Yesterday was the first day of school for both of my kids. Ace in 2nd grade. Iris in Kindergarten. I’ve been wrestling with all kinds of feelings about this milestone. For months I’ve been taking stock. I’ve been marking lasts.
The day Iris was born I lay in that skinny hospital bed with her on my chest. And I did some life math. How old would I be when both my kids go off to school? I’ll be 42. And here I am, 42. 42 was a good joke at 16 years old. A fiction. At 20, it was still an impossibility that would never find me. I didn’t know my children’s faces then. Even with Iris as a newborn in my arms that day in the hospital it didn’t seem relevant. It wasn’t relevant. I had a 3 year old and a newborn. Potty training and clean diapers with a wish to write again some day was as far as I could see.
Time talks slowly, but her hands move fast. It’s a magic trick. I’m often dull and miss the secret.
In my memory I treasured all the times in the rocking glider with them. I think I said a prayer of gratitude every time I nursed them. Nursing was the clearest communication I’ve ever had with another person that didn’t require words. Or a thousand bath-time moments, sweet music of water and washing. Dusk is a lavender hue in which I soften my children’s legs and arms with lotion. Pull on their jammies. Breathe a sigh. My mothering failures of high noon recede. God in the last light on the lawn. Rub my face. Poor wine. Right in the square middle of life. The thick of it, it was.
And now the truth is, I am ready for this new stage. I cried about it to God in bed the other night. I felt sorry that I didn’t want little children underfoot anymore. It felt like a confession He already knew of and just wanted to hear me say aloud so that he could attend to my heart.
The day before my kids went to school, I called my mom. I love it when she has a story that I’ve never heard before. Little bits of mystery in every woman. She said, “When we lived in Rochester, New York, Allison went to Kindergarten, which of course meant all four of you kids were in school. Then she laughed at the memory, “I’ll never forget how good it felt that first day of school. On that first day, after I dropped you kids off, I went home, packed a lunch for myself and then rode my bike all the way down to the lake. And I sat there on some big boulders and ate my lunch and looked out at the water. It felt so good to sit there by myself.” Mom laughed as she told me, “And it felt like such a big deal to have gotten you all to that point. I felt like someone should give me a trophy!“
I cried a little when I imagined it. My mom, her maroon Schwinn bike with basket propped on its kickstand by the rocks. Mom’s black hair pulled up in a bouncy ponytail. Mom pulling out a turkey sandwich and chips to eat. Breathing a big sigh. Sunglasses on, looking out at the already chilly water, autumn in upstate New York.
I was in 4th grade. I didn’t know Mom was at the beach that day. I didn’t know what a Mom needs. How could I? I didn’t know a mom has a complete inner life of her own apart from her children. A mother’s lines don’t intertwine with her children’s, they run parallel. And that’s a good thing.
I like knowing that my young mom needed to enter a new stage of life, like her kids needed to. I can say it now. I need to be a mom of a new age bracket. I need to be a mom of school-age kids. They’re ready. I’m going to pack a lunch and take it to Ladybird Lake and sit by the water.
Because I’m ready.
Miraculously the traffic wasn’t bad on my way to work yesterday morning. I had a few minutes to myself in the car. So I pulled up “A Washerwoman” by Pissarro, the featured painting on the Met’s Instagram feed for the morning. My heart sunk. All that gorgeous paint and this is it? This is how you wanted said washerwoman to be memorialized for all human kind? If she got to see the canvas when Pissarro took a pee break, I guarantee she wasn’t impressed. Crestfallen, in fact. Utterly horrified, quite possibly. This is how I look? I didn’t think I looked THAT bad. This is my lasting impression?
Sometimes someone takes a photograph and you’re in the background. Is that how I look when I’m just going about my day? Who finds me beautiful with such an ordinary expression on my face. Did I think I looked beautiful that day?
This washerwoman…she is utterly pedestrian. The trees and hint of yellow sunflowers in the background are a cruel contrast to her grunt work. The background seems to sing of everything Spring. She just washes. Drab clothes and fine silk. She washes all it, all day long.
Her back is starting to hunch, the arch is beginning.
Her feet are flat and dull. They’ve never worn heels. I hate that they never will. I’ll bet she isn’t even 35, but physical labor is cruel to beauty. She is thin, not because it is fashionable but because she’s broke.
She can’t get calories to stick. She sweats them off. Her arms are thin, sinewy. Her arms make her money. Vigorously she washes peoples clothes, all day long.
But then you take a step forward, if you can see this painting in person at The Met or if you increase the image size here you see its finer points. Every inch of the painting is made up of small patches of pure color. And you realize that the pedestrian subject is not the masterpiece here. The painter’s eye is the point (pun intended). If the painting is about anything it’s that color is flaming in every ordinary human being.
Pissarro uncapped every color tube available and called it all so good. He said all colors belong. The ordinary woman’s face is rendered in rich, youthful pinks and reds. Every color on the spectrum has been used to paint her forearms, they blaze with browns and gold and blue and green. Point by point, up close she is a study in color. From far away she is utterly ordinary. Up close she is knit together by a revolutionary eye. God, open our eyes!
Matthew 13:16 “But blessed are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear.”