Counting Colors

“Cerulean”: Caroline’s go-to blue Crayola crayon.

“Cerulean”: From Latin caeruleus “blue, blue-green,” perhaps dissimilated from caelulum, diminutive of caelum “heaven, sky.”

“I had trouble sleeping last night, Mommy. So I counted the colors of the rainbow; then I counted the letters of the alphabet, and then I said, aaagh, I’m just tired.” Must be the engineering gene from her father’s side— Caroline’s got a knack for numbers. My head hits the pillow and churns in the way of an English major’s; sleeping comes second to sifting through the stories of the day. But I appreciate the cut and dry of numbers and am glad Caroline has found them. Mathematics, for me, is crazy Mrs. Carrazone jumping on tables singing of vectors, planes, and angles of inclination. It’s an 8 a.m. class in college I didn’t get too very often. It sometimes involves counting on my fingers. I joke with Dave that sooner not later, he’ll need to help the girls with their math homework.

For now I’m okay with shapes and sorting.

Except that there’s this element to sorting that bothers me as I visit the school and watch the five-year-olds sort themselves out in the lunchroom and on the playground. Caroline has loved Kindergarten so far, but her exceptions have been the bus ride—when a girl in the neighborhood chooses to sit with another girl in the neighborhood and not my girl Caroline—and lunch time—when a girl walks away from the table when my girl sits down. I know Caroline will find her way as she has done so far, but I think about this notion of check-marking the red squares and x-ing the large triangles. Why must the first lesson of Kindergarten math call for grouping everything that is the same into circles wide and shut? “One of these things is not like the others”: Got it, Big Bird.

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1. RED

Firsts layered around us this September like we were small, tight petals at the center of a red rose.

Our first earthquake: a reminder of 9-11. In a Noodles and Company, hearing and feeling the building grumble, I looked up towards the parking garage I knew to be overhead: was that a truck, a plane? Though the manager suggested we stay in the building, I grabbed each girl under an arm and got out of there. Caroline said her legs were shaking. Lexi pointed at the people filing out of neighboring stores, calmly but purposefully, on cell phones that were not connecting.

Our first hurricane: wet, very wet, an overextended sump-pump and a sleepover in Mommy and Daddy’s room.

2. ORANGE

And a day later when Jordan called, her voice alert: “Did you hear? Some guy escaped from the jail. Facebook said he was running down Rowe Boulevard towards the mall. Where are you?”

“At the mall. Just getting out of the car now.” The kids needed shoes for school. I pictured the man running towards Skechers in his orange jumpsuit carrying a Starbucks Grande vanilla latte. “There’s a lot going on this week,” I said to the girls, looking over my shoulder as we walked through the doors of Crate and Barrel.

Hard as they tried, neither Mother Nature nor hardened criminal built September tension as successfully as I. I had spent all summer slapping together peanut butter sandwiches for the girls. It had been like breathing, tossing crackers into snack bags: craisins, juice boxes, sliced apples. But on Caroline’s first day of Kindergarten I was up early. I smoothed the silver lining of her rainbow lunch box. I focused on the way I was spreading the jelly—was I getting every corner? I carefully slid my fingers over the Ziploc. I imagined my girl at an industrial-sized cafeteria table, peering into her colorful box, wondering what was inside and directly associating the contents with how much I loved her.

The night before, Lexi cried at bedtime. We were remembering favorite parts of the summer, and she got quiet. “What’s wrong, Lex?” She could barely get the words out, her eyes welling, closing, her lips shaking, “I’m going to miss Caroline! I don’t want her to go to school!” It was heart-breaking. Caroline joined Lexi in her bed for a hug, assuring her little sister that she’d be back.

I hardly believed her.

I drove her Day One, and when we walked from the car to the school, I snapped a photo of her from behind; she was heading forward, ready to go, a swing to her step, doggy backpack swaying behind her. She told me not to cry as we walked, but I did.

Lexi back at the house looked smaller.

“Is Daddy going to work tomorrow?” She asked. Yes. “Is Caroline going to school?” Yes. “But, that’s two away and only two left over.”

3. YELLOW

Lexi finally had her own first day of preschool. She woke with Caroline at 7:00 am; she had chosen her outfit the night before, just like Caroline. She ate her breakfast, slid into Skechers, flung school bag over shoulder and headed to the bus stop with Caroline. I snapped cute photos of them waiting together. But the yellow bus came for Caroline, and we had to hold Lexi back from boarding it herself, like she’d been plunked by some major leaguer and was racing towards the mound, benches clearing behind her.

**********

Last year when Caroline was in preschool, she asked me how I’d made my friends. She said it was hard for her. She called me “brave.” I tried to tell her this, that from what I can remember, meeting the good friends has always come pretty easily.

I met such a friend, Tricia, after college during summer teacher training at USC. Tricia was with Teach for America as well, but had it not been for Alex Trebek, we may never have connected. One evening we both boarded a mini-van going to Culver City—a Jeopardy fieldtrip. There were probably 20 recent college grads heading for Sony Studios; the remaining 480 were finding other ways to entertain themselves in and around Los Angeles, imagine that.

Brooklyn roommates, Tricia and I worked our way through a difficult year, but our friendship was the bright spot, and meeting Katy, Tricia’s hometown Cincinnati buddy, was a bonus. We three joked about the Transitive Property, which sounds nerdy—and is—and stunning because of my aforementioned math disinclination. But after a while, we considered ourselves interchangeably connected. Who had been friends first didn’t matter. If a=b and b=c then a=c.

Not to worry, we were not exclusive to math humor. We played with language, too: spent one weekend trip swapping the word “hamburger” for “thank you.” This was years ago, when none of us had kids, when we made meals out of Swedish Fish, when laughing uncontrollably during an Ellis Island tour was obviously inappropriate but at the time unavoidable.

There are people you like immediately, who don’t dance all that well but do so anyway, who show up to go for a run with you early on the rainy morning of your wedding day.

**********

4. GREEN

As Caroline and her dad walked to the bus stop a few mornings ago, I grabbed her for a hug then waved from the porch, calling, “Meet someone new!” She smiled thinly and reached her arm towards me with half of a wave. I thought, that was terrible advice, as I watched her go. She’s been in Kindergarten for all of two weeks. She’s 5. Let her be.

So far she can circle the triangles and color the squares. I’m the amateur, new mom to a school-aged kid, totally green. I’ve visited her at lunchtime. I’ve sat down in the cafeteria, surrounded by tykes lined up, facing off across long tables. They are little but fierce, lightweight boxers all missing at least a tooth. One identifies her big brother in the 4th grade who towers in the corner. Another describes an episode of iCarly in horrifying detail. I look at Caroline to save me. She’s quiet and proud, of whom I don’t know. A girl sitting across from us ducks her head under the table. Caroline smiles and does the same.

Rather than proposing a slight shift in Kindergarten curriculum—that after circle time and just before snack, teachers introduce the Transitive Property of Equality—I will lay low. We’re fine. Lexi’s no longer chasing buses; she’s singing “You are my Sunshine” around the house with regularity. On most days, Caroline comes off the bus wearing smiles and lots of stickers.

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5. BLUE

Making a great friend may, in fact, be easy. But to hear Katy’s tired voice over the phone line, sharing what she plans to say during her father’s eulogy—that’s the hard part of friendship. She is kind, clever, funny, inclusive, interested: her dad, he was all of this for her.

She is certain she will never be the same.

Katy drives a light blue 1962 convertible bug. It is parked outside of a coffee shop in Cincinnati. She’s finished her run and sits at an outside table. A man walks up to her Volkswagen, circling it, peeking in at the dash. He smiles as he approaches her but doesn’t say anything; instead, he gets out a notepad and writes: “I’m deaf. Is that your car?” Katy nods and through a paper exchange, she learns he has owned several classic VW bugs. “Where did you get it?”

She writes of the bittersweet: “It was my dad’s. He’s recently passed away.”

The man smiles, and he gives her this: “Sky blue, like heaven.”

**********

6. Indigo…

7. Violet…

It’s a start, Caroline, counting colors. As reds blend into purples, you do what you can. You have your sister. You’ll make friends who’ll be yours for years. And even when you’re older, out of the blue, someone new might set you right, might connect with you in such a way, might give you just what you need at the time: a quiet mind, a moment’s peace.

We are going to be okay.



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