The first week of September in Upstate New York is a time for new clothes, sharpened pencils, and bright yellow buses that reappear on neighborhood streets like clockwork two days after Labor Day. School opening is an important time for the children. It is also a bittersweet moment for the adults who are saying good-bye to them.
My first vivid memory was my first day of school. My mother walked me up the hill to the big brick building that housed all the grades for Keeseville Central. I quietly sat at a table stringing colored beads in Mrs. Ford’s kindergarten classroom. My mother wordlessly slipped out the door. I didn’t cry.
I was supposed to be the last of my parents’ three children going off to school, but that plan failed. My sister was born three months before I entered kindergarten. Bobbie was a shining example of the little “surprise” many pre-birth-control women in their mid to late thirties experienced just when they thought diapers and formula were behind them. I am not sure if my mother pushed Bobbie in the carriage into the classroom that morning. I am sure dropping me off only to return to a house still equipped with a crib, a high chair, and a playpen was an ironic moment in my mother’s life.
When it came time to send my son Adam off to kindergarten, I had mixed feelings. I was happy for him to be starting on his next adventure, but my mind was filled with concerns. Would his teacher, who had a reputation for being strict, be kind to my son? Would he overcome his shyness, make new friends? My fears were certainly not alleviated when within the first week he didn’t come up our driveway after the school bus pulled away. My phone call to the school triggered an alert to the driver, who found Adam fast asleep in the back the bus. Somehow, he did survive his first year. Life before school became a distant memory as Julie followed Adam up the school bus steps three years later.
What was so much more difficult for me was sending Adam off to college. The summer before, I shopped for comforters and dorm sized sheets and enough shampoo and soap to last him four years. The thought of his leaving the house and our no longer having four at the dinner table caused me to tear up all summer. A week before he was to leave, I was cutting up several pounds of chicken breast when I burst into tears. “I will never have to make this much chicken again!” I sobbed out loud to an empty kitchen.
The night before we drove him to the University of Rochester, most of the purchases were still in bags with the tags still on them. Unlike me who needed to be packed and ready days in advance, Adam was happy to just stuff things into suitcases and plastic bins at the last minute.
The four of us lugged his life in Rubbermaid containers up the five flights of stairs—why did my children always get the top floors of their dorms?—and Adam quickly settled in. My last memory of my son that day was his leaning back on his chair in front of his desk, proclaiming “I am going to like it here!”
Once Larry, Julie, and I got back into the car for our trip home, I felt such deep pain that I thought someone had wrenched my heart out of my body. I cried from Rochester to Syracuse. I finally stopped when Julie commented sarcastically from her perch in the back seat, “You have another child, you know!”
Sending Julie off to Williams College three years later was a little easier—maybe because she was the second child; maybe because she was only forty-five minutes away. We dropped her off in Williamstown and got her situated in her fourth floor—of course!-dorm room. By the time we pulled into our driveway, we were giddy with excitement over our new-found freedom. We knew that both children were happy in their college environment. That knowledge, coupled with the realization that we longer had to worry about the daily angst of their high school lives—homework, car pools, dates for a dance—made the transition into our now empty nest smoother.
Still, each time our children came home, I found their inevitable departure difficult. After sending Julie off to college for her final year, I asked my mother if she ever got used to saying goodbye. “Oh, Marilyn,” she said. “It never gets easier! Every time any one of you gets into the car and drives away, I think to myself, ‘There goes my heart!’”
So, each year on the first day of school, when I see the school bus filled with children with their new clothes, their sharpened pencils their bright back packs, I will be thinking of my first day, my children’s first days, and my aching heart.