It is a hazy early morning in September, and a woman sits sobbing in the front seat of her car. Commuters swish past on a nearby road. A ragged line of birds passes overhead, flying south… “Are you okay?” a fellow parent asks, peering in.
”Fine,” I manage, rolling down the window. “It’s only–”
The mother smiles. “Don’t worry. I just saw her in the classroom and she’s happy.”
“Easy for her,” I say bitterly.
“Why,” the mother makes a pshawing gesture, “in a couple of days, you’ll be wishing you had even more free time!”
I blot my eyes and wonder if this can possibly be true. As Phoebe trotted into her first day of nursery school, she threw back carelessly, “I’m three now. I don’t need to hold your hand,” and it struck like a stiletto in my heart.
A fresh tear rolls down. On impulse I decide to wallow in this delicious misery, partly to get it over all at once, but mostly because I don’t have a choice. I find myself thinking mournfully of a photo series that ran in the old Life magazine. It depicted a father and his daughter in their bathing suits, posing side by side each summer over many years. In the first photo, the father is young and tanned and muscular; the little girl dimpled and adorable. As the series progresses, the daughter blooms through childhood and gawky adolescence while the father’s body slowly and almost imperceptibly slackens. In the final image, if I am remembering correctly, she is a plump and ordinary-looking middle-aged woman; he is a hollow-chested old man. Thus we are replaced by our children; thus we find ourselves blubbing in school parking lots when our youngest child starts nursery school, and sic transit gloria Mummy!
Phew. That’s over.
I drive home invigorated, brave and noble and full of purpose. At last I am free! To straighten the house without one or more toddlers following two steps behind me, unfolding the things I just folded, making a fort of the freshly-plumped pillows, or using a wet bar of soap to “decorate” the bathroom mirror. I am free to return phone calls without someone yelling from the lavatory, “Mummmmmyyyyy… I neeeeeed youuuuu.” I am free to write checks without a small head bumping my arm and making my signature look like a counterfeit. I am free to read the newspaper in daylight. In short, after ten years of having small children underfoot, my feet can stride about unimpeded.
It is now a clear mid-morning in September, and a woman sits sobbing at her desk–
Well, not sobbing, exactly, but certainly checking the clock every five minutes.
Sometime later I am back in the parking lot, early, hopping slightly from one foot to the other. The door opens and the teacher leads out a cluster of impossibly small people, one of whom has bright blonde hair. “Mummy!” She runs toward me, her miniature backpack jogging on her tiny shoulders. Eager as I had been to see her, I am unprepared for the thrill.
Phoebe extracts from her backpack a crumpled piece of orange construction paper speckled with smiley-face stickers. “I have a picture,” she says, handing it to me. “Actually, it’s your picture.”
Before I had children I used to observe with distaste the saccharin, gurgling way women often talk to small ones. “Oh!” a woman presented with a piece of crumpled construction paper might gasp, “Is that for me? It’s soooo beauuuuutiful!” The phoniness of this type of flattery seemed to me self-evident, and I felt sure that children perceived it. “I will never talk to my children like that!” I thought. “It devalues compliments!” I thought. “It will teach them contempt for my judgment!” I thought.
What I failed to understand is that, if the person in question is the darling of one’s life, and the wadded-up paper is representative of that person’s genius and is, in fact, the very first piece of art produced in what will be that beloved person’s long academic life, then a sugary tone is not only forgivable, it also happens to be utterly genuine.
“Oh!” I gasp, clutching my stiletto-scarred heart, “Is that for me? It’s soooo beauuuuutiful!”
Phoebe grins. “Then you can keep it.”
P.S. Dismay resulted from my use, last week, of the phrase, “elegant gray-haired woman.” This was a gross mischaracterization. The phrase should have been, “elegant, medium-ash-blonde-haired woman.” I apologize for the error.
Also, rather a lot of e-mails from Swamp readers have gone awry, and, for mysterious reasons, cannot be opened. So if you wrote to me and never heard back, yours is probably among them. Please feel free to re-send.