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Fall's Musky Scent of Milk and New Gym Shoes

September 06, 2000|CHRIS ERSKINE

They flee the house like quail, bleating as they go, wings flapping against their backpacks.

"Here, give me a hug," one of them says.

So I hug her.

"He's warm," the little girl says. "Feel him, Mom. He's warm."

School starts a little earlier every year. Many American schools used to hold off till after the crops came in, but now some start in late August, leaving us to tend to the crops in the evenings and on weekends. Like we don't already have enough to do.

"Feel him, he's warm," the little girl tells her brother and sister.

Little by little, the start of school creeps forward. One day, the new school year will start in May, a month before the old school year is over. Our children will be in two grades at once, perfect preparation for the world ahead.

"Come on, we're going to be late," the older daughter says on this cool morning.

"I'm ready," says the boy.

Actually, they have been ready for half an hour. Opening-day veterans, they know to prepare the night before, to load the backpacks, to lay out their clothes.

On the door leading to the garage, there's a handwritten sign by one of them. "DON'T forget your schedules (Or your lunches)," it says.

"Don't forget your lunches," their mother reminds them anyway.

"We won't, Mom . . . jeesh."

"Yeah, Mom, jeesh."

The kids smell like milk and new gym shoes, a first-day-of-school musk that fills the kitchen, permeates the wallpaper, flavors the carpeting. The dog looks around, wondering if we're cooking some sort of strange new fish.

"I can't even breathe," I say, finally throwing open the kitchen windows.

"It's just the bacon," my wife says.

"I think it's hair gel and new shoes," I tell her.

"Smells good," says the boy.

The two older ones head for the car. They are chased by a small woman with a small camera. Paparazzi, probably. She is relentless and won't let them into the car without just one shot.

"Just one picture," their mother orders.

They thought they'd outgrown this, the ceremonial first-day photo. They had no idea how persistent the media can be.

"Over by the bushes," she tells them.

They trudge to the bushes, listing under the weight of 500-pound backpacks. They turn to look at the camera. They have the faces of blue-chip ballplayers. Steely eyed. Unemotional. Prep all-Americans.

"Smile," I say, which goes over well. Like Elvis, they smile, lifting their upper lips a good quarter-inch.

"Smile," their mother says.

"We're smiling," the older daughter says.

"Oh," their mother says.

And they climb into the car-pool car confidently, both of them pretending that it's just another day. I know better. In their bellies, with the milk and the Trix, a little first-day-of-school funkiness.

"You feel warm," I say, as I hug them goodbye.

"So do you, Dad," they say.

Ten minutes later, the little girl leaves for school, too.

As usual, the little girl is yammering in the back seat as I drive. It is the Muzak of my life, this back-seat yammering. The sound of 10,000 violins playing 10,000 different sonatas. Needless to say, I enjoy it very much.

"I liked Mrs. Mizrahi because she didn't scream at us," the little girl is saying, describing last year's teacher. "When we messed up, she just talked to us like she was really disappointed."

"Don't go getting all nostalgic," I warn her.


"Forget the old days," I tell her. "You have to look ahead."

"OK, Dad," she says.

In her small hands, a tiny bouquet of supermarket flowers. Last year, she forgot a bouquet on the first day, and some other little suck-up stole the spotlight. Not this year.

We drive up the hill, then take a left toward her school. Up ahead, brake lights glow like holiday decorations. A million cars, all smelling like gym shoes and milk.

"I just remembered," the little girl says.


"The fifth-graders are going to be sixth-graders," she says.

"So?" I say.

"Scary," she says.

"Life flies by fast," her mother says.

"Like a cannon blast," I say.

"Really," the little girl says.

At the drop-off point, children get out of cars as if they've never done it before. New lunch boxes fall to the pavement. Jackets, too.

The drop-off point is like the international terminal of some major airport, a frenzy of hugs and quick goodbyes. I think there is a dog loose. Maybe a rooster. Everywhere, there is mayhem. As with any apocalypse, there is laughter and a few tears.

"Here, can you hold this?" the little girl asks, handing me the flowers as she struggles out of the car.

"Thanks," I say. "These will look nice on my desk."

"No, Dad, they're for my teacher," she says.

"Good," I say. "Today she'll need them."


Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is

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