School starts, and two more milestones pass
I watched over the course of the Labor Day weekend as two of my children embarked on the great adventure of education, one nearing the journey’s end and the other quite close to its beginning.
This juxtaposition left me a trifle dazed, jerked from one side by old memories, and from the other by a fresh glimpse of the future.
Although it’s also possible that driving 800 miles in a couple days, half that distance amassed in a cumbersome moving truck which didn’t so much go around corners as ooze through the apexes, contributed to my dizziness.
I started the holiday weekend by driving that truck, bearing my older son Alexander’s belongings, to his new apartment in Albany.
Alexander, who’s almost 19, starts his sophomore year at Oregon State University later this month. He’s majoring in nuclear engineering, a subject which seems to me as foreign as Swahili.
I struggle to engineer something as simple as a birdhouse. I have no business tinkering with the nucleus of anything.
A couple days later I watched my younger daughter, Olivia, who’s 6, assemble her pencils and papers and paste sticks for her first day in first grade.
That morning my wife, Lisa, took a photo of Olivia striding across the field on the west side of Brooklyn School. She looked impossibly small, a lone figure in that grassy expanse, too small to be going off by herself.
Lisa’s photograph reminded me of another September morning, more than a decade earlier.
The setting was the same.
But on that day the dimunitive pupil walking toward the big brick school was Alexander.
I remember that I drove around the block, to make one more pass down Washington, and I caught sight of him there on the asphalt of the playground. I sensed his timidity and my stomach clenched (or maybe it was my heart), in the way it does when you wonder whether your child is scared, or unhappy.
I endured the same twinge on Olivia’s first day, but my trepidation lasted only until she burst into the kitchen that afternoon, nearly hysterical with tales of the wonders of Mrs. Mays’ classroom.
Alexander, of course, is a different matter.
He is 350 miles away.
I worry about mundane matters such as whether he’s getting enough to eat; or at least I did until one evening when Olivia called his cellphone and, after a brief conversation, she told me he was cooking bacon.
So that’s all right, then, if he has bacon.
The disorientation of my tumultuous weekend has dissipated, replaced by the sort of dull ache that marks milestones, after which nothing can ever be quite the same.
This is a queer sensation, never terribly painful and sometimes even pleasant. I am gratified to watch the little boy who’s now a young man who’s got a couple inches on me, no longer taking hesitant steps past the swings and the monkey bars but exploring the mysteries of the atom.
I will no doubt feel the same happiness when Olivia goes off on her own quest, whatever and wherever that might be.
Yet when they go, these children who we set loose on the noble quest for knowledge, they take some part of themselves which we, their parents, can never retrieve.
We mourn these losses.
And we remember the distant days, when they also walked away, so tiny and so delicate, but they always, at the end of the day, walked back to us.
. . .
One nice thing about buying a used book — besides saving some bucks, usually — is that occasionally you find hidden between the old pages some curious artifact.
A while back I came across such a thing inside a volume of essays by the late E.B. White.
As a brief aside, White, to the extent that he is known today, is so largely due to his trio of novels, “Stuart Little,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Trumpet of the Swan.”
These are described, almost invariably, as “children’s novels” but although this is not an inapt term I think it an unfair one. The three books have been beloved by generations of young readers, to be sure, but it seems to me a pity that White’s reputation is afflicted with the asterisk of triviality which inevitably attaches to fiction read primarily by children.
I too became acquainted with White through “Stuart Little.” But for me his richest legacy derives from his nonfiction essays, the form of which he is, I believe, the undisputed master.
I have yet to read a writer who matches the rhythm which, more than any other trait, identifies White’s work. Rhythm, of course, is more typically associated with music, but the word applies to writing, too, in the sense that the words make sounds in our heads as we read them silently to ourselves. White was a prose man, by and large, but his essays have the pleasing quality of the finest poetry, or of a beautiful melody.
It is quite an accomplishment, I think, to render a single sentence or paragraph that conveys even a bit of White’s magic.
He wrote hundreds of thousands of them.
But back to this book.
As I flipped from one page to another toward the back, a receipt slipped out and fluttered to the floor. The slip of paper must have been used as a bookmark.
It bore the heading “Willamette U. Bookstore” and the date of Jan. 21, 1983.
The location suggests the book didn’t get out much — I bought the thing in a bookstore in downtown Salem, just a few blocks from the Willamette campus.
I immediately wondered how long this receipt had been lodged between pages, whether it had been stuck there like a forgotten secret for the whole three decades.
I wondered too whether the buyer was a student, and if so whether the purchase was a required one, for a class, or was acquired for recreational reading.
And, finally, I wondered what I was doing on that day. I was 12. That was a Friday so probably I was at school in Stayton, about 15 miles east of Salem.
I’ll never get answers to my questions, of course.
But about one thing I’m pretty sure: The anonymous 1983 buyer got a bargain.
Although the six items on the receipt aren’t identified, the prices range from 69 cents to $3.
The list price on the book is $5.95.
I paid $6.
Jayson Jacoby is editor