Back To School

Last Sunday morning was the six month mark of Mom’s passing.  That’s so strange to say.  It feels like it’s been six days and six years all at the same time.

This morning, as I poured my coffee and stepped outside with the dog to enjoy those blissful few moments before everyone else wakes and the craziness begins, the air was (gasp!) a bit chilly.  Fall is coming.

I thought I was ready.  I had prepared myself.  Mom loved Fall.  It was most definitely her season.  The heat of summer meant MS flares and falling out of remission.  The weather would sap her strength, but the cool crispness of Fall always put renewed sass in her step and determination in her eye.  

We made it through two major milestones in the Spring — Dad’s birthday and Mother’s Day.  Then came the summer lull — a long, lazy season of healing and scabbing over of the terrible rawness I’ve felt for the last two years.  

But Fall is coming, and we will start the Big Milestones, like drum cadences and football.  Then her birthday. Then Fall cooking and the smells of her favorite foods — taco soup, corn bread, lasagna, and hot chocolate. Then Thanksgiving, my brother’s birthday then mine.  Christmas.  And then we’ll start the countdown of those last seven weeks.  I wonder if the scabbing over will hold through all that?  Or will the wound tear open again?  I must confess — the thought of it scares me a little.

After all, the weight of it was crushing.  It was a physical heaviness, this awareness that she was dying, that that was what was happening.  The constant worry of “Have we done everything?” of the previous decades morphed into new nagging obsessions: 

  • Have you said it all?  
  • Have you documented all the stories?  
  • What happens if you forget? 
  • Do you know where all the envelopes and letters are so that you will always have every child’s name written in her lovely first grade teacher handwriting?  
  • Are you clear on which china/earrings/end tables/cast iron skillets were from which great grandmother?  

I’m an historian by trade.  I deal in documents and artifacts.  Assembling the documents, archiving it all…what a welcome distraction it was in those final few weeks.  It was a chore to take on so that my hands and mind stayed busy while she slept.  How certain I was that I would need those “things” to remind me, to comfort me and to treasure when she was gone. 

I was wrong.  

What I have discovered this past few week is that I don’t need the things as much as I thought I would.  The things don’t remind and comfort me like I thought they would.

To my surprise, the very rituals and traditions I feared would hurt the most actually seem to be providing the most comfort.

As Fall has approached and I have steeled myself for the coming onslaught of firsts, I overlooked one.  Going back to school this year caught me by surprise, and as it turns out, was my first blisteringly painful milestone of life without my mom.

My parents were always very involved in my education.  Some of my happiest memories growing up were of ordinary dinner table conversations where Dad asked us, “What did you learn in school today?”  What followed was usually a fabulous discussion of math, science, literature, politics, you name it.  We were challenged to explain this, defend that, dig deeper, and be aware.  When I was in school, my dad walked me through everything from the nuances of As I Lay Dying and Marbury v Madison that I still remember perfectly to tortuous lessons on vectors and sine waves that I have blessedly forgotten.

I remember complaining to my mom about being bored in my second grade reading circle so she said we could start our own.  That was the year we read and discussed the entire Little House series, just the two of us.  I remember celebrating with her when we found a new set of homophones to add to our list on the refrigerator door.  I remember complaining about a tedious third grade research assignment, so she pulled out her electric typewriter, showed me how to work it, and encouraged me to start typing all of my assignments.  The teacher in her made it personal and fun.

But Mom and I enjoyed back to school on a whole other level as well.  She and I loved the process.    One of my favorite memories is of walking through the halls of my elementary school on Meet The Teacher day, holding her hand and searching for my classroom while she said comforting things like, “Oh look how close you are to a water fountain.  How wonderful!” And because she found it great, so did I.

I think Mom’s favorite part was the shopping and organizing.  She came from the school of “buy it all at once so you have it when you need it” which meant we started back-to-school preparations in early August even though school didn’t start until after Labor Day.  We assembled our lists, made shopping strategies, and organized it all with D-Day precision.  While there was some wailing and gnashing of teeth, you can bet that by Labor Day, my drawers were tidy and filled with new (or new to me) jeans, shirts, underwear, and socks.  New shoes lined the bottom of my closet, and every rain jacket, windbreaker, and winter scarf I’d need (once it finally got cold in Alabama sometime in January) were hung neatly and arranged in chronological order of most-likely-to-be-needed-when. 

And then there was my desk.  All the pencils were sharpened.  All the pens had caps.  The markers and crayons were arranged in ROYGBIV order.  Fresh unspoiled notebooks stood next to the extra TrapperKeeper she bought me.  You know…just in case. 

(Confession time here — I’m not this organized.  Most years, my kids discover they’ve outgrown their jeans or shoes only on the morning we absolutely need them.  I tend not to think about raincoats until it rains or winter coats until the first cold snap.  I’ve sent them to school woefully unprepared many times saying, “I’ll buy you a jacket this weekend, I promise.  Please don’t tell your grandmother.”)  

This trend continued once I became an adult.  Whether it was college, graduate school, or starting my teaching career, the back to school planning was something we enjoyed doing together.  And once I became a mom, that joy multiplied.  Every year when my kids would find out who their teacher was, I would call Mom first.  I’ve lost count of how many times my phone would ring during Meet The Teacher because she couldn’t wait for details.  What did the classroom look like?  Was the teacher going to be a good fit?  Did they have friends in their classes?  She and I would talk for hours, mulling over every detail.

I think my mom got more excited about the kids’ first day of school than she did about Christmas.  For the past 14 years, each first day has gone something like this….

Clint and I would finally get the kids loaded into the car, and we’d head off.  They’d get out in the carpool line and wave at me.  I’d smile and wave back then call Mom as I was driving away.  She’d answer with “Good morning!  I’ve been thinking about you!” and I would promptly burst into tears.  She would listen patiently while I recounted every detail of the morning, making sympathetic sounds and laughing often.  Some days, if the school where I teach hadn’t started yet, I’d drive to my mother’s house and we would make a day of it — lunch, manicures, terrible daytime TV, and chatting all the while.  The first day of school was always our day.  

But this year, she isn’t here.  I had no idea it was going to hurt this bad.

Because we stayed at our lake house all summer and didn’t move back to town until the day before the Meet The Teacher, it snuck up on me.  But that night, it hit hard, and I was a basketcase.  I put the kids to bed and hid in the bathtub and cried, something I haven’t done since the week of her funeral. 

The whole morning of Meet The Teacher day, I was caught up in my memories…which is really sad.  I totally checked out on my kids that morning.  It was a big day for them, and I was on autopilot, going through the motions, just wanting to get this over with without breaking down and embarrassing them.  

Thank goodness Clint, as always, knew and understood and kept things light.  He was chatting and laughing and the kids were giddy with excitement, but I was completely tuned out.  

We had almost made into the building when I started to feel the prickle of tears.  Oh no.  Complete panic.  I can’t do this here.  I was turning around to make an excuse to go back to the car to get myself together, when my son reached up and took my hand.  He smiled at me, big 5th grader that he is, and walked into that school holding my hand, guiding me smoothly through the halls to his new classroom and murmuring things like “Almost there” and “Just one more turn.”  

After Henry’s room, we went to Lillian’s class where she studied her daily schedule and I made sympathetic sounds.  Then we discussed strategies of desk arrangement and pencil case design.  She finally settled on a chronological order of most-likely-to-be-needed-when. 

I am glad to report that the first day of school came and went without incident.  They were calm and confident, full of smiles and giggles.  As I waved goodbye and pulled out of the carpool line, I found myself reaching for my phone to call her.  And even though I’d prepared, there was still a stab of loneliness.  So I listened to her last few voicemails and sang a couple of songs we used to sing.  Then I pulled into my driveway, rinsed my coffeecup, and started planning for my own school year, searching for ways to make school personal and fun, to get my students to explain this, defend that, dig deeper, and be aware.

In the process, I discovered something wonderful — the first day of school is still our day.   


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