On the first day of kindergarten Miss Primus assigned us to sit in groups of six at quarter-scale tables in midget chairs. At my table was a girl named Robin. How strange, I thought. Is she embarrassed to have a bird’s name? She didn’t seem to be.
But that was in the old days–last fall when we colored orange pumpkins. I colored with gentle, even pressure to prevent streaks, and I was careful to stay inside the lines.
Now it is spring, and even Robin’s name has become routine. Today is special, though. My brother Don has been allowed to visit kindergarten with me, to learn the ropes for starting school next fall.
Mother has driven us to school in the Model-T, and we are to ride the bus home. I have introduced him to the coatroom, the bathroom, and the sink where we wash our hands. During morning recess I have pushed him on the swing and shown him how to teeter-totter.
Just before afternoon recess, I think about the bus ride home. The girls all sit on the left side of the bus behind the driver, Mr. Hibma, and the boys all sit on the right side.
Don won’t be able to sit in the same seat with me! He might not even get to sit directly across the aisle. He won’t know the rules about staying in your seat until the bus has completely stopped, and he might not recognize our farm through the bus window. Oh, why didn’t Mother think of this?
My stomach fills with a dozen robins. I put my head on the table to hide the welling tears.
The bell rings for recess, and my classmates scatter. I stay at the table, head down. Miss Primus walks over and touches my shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
I choke out my tale of woe. I look up for sympathy, but see none. She isn’t smiling either, just factual.
“Well, Carol,” she says, “What’s the problem? You’ll both be riding on the same set of wheels!”
There the memory ends. I think she settled the matter. Don and I would both be on the same set of wheels.
Mr. Hibma is a good-hearted bus driver, a quiet man with a smile that crinkles the corners of his eyes. His daughter Henrietta is in my class. His twin daughters, Shirley and Kathleen, a year younger, are not identical. Shirley is a pencil and Kathleen is a pumpkin. All three have inherited his black hair and olive skin.
On the route is a creek with a bridge that bulges above the gravel roadbed enough to create a good bounce, especially, when the bus is nearly empty. We cross the bridge sedately at the beginning of the route. If students say, “Go faster!” Mr. Hibma gently ignores them. He knows the rules.
However, near the end of the route, when just his family and mine remain on the bus, he sometimes relaxes the rules and lets us switch seats. We can even sit on the boys’ side! We have learned that the best bridge-bounce could be had from the seats just behind the rear wheels. Disneyland has not yet been created, we have barely heard of roller coasters, and this is the biggest thrill we know.
On the return trip we sometimes coax Mr. Hibma to go a little faster over the bridge, and he listens!
Each time we coax, he goes a little faster, and we fly higher off the brown vinyl seats. Each of us clutches the square metal bar on the seat ahead. We use our arms to generate additional lift.
“Faster, faster, Mr. Hibma,” I say.
“Faster, faster, Dad,” his three daughters plead.
One day, at what seems to me incredible speed, the pumpkin daughter bounces so high her elbows collapse. Her solar plexus collides with the metal bar, knocking her breathless. She doubles over, gasps, and chokes out strangled sobs. Mr. Hibma pulls the bus to the side of the road and walks back to help her.
I wonder if she is dying.
When she is breathing normally again, we drive sedately toward my home on the Jasper farm. We sit wordless, relieved to have so narrowly escaped the grim reaper.
I don’t ride a roller coaster until, at forty-five, I am shamed into it by my husband and three sons. They smile and fly, arms raised heavenward to increase the rush. I feel only a great pumpkin of fear in my solar plexus. I clutch the bar ahead, eyes shut, teeth clenched until we have come to a complete stop.
I’m seated at my kitchen table staring at a mug of coffee inscribed with the words, “Housework would be okay except for one thing–I hate it!”
Chad, my first-born, has just waved good-bye and mounted the three huge steps into the bus innards along with ten other children at the stop a half-block down the hill, his first day of school, his first bus ride, and my first step toward freedom from uninterrupted mothering of three.
Cradling my mug, then taking a long, hot swallow, I wonder what bulging bridges lurk ahead. I want to plead with all the Mr. Hibmas of the coming years, “Slow down. Keep him safe.” But, testosterone a-plenty, he will urge the Mr. Hibmas more than I–even after a solar plexus has collided with a metal bar.
Tears well, but no kindergarten teacher puts her hand on my shoulder. There is only the road of time. When my third son climbs those metal steps into the belly of the bus, I take my mug to the living room and open a novel I’ve been yearning to read.
These days, school buses stop at other homes, but not at mine. All three fledglings have flown. Mr. Hibma and my brother Don have been transported to eternity–Mr. Hibma decades ago in a final heart attack and Don three years ago in a single vehicle roll-over after a Firestone tire blowout. With a fading belief in eternity, my eldest son speeds blithely over bridges, having quit one job without another in sight. And I? I am waiting for a histopathology report on a recent biopsy.
I want Miss Primus to put her hand on my shoulder. I want her to tell me in her no-nonsense fashion that we are all on the same set of wheels. But Miss Primus left kindergarten the year after I did, to marry a godly farmer whose deep voice had melted her heart.
Instead, I light a candle. “Open my eyes, illumine me . . .” I half-sing, half-think, the words.
Then, I lift my arms heavenward and begin, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . .”