I’m sitting in a chair at the edge of the playground with six other moms of new preschoolers. We’re “transitioning.” Our kids are learning to navigate the rule-filled days of preschool. “Tricycles must be ridden clockwise around the playground.” “No sliding head-first.” “Blocks may be stacked no higher than your nose.”
And the moms are learning too. We’re learning that our babies aren’t babies anymore.
I think I’m doing pretty well at the transition, and I’m feeling rather self-congratulatory about my ability to let my son become independent of me.
So, I sit calmly watching my boy gathered around a miniature table with the other kids. He’s eating his lunch. He’s managed to unzip his Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox and put it on the ground next to his chair. His peanut butter and jelly sandwich, banana, cheese slice and raisins are spread out in front of him. The jaunty note I wrote — even though he can’t read yet — saying, “Hope you’re having a great day! Love Mommy” blows in a circle on the ground near his chair.
I smile a little bit, thinking how natural and beautiful the process of growing up is. From now on he’ll sit around lunch tables with his peers instead of at the kitchen table with me. This is as it should be.
But then I see him holding his piece of cheese. It’s wrapped in cellophane. He can’t get it open. I see him hold it up above his head. His mouth moves. He’s saying something. But no one hears him. The teacher’s back is turned. She’s helping someone else with a juice box. His little not-quite-three year-old hand still holds the cheese out toward her back.
My whole body twitches. I want to bolt out of my seat and run to his side. I want to open his cheese and kiss the top of his head. I can’t stand to think of him being ignored — not even accidentally. Not even temporarily.
I close my eyes.
And suddenly I’m a kid again. I’m the one with the lunchbox. It’s Charlie’s Angels, not Thomas the Tank Engine. I’m looking at folding tables stretched out row after row in an echoing gymnasium. In this moment, I’m the one whose silence is swallowed in laughing and talking all around me. I have no idea where to sit. I’m the new kid . . . again. We’ve just moved to another state . . . again.
And then in another flash, I’m my mother. I’m at home in another new house. There’s still so much rearranging and unpacking to do. The girls are at school. I’m vacuuming little bits of packing paper off of the new beige carpet when the phone rings. I can’t imagine who it could be. I don’t have any friends in this town yet.
It’s Rachel. She’s calling me from a payphone in the corner of the playground. She used her milk money to place the call. She just wants to talk. She wants to talk until lunchtime is over because she doesn’t have anyone to eat with. And I talk to her. About nothing really. Just chatter about the kids in her class and her new teachers. I’m sounding cheerful. I hope I am anyway, but I want to cry. I want to jump in my car, go to the school and take her away from there. We could go out for an ice cream. She can miss one afternoon of school. I want to take this pain away from her at least for today.
But I don’t. I talk to her until the bell rings and it’s time for her to go back to class. I can feel her pain like cavernous wounds in my own body. But I know she has to find her own way. I start to cry as I turn the vacuum back on. I know I can’t rescue her from her life.
And I know I can’t rescue him from his.
I open my eyes and see he’s dropped his piece of cheese under his chair. I can feel tears gathering behind my eyelids. I want to help him, but I know this is part of what we are supposed to be learning. I watch as he gropes under the table. He fumbles once, and then he has it. He’s holding the cheese up again. His teacher sees him this time. She unfolds the plastic and hands it to him. He takes it with a smile and begins to munch.
I can smile now too, and I try to memorize the round smoothness of his cheeks and the simplicity in his blue eyes. I swallow my tears and wonder how my mother . . . her mother . . . and all the women before me have been able to live with the pain of this mother-love.