those times.
They need our car, they need our duffel bag- and mini-fridge-hauling skills, they need our $50,000 a year, but would it kill us to turn to vapor when potential new friends are around?
To shout, "Greg, there's a piano!" was, in these teenagers' minds, like walking around in clown makeup, it was announcing to all that her son played the piano or had never seen a piano.
I never did see which one was "Greg." Perhaps, mortified by his mother, he turned around and started walking back home.
We had been herded -- we parents -- into this room to wait, asked by college administrators to cool our heels while our children queued first in one line, then a second one, then a third, before finally going up to their dorms.
Some of us had been ordered away with a firm word and a stern look from a son or daughter. Others of us hovered momentarily. We knew we were supposed to wait in the other room, but what if he forgot to ask about the meal plan? What if she forgot to ask about campus security? What if they lose their key?
But being a grown-up means waiting in lines by yourself.
We thought back to the first day of school -- nursery school or kindergarten or first grade: the new outfit, the new school supplies, the child so impossibly small. Could this be the same person?
That first day had gone well, the girl skipping ahead to meet her teacher and classmates. Or it had gone badly and the boy hung on our leg, crying.
"The longer you stay, the worse it will be," the teacher had said. And we knew she was right, but how can you just peel off a sobbing child, turn your back and walk away?
And then, over the next 12 or 13 years, things got better. How was school today? we'd ask. "Fine." What did you do in school today? "Nothing."
We could winkle out a few details, and with those details we slowly came to realize that they had their own circle of friends, were stars in their own dramas and comedies and adventures. They were developing their own secret lives.
But that was nothing to this. College! We would be hundreds or thousands of miles apart. We would be just a phone call away, just an e-mail or a Facebook update, but still . . .
All we want is for them to be happy. They don't always believe this. They sometimes think we just want them to get good grades or get into that good school. But we want them to have the things that come with getting good grades or getting into that good school. We think it will make their lives easier in a way that ours either were or were not.
And now they're here, and that's still all we want.
"Greg, there's a piano!" she said. For a minute we think about what will happen when we leave. Roommates will be met. Suitcases will be unpacked. Posters will be hung. Lifelong friendships will be started.
Soon, they will drift down into that common room and someone will say, "So, Greg, we hear you play the piano" and laugh, but not unkindly. And Greg will laugh, relieved. He'll sit down and start to play, and our sons and daughters will gather round. First one, then another, then another will start to sing.
Singing, singing, singing into their future.