The last days before school started, my mother would drag me, unrepentantly sullen, through hot city streets. While I was still brimming with memories of bottling fireflies and plunging underwater to swim between ghostly bodies, we would ride the creaking elevator up to the department store girls’ section and buy plaid dresses trimmed with white collars. We would go to the shoe store. I would climb onto the seat and unbuckle my sandals. I would pull on stiff new socks over my stubbed toes, and the salesman, leaning over me, would force my feet into ungiving leather oxfords. I would do as he said and walk in the tight shoes, up and down carpeted floor, stopping in front of him and my mother. They poked at the leather over my big toe and talked about growing room.
At home my mother would make me stand on a dining room chair to try on last year’s dresses, to see what fit and what needed a hem let down. The air would be muggy. Outside windows, beneath eaves, hornets whirred, and on the kitchen windowsills, fruit flies circled above ripening tomatoes. Houseflies sleepily patrolled the tablecloth, straying across our lunch leftovers. I remember thinking that when we were all dead, the insects would still be alive. They would be eating the leftovers we would be by then.
I would slip out of shorts I’d worn at camp (I’d be wearing my sun-faded swimsuit for underwear) and wriggle into one after another of the dresses, which inevitably would have grown snug. Buttoning the tiny buttons, my fingers would seem too big and I would grow impatient with effort. I would perspire and scratch at a real or imaginary mosquito bite. I would fidget. I would feel as if I were itching all over. My mother, on her knees on the carpet, would look up at me, pins pinched between her lips at one side of her mouth, skewing her heart-shaped face. She’d frown, say, “Stand still.”
While my mother adjusted hems, abjuring me again and again not to wiggle while she stuck in pins, I would count down how many days left to Labor Day. I would tally the few remaining evenings I could stay up late as I liked and do all day what my mother, when she scolded me, said was all I ever wanted to do — “what I God damn well pleased.” She would often add, “Left to your own devices, you would grow up wild.”
She was right.
Those remaining pre-school days, when neighborhood friends and I played out of doors under the evening sky, we would play as recklessly as gamblers down to their last dime. We would swing each other perilously high on swings, throw balls without caring where they landed. Indoors, I would go around hunched over, and my mother, ten times a day, must have said, “Stand up straight!”
Summer existed in a golden present tense, past and future no more than vague margins. As Labor Day Saturday passed and Sunday arrived, the future gobbled up the hours. I brooded over the impossibility of eating cream of wheat at 6:45 in the morning and learning long division and conjugating etre. I dreaded sitting cramped behind a school desk, dreaded memorizing for piano lessons. I worried about who I would get for teachers. I flinched against being bossed about and made to stand in lines and ask permission to use the bathroom. Gym mats’ soured sweat smell came back to me. I worried about bullies. I mourned (with, I would guess, vast sighs) the lost hour after school that would be given over to scales and dull, horrid compositions written for children, pieces whose tunes didn’t sound anything like radio love songs I’d begun to learn the words to.
Cowboy movies I’d see on Saturday afternoons showed scenes in which cowboys corralled and broke wild horses. The horses reared back their huge heads and snorted and whinnied. Their unshod hooves stirred dust clouds. The cowboys kept after them. So that no matter how heroically the horses resisted, there always came the terrible moment when the cowboy triumphed and the horse relinquished its will.
This morning on my corner, a woman with a red scarf tied over her hair hoisted what must have been a six-year-old boy onto he first step of the school bus. From almost every window, children's faces looked out, and their voices, pitched high with excitement and reverberating within the closed metal, made me think of pet cages filled wing-to-wing with bright birds.
The boy’s right foot reached the second step, then he turned, seeking out his mother’s face, a terrible look stamped on his tiny features. His eyes, the dark brown velvety color of the horses’ eyes, were filling. “Goodbye,” his mother waved, her wave tense and unconvincing, “goodbye.”
So palpably painful was their parting that even above the bus’s noisy idle and squawking children, it seemed that anyone who passed by could hear the break between mother and child. I did. The bus door wheezed shut, muffling the shrill children; the driver eased back into traffic. The mother watched the bus pull away and then headed back down our block, dabbing at her eyes with the red kerchief. She walked, then, the way old women walk.
Rising sun warmed the morning air, burned off dew. I took shoes to be re-heeled and soled and polished, picked up the dozen brown eggs brought to me from a country hen house, visited for a few minutes with their bearer, who added to her gift of eggs a fat, waited Hubbard squash, to which was still attached a frayed umbilical vine.
“Summer’s over,” my friend said matter-of-factly as she wrapped the squash in newspaper. As if to underline her statement, she led me out to her back yard and showed me her sunflowers. They had grown six feet high and flowered big around as her patio table and were strewing saffron powders onto the fence. “The weight,” she said, “the weight tipped the flowers over.”
Some weight tipped me over, too.
Back home, I paid bills and answered letters and answered the telephone when it rang and thought of the little boy, followed him in my mind’s eye as the noisy bus swallowed him up. 1 had known as I walked by the bus stop that the story acting itself out there was’primarily about a child’s break with his mother. I knew the story was as much about mother as child. But what the sight provoked in me was my own childhood sorrow at summers’ endings.
I unwrapped the gray Hubbard squash, spreading out on my counter the newspaper in which my friend wrapped it, noting beneath my hands the photographs of high school football teams — the boys’ faces blunt — and the ads for lunchboxes and notebook paper and crayons.
While I licked the last stamp on my stack of envelopes, I thought, ‘The little boy must even now be opening his lunchbox.” I said to myself then, as rebelliously as I must have said it when I was ten, “Why does summer have to end, why does push have to come to shove, why do I have to wear shoes, why do I have to speak not sing, why do dreams have to be knit — tediously — into thoughts, why all those long years ago did I have to learn to multiply vast sums I’ve never earned? Why, why, why?”