Gone But Not Forgotten: First Days of School

No more first days of school at our house.

No one to send back to third grade or sixth or 11th. No gypsies in blue jeans head­ing off to cloistered places with court­yards and trail­ing ivy.

Two of the grand­chil­dren are on col­lege cam­puses. The five oth­ers have their own par­ents to handle it all.

But no mat­ter. First-day-of-school rhythms are en­coded in the brain, destined to sur­face  each Septem­ber like some long-for­got­ten dream, even for those of us who are no longer on-site par­ents.

Still, it’s as­ton­ish­ing how much I miss it all.

Nev­er did I ex­pect to feel such a long­ing for that curi­ous col­li­sion of an­ti­cip­a­tion and ap­pre­hen­sion that al­ways des­cen­ded on our house around Labor Day when my three sum­mer com­pan­ions sud­denly re­spon­ded to some prim­al sig­nal that may as well have been flash­ing in neon: “The party’s over, kids!”

Sud­denly, Jill, Amy and Nancy were fo­cused. Mo­bil­ized. The dreamy, hazy qual­ity was gone from their little faces, and in its place, a cer­tain squinty anxi­ety ap­peared.

It was shine-up, scrub-up time, time to dust off sum­mer’s lazy, hazy days and get crack­ing. And I, the fam­ily’s most res­ol­ute sum­mer-lov­er, dreaded that no­tion far more than my daugh­ters did.

Sum­mer was not just lib­er­at­ing for them. It was also my “time-out,” my chance to for­get rules, routines and rituals of the school year: en­forced bed­time, home­work,Sunday night scrambles to find clean socks and calm souls.

Sud­denly, there was pur­pose to our days. We awakened to it, and it nipped at our heels.

First, the ever-press­ing mat­ter of first day of school out­fits that meant end­less moth­er/daugh­ter psy­cho­dra­mas ac­ted out in cramped dress­ing rooms.  

Then, those pristine new school sup­plies that had to pass the ul­ti­mate  test of “cool.” I was sel­dom trus­ted to do the se­lect­ing be­cause my taste in such mat­ters was ques­tion­able at best, “gross” at worst.

And al­ways, the prim­al scream: “I HATE my hair!” No back-to-school hair­cut or style was ever right, and each daugh­ter could be coun­ted on, at about age 11, to threaten nev­er to leave the house again be­cause of some mis­un­der­stand­ing about what the words “just a trim” really meant.

Still, all of that was child’s play against the loom­ing back­drop of the really big stuff: Will the oth­er kids like me? Will I fit in?”

The early Septem­ber land­scape was littered with the angst of three little girls wor­ry­ing about the things that gnaw at all kids locked in the epic struggle of com­ing-of-age ac­cept­ably. It gen­er­ally had noth­ing to do with par­ent­al ap­prov­al, and everything to do with the opin­ions of those who stood about 4-feet-something.

So there was really no way to con­quer their anxi­et­ies and jumbled feel­ings, their wor­ries about hav­ing for­got­ten the fine points of long di­vi­sion over the sum­mer.

No, those things couldn’t be neatly sor­ted out along with the un­spoiled note­books and di­viders and in­dex cards.

I nev­er thought I’d miss it all.

But oh, how I do!

So, these Septem­bers, when our empty nest is so eer­ily si­lent and calm, I find my­self feel­ing rest­less, even mel­an­choly.

I wish that some­body ac­tu­ally needed me to shop for a crisp, first-day-of-school out­fit that, God for­bid, wouldn’t look nerdy or dumb. I yearn to de­liv­er the an­nu­al pep talk about lik­ing and re­spect­ing one­self. But there are no takers.

On late sum­mer days when the snap of fall is in the air, I find my­self lost in an­cient im­ages: three little girls stand­ing im­pa­tiently on the lawn while their fath­er snapped the an­nu­al first-day-of-school pho­to­graphs; lunch boxes lined up like sentries on the kit­chen counter; and that jumbled blur of hugs and breath­less de­par­tures that marked our fam­ily’s Septem­ber song.

Back then, I would al­ways stand at the kit­chen door and watch my three little host­ages to for­tune march off with vary­ing de­grees of con­fid­ence. Those Septem­ber morn­ings seem, in memory, al­ways splashed with sun­shine, and per­man­ently linked to the smell of slightly burnt toast.

Now, on the first day of school, I stand at the kit­chen door and stare wist­fully at the small army of oth­er people’s chil­dren along the fa­mil­i­ar route that snakes past our house.

Some­times, a lump rises in my throat as I see those shiny first-day-of-school shoes, that slicked-down hair.

Now it’s their time. Ours is past.

No - no more first days at our house.

But is it so fool­ish to wish that there were? ••

You can reach at pinegander@aol.com.

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