from the archive: The Bus Stop, Jamie’s Back to School story

You feel it in the air. The shorter days. The wet grass on your bare feet as you frantically run the bases one more time before heading in for supper.

Summer is going and you’re being left behind…

End of Summer
There was a ritual those late summer nights.
After supper my Mom sprayed for mosquitoes,
we left the house, and walked to the fishing beach.

It wasn’t a long walk – a few blocks – past the one-story ranch style houses with basketball hoops in the driveways, past the wrought iron fences, and the wild roses and raspberries growing in dense thickets along the road.

The beach was nearly always deserted with a few rowboats and canvas backed canoes on shore. “They bring in the pier on Labor Day”, somebody says, “and they won’t let you swim anymore.”

My Mom sits on the end of the pier wearing a green house-coat, her long, dark brown hair freed from its pins, dangles her feet and stares off at Rumsey’s Point.

The rest of us wade in the murky water catching minnows with our hands, or look for crayfish under the rocks. She sings a plaintive song to the moon and we join in.
And we sing all the way back home

Back to School
“It won’t be long,” a voice whispers in my head.

You feel it in the air. The shorter days. The wet grass on your dirty, bare feet
as you frantically run the bases one more time before heading in for supper.
And later, in the darkest dark you chant “Starlight, Moonlight” with the neighbor kids, until you can’t see the hand in front of your face and the moon comes out and shows you the way home.

The surest sign summer is over is the Labor Day picnic on a sleepy Monday in the city park, eating the last of the watermelon, corn on the cob and drinking grape Kool Aid.

One last game of Red Rover.  One last ride on the swing.  One last toss of the coin to see who will balance with you on the teeter-totter.

I take a last walk through the oak woods and the Midwestern prairie – grasshoppers, bumblebees and butterflies lingering over Queen Anne lace and milkweed pods set to burst.

My last chance to lie back on dank earth in the “only stand of pines for miles” and stare at a cruel blue sky – clouds racing faster than you can make pictures.

The pines.  Years later I bring my boyfriend here those late summer days, picnic and kiss and linger till the sun sets golden over the tall grasses.  In time, my children will come here and survey this place I came, where summer was going – and left me behind.

Labor Day.  Late afternoon. Waiting for a taxi at Walk-up and Terra Cotta.
And then the crowded cab ride home from the park, little ones on laps of the big ones.
Me squeezed in somewhere in between.

Labor Day. Monday night. We watch the first of the fall lineup on TV – Marcus Welby, MD, A Family Affair, the Ghost and Mrs Muir and sort the school supplies – 8 pack crayons for the little kids, 16 colors for me – a middle kid, and Cray Pas for the oldest ones.  Out come the protractors, spiral notebooks, two-pocket folders, pencil sharpeners, art gum erasers, pencil pouches and number two pencils.

And then the lunch bags. In goes the pb and j wrapped in waxed paper, the pack of raisins or the Macintosh apple or a bunch of grapes.

We start out with snack cakes, like Ho Hos or Suzy Qs, and by month’s end it’s just grape jelly on white bread or Velveeta and salad dressing, paired with a carton of chocolate milk, delivered to my class at St. Thomas School late morning by an eighth grade boy from Sr. Edwardine’s class (who is sometimes my big brother.)

The Bus Stop
Morning of the first day is chilly.
I unroll the rags from my hair and brush out the curls
I put on my civilian clothes – tomorrow I have to wear the uniform.
Today it’s a brown corduroy jumper, a soft white sweater, nylon knee highs and penny loafers.

I eat Cheerios with bananas.  I take the 9th bag in the row of lunches, my school supplies and am out the door. The big kids walk ahead. The little kids linger.

I pass the basketball hoops, lakes houses, raspberries and wrought iron fences
and arrive outside the gates of the fishing beach – now the bus stop – a dinky gravel driveway off the road, and see a bunch of kids with fresh haircuts and new shoes.

Some throw rocks at the fence. Some say hello. Most ignore me. One big boy taunts my little brother, and I stick up for him. Others watch the road.

I watch the beach where the old pier now lies on its side against a big oak.
The water is covered in a layer of brown leaves. The sky is gray and cloudless.

The school bus rounds the curve at East End – passes our stop and then turns around – and pulls up along the line of kids.

Everybody boards – cool kids in the back, shy ones in the front, and me – somewhere in between.

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Jamie O’Reilly appeared in Songs of A Catholic Childhood with Michael Smith. Read about their recording here.

5 Comments

  1. Jamie:

    As one who grew up in a similar town and went to high school in the same town, I well remember those rites of passage that came at the end of summer! It was always amazing – and cruel – to me, that the park at Crystal Lake beach rolled up the pier, so to speak, and basically shut down the lake! With so many still warm, sunny days to enjoy in the Fall, this felt like a betrayal of enormous proportion! I always hated what it signified: SUMMER IS OVER!!

    Though I also harbored a secret, delectable excitement about the new school year ahead; the sense of possibilities and new routines.

    You captured well the rituals of those last days of summer leading to those first days of school…so resonating to another girl from a large family who went to that same church pictured, that same beach, and ultimately, that same school!

    History binds us. Beautiful piece.

  2. Grape Kool Aid! ” Kool Aid, Kool Aid, tastes,great, wish we had some..can’t wait”.
    Clothes from Don and Lu’s Children’s Store Lay-a-Way …butterscotch colored shag cardigan sweater…taffy apples from my Great Uncle Pete’s confectionery store ( The Greeks)…..making floorplan houses of maple tree leaves in the Schaefer’syard on N. Walkyp Street….

  3. I find these childhood remembrances charming. Sweet nostalgia. You write so well, you sing so beautifully and your flower arrangements are exquisite. My little granddaughter ( who were just born when we went to Lakeside) are starting kindergarten today! See you soon.
    Christine

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