It’s back-to-school shopping, Catholic kid style. A small uniform store crowded with frazzled moms (always moms), wallets in hand, expressions pulled tight as they watch the numbers climb on the register. You can tell right away which are the ones with younger kids, before you even spot the children themselves: they’re the ones with armfuls of clothes, credit cards already out, that strained look of someone who’s about to drop way more money on a couple of plaid jumpers and white shirts with Peter Pan collars than she’d budgeted for.
The moms with the older ones, too–they’re super easy to spot. They stand in line, relaxed, watching the others, with maybe a sweater or spare pair of tights gripped softly, like something about to be released. These moms are usually alone, running the errand for their children, who don’t need to be with them anymore, who are out lifeguarding or babysitting or scooping ice cream behind a shop counter somewhere in town. Or maybe they’re at home, on the couch, playing a video game. You can’t be sure. But you see that this mom’s expression is different from yours. It’s less stressed and more ready. More patient and kind as she watches you, smiling, as you pull your toddler off a bench and ask your older girls to settle down. The mom tells you that she’s been there, and it wasn’t so long ago, and that it all goes by in the blink of an eye.You know this already, of course. Your eight-year-old stands just a foot shorter than you now, and your six-year-old looks like a piece of long taffy that somebody pulled straight up, stretching until you’re not quite sure how something so slender and fragile can be the same girl that throws herself off of furniture and belly-flop-dives into a pool.
You know that the days fly. You hear your children’s voices, deeper now than they were just months ago, words that used to be softened, rounded “r”s and y sounds that came out as “l”s now perfectly articulated and mature. You see them in their car booster seats, heads now rising above the padding that was placed there years ago to protect them. You take them shoe shopping and hear that their feet have grown two sizes in four months. You are a witness to the days flying by, a bystander who’s found herself in the middle of the track, watching the horses race past as you try to run along beside them. You are tired. You are a little sad. And you are in absolute awe of the entire spectacle.
So you smile back at the older mother, the one whose son is 22 and whose daughter is entering her last year of high school. You say something benign, agreeing with her like you haven’t heard those words before, like you don’t think the same thing every night when you tuck their growing bodies into their beds, because you know, without a doubt, that in ten years you’ll be repeating those same words to another young mother.
Right now, it’s your turn.
So you approach the register, now facing the cashier, with your own mom standing beside you, her own credit card out to help you do this, to help you buy the uniforms and the socks and the little white shirts with the Peter Pan collars, because you will have two children now in elementary school, two children now who will quickly become used to the end-of-summer uniform shopping, two children who’ve already outgrown the clothes you’d hoped to hand down. Your mom is there to help you, because it’s her turn now. It’s her turn to smile at the children, to insist on helping where she can, to be the bystander now who sits just outside the track, watching this race go by, in awe of the memory that just a moment ago, it was her in the mix, running with the horses, wishing she could slow it all down, just a little.And you leave the store then, a bit poorer, a lot grateful, and much quieter as you shepherd your children through the parking lot and into the car. You forget about the mother who now stands where you just were, buying her daughter’s tights and sweater. Because your own children are right there in front of you, right now, and you want to keep them in your sights as long as you can.