Traditions with which you did not grow up lack a certain nostalgic magic. So I manage not to get overly excited at the annual Memorial Day barbecue on our block after the war veterans’ parade. Or by the fusillades of lethal fireworks in our backyard on Independence Day. Never mind crowding onto a sofa to share pigs in a blanket with my neighbors while watching the Super Bowl. Alas, I even have few warm and fuzzy family feelings about pouring thick gravy over the Thanksgiving turkey. You simply cannot long for something that you did not experience when you were growing up in Europe.
This is also the case with the senior prom, the ritualistic extravaganza with which high school students all across America close the book on high school. For my family, this year was the third and last time we experienced it, first our two boys, this time with our graduating daughter in the starring role.
The rituals surrounding the prom are mysterious and puzzling to my eyes but are loaded with emotional wallop for the high school kids — and their parents. Preparations start about a year in advance. But the logistics are not just about signing up the right escort. This is accompanied by a whole arsenal of feelings, from genuine jealousy and fear of rejection to relief when the choice is finally made.
For girls this stress runs highest when selecting a prom dress. This choice must follow strict school rules of decorum and square inches of bare skin. What it comes down to is that just about nothing can be exposed. In comparison, renting a tuxedo for our sons was child’s play at the time.
But boys have their own angst — the perilous moment when they invite their desired date in the most charming way possible. This happens under the watchful eye of giggling girlfriends who immediately post everything on Instagram. Before you know it, your embarrassingly awkward attempt is exposed to the whole world.
As the P-Day approaches, tensions continue to rise. Parents consult nervously about renting limousines and photographers and inspect their garden again for poison ivy, before the pre-prom party. The administrators at the high school send reassuring letters about Breathalyzers. The celebrating students must do a breath test both before and after the ball so that no one will be able to smuggle in a hip flask of vodka. This makes me slightly uneasy.
On the morning of the prom, a ghastly tableau of a fake car accident appears in front of the school as a warning, with a real smashed-up car and dummies as bleeding victims. The day of the prom is busy with dressing, make-up, fiddling with boutonnieres, and, in our case, last-minute showers for a couple of girls who slathered on too much bronzer.
We parents look at all this with very mixed feelings. We know from experience that all those couples who pose for photographs today as if they are getting married will lose sight of each other tomorrow. And how pushy those other parents are. All this unnecessary hassle.
But suddenly there she is: my daughter, shining in her dress. How beautiful she is. And so soon after when, as a 12-year-old year old with braces, she walked into a Princeton school for the first time.
I hear myself calling, “Wait, another photo. Just one.” But she is already leaving. And then I cry, just like all fathers and mothers.
Can I already sense my future nostalgia for the prom?
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, Saving Charlotte, was published in the U.S. in 2017. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.