I suggested that my granddaughter put out her school clothes for her first day back at school as a fourth-grader. When I popped into her room at bedtime, she had done what I suggested. Exactly. On the floor was her entire outfit, laid out like a crime scene: T-shirt, jeans placed carefully over the shirt, striped socks perfectly tucked at the ankles of the pants and sneakers splayed right and left, over each of the socks.
Her lunch was a study in pre-school anxiety channeled into food preparation: six compartments in her bento lunchbox containing carrot sticks, PB&J, apple slices, a granola bar, popcorn and a water bottle.
When we’re anxious, we control what we can control, right?
First day of school, at the corner of my block, a huge backpack with two little legs sticking out waited at the bus stop. Under the backpack, engulfed by it, waited a little boy. He kicked the grass and looked away from the cluster of other kids and other moms. His mom was turned away from him, chatting with a neighbor, but I noticed as I walked by that his thin fingers were intertwined with hers so tightly that they were almost white.
Maybe he was 6 or 7, a first- or second-grader, and looking at his so-serious face reminded me of myself a hundred years ago, struggling through first grade because I was gripped by separation anxiety. Or at least now I know that’s what it was. Back then it was thought that I was just too sensitive, that I popped out of the shell without a good insulating layer. In fact, my first-grade teacher told me I needed to grow an elephant’s skin. My father told me to shape up. My mother seemed perplexed by my misery.
Who knows what it was? Basically, I couldn’t stand that my mother was home with my baby sister, letting her play with all my toys.
This brings me to the woman in the camel hair coat and matching beret.
After I suffered weeks of school phobia, my mother asked me what she could do to make me feel better, and I said I’d like her to come to school during recess. Just that. I wanted her to appear, to be real and not even to talk to me, just to stand there for a few minutes and then leave.
Bless her, she did it. And in my mind’s eye, I can see her standing outside the schoolyard in her camel hair coat and matching hat. Her hair was black and curly, and she waved a little and stood there and then walked away.
Now, the odd thing is, the visual image I have is powerful, and she looks so beautiful as I see her standing there, but I’m not absolutely sure my mother owned a camel hair coat. She remembers coming to school, but she doesn’t remember the coat. I may have imagined it. Or it may have happened exactly like that.
The angst over separation eventually abated and I got through school just fine. But it’s a recurring theme. I agonized about going away to college, and only got as far as NYU. (I did sleep there, though.) I never went to camp, and when my kids did, because I wanted them to be able to do what I could not, I dreaded it.
My kids endured various degrees of discomfort in separating from me. My daughter screamed every day of nursery school and day camp. I became the woman in the camel hair coat, offering comfort and encouragement. She went on to become an Outward Bound instructor, hiker, trekker and traveler. She moved to California.
Overcompensation, you say? Maybe. My son left home after high school and never moved back. When I visit them and when they visit me, it’s still very difficult to say goodbye. I think it’s just the price we pay for loving one another.
When I began second grade, my sister finally started school, so she wasn’t home any more to monopolize Mom, and I felt real joy — for about a week. Then my mother gave me the job of taking my sister to her kindergarten classroom every day. She would clutch my hand, and as I brought her to the classroom door, she would start to holler, “Randi, don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.”
It was awful. Nobody knew better than I how she felt. And I know how the little boy with the backpack feels getting on that big bus every day. And I know how my granddaughter feels, fretting over who will sit with her at lunch.
I would like to tell them that it gets much better with time but that it never really goes away. If you go through life with an elephant’s skin, you don’t cry as often, but you don’t laugh as often, either, or love as deeply.
Copyright 2018 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.