Nick and Andy are laughing and wrestling in the family room, and Emily is still eating her breakfast. Shoes on? Backpacks packed? Got your lunch? But none of that has happened yet, and it is time for Margy Kolarik and her kids to leave for the bus stop.
The scene is repeated this morning in kitchens all over Southland Hills, in square brick or stone houses tightly bunched on streets named for the Confederacy. Mothers bark the same orders, as if their children think that today might be a day when they don't have to wear shoes, when they won't need their books, when they won't be hungry at noon.
"I don't care. It feels cold to me. Wear a jacket."
The mothers are chilly, but their children don't feel a thing as they tumble and trip out front doors and head to the bus stop. Late again or compulsively early. Each family runs on its own clock.
Down the hill to the corner of Dixie Drive and Alabama Road they roll. Moms in jeans and sneakers hold steaming coffee cups in one hand, a baby on the opposite hip. Moms dressed for work, but looking frazzled, as if they've put in a full day already. The dogs, the strollers, the occasional dad. The kids, rushing the season in shorts and T-shirts, clomp down the hill in sneakers, with colorful backpacks over every shoulder.
The day has begun in this community near Towson.
And it begins at the bus stop.
None of these women needs to walk their children to the bus stop. Most can see the corner clearly from their front windows. And even the littlest kindergartner could find some fifth-grade girl who would be his mother for the morning.
And not many of the women could say for certain their children actually boarded the bus. Jolted from conversation with, "Better look. Your daughter's waving," they spin quickly and wave, looking surprised to see the big yellow school bus full of children pulling away.
These dozen or so women -- some of whom have jobs and all of whom mother -- don't come to the bus stop for the children. They don't even come to the bus stop for the school bus. In this world, the bus stop takes the place of the town square, the village market or the water cooler. The women gather for each other. And for themselves.
"You can get anything you want at the bus stop," says Janet Daley, who got her new drapes sewn and her living room rag-painted through bus-stop connections. "I even got a job at the bus stop."
She works with Mindy Roche, another bus-stop mom, researching titles. At the bus stop, you can find a plumber who is cheap or an electrician you can trust. You can get a gourmet recipe or borrow ingredients for dinner. You can do a community association survey or find out what school project your child has not told you about. You can find somebody to watch your kids after school, and somebody who's more angry at her husband than you are.
"We saw a new 'For Sale' sign in the neighborhood, and we talked about buying it as a halfway house for our husbands," says Janet.
One day, the bus-stop mothers pool money for a rug shampooer. Another day, they divide up the household duties of a neighbor whose child needs brain surgery.
"We don't need a phone tree," says Leigh Barrett. "Tell one person, and it is taken care of. You never have to ask twice."
At the bus stop, you can learn who the best teachers are at school and whose child is using bad language. At the bus stop, you can find a pair of hand-me-down boots for your youngest or find out who has a palm sander you can borrow.
Or you can find yourself, in the faces and in the lives of the other women.
"This is our therapy," says Janet Daley. "We help each other cope."
At the bus stop, the mothers huddle against the spring wind, hands deep in pockets. The veterans are laughing or talking earnestly while the new bus-stop mothers look distracted. "You can always spot a kindergarten parent," says Janet.
It looks as if a dozen women are waiting to go to Rodgers Forge Elementary School, because there is almost no sign of 20 or so children who must board the bus. Until one of the girls shouts "BUS!" they are scattered -- up a tree, playing chase, having a catch with lacrosse sticks.
Only their backpacks are lined up on the sidewalk. There is an almost British orderliness to the children's bus-stop protocol. The first child there (usually Margy's Nick) puts his backpack on the curb, and he will be first on the bus. Each child lines up his backpack as he arrives.
"There is a little line that's crossed when they won't kiss you goodbye anymore," says Pam Gray. Margy checked Nick for fever one morning when he suddenly regressed and asked her for a kiss. "I was afraid he was coming down with something," she says.
"And only some of the girls or the younger ones wave at the window," says Pam.
The bus arrives at 8:50 a.m. ("We might not be as good friends if the bus came at 7:50," says Janet.) But the last bus-stop mothers, hands and pockets full of the Gameboys, GI Joe's or stuffed toys thrust upon them by departing kids -- might not disappear up the hill or into the cul-de-sac until 9:30.
They are talking. And there is an honesty to this bus stop as naked as a woman's face without makeup. When you are barely dressed, when your child is weeping and clinging, when you've been up all night with the baby, when you fought with your husband as he left for work or when you screamed yet again at your kids, you cannot cover it over with a smarmy grin.
"At that hour, it is all out there for everyone to see," says Janet. "None of the civility you will find at the office later. We've heard it all."
"I've seen tears at the bus stop," says Patricia Jackson. "And I've been in tears."
"When I came here, I was a newlywed and, boy, was I green," says Catherine Cox, Margy's next-door neighbor.
"No kidding," deadpans Margy, and the women howl with laughter at Catherine, the bus-stop youngster and everybody's pet.
"I feel like I grew up here," says Catherine.
Her first encounter with the bus-stop mothers came when her oldest was a newborn. (Catherine is now one of those kindergarten moms you can spot so easily.)
"It was Day 4 of Charlie screaming," remembers Catherine. She opened the front door and her son's wails turned the heads of Margy and Mindy and another bus-stop mom. They looked at each other, climbed the steps to Catherine's front door, and walked in before Catherine could speak.
"One of them took the baby and the other made me a sandwich while I took my first shower in four days. I will never forget that."
That was two children ago, and Catherine has leaned on Margy and the others the way they in turn leaned on Karen Rabins, whose bus-stop days ended when her youngest entered middle school.
"Karen taught me not to sweat the small stuff," says Margy. "She helped me see what was important. That children are individuals and that I have to pick my fights."
"And Margy taught me," says Catherine.
Catherine is leaving the bus stop. Moving. And she seems as sad and scared as any child would be. Many of the bus-stop families have shoehorned additions onto these three-bedroom-and-a-bath houses from the '40s so they would not have to do what Catherine is doing.
"I don't think I'll ever find a bus stop like this again," says Catherine. "But when I get where I'm going, I will know how to be a friend."
When Patricia's husband broke his leg, the women at the bus stop donated their children's Nintendo games to occupy him.
When Pam's son didn't get off the bus, one woman called the school, another waited at the bus stop, and another went calling for him through the neighborhood until he turned up -- at a friend's bus stop.
Margy has a freezer, and it seems everybody at the bus stop has their own shelf in it.
When cars speed up the hill, a bus-stop mother gets the license numbers, and Ginny Dorfler calls the police.
When Karen went back to school, she was assigned to write a paper about her community and so she wrote about the bus stop.
One of the original bus-stop mothers, Janet Schneider, moved to Atlanta. When she returns to visit, she comes to the bus stop. Gail Colohan bought Janet's house, and Gail took her place at the corner of Dixie Drive and Alabama Avenue.
"She told me I would love the neighborhood," says Gail, "and that I would love the bus stop."