I had to think of something to comfort them, my two little girls, their faces screwed up and shining with tears through the wavy glass of the bus window. The first day of summer camp drop-off had been fine, their father had reported to me, just fine. But now, on the second day, and my turn to dispatch them, they were falling apart like sleep-deprived toddlers before the bus even pulled away. I shifted from foot to foot, looked around. What were the other parents gathered at the bus stop doing for their forlorn offspring? Not much, it appeared: standing with arms crossed, chatting with one another in the early-morning sunshine, glancing up at the bus with an occasional smile or casual wave. Short of mounting the bus myself, what could I do to ease my girls’ distress, which, of course, we had been vetting endlessly for weeks around the dinner table? What if I can’t find the bathroom? What if Amelia isn’t in my group? What if I get lost in the woods? What if I’m scared on the bus?
The bus didn’t seem to be driving off anytime soon; Jim, our aging, Reef-shod driver, was sipping coffee from a stainless-steel travel mug and listening to NPR’s “Morning Edition” on a scratchy radio. Most of the parents were wandering away-back to their cars or houses down the street-but I held my ground, determined to wait until the bus drove off, no matter how hard it was to hold the gaze of my tearful daughters. Was I doing them a disservice by standing here, a reminder of what was so sad? I crossed my hands over my chest and circled them around. Rubbing my heart, as we say to one another when leaving for a length of time-an expression of yearning to be together again soon. “Rubbing my heart, Mama!” my older one would say to me over the phone whenever I’d be out of town. “See you soon!” In this case, however, the gesture seemed to inspire a fresh outburst of tears, so I quickly drew my hands out in front of me, and started moving them around in pretend sign-language, which my youngest daughter found marginally amusing. She nudged her sister’s arm. “Look, ” I could see her mouthing, “Mama’s being funny.”
It had been a tough year. My ex-husband and I were closing up our divorce, and even though we had kept things amicable, the girls were sullen about the separation: the whiff of failure in the house, the somewhat awkward Shabbat dinners we were still doggedly insisting upon a few times a month, as a nod to a bygone era of home and hearth that would soon give way to … well, none of us was exactly sure to what.
We had done our best to shield them from the machinations of our arrangement, going back and forth to a downtown studio apartment we took turns sleeping in, so as not to uproot them right away. We stuffed our clothes for several days into overnight bags as cheerfully as possible, and blew kisses across the room while our family as we had always known it dissolved around our ears.
But the separation had brought with it a surprising amount of freedom. “GIRLPILE!!” My youngest would squeal to her sister as she jumped on top of me in the morning. “Come make a naked girlpile with me and Mama!”
My girls thought it was mostly an asset to have a mother who juggled balls in a cowboy hat and bikini on the beach, who did handstands against the slide on the playground, who galloped top-speed through the woods by our house, encouraging them to stop on a dime under the biggest tree they could find and, gazing up at the fluttering canopy, to yell at the top of their voices, “LOVE THIS LIFFFEEE!” These antics came naturally to me, a vestige of an un-groomed childhood spent fending for myself.
I figured it was the best gift I could give them. It was the gift my mother had given me, and, as far as I could tell from the limited time I spent with my maternal grandmother before she passed, the gift my mother’s mother had bestowed upon her: joy in response to hardship. You come honestly by your line of wild women! I wanted them to know. “Take my hand, come along; lend your voice to my song! Come along, take my hand, and we’ll ru-un! To a land where the river runs free! To a land with a shining sea! To a land where the horses run free! And you and me are free to be, you and me …”
It was time, 8:01 a.m. on my iPhone. Jim fired up the engine of yellow bus number 227 and with a worrisome clatter, swung the door shut. Suddenly, I knew just what to do. My oldest drew her arm up to her nose and swiped at the snot and tears already congealing above her lip. Her younger, considerably smaller sister huddled on the aisle, big blue eyes downcast. I crouched low and looked over my left shoulder at my girls, their faces elongated through the old windowpane. The bus lurched forward, and at the last second, I slipped out of my flip-flops and took off running down the sidewalk alongside it, waving arms akimbo, my sweat shorts falling down around my hips. “Bye girls!” I yelled, even though I knew they couldn’t hear me. “Have a fabulous day at camp!” I ran barefoot down the length of the block, trying in earnest to keep up until it turned left toward Connecticut Avenue. Just before they vanished around the corner, I caught a glimpse of my daughters, their faces crowded together to get a better view of me, their eyebrows arched in disbelieving delight, their eyes alight with laughter.