The world turns
About three weeks ago, I woke up one morning to find my whole world had shifted over into fall. That process isn’t usually so abrupt, but this year it hit like a two-by-four on the side of my head. Wow. Summer was over. When I was a kid, the seasons somehow managed to creep up on me when I wasn’t paying much attention. For instance, spring seemed to linger until sometime around the Fourth of July, and winter didn’t set in until the first really serious snowfall– Christmas not withstanding.
I remember being positively stunned when Mother started getting school clothes ready in August (which seemed to me like still early summer) and we had to go to Brown’s Shoe Fit Company and try on those hated brown oxford shoes, then shove our feet into the X-ray machine to verify that there was plenty of growing room to last the whole school year. Up until junior high, we had sandals for summer days and occasions when we absolutely couldn’t go barefoot, and those sandals usually had multiple straps with buckles that could be adjusted so we could wear them for two or three summers, or pass them down to a smaller sister next year. The sandals hardly ever got worn out completely because we went barefoot at least ninety-nine percent of the summer. Nobody ever thought of posting a sign that said, “no shoes, no service.” By time we were in junior high, we were required to have canvas tennis shoes for gym classes and, come summer, those replaced the sandals.
I probably wouldn’t have been so startled by the arrival of the first day of school if I’d paid closer attention to some of the things that were going on around me. I don’t remember Mother ever going out specifically to shop for school supplies, as I did when my kids were that age. But, when that first day of school dawned, I had all the required pencils, tablets, crayons, rulers, and box of tissues just like everybody else. And, Mother had a real pencil sharpener attached to the end of Dad’s big roll-top desk, and my pencils were already perfectly sharpened so that I needn’t stand in that long line, awaiting my turn, while some future chain-saw artist ground all his pencils down to nubs.
I should have known something was afoot when the Parcheesi game and the comic books disappeared from the screened-in porch and the wooden map puzzle of the United States appeared on the coffee table, next to the box of arithmetic flash cards. The flash cards were a big deal because, unlike so many of our other at-home learning aids, these were not homemade on flimsy typing paper, but were printed on creamy tag-board, identical to the ones the teachers had in school. We felt privileged to have these, and tried harder to learn our sums and multiplication tables than we would have with homemade ones.
This same badge of authenticity distinguished the slate chalkboard that hung on the wall behind the kitchen door. Dad had rescued it from an old country schoolhouse that was being demolished, built it into a new frame and mounted it on the wall where we could play Tic-Tac-Toe and Old Cat, practice spelling words, and work out long division problems. He also brought home an enormous metal box filled with round sticks of white chalk– whether or not this was also from the schoolhouse, I never knew, but it reeked of professional and we conserved the chalk conscientiously. It was many years before Mother had to buy a box of chalk from the dime store, and that was much softer, broke more easily, and didn’t last nearly as long as the hard, smooth chalk from the metal box.
Again, the kitchen became a part-time schoolroom where my older sister drilled me on subjects that would not be brought to my attention at school for at least three or four years. She liked to trip me up with what she called trick questions, which simply meant that, no matter what answer I gave, she said I was wrong. She taught me to write in cursive while I was still in kindergarten– my teacher disapproved, but I made no attempt to un-learn it or to revert to my grade’s reading level when I was already reading several years ahead. Because of my sister’s head-start program, I guess I could forgive the annoying trick questions with no right answers. I learned my directions in the kitchen. North was toward the sink, south toward the back door. West was toward the dining room and the East Ward School was east, where the big kitchen clock hung over the refrigerator. I learned to tell time by keeping track of the minutes on that clock while mother baked cookies, or scalded peaches during canning season. I still remember her warning to keep my hands away from the boiling water. She said it would make my skin fall off as easily as the skins slid off those peaches. No way was I going to let that happen.