Thursday, September 13, 2012


A Stitch In Time

So, it was the first week of school, and a bit of a nail-biter for the kiddos. Like me, my children can pretty much worry at will—it’s our super-power—and this past week, the angst engine was school. Thomas was playing the long game, worrying not so much about starting 8th grade as he was about the fact that it was his last year of junior high and high school loomed. You know, in a year. But he wasn’t going to let time get in the way of a good brood.

The Brownie was riding the bus with her brother this year, her first year of junior high. My middle child plays things close to the vest, so it’s not always obvious to me what’s worrying her, only that something is. Certainly it wasn’t academics. Anna inherited her mother’s brains (thank you God) and cuts through school work like a hot knife through butter. It turned out what was really troubling her were clothing issues—what other kids would be wearing on the first day, whether this top was okay or those shoes were cool enough. She was particularly worried about her ensemble for physical education class. I found myself utterly unequipped to address her concerns, since it wasn’t til very late in my school career that I gave a second thought to what clothes I wore, a fact my own mother used to her advantage, as we shall see. Luckily, in Anna’s case, her mother grasped her concerns only too well and was able to address them with reassurance, and promises of an after-school shopping trip should some sartorial disaster befall my little fashion-plate snowflake.

And then there was the Éclair, who starts kindergarten this year. Who rides the bus by herself this year. And who will be gone from eight-ish in the morning til almost four in the afternoon all day.

This news left Her Lovely Self in blinking astonishment. Both of us and the two older kids all started out with a half-day kindergarten program, but the school here only offers the full day option. Which I’ll admit sounds like a bit of an adjustment for a 5- year-old, but not the end of the world. Not for me anyway, because I’m gone for pretty much the same time span. No, the person who had the biggest problem with it was Her Lovely Self. The Éclair is our youngest and when she is gone there are none left. For nearly 14 years, my bride has devoted most of her waking hours to dealing with our offspring. Having spent some time with our offspring, I thought HLS might be glad of some hours of solitude, you know, but I thought wrong. My wife doesn’t like solitude. She likes company. And having abandoned her career to be home with the kiddos, I could see where it might be a jolt to suddenly have them gone for all day.

If my little Éclair sensed her mother’s distress to any degree, she sure didn’t show it. If ever a child was ready for all-day kindergarten, it was my youngest. She was up bright and early on the first day of school, dressed in an outfit of her own selection. And unlike her older sister, she suffered no concerns about fashion. “I look SO awesome in this!” she announced when she came downstairs in a glittery star-spangled top with a checkered skirt that even I could see did not match. But never mind. It’s kindergarten!

I went to work late so I could see the Éclair off on the bus. (The older two catch the bus to junior high at 6:45 (dayum!) but the kindergarten bus didn’t come til around 8:30.) It was a good thing I lingered, since my wife was not—and I mean this in the most loving possible way—in her right mind. When she wasn’t weeping, she was hiding behind the car, hyperventilating, so I thought I should stay as backup in case Her Lovely Self went clean off the rails and did something rash and impulsive, like assault the bus driver or commit to homeschooling on the spot.

Naturally, the bus was late too—it was the first day and I found out later that a lot of parents—mommies and daddies alike—were having a hard time keeping their shit together. It’s hard to let go. I get it. I suffered through it myself with the two older kids, but not so much. As in all things, I took my cue from my parents, who, while loving us unconditionally, couldn’t palm us off on school fast enough. My own first day of kindergarten, my mom didn’t even walk me in.

I shared this little nugget with the Éclair, thinking she should feel lucky and beloved that both of her parents would be there for her on her first day. But she just nodded, simply accepting the fact.

“Well, that was in the Olden Days,” she said. The Éclair understood, as all kids do, I suppose, that the Olden Days were a time when children were astonishingly, ridiculously on their own recognizance. They walked to and from school unsupervised (and through varying levels of predatory or environmental impediments—wolves, snow, hills of impossible topography such that they can be inclined in two opposing directions at once). I asked the Éclair once how long ago it has to be for it to be the Olden Days. She answered quickly and precisely, “Twenty-three years.” That was as high as she could reliably count at the time, you see. “After that, it’s all Olden Days mashed together,” she added mysteriously.

But as I stood with her at the end of our driveway, I suddenly felt very olden. It occurred to me that my first day of kindergarten, the day after Labor Day, 1972, was 40 years ago. Forty freaking years. I had a moment, then. I’ve been having a lot of moments lately—maybe it’s a midlife thing—where it dawns on me that something I do, something I own, someone I know, has been around for longer than I’m really comfortable admitting to: I am closer to the age of 50 than the age of 30. I’ve been committed to the same woman for 20 years. I’ve had a valid driver’s license for an entire generation. I own clothing—a lot of clothing, some of it underwear—that’s older than any of my children. And I started school four decades ago. It gives you a moment. Especially if you’re wearing the underwear.

I’m pleased to say, however, that on my first day of school (40 years ago!), I was wearing new undies. My entire ensemble from the inside out was brand-new. That was a thing with my mom: We always had new clothes on the first day of school. So I was feeling pretty snazzy when Mom pulled our old Oldsmobile Omega up to the long driveway of our school and pretty much pushed us out.

“Have a good day!” she yelled as she practically peeled away. “Your brother will walk you in.”

I watched her turn the corner on two wheels and disappear, then turned back to BB. Or where BB had been. But now he was halfway down the driveway to the school, running for all he was worth towards the front door. I assumed this was because he was so eager to fill his big puddin’ head with knowledge. In fact, he didn’t want to be seen with me.

I didn’t mention this, but my mom was a seamstress. So when I say she outfitted my brother and me with new school outfits, I mean she made them herself on her trusty Singer sewing machine. Thus my brother was smartly attired that day in a stylish, tailor-made leisure suit, the kind with lapels wide enough to get him airborne on a breezy day, and pants so bell-bottomed you couldn’t be sure he actually had feet, both items of the suit in a matching bright yellow pattern that I can still see with my eyes shut. In fact, that you could see too, right now, if you shut your eyes and rub them really hard.

I didn’t get a leisure suit, alas. When making my school outfit, my mom went retro. I think my ensemble was meant to resemble that of a 19th century school boy: It featured a short jacket and—I wish to God this was not true but it is—knee-length britches, whose cuffs just came over the tops of a pair of—yes, alas, yes--harvest-gold yellow knee socks. Oh, and there was a hat too, a floppy cap that hung down over one eye.

And the whole thing (except for the socks) was constructed from the same bolt of blue-and-yellow plaid.

“It’s a Buster Brown outfit,” my mom said when she stood me in front of the mirror that morning. I wasn’t sure who Buster Brown was then—I only knew he had something to do with shoes. But I didn’t look like Buster Brown. I looked like Raggedy Andy’s gay golfing cousin. I looked liked I’d wandered off the set of a Captain & Tennille TV special. At the time, I didn’t have any problem with this. And you know what, neither did any of my classmates, who I eventually met, after being found wandering the kitchen somewhere in the back of the school. Without a brother or parent to guide me, I had entered via an alternate door. Why I did this was a mystery. Surely I must have seen other children entering through the proper door and followed them? Surely I had wits enough for that? On the other hand, look at what I willingly wore to my first day of school.

The thing was, my classmates didn’t care. I don’t recall anyone making an unkind remark (well, except BB and his worldly second-grade friends, whom I heard from a distance, later, at recess). But never mind! It was kindergarten! When else can you get away with wearing mismatched clothes (or in my case, The Blue Plaid Special), and no one will care? I had many, many years thereafter to suffer under the judgment of my peers (and to occasionally hand some of it out myself), but there wasn’t any on that day.

I said as much to the Éclair, but you know, she’s in kindergarten, and lessons of this kind are pretty much lost on her. She just wanted to know if I still had the floppy cap.

“No, it’s long gone,” I said (In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s in a box in my Big Brother’s attic right now. Mom tended to save the clothes she made for us. And I’m sure this outfit hasn’t succumbed to moths or mice, because it was made of an indestructible polyester blend such as the textile industry of the 1970s specialized in). “Why?” I asked. “Would you wear it to school if I had it?”

The Éclair recoiled from me in rank horror, as if I had asked if she’d like me to pee on her Disney Princess backpack. “No! It wouldn’t go with my awesome outfit!” she cried, pointing at her glittery starry top. Well, of course.

The bus hove into view then, and my little Éclair hopped excitedly as she waited for it to stop. Her Lovely Self came sprinting around from behind the car, camera in hand, looking like a crazed member of the paparazzi, wanting to capture the moment. We waved and/or bawled our eyes out as she climbed aboard and the bus pulled away. Even as it turned the corner, I could still see the smiling face, the glittery stars of her shirt. I wondered what the Éclair’s kids would be wearing when it was their turn to get on the bus. I wondered if I’d be around to see it. I’d be, what? In my 70s or 80s? It would be nice to think I could make it. Apart from anything else, I would enjoy reaching an age where, once again, I could wear blue-and-yellow plaid in public and not be embarrassed.

Hell, at that point, I’d probably be happy wearing glittery stars and a checkered skirt.

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