My daughter started kindergarten this past week, but its me that’s gone back to school, and it’s 1977.
I watched Z. get ready for her first day, clutching her new purple quilted pencil case, and it shocked me how the memories flooded in. Suddenly, I’m four going on five, getting ready for my end of summer birthday. I’m wearing a paisley dress I obsessed over, the feel of the banana seat bicycle I first learned to ride beneath my bum. I remember how I looked myself dead in the eye in my parents’ full-length mirror, singing songs from day camp into a brush, mimicking how I saw older girls and women behave. I see Z. do dances in front of her shows on TV, hear her using intonations that I can tell she’s heard from other, likely older girls – the not so cute “Mommmmmm (MAH!)” and that’s “dis(GUST)ing!” I distinctly remember hearing my own voice say phrases like that – thinking I sounded so cool and mature.
I am enjoying my daughter more than I ever have. She is bursting with energy and excitement. Every day is filled with discovery and hilarious conversations. It hurts my heart to watch her growing up and away from me, but I feel so close to her right now, as I remember what it felt like to be her age. I have scattered memories of early childhood but Kindergarten is the moment true memory is sparked. I vividly recall my teacher, Mrs. Lockett. My white fluffy bathmat with pink, blue and yellow flecks that I took naps on. Having an accident at school and having a little plastic bin with extra clothes to change back into. The way strep throat felt.
Last night I was reading Where the Sidewalk Ends to Z. I was reliving my own confusion at some of the things I didn’t understand in those dark and subversive poems – trying to wrap my head around Shel Silverstein’s crazy and specific universe. And as we read and she melted into me, I kept swallowing the lump of pride and sadness and purity of experience. It’s the same way I felt as she shyly sat down at her Kindergarten table last week. It was like watching a really manipulative television commercial for Life Insurance, one with indie music and the mom watching the kid walk into her first day of school with backpack on both shoulders from behind – only it was actually happening.
I’ve also been thinking about how I felt a few weeks ago during the run up to Hurricane Irene. We live right in the evacuation zone in Brooklyn and had to make a decision the day before about whether to leave our building prior to the storm in case we lost power. We have another kid who is just a baby, and it felt a little too risky to stay in place, so we schlepped our pack-n-play and air mattresses and crap over to my brother in laws, also in Brooklyn but on higher ground. There I spent the night restlessly obsessing that a tree would crash through the window and kill us all.
I had many emotions during the 24 hours of the storm: fear, annoyance at the inconvenience, dread of the unknown. But I think the most poignant part of the experience was that I didn’t want to have to be the adult making the decisions about how to protect my completely helpless children. I didn’t want to be making copies of our important documents and sealing them in a Ziploc. I didn’t want to scour the stores for D batteries. I wanted to be the kid listening to what someone else told me to do.
Today is 9/11, so of course it is a moment to recognize ourselves as vulnerable souls trying to move forward through the scary and unforeseen things that continue to plague us. I am 39 years old and I have all the trappings of an adult, but sometimes I wish I could cuddle into my own mom and she could just tell me the right thing to do. Of course I now know, she had no idea what she was doing, either, when she read to me and tried teach me how to behave in the world.
Millions before us have had children, raised them and let them go. But if you take a second to think about how scary and random life can be, it can bring you back to feeling like a five-year-old, standing on the steps of your big new school, clutching your purple quilted pencil case.