In photos passed around at the office or posted proudly on Facebook, in conversations remote or at the coffee machine, whether about emerging kindergartners or newly liberated college freshers, the off-to-school transition has a universal thread.  For evidence, examine those photos more closely.

The kids are jubilant. They’re ready to rock and roll.  Just look at those grinning small people, feet practically dancing out of their clean new shoes, the backpack’s weight sported proudly like a badge of achievement.  My very favorite first-day shot shows a new kindergartner, the nephew of my very dear friend, rushing toward his waiting teacher with a flower he picked, just for her.  Even better, it’s a giant, mature sunflower that he yanked from the ground at the roots, and he’s waving the entire plant, nearly twice his own height.  The expression on the teacher’s face proves that even those who have seen it all–teachers of small children, police officers, dance teachers, tech support, and auto mechanics among them–can still be surprised on the Big First Day.

But check those shots again, and behold the parents.  They muster a smile, but look closer, at their eyes.  However diligently they’ve nurtured, how carefully they’ve shopped from lists, how much encouragement they’ve bestowed and precautions they’ve dispensed, they aren’t fooling anyone.  Emotionally, they aren’t ready.  Not really.

And how could they be? In my parental career, three decades and change, there hasn’t been a single landmark event more terrifying than my daughter’s first day of school.  Not even her wedding, nor the birth of her children. For the naturally anxious, like yours truly, there are so, so many questions.  Which side of the street will the bus stop on?  And what evils might lurk on that massive bus?  Will her lunch spoil before she eats it—or did I even remember to send lunch?  Will there be mean kids? Will the teacher be patient with her constant questions? Does she have her shoes on the right feet?  Is she even wearing shoes?  Am I?

For her, it seemed so natural.  The door of the big yellow bus creaks open, and she bounds up the steps without a backward glance or word. The driver waves as she closes the door on my baby’s toddler years, the sweet, oh-so-short times when our world together is everything. The bus rumbles away toward the rest of her life, leaving me bereft, alone on the sidewalk.  At the office, I watch the clock all day, distracted.  My sister calls and leaves me a message that begins, “Did you put your baby on the big yellow bus today?” I burst into tears.

All this comes flooding back as Buddy’s first day of kindergarten approaches.  I’m dying for scoop, but struggling not to pry. In this and many other things required of mothers, my daughter far surpasses me in thoughtful preparation, so there is no help to offer in advance.  I listen for clues and wait for the big day.

Finally, it arrives, and with it the requisite photos of suddenly-taller Buddy, backpack strapped firmly in place, new shoes laced onto feet big enough for some other, older kid.  Actually, on closer inspection, the shoes appear intentionally un-laced.  (I guess that’s a thing.)  And look at that face; he’s so ready he didn’t really want to stop for this picture.

When I catch him for the big news bulletin, it is oddly reassuring to learn that some enduring elements of this passage retain their importance as the generations roll on.  Among them:  Why do grownups think this is such a big deal?

So, how did it go?  I begin.  “Ummm….it was good,” he nods, nonchalant, offering nothing further. I press on: What did you do on the first day?  “Well, we went to the cafeteria.”  Another pause.  Did you eat there?  Buddy’s expression indicates this merits a DUH, but he kindly does not deliver one.  “We had apples and milk, and Maggie from my other school was there, so I sat in the chair next to her.”  Did you read any stories?  “We talked about the kissing hand.”  This, I learn, is a charming tale about a raccoon whose mom reassures with a kiss on the hand that he takes her love wherever he goes.  Buddy scampers away, returning with a school folder.  It contains a paper hand for family members to kiss and return to school.  I give it a peck, glad to join in this little symbolic assignment.

With that, he has said all he has to say on the topic.  But I have more questions!  Did he meet mean kids who made fun of people (my personal torment from grade school, re-surfacing, natch)?  Did he look around and wish he was taller/shorter/wearing different shoes/not so blonde/had a better sandwich/home with his little sister?  But I follow his lead and zip my lips for now. Such things loom so monumentally in our hearts, but if they crossed his five-year-old mind, he didn’t let on.

A few days later, the fall season opened for the pre-school program where Sis goes two days a week.  Sis desires nothing more in this life than to keep pace with her brother, so her parents marked her first day, as well, with a photo opp and special, Sis-style first-day outfit.  This met with resistance (see photo).  The source of this pout remains known only to Sis, but her generally exuberant nature apparently re-emerged later.  When her mother sought a first-day report from the director, she got this: “That girl lives every moment.”

Knowing Sis, the imagination boggles at the implications.  But whatever happened, I hope she keeps it up.


 Copyright Eve Hutcherson, 2016.

It’s a routine Sunday morning at my favorite neighborhood restaurant, the best place for breakfast in our part of town—that is, it’s best if you prefer to place your order while sitting at a table, to a seasoned grown-up who will bring your food as you ask for it, remembers you from last time, may even recall how you like your eggs and will check later to see if they are cooked according to your specifications.  Coffee is poured with blessed frequency into plain white ceramic mugs, and it’s unlabeled, drip-brewed coffee delivered at table-side from a glass pitcher with a plastic handle and pour spout by a cheerful, apron-wearing soul performing mission from one table to the next, topping off the parade of morning doses for the grateful, bleary-eyed patrons.

It’s the 8 to 9 a.m. crowd in this joint, the usual gathering of early eaters, a cast of characters predictably and comfortably composed of the sleep-deprived parents of small, early-rising children, a smattering of sedate senior couples, a few weary musicians on stools at the counter renewing themselves after late gigs, the occasional celebrity politely ignored and left alone over his eggs.  It is the kind of place where the waitress lays down the check but encourages you to “take your time, sweetie” over your coffee and your book, and where a waiter may be observed strolling patiently behind a departing customer using a walker, chatting her up as he totes her to-go bag and purse all the way out to her car.  It’s that kind of place.

Pushing away my clean plate and reaching to resume my book, I happen to notice a family taking seats at the table directly across.  Physical likeness telegraphs unmistakably that this is a three-generation female party, headed by an attractive blonde I guestimate at about my own age, along with her grown daughter, and two small girls, ages about three and 18 months.  A brief glance at the children and I suddenly wish that Buddy and Sis were here, because they love this place.  A few more swallows of coffee, several more pages, and another sideways glance, however, and I amuse myself pondering the marked differences between their little family party and an imaginary threesome of Buddy, Sis and me in my booth this morning.

Let’s start with Grandmother.  Watching this woman tuck a strand of her expensively cut blonde hair behind a heavy gold earring as she leans in attentively toward her granddaughter, it strikes me she could have emerged from a couple of the sorority houses I rebelled against on the campus of my distant youth and strolled through a time capsule and straight into the restaurant.  Her sheer white summer blouse is so crisply pressed that the fabric tag can be seen (and probably read, were I closer) flattened into perfect repose against the cotton below her collar.  The blouse is tucked neatly into an equally pressed print cotton skirt, which matches her purse and, of course, her heeled leather sandals.

Grandmother’s summery sartorial splendor is a rather startling contrast to the rest of the 8-9 a.m. cast at the surrounding tables, most of whom are dressed like they just rolled out of bed and are contemplating returning there as soon as they can manage it.  She contrasts with no one more than me, also a grandmother of similar age, happy in my drooping cutoffs, unruly hair yanked into an uneven ponytail, no makeup, comfortable in my favorite black weekend t-shirt with its three holes in the hem and embroidery of hound hair.

Am I insecure at the sight of women like that?  Have I just become a lazy slob who doesn’t really give a rip at this hour, in this place?  Or did I ever work at it that hard?  To quote an outrageous character in one of my favorite books:  Who knows, and babe, who cares?

This introspection doesn’t linger, because the comparison ripples around to the other occupants of their table.  The tiny girls, in particular, seem destined to carry forward Grandmother’s quiet elegance into the new generation.  Not a peep can be heard across the aisle from either the neatly combed older one, who is carefully crayoning her placemat, or her younger sister, sporting Pebbles-style spiky upright pigtails and silently shoving bits of scrambled eggs around with her chubby, miniature fingers.

I’m sure this is a lovely family of kind and well-meaning women, devoted to each other and ready to go forth on a Sunday and do their best.  May the saints attend their efforts to speak quietly, and keep hair combed and socks folded over without creases or lumps, and may matching handbags always stand at the ready in their closets, lined up next to their summer sandal collections.  I wish them all that and more, I really do.

But give me my kids who can’t stay quiet in a restaurant, even in the face of substantial bribes.   Give me their tangled and hopelessly intertwined conversation, at an impossible pace, maybe in harmony or possibly in conflict, usually too loud and laced with questions I can’t answer before the next one spills forth.  Give me Sis’ head of riotous blonde curls, often in chaos not because adults are inattentive to her hair, but because you can’t harness gale-force winds blowing across a wide open prairie.  And her obviously inherited (from me) preference to shed her shoes, sometimes even in public.  Give me Buddy’s probing questions and side-buckling giggles at the sight of the giant stuffed pickle on the wall of this very place.  Give me his precocious ability to chat up the waiter, resulting in a free extra helping as a salute to his good manners.  Give me crumbs and spills that stick to shirts and tabletops and illustrate a good meal with children, with boisterous conversation (not too obnoxious to the surrounding diners, we hope) and some unpredictable laughs.  Give me all that and my holey t-shirt, and I will call that a good time.

I watch the three generations trail away from their neat, barely soiled table.  Vive la difference, I reckon.  Now, back to my book.  And one last refill in that mug.


Note:  Some friends have asked me where this story took place.  This very favorite spot is a deli-style restaurant called Noshville, a locally-owned Nashville treasure where the wait staff is every bit as fabulous as I’ve described, so I’m happy to name them here.  Try the french toast; they make it on challah bread, and it is out of this world.