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To my everlasting shame, I cried on my first day of kindergarten.

I cried when my mother walked me into the schoolyard of my elementary school. I cried more when my older sister, a sophisticated second grader, teased me for crying. I sobbed when I was led to my little seat, and I was inconsolable when my mother left me there. She was crying too.

I hated the milk they gave us because it had a strange layer of cream on the top, and I wept when the teacher insisted I drink it. I went through three more kindergarten launches with my own daughters, who fared far better than I had.

Serious Jill went off, blonde curls bobbing, proud of her new Buster Brown shoes and her first-day-of-school plaid dress with a white collar.

Amy also marched off triumphantly. Her dress was funkier, and her quirkiness immediately disarmed the kindergarten teacher.

Little Nancy, true to her early nervous nature, walked into kindergarten biting her lower lip until it almost bled – a sure sign of her high anxiety.

The first days tumbled on.

There was the collision of giddy anticipation and clammy apprehension that always descended on our house just before Labor Day. That was when my three fierce, funny summer companions responded to some primal signal that may as well have been flashing in neon: “The party’s over, kids.”

Suddenly, they were focused. Mobilized. The dreamy, hazy quality of summer was gone from their faces, and in its place, a certain squinty anxiety appeared. It was shine-up, scrub-up season; back to a real bedtime, homework, Sunday-night scrambles to find clean socks.

Then in later years, the three longest trips of all were drives to three college campuses. And mileage was not the issue.

My husband and I thought we were ready when it was time to send off Jill, the oldest. She was clearly ready, and we thought we’d done all of our own smart and sensible emotional preparation for this departure. How wrong we were when it was time for that final goodbye in a grassy quad.

I had rehearsed this moment a thousand times in my head, but I hadn’t mastered the script after all. As I willed my arms to let her go, they locked around her.

Finally, our daughter pulled away without looking back. Had she, she would have seen a man and woman stumbling toward the symbolic iron gates of her campus, practically holding one another up for dear life.

It happened again with Amy, even though her campus was only 18 miles from her old home. But as we soon learned, it would never be home to her in the same way again.

And it was hardest of all with Nancy, the last one to leave us. I had to keep the door to her bedroom closed for months. And then along came grandchildren. And the cycle returned. This year, our oldest grandchild begins college. Unimaginable – but true.

As tall and sure and lovely as Hannah has become, there is still that natural unease that comes from this leap into the murky waters of change.

At the other end of the age spectrum is  our youngest granddaughter Carly, who is starting third grade. She is both more feisty and more fragile than she seems. I hope Carly’s teacher will remember that this small person can bruise easily and scar permanently. That she needs to be treated with dignity, because every child deserves that.

In between Hannah and Carly are our other five adored grandchildren. I won’t be there to cheer them on or see them walk into their classrooms. My time for that has passed.

I will, instead, watch the small army of other people’s children in their new sneakers as they pass our kitchen door in these next few days. I’ll wave to the few I know, feeling a little melancholy. No, no more first days of school at our house. But is it so foolish to wish that there were?

September 2012
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