Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Julia, Class of 2021 – My Commencement Letter

April 14th, 2021

I’m working on a toast for your graduation, I texted my youngest daughter Julia who is graduating from Duke University in about two weeks.

I hate toasts, she replied. Write me a letter.

This was about the best text I’d received in a while. Not only do I hate giving toasts, turns out she hates listening to them.

So here’s my letter, read away, Sweetie Pie:

You were always an interesting child. You hated the sunshine- it hurt your eyes. You didn’t like smiling- waste of energy.

You didn’t talk much either, but when you did utter a few words, those few words were always on point. It wasn’t easy to find out what you did like—tennis was a fail.

Your tennis teacher wondered if you might be left handed—you weren’t. Then he politely suggested I get your eyes checked. I did. Your vision was fine. Kate, who came along to the optometrist appointment because why not, turned out to need glasses.

You liked to sew. So, we sent you to sewing camp. Might you be the next Stella McCartney? You came back with several swatches of fabric, all that had random stitches on them. Worse, you insisted we keep every piece of artistry.

You did like making boxes from, well boxes.

Which explains your current Ikea sofa and bed building skills. Add to that your lifelong passion for pink – if Ikea ever does a furniture line dedicated solely to seven-year-old girls, you could be their dual spokeswoman/installer.

We tried  candle making (a lot of wax, not many wicks), gardening, archery, netball, washing the car. Nothing really stuck except for those boxes. I was getting a little anxious.

What does this child like to do?

Your older siblings also tried to help. They taught you how to pole dance and then suggested you test out your new skills on a pole in a packed outdoor restaurant in St. Barth’s on Christmas Day. You were about six.

I once asked a psychic about you when you were a child, obsessed with TV and little else.

She’s a late bloomer,” she told me.

That was heartening. I relaxed a little and let you go back to your favorite TV show.

By age eight you could quote most of Austin Powers, putting on a flirty cockney accent as you exclaimed, “Do I make you horny?! Randy? Do I make you horny baby, yeah do I ?!

Perhaps I did not pay enough attention to you in your formative years…But maybe leaving you to your own devices allowed you to discover who you are, and by that I mean, Elle Woods.

You are basically Elle Woods with your fuzzy pink steering wheel and your plans to get a criminal justice degree. You watched that movie once, and then a thousand more times. Elle and Bruiser, Julia and Antoinette, twins separated at birth.

Kate always wanted to be an interior designer. Thomas was less directed, but finally found that coding suits him to a tee. You, my sweet Julia, always loved an argument. On long car rides, if you wanted something at the start, by the end you’d have a yes or God help us all.  The family consensus:

Don’t get into an argument with Julia. Life’s too short.

Fast forward to now. I think it’s good that you are taking a minute (aka a whopping five months) to breathe before you pick up those law books. I want you to be the next Elle Woods, or even the next Amal Clooney. It’s also okay to be the next Julia. That means taking time to revel in the steps you have already taken, not just focusing on the steps to come.

Your generation has had to contend with a lot, things that are right on your doorstep. A pandemic and all its repercussions, school shootings, climate change, fake tan man, and explaining to your parents that the word woke has nothing to do with a good night’s sleep. You’ve had to reinvent what it means to be social because, let’s face it, that’s really what college is about. Making friends, partying, procrastinating with friends, hanging out – all a tad tricky during a pandemic.

When I graduated from college the big news was that Reagan won in a landslide, the US and the Vatican exchanged diplomats after a 116-year hiatus and Michael Jackson’s Thriller became record of the year. Different times indeed.

I am hopeful that you will find your way to a life of service, kindness, and success. But for now, do what you love – Watch some TV, sunbathe, read novels, go for walks in nature, bake, work on your Italian, hang out with your friends at charming pubs, visit your mother.

Your older brother Thomas said—the worst two years of his life were the ones directly after university. I’d say for me, divorce was worse, but those two years when I was a Morgan banker right out of college, are a close second. The point is it’ll be ok—you will find your path, it just might not be right out of the gate.

In one of the best faux commencement speeches ever, Wear Sunscreen, Chicago Tribune journalist Mary Schmich advised:

Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.

Or listen to Baz Luhrmann’s musical version To Wear Sunscreen here.

I went from banking to writing-about-banking to writing-about-advertising to writing about travel and interiors to my favorite subject of all—writing about me. Something that I didn’t discover until I took a memoir class, with years of motherhood and journalism behind me. Finally, I found something I really loved doing. So be mindful that what you do now may just be a path to the thing you are meant to do.

And as a final word of advice, I turn to my idol, the late Nora Ephron:

Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was twenty-six. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re thirty-four.

April, 2021