In 1993, my oldest brother, Jordan, graduated from kindergarten -- and my mother, Nancy Steves, watched. 1995 rolled around and another brother, Trevor, graduated from kindergarten -- and my mother watched.
In 1997 and 1999, she watched my other brother (Adam) and me, respectively, graduate from kindergarten.
We all walked down the same makeshift aisle, on the same gym floor, in the same school -- and my mother watched while my dad probably videotaped with one of those old, bulky video cameras.
Since those minor -- yet oddly significant -- graduations, she watched my two oldest brothers' sixth-grade graduations, and from there witnessed the high school diploma-giving ceremonies for all three of my older brothers. She tacked on another for my oldest brother when he received his diploma from St. Bonaventure University last spring.
On Dec. 19, 2009, it was my mom's turn to shine. As a family, we trekked back to the St. Bonaventure campus to watch a different family member shake hands with St. Bonaventure's faculty and receive a diploma from the university's president, Sister Margaret Carney.
And, though it doesn't take long to get from Gowanda to Allegany, the journey to my mom's personal victory was a long one across rough patches and difficult terrain.
When Jordan went off to Bona, we realized as a family just how tough it can be to put a kid through college. In 2007, Trevor joined the Fredonia State College crowd, and my mom decided she wanted to return to school for a master's degree in literacy to obtain permanent teaching certification. She was working through a grant-funded program at Gowanda Middle School at the time.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we watched her stress-out over homework she owed before heading out the door to Fredonia's campus where she had lived as a student more than 25 years before.
A year flew by, and even when my mom was home, it seemed like she wasn't. She was always working on assignments for her students or working on assignments to be graded by one of her college professors.
My dad, my brother and I chipped in and helped out around the house as much as we could. I became the main chef and laundress; Dad took on cooking responsibilities when I was too tired or busy to give food a second thought, and Adam busied himself with his Xbox when he wasn't emptying or loading the dishwasher.
After that year spent at Fredonia, my mom found a different master's program at a different college. She found the Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) program at St. Bonaventure much more appealing, since it could return her to her love of journalism and communications. The 16-month weekend program meant she would be gone to classes every weekend, but it would also be over much sooner than any other program she had looked into.
Just like that, we went from a Fredonia-heavy family to a family weighed down by the two adults we were putting through college at St. Bonaventure.
"That's what makes me think it was fate," she said. "Because my son was already a student in the journalism/mass communication program at SBU, we got The Communicator [St. Bonaventure's magazine] in the mail and the issue that arrived happened to have a feature story on the IMC program for grad students."
She applied, interviewed, got in and started the process in August 2008. Our weekend camping trips had to be cut short to accommodate my mom's newest challenge.
Friday nights she drove out to Hamburg to St. Bonaventure's Buffalo Center at Hilbert College. On Saturdays she took off in the morning back to Hilbert and came back laden with homework assignments.
But, she didn't just miss out on family camping time.
"I had to miss a couple college and high school cross-country meets for my kids, Saturday track meets and baseball games when normally I would have been there," she said. "I did skip a weekend of class when my youngest son graduated from high school."
But once November 2009 was over, it was like Mom was back. She had overcome such a huge obstacle and came out on the other side successfully.
"The most stressful part was in the final month of the program," she said. "My mother was experiencing some serious health issues and I was preparing my thesis defense and my final IMC plans book.
"But, it all worked out -- with the help of family -- and everything came together."
This may have been something my mom went through, but because we were in it together, it took a toll on all of us.
We had to take on responsibilities that were formerly primarily my mother's in order to keep our household and our lives in order.
Other members of our family came forward and helped when we needed them, and because of my mother's college experience, we established deeper relationships with those family members. My aunts and uncle stepped in when their mother grew sick and my mom couldn't be there to help out. Instead of pulling us apart, my mom's experience helped us all come together.
"It was a great experience," she said of the St. Bona program. "I was not the oldest student in my class, and it was fun because I was in class with a lot of SBU graduates that are friends with my son."
When she accepted her diploma at St. Bona's University Chapel on that cold evening in mid-December, it was a big, public victory for my mother and a secret victory for us as a family.
"I was proud of myself and my family, and that moment made everything worthwhile," she said. "I knew I had made the right decision."
Now, months later, my mom can proudly display her master's diploma and use all the knowledge she gained at her job, where she just happens to be a public relations specialist.
"This was nothing like the first college experience I had," she said. "This time I knew what I wanted to be when I 'grew up.'"
Emily Steves is a junior at Gowanda High School.