No more first days of school at our house.
No one to send back to third grade or sixth or eleventh. No gypsies in blue jeans heading off to cloistered college campuses with courtyards and trailing ivy.
But no matter. First-day-of-school rhythms are encoded in the brain and deposited in the marrow, destined to surface each September like some long-forgotten dream, even for those of us who are no longer on-site parents.
But it's astonishing how much I miss it all.Never did I expect to feel such a longing for that curious collision of giddy anticipation and sweaty apprehension that always descended on our house around Labor Day when my three fierce, funny summer companions suddenly responded to some primal signal that may as well have been flashing in neon: "The party's over, kids. Real life is about to begin!"
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' ennui 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 those tyrannical rituals of the school year: enforced bedtime, homework, Sunday night scrambles to find clean socks and calm souls.
Summer was dripping ice cream cones, trails of watermelon seeds and freedom. And despite my noisy complaints, I loved it.
But around the last week in August, those indulgences vanished, and 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, the dread "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.
So there was really no way to conquer the oldest's increasingly jumbled feelings, the middle one's deforming fear of being fat, the youngest's night-terrors 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 wouldn't look nerdy or dumb. There's no one around to listen to the annual pep talk about liking and respecting oneself. No takers.
Still, 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; lunchboxes 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 stare wistfully at the small army of other people's children. 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?