I open the back door of the Escort, and Ella peers at me from her car seat. Her eyes well tears; her bottom lip quivers.
“Come on, baby,” I say. “Let’s go meet the other kids!”
“No, Mama,” she whispers. I unbuckle the belts and lift her from the car seat. She clings to me, clamped on, across the crowded parking lot.
Inside, the hallways gleam with back to school brilliance. Ella’s preschool starts at 9:15, an hour and fifteen minutes after the big kids start regular school, so there is a buzz, a hum, an underlying energy that vibrates in the very floor as we walk down to the preschool classroom.
We are early, but other children are already there. The smiling teachers, Miss Claire and Miss Betsy, have a tempting array of toys spread enticingly throughout the room. There are crayons and fresh sheets of drawing paper and books on each of the small round tables.
“Look, Ella,” I whisper, “there’s Clifford and Emily!”
“No,” she says into my neck. A brown-haired, bowl-cutted, boy, rubbing his red crayon back and forth on a yellow sheet of paper, looks up briefly and shrugs.
Miss Betsy comes over. “Good morning, Ella!” she says, and she peels my three year old off my body. “This is going to be a great day,” Betsy tells Ella, “and you will make new friends.”
“NO,” says Ella with great finality as Betsy lowers her to the ground. With startling quickness, Ella is wrapped around my right leg, and she is into full tantrum warm up. “No mama no mama NO MAMA NO! NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” and she is off and wailing.
Betsy looks at me sympathetically and mouths, “Go quickly.” She removes Ella with seasoned dexterity.
“Goodbye, Ella!” I say. “I will see you at 11!”
I flee, tears starting in my own eyes, rushing out the door on a tidal roar of, “NOOOOOO, MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”
I stand in the hallway for 30 minutes listening to my child wail, and then I go out to the car and cry for half an hour myself.
I pull the Vibe into the parking lot of the middle school and ruffle Ella’s newly cut hair. She turns to look at me; her twelve year old eyes are bottomless.
“I don’t know, Mom,” she says. She eyes a couple of other girls meandering up the walkway to the big old brick building. I know she is checking out their clothes–Did I pick right? she is asking herself.
Her little plaid skirt and long sleeved black top will do. The other girls have very similar outfits.
“We walked this out,” I remind her. We had come to the open school two days running and followed her schedule–from home room to math class to English to Gym. She knows how to get to the cafeteria. Her afternoon classes are next door to each other.
We have arrived early so she can get to her locker through hallways that are not tumultuous with first day mayhem.
Her hand is on the door handle, her body tensed.
“You can do it,” I whisper. “You’ll be great.”
She leans over and gives me a quick, self conscious peck; she grabs her not-yet-full backpack, and she bolts out the door. Head down, she scurries up the walk. At the big shiny red door she pauses, hand on the heavy metal handle. She turns to look at me pleadingly.
She looks suddenly tiny next to the massive door, which must be eight feet high, my big girl shrunken and frightened by this new challenge. She is all long legs, knobby knees, and tension.
“You can do it,” I mouth, and she shakes her head, almost angrily. Then she pulls herself up, yanks on the door, and disappears.
I sit there for moment, leaving my twelve-year-old Ella in a nest of strangers. She’ll be great, I think. I pull myself up, an echo from a moment ago, and restart the car.
As we are pulling the crisp new blue sheets over the mattress of the bed on the right-hand side of the room–a predetermined arrangement–Abby and her mom Mary come in. There is hugging and squealing, and the girls dig treasures out of their bags, laughing.
A coffee maker; I’m learning to drink it!
Oh, very cool–a bagel slicer; we can go to the bakery over on Downing Street on weekends.
They unpack their clothes neatly, folded things in dressers, hanging things behind the closets’ louvered doors.
They put toothbrushes and soaps, hang towels and washcloths, in the bathroom.
Mary and I hang the curtains we’ve collaborated on, smooth matching duvets, plump up new pillows. We fold afghans over the foot of each bed. The girls flit around, putting books on shelves, supplies on desks, saying tentative hellos to neighbors who poke their heads in to meet them.
This is 210 McHenry Hall: Ella’s new home for the next academic year. She is 18, still leggy, but the knobby colt-like quality is gone; this is the classy legginess of a young woman. And this is her dream school; this is where she’ll decide between the physics degree and the writing degree. She will take her intro physics course, her calculus, her two English classes, and begin determining: Do I want to be a scientist? Or a writer? Can I do both???
She and Abby, another bright, ambitious, over-achiever, have met twice, corresponded and emailed all summer; she is ready.
But–as Mary and I look around the room, knowing it’s all set, knowing it’s time to go, both girls begin to shimmer just slightly. I feel Mary doing what just I am doing, girding for goodbye.
We hug our girls hard, we demand that they call that very night. They roll their eyes,–eyes that threaten to leak.
I pause in the parking lot as I dig out my keys to the Scion, and look up. Her face is pressed to the second floor window, a hand flattened on either side.
You can do it, I mouth. She gives me a thumbs up, peels herself from the window, and I climb into my car and start the ignition.
I love Andy; he loves Ella. He is kind and good and smart and hard-working. She glows when she looks at him.
She has lived in the city for three years; she is independent and savvy. But when she emerges, changed from her tulle and lace extravaganza into a beautiful flowy top and tight and trendy jeans for the start of the honeymoon, her eyes are the frightened, sorrowful eyes of my little girl.
I hug her hard, rock her back and forth, make her giggle.
She and Andy open their Jeep doors–my liberated baby is driving; she looks at me long and hard over the roof of the car.
It’ll be great, I mouth, and I see that little shimmer; then she grins and slides inside, and they’re off to begin a marriage.
They call me when they’re ready to go, and I meet them at the hospital. Her contractions are three minutes apart; she’s in her fuzzy robe, her long legs hunkered up in the wheel chair, her hands on either side of her big belly.
She breathes like they taught her: Huff. Huff. Huff.
Andy signs papers and answers questions and a cheerful, motherly nurse pads out in pink and blue patterned scrubs. The woman at the desk smiles at me and shows me where to sit; the motherly nurse rounds up Andy, deftly turns the wheelchair around, and starts to roll my Ella away.
She cranes her head around, looking for me. There is panic. I don’t think I can do this, she telegraphs.
You’ll be GREAT, I telepath back, and she disappears to birth my beautiful granddaughter, mysteriously named Devon after an English river neither Andy nor Ella has ever seen.
Ella arrives at my door; she has just taken Devon to her first day of preschool.
“Oh, my God,” she says. “How did you ever do this?” and she tells me about the teacher peeling her four year old from her leg and shooing her, (Goodby, Mom! We’ll be fine!) out the door, and about standing in the hallway listening to her baby cry for her.
I do all the right things: I smooth her hair, I cradle her cheeks for an instant; I plant a firm kiss on her tensed up brow, and I take her out for coffee. I tell her stories about her own stubborn little self until she is laughing shakily.
“Does it get easier?” she asks, and I tell her that it does, little by little. And that Devon is great, so smart, so ready; she’ll do really well.
I don’t tell her everything, though, as I look fondly at my daughter, a mature woman, a wonderful mother, who is right now surreptitiously stealing half of my warm and oozey chocolate chip cookie.
I don’t tell her that I’ve decided each leaving is like having a stitch removed. If the skin is healthy–if the child is ready–it hurts just when the stitch is pulled. Sometimes, in fact, it stings like hell, the sudden pain vibrating up and down my body. But then under the pain, as what was stitched together starts to separate a little bit, I discovered, there is a tiny glowing orb, a little pearl-like nugget–a little jot of freedom.
I don’t tell her that in a month, Devon will be bolting out of the car, anxious to see her friends, forgetful of the mama dragging in behind her with a Hello Kitty backpack, a Scholastic book order form, and a signed promise to send in two dozen cupcakes for the UnBirthday Party the following week. Or that she will say goodbye and drive off and feel a rush of joy at having two hours to herself,–two hours in which she can take her tablet to the coffee shop and pound the keys in blissful quiet, or–what luxury–when she can take a deep, sucking-in- sleep-like-a-parched-runner-downs-water, nap.
I don’t tell her that each leaving signals a growth in her daughter…and a little more freedom for her, the mama. She will savor that freedom, feeling a guilty pang for doing so, and she will help her daughter reach and grow and get sturdy and strong. And each time they say goodbye, she’ll know: Devon is ready for this. She’ll be great.
If I told her this, she’d be brought up short; she’d think, Mom! You were GLAD when I was gone???
I’ll let her discover the flip side of the leaving on her own. Right now, I grab her hand, studded with dots of melted chocolate, and we laugh. It’s these moments, I tell her, the moments between the leavings, that we savor.