The night before, she had twisted my stubbornly straight hair around aluminum rollers. In the morning, miraculous curls framed my face. She buttoned me into my new plaid dress with the crisp skirt and round white collar. She buckled up my new shoes. I was her oldest child, the first she sent out into the world, and that morning, everything about me was as close to perfect as she could make it.
The other kindergartners must have been driven to school, because I rode the school bus with only one fellow passenger, a little guy with a brush cut and a cool Hawaiian shirt. I’d never seen a Hawaiian shirt before, and it added to the immense wonders of the day. When we got to school, I wasn’t the least bit surprised to find a smiling reporter ready to snap my photo as I came down the tall bus steps. If any event in my life thus far was worthy of being immortalized, it was riding shotgun on a school bus.
In fact, the reporter was there because the two of us were brand new students at the town’s brand new elementary school. When the photo appeared on the front page of the local paper, my mother proudly bought extras for all the relatives. She pasted a copy into the family photo album. It grew yellow and crumbly, but my smile, my dress and my curls endured. It’s clear that when my mother sent me off into the big world for the first time, she did everything she could to show how loved I was. The photo’s caption could have been, “Take good care of this child!”
For first grade and my elementary years, she sent me to St. Hugh of Lincoln Catholic School. Students there wore uniforms: for the girls, a navy blue jumper, white blouse and a clip-on bow tie. That crazy bow tie! It was the only part of the get-up I liked, although by the time I was 10, I was sick of it too. I hated the monotony of that uniform, but Mom insisted on keeping it neat and tidy. I remember her ironing my blouses and scolding me to polish my perennially scuffed saddle shoes. I even had to scrub the shoelaces.
I was lucky, really. Though uniforms were supposed to render us as equal in the eyes of the fashion gods as we were in the eyes of God himself, we managed to establish our own hierarchy. Some girls got new jumpers every year. Others wore theirs until they grew too small, the fabric becoming thin and shiny. One unfortunate classmate, a tall, craggy girl, had a mother who sewed her uniforms. She no doubt grew up to be gorgeous, but in sixth grade her homemade clothes doomed her to the land of the outcasts. Today this breaks my heart. I pray her mother never knew.
When I sent my own children off to school, I could never achieve the polished perfection my mother did. I strove for “clean and matching.” I made sure their hair met a brush once a day. Civilizing children is no small task, and I often worried I was failing.
But at least I could make sure their sweaters had no holes and their shoes were on the right feet. Like my own mother sending me off, I could signal to the wide, indifferent world: These children are cherished.
I’m thinking about all this as my first grandchild’s first year of preschool has come to a premature end due to the coronavirus. Back in September, her mother, my daughter, asked me to go to the school orientation. I was delighted to be part of another first day. My grandchild is shy. She’s a thinker and a dreamer. She looked forward to school, but she was wary, too. I was glad I could go along and help ease her in.
By now, I should be exceedingly wise. Books are not defined by their covers, beauty is more than skin deep, and while clothes can be very nice things, they do not make the person. Yet that morning, as my granddaughter dressed herself, ready in a jiffy, I was the one who opened my own closet and froze.
Blue jeans and T-shirt? Slacks and knit top? What kind of Nana should I be? Would this make me look like an aging hippie? Would that make me look stiff and boring? On that first day at a new school, I was anxious to present myself as the perfect grandma, whatever that meant. I wanted the other adults to approve.
It was ridiculous. I wanted to laugh at myself, but I couldn’t. It was embarrassing to still be so self-conscious. Yet now, thinking about it months later, in the midst of a pandemic, I see it a little differently. Nothing about raising kids is simple. It’s a terrible tangle of love, guilt, worry and hope. The world is a precarious place where nothing is certain.
It’s no wonder, really, that when we send our children out on their own, we grasp at whatever we can, no matter how flimsy, to protect them. A new dress. A handmade jumper. A pair of polished shoes. A bit of armor — a badge that says, Take good care of her!
Who knows what, years later, my grandbaby will remember about her first day? But when she looks at the photo I took of her, with her crooked pigtails and unicorn T-shirt, I hope at the very least, she will feel precious and protected.