"Twelve lunches to pack, 10 lunches to pack, eight lunches to pack. . . ." That is how I counted down the last days of the school year in June, days that felt like they, too, were jammed into a brown paper sack.
The calendar was cluttered with year-end assemblies, meetings and recitals. The kids had lost their self-control as the hours of their confinement dwindled.
And my throat was a little tighter every morning as I anticipated a summer of two-on-one. Them against me.
If hell truly is a punishment of our own making, then I know what eternal damnation will be for me. Two kids in a car and a list of errands. That's how I spent my summer vacation.
My children are at that awkward age -- too old to be helplessly buckled down in car seats, too young to be left at home alone. And so we took out the frustrations of a long, hot summer on each other in the air-conditioned comfort of a station wagon.
Your children's shortcomings are much more evident -- especially to each other -- in the confines of an automobile. The picking and the bickering. ("He touched me." "She looked at me.") My station wagon has a third seat, and now I know why. The seat behind the driver had to function as a kind of DMZ, made necessary when one whipped a seat belt -- buckle first -- at the other.
The car became a rolling landfill, too, littered with the refuse of a hundred good-behavior bribes, the waste of endless begging in public places, the leftovers of a hundred drive-through lunches.
The bickering ceased only long enough for a little four-wheel-drive "Jeopardy." "Can infinity ants lift an elephant?" "Is the sun shining out in space?" Buzzz. Jessie, for $200, reproductive biology. . . . "How do you get twins?"
"Mommy can't talk while she drives," I said. "Are we there yet?" was starting to sound good.
But that car carried my children and me through a summer of transitions, too. And when I pull out the mental snapshots from this summer, my throat tightens again. But this time, not with tension.
That car carried Joe, 9 years old and with a new buzz cut that took away his baby-fine blond locks, to wrestling camp at the Naval Academy. When I watched him walk off the mat, face streaked with dirty sweat, T-shirt sleeves rolled up to show off miniature biceps, I blinked hard in disbelief. As he came toward me, hips rolling with the bow-legged swagger of an athlete, he looked 14.
The car took Jessie to swim team every morning. She started with a doggie paddle, but by summer's end, she could complete an individual medley -- four different strokes strung brutally together. She raced with some steel in her I didn't know she had. She was no baby anymore.
The kids fell asleep more than once in that car, and they did not wake as they were carried up to bed. They slept the thick, heavy sleep of summer, exhausted by play. Not the fitful, anxious sleep of the school year, when dreams of playground bullies and spelling tests left them tangled in their covers.
Cradled up the steps, they smelled vaguely of chlorine, sweetly of sweat. The bottoms of their dangling feet were as brown as their tanned shoulders from a night of catching fireflies barefoot.
If you are patient on those sticky summer nights, you can watch your children grow while they sleep. And so that box of school clothes packed away in June might just as well stay there. Blue jeans are inches too short. And it would not be the first day of
school without a brand new pair of tennis shoes.
My husband says that if kids are excited by the purchase of school supplies, you are winning the education battle. That may be wishful thinking, but there were few fights in the car when back-to-school stuff was on our list of errands.
There is something about a new tablet, a pristine school box, bright pink erasers and the smell of freshly sharpened pencils that seems so full of possibilities.
And so I gave them a lift to the first day of school in the station wagon. Joe started fourth grade, and I think the gloves come off this year. Teachers don't pull you onto their laps when you are having a bad day in the fourth grade. They will expect him to be organized and to work independently, God help him.
Jessie is in second grade, and the shy uncertainty of a first-grader in a new school is gone. She wants to walk home with her cat pack of girlfriends this year, and I am not allowed to kiss her goodbye on school property.
Where was I on that first day of school? At the grocery store, alone.