This past summer, Cookie looked at the aging clock and I will be 57 in November. In homosexual years, I will be 97. But I also looked at the world around me and realized that because I am at the tail end of the baby boom era, I have a lot of stuff and memorabilia that has nowhere to go when I cease to be. Face it, I am not on the upside of the bell curve of life.
So I am sorting, and giving away a little here, and a little there.
One of the piles I gave away contained the pictures from my nursery school on Fairmount Boulevard. These were taken in my final days at the place before I started kindergarten. My parents had remanded their divorce in the summer of 1968 - because the first nine years weren't miserable enough, they decided to see if they could make us even more emotionally damaged than we were - and that meant my father and his Polaroid were back in the picture. The nursery school was my respite from the hate and violence that awaited me at home. Anyway, on those final days, the old man came and took some pictures of Cookie and his friends on the final days of carefree pre-school.
The pictures are adorable, and they feature lots of students who were going different directions, but too clueless to know that meant that our friendships would cease to exist. We all had friends in our own neighborhoods, so playdates not only hadn't been invented but were decades away from being needed. We would go our own ways, in life and scatter to the winds. Now, fifty-one years later, for the life of me, I can't remember any of their names. There is a certain sadness to that piece of childhood lost.
Also lost to time is my ability to recall the name of the kind woman who oversaw the place. She was grandmotherly, I can see her face as clear as I can look at the screen, and her shoes! How do you forget the orthopedic oxfords that laced on the side! God! Those caused me no amount of tsuris. Why, why, why, these? They were so ugly, unnatural, and had crepe soles. Why dear God? Like brown Earth Shoes that laced on the port on the left foot and the starboard on the right. They were not elegant, that's for sure, but day in and out, she had those hooves on. Besides the shoes, I remember her car. She drove a new 1967 Plymouth Valiant two-door sedan, blue, but with redwall tires - which were a thing back then. Even at four, I was a gearhead.
That's right, Cookie can't remember her name, but I sure as Hell remember those brown clod hopping shoes and that snazzy royal blue car of hers. Both are burned into my brain.
I can see the women who cooked our meals - they all looked like Alf from Green Acres. And they all looked down at us with their mouths in a snarl. They didn't want us in that kitchen and we had no business even being there, but we looked, and ran off, because that's what a four-year-old does. I am sure they were lovely women, but when they did to fish patties every Friday were criminal.
The teacher's names, however: that is a different matter.
I remember Mrs. Swartz, who smiled and was wore blue dresses and had red lipstick. And Mrs. Washington who was gentle and also kind, and exceptionally patient with us in that 3-4 age range.
Miss Frances, who was very young, had the job of overseeing the children who were in their final year at the school. She was very kind and very patient and she knew which children really needed a nap, and which one or two children were well behaved enough to go to the quiet room and play with amazing toys that never left that room. To be chosen for that quiet room was a huge honor. I think I went once. Most of the time I needed that nap.
For the most part, I did everything she wanted without a fuss. For example, the before mentioned fishbricks that were black as burnt toast? Miss Frances knew that I was never going to eat those fried fish patties, but I also knew I was never getting the chocolate pudding dessert if I didn't eat it. She was wise enough to know that forcing me to eat that burnt fish brick was a pyrrhic victory at best, and I loved her enough that a truce was declared and weekly we negotiated, maybe one bite of the charred-black fish patty for a pudding, maybe two bites the next. I never ate the whole thing because it was nasty. But I did finish that pudding. And she taught us all how to ask permission to "scrape" the food residue off the plate and into the trash when we were done.
Once, they took us downtown to the top of Cleveland's Terminal Tower - a risky endeavor, even though we were all inside a room at the top. We rode the Rapid downtown. The Rapid meant the Rapid Transit. They looked just like streetcars, but Shaker Heights back then had its own private system and they were never called trolly cars: it was the Rapid.
Anyhow, to get to the rapid we had to climb down the stairs from the street level to the grade level at Green Road. Going down the stairs I was fine. But back then, going up the stairs at four was a challenge because I hadn't learned how to take one stair with the left foot and the next with the right. I could do that going down the stairs, but my mind had a had time wrapping itself around that concept coming back up.
Well, Miss Frances had my hand and she was going up those stairs. Me? Left foot up, then the right foot onto the same stair and stop. Left foot up, then the right foot up and stop. I was really doing my best to take the stairs as quickly as she was, but the tune I was marching too was not the same tune she was climbing to. She stopped, watched me, and very gently encouraged me to do what she was doing. It took a little time but I got the gist of it. So Miss Frances taught me how to climb the stairs. And believe me, its come in handy.
She did other things for us. She taught us how to say "hello" and "goodbye" in French, she taught us how to keep on sharing toys and crayons when our developing minds were moving into that older childhood "MINE-set" mentality. We knew our limits with her and we never crossed that line. But she got us ready to move out of nursery school and ready for kindergarten, which was her job. All in the most loving way possible.
For graduation, she dressed us each up in costume, each representing a different country. My friend got Korea, and that honked me off because there was something about his silk costume that called my name. But no. I was to be a waiter from France! Complete with a cumberbund! How unfair, alas, but such is life, no?
On that final day, I never once thought that hug from her would be the last, or that I would never see her again. But that was the way it went. And today I learned that the last hug was the final hug at that. After years of trying to spell her last name - Frances was her first name, and he last name was very eastern European and very long, so we just called Miss Frances - today I found her. The dear woman passed away in 2004, way too young.
The nursery school will celebrate its 100th anniversary in a couple years - it is still going strong. I am hoping my pictures get displayed. I have been invited back for the event, and I will have to go. Of course, I will be 60 that year, and the chance of any of the teachers from my era being alive is slim to none.
But to you, Miss Frances, I say "Merci." One day, in that place where we all go when we cease to be, we will meet up. And I may be old, and unsure, but I will take your hand and let you lead me upward, one foot on one stair, and the other on the next, just as you taught me so long ago. Until we meet again.