Take Me Back to the Water’s Edge

Take me back to the water’s edge
Lay me down on that riverbed
Take me down to the water’s edge
Hold me under for the longest human breath

From “The Water’s Edge” by k.d. lang and Joe Pisapia

I. Eight Lanterns

“Aren’t you even a little bit sad?” I asked June as we walked to school on Wednesday, her very last day of preschool.

“Nope,” she said. And, truly, she did not look even the least bit sad. It was water play day and she was excited by the novelty of going to school in her bathing suit and curious to see what everyone else’s bathing suit would look like. She was in the moment, not at all bagged down by grown-up nostalgia.

The parking lot was covered with the kids’ art portfolios and their paper lanterns for the Lantern Launch. The lanterns are beautiful this year, painted with landscapes and saturated with color.

We walked inside, past the Cottontail Rabbit, who was presenting Lesley with a big potted plant with yellow flowers. In the main classroom the Field Mouse’s mom asked me, “Are you co-oping?”

“No, just lingering,” I answered.

“Don’t look at her,” Lesley advised. “She’s crying.”

I was not crying, but I might have if I’d stayed much longer so after telling June goodbye and talking a little to the Ghost Crab and the Field Cricket about their water day plans (which involved spraying the whole school with water, according to the Cricket), I left.

I had June’s lantern and her portfolio of artwork with me. Once I got home I laid them on the dining room table, but I avoided looking at anything too carefully. I wasn’t ready. I exercised and tried to work, but it was hard to concentrate. I’d hoped to complete a set of abstracts to send off to Sara since I did not anticipate having much time to work on Thursday or Friday and the early part of the weekend would be busy, what with the Lantern Launch on Friday evening and June’s first t-ball practice on Saturday morning. But I only got about half of the remaining work on the set done.

I headed out the door a few minutes early. I wanted to get some pictures of the kids sitting on the steps before anyone was dismissed. So I got there, talked to a few people—‘This is so sad” the Cricket’s mom said—snapped some pictures of the kids, picked up yet more art projects, spare clothes, June’s journal, handwriting workbook, a DVD of her class singing “Carnival of the Tracks” and other miscellaneous things to take home. And then we left. A block away from school June announced, “I need to go potty.”

This actually happens fairly frequently and it usually drives me crazy but that day I didn’t mind turning around and walking back into the school. The Painted Turtle’s mom was presenting Lesley with an umbrella the Turtle had decorated with ribbons hanging from the spokes inside. Each ribbon had a name of a classmate or teacher and small picture representing something about that person. (June’s picture was of food, because she always eats so much at snack.) The Turtle’s mom offered us a ride home and I wasn’t about to say no, as the temperature was 96 degrees and rising.

Before Quiet Time, June wanted to hear a story from her journal about a cat jumping over a fence. I read it to her and she wanted to know if she could take the journal into her room to look at the pictures during Quiet Time. I said sure. I don’t think she looked at it long, though, because when I peeked in on her ten minutes later, she was asleep.

Noah came home around 4:20, crying because he’d gotten a lower than expected grade on his probability game (it was a C). I was taken aback because he usually doesn’t seem to care much about grades and he’s gotten Cs before in this program (though mostly at the beginning of the year, before he had his bearings). I tried to talk him through it but he was unresponsive. Finally I said, “Everything seems worse when it’s hot” and I took him back to my bedroom and turned on the air conditioner. I carried a sleeping June in, too, and started to read from her journal to wake her. Noah listened, too.

It took a while for June to wake up, but by the time I got to the last entry, dictated on Monday, she was wide awake. Here’s how it goes:

“I’m thinking it to be a tornado. The tornado is blowing up all the houses in the whole universe. And the houses—it was even blowing up the aliens in outer space houses. That’s a really strong tornado. And the tornado has earrings. That’s a funny tornado. This is an earring and this is an earring. And a frog didn’t get blown away into the pond and drown. I’m done.”

Both kids laughed and laughed and June said, “Read it again,” So I did and together in the cool air I didn’t cry and Noah didn’t cry and June didn’t cry.

But we’re done. June has two weeks of summer camp at preschool (one next week and one in July) but she’s never going back to the Purple School as a student again. We arrived at the school as a three-person family, needing just a year of preschool for Noah, who we pulled out of the university-affiliated daycare he’d attended for three years when I lost my teaching job. June was on the way, though. I’d been pregnant with her for a month on Noah’s first day of school. When she was born (six weeks early) in March, Lesley made us a baby quilt June slept under for years. Between both kids attending school and after school programs and summer camps there, the school has been a part of our lives for June’s whole life.

So Wednesday night, we had marinated eggplant sandwiches (for the grown-ups) and grape juice (for everyone) to celebrate our time at the Purple School. And Friday afternoon I lined up all the kids’ lanterns– winter solstice lanterns and end-of-year lanterns– on the lawn so I could see what four years at the Purple School looked like. They look beautiful: colorful and diverse and sparkly and a little fragile (June’s first winter solstice lantern got singed when she didn’t hold it upright) and increasingly complex, just like our kids. And by our kids, of course, I mean not just Noah and June but the dozens of classmates they had when they were two and three and four and five.

II. To The Water’s Edge

Between the end of school on Wednesday afternoon and the Lantern Launch on Friday evening, June had a play date with the Ghost Crab and another one with the Ground Beetle and attended the Bobcat’s birthday party so she hadn’t exactly had the chance to get lonesome for her classmates. So for her, at least initially, the Lantern Launch was just another event in the busy social round of this week.

For me, it was more meaningful. I kept thinking of our first Launch, when Noah was five and June was two months old and it poured rain and we huddled under our separate tarps to eat and the preschoolers got restless and emerged to run around in the rain and got soaked. Noah was the Painted Turtle that year. June declined the opportunity to inherit his track, but she did choose one (the Great Blue Heron) from the same team. They were both Water’s Edge kids. In recognition of that I wore the vest I wore to his Lantern Launch (my wedding vest actually) over a long green dress. The vest is blue and green and has various animals on it, one of them a sea turtle. I also wore a pewter necklace with a mother and baby stork. They look a lot like herons. When she saw me dressed June said, “You look beautiful,” and insisted on choosing her own necklace from my necklace basket. She selected an amber bear because she thought it looked like a flower.

For the whole car ride down to Constitution Gardens (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_Gardens), June alternated between asking “Are we there yet?” and complaining about the fact that I’d packed crackers for our picnic dinner when I always pack crackers and she’s getting tired of crackers.

Finally we arrived and spread out the blanket. Before I had the food unpacked, June asked, “Can I have some crackers?”

Becky came over and sat with us, and the Mallard Duck’s family was nearby so we had good company while we ate and waited for the festivities to start. June did not eat much because she kept running off to play with her friends. I didn’t try to stop her. There are a lot of summer birthdays in her class so no doubt she will see most of them again in large groups but the opportunities for them to be all together as a class are numbered.

There were speeches and a lot of presents. Families with four years’ attendance or two years’ service on the board received birdhouses (we got one last year because it was Beth’s second year on the board and there was a one bird house per family limit so we didn’t get one this year). The teachers got gifts from each class, and each class got presents from the teachers. Each student in June’s class received a booklet of their greeting and goodbye poems, which changed every month, a DVD of pictures of the children, and a little oak tree. June loves to plant things (and is always begging to plant the seeds she finds outside or in her food which is why we have three cantaloupe vines in the garden right now). So she was thrilled with the tree. “It’s my very own oak tree!” she exclaimed and she carried it around most of the rest of the evening. June’s class also performed their song “Carnival of the Tracks.”

Then it was time to launch the lanterns. We walked over the bridge to the little island. There were herons (black-crowned herons I think) and a duck with five ducklings and a bunch of geese with one gosling in the water. The water itself was a vivid green; the hundred plus degree weather had done wonders for the algae.

The launch is simplicity itself. We lit the candle inside June’s lantern and set it on the water. Along with all her classmates and the kids in the other classes, she pushed it away from the shore and pulled it back with the string and watched the slight current bob it around until she got tired, pulled it out and handed it to me. I held the wet wooden bottom of the lantern, looking at the glowing candle inside and the colorful paper walls outside. I could not bring myself to blow it out, to be done. Finally Beth leaned over and said, “Is that still lit?” and she blew it out.

We stayed a little while longer, so we could talk to people and June could climb trees. She climbed one tree, in fact, while holding her oak sapling in her hand because she wanted to show the little tree what it would look like when it got bigger. We did not linger, however, because it was close to the kids’ bedtime already and we had a half hour drive home. Shortly after we put the kids to bed, June came padding out of her room. “Some day I want to go back to my school and say goodbye to my teachers,” she said. And this time she did look sad. It’s finally real for her, I thought.

“You’re going back Monday, for camp,” I told her and she went back to bed. But right then, I wanted to be back at the water’s edge, holding my breath, making time stand still.