“Rose!” five-year Henry shouted, dropping his blue backpack on the floor. “Let’s go upstairs! I be Mistah Munsey and you be Mrs. McCarthy.”
The two of them linked arms and made their way to the playroom, singing some song about a flag at the top of their lungs.They sounded like two drunken sailors just home from a bender, but in fact they were a second-grader and a kindergartener just home from school.
Last spring, I wrote here all about Henry going to full-day kindergarten. Or, more precisely, Henry not going to all-day kindergarten because the coveted K+ section in our school district was full, and he didn’t get a spot.
But at the last second, right before I wrote the check to military school and sized him for a teeny-tiny uniform that would fit comfortably around his chubby belly, our district opened another section of K+, and for the first time in my life, I understood the meaning behind the phrase Christmas in July. Or May, because that’s when they called to tell me, but whatever.You know what I mean.
But even after all of that, it was very bittersweet to see my youngest board the bus when school started. For the first time in eleven years I was without infant, toddler, or pre-schooler. And almost two months into the year, the house is still too quiet at times.
That is, until they all get home.
Henry, in particular, is very exuberant. Kindergarten is very, very exciting for him. All week long he swaggers through the house, delivering information and giving tours.
“Now, children, this is the CAFETERIA. Where we get FOOD. Mrs. Zimmerman’s class, please LINE UP!”
He stands in the hallway and pretends to talk in an intercom.
“Turn you voices to OFF! Then you get a STAR! And you will win a PIZZA PARTY!”
But he is especially attached to the Vice Principal, Mr. Munsey.
At dinner, it’s Mistah Munsey this and Mistah Munsey that. One night he suggested, “Mom. You need to marry Mistah Munsey. He can marry you and you can marry him.” I told him I was already married, and he looked up from his plate and shouted, “You ARE? To WHO?”
“See, Henry, that’s why we send you to kindergarten,” 11-year old Joey said wryly. “So you can learn some things.”
“I learnin’! Because Mistah Munsey, well, he showed us the art room and he has keys and well, everything. You know, Miss McCarthy is the principal, but Mistah Munsey is the REAL PRINCIPAL. Because it has VICE in it.”
I can’t say I know Mr. Munsey well, but he’s always struck me as very kind. A young father with three small sons of his own, he has dark hair and an easy smile.
We’ve started to call Henry Mr. Munsey, and sometimes, the Vice Principal.
“Come on, Mr. Munsey. Time for dinner!”
“Can you make sure the Vice Principal put his pajamas on?”
“Mr. Munsey needs to cut his fingernails!”
Last week, 8-year old Charlie told me he forgot to finish his spelling. I asked him if his teacher, Mrs. Blaine, got mad. “No, she never gets mad. And if she does, she just goes right back to being happy again. She’s always happy and she makes things so fun.”
I smiled brightly and said, “Well, she sounds a lot like me!” He looked back down at his worksheet and shook his head. “No, Mom. She’s nothing like you.”
I felt the smile fade from my face, and my eyes narrow. In a voice that was eerily reminiscent of Miss Hannigan from Annie, I told him, “Finish your homework and try not to forget anything this time.”
A few hours later I slicing some carrots at the counter, and 7-year old Rose walked into the kitchen, “What are we having for dinner, Mrs. Cardin? Whoops! I mean Mom! I meant to say Mom!”
“You really like Mrs. Cardin, huh?” I asked, smoothing her blond bangs back from her face.
“Oh, I do! I just love her! And, well, I don’t want to hurt your feelings or anything, but Mrs. Cardin has four daughters so she really understands girls, you know? She just gets me.”
For the second time in a single afternoon I felt the smile fade from my face and my eyes narrow.
“Chicken,” I said, sounding just like Betty Draper in the third season of Mad Men, when she knows for sure her husband Don is cheating on her and she’s completely disgruntled with her life. “We’re having chicken for dinner.”
In his usual stalker fashion, 10-year old Jack’s memorized the make, model, and year of his teacher’s car, as well as her exact address. After he asked if he could use Google Map to look up her house, I made a mental note to e-mail her and suggest she not give out any more personal details, because autism often knows no boundaries.
I took Henry to Old Navy for a few new shirts now that the weather is getting cooler. As soon as we walked in, I scooped up a handful of long-sleeve t-shirts in a bunch of different colors. “No!” he shrieked so loudly that I jumped. “I need the other ones! With buttons! Like Mistah Munsey wears.”
“Maybe,” I teased Joe one night after another Mistah Munsey dinner marathon, “It would help if you weren’t such a deadbeat dad.”
“Yeah, that’s it,” he smirked as he loaded dishes into the dishwasher. Just then Henry ran into the kitchen with a cape on, hollering, “Dad! You be Batman, I be Robin tonight!”
But it is an interesting point. Why is Henry so fascinated with the Vice Principal? He certainly gets his fair share of attention from Joe; in some ways, as the youngest child, more than the others.
Last year, I would try to squeeze in my workout before Joe left for work. He handled the morning bus routine while I went to the 7:00 Crossfit class, and most days I’d walk in the door and find the two of them snuggling on the couch reading or sitting together in the office; Henry nestled on his father’s lap while Joe typed or organized paperwork.
On Friday morning, I rolled over and looked at the clock: 6:20. Down the hall, I could hear Jack open his drawers and Wolfie thumping his tail against his crate.
“Well,” I said to Joe. “I’d better go get Mr. Munsey up.”
I walked into his room and knelt next to his bed. He was snuggled under his favorite blue blanket –the one he calls his ya-ya—and I could only see his head and his round face. Just as I leaned over to kiss him good morning he sat upright, looked around, and shouted, “I late! I goin’ to be LATE FOR WORK!”
I helped him picked out his shirt—“With buttons and lines on it! Like Mistah Munsey wears!”—and we went downstairs. While Jack fussed for waffles and Wolfie waited at the door, I poured him a bowl of cereal. He seemed quiet, subdued.
“What’s up, Henry? Wolfie got your tongue?” I teased.
“I just thinkin’,” he said, his eyes fixed on his spoon. “When I at school, I miss my dad.”
For the third time in as many days, the smile faded from my face. But instead of narrowing, my eyes filled with tears.
“I know you do, buddy. I know.”
As I turned to help Jack pour the batter into the waffle iron, I thought about my five-year old marching off to kindergarten every morning. I thought about how loud and confident and boisterous he seems. How, at first glance, it was as though he got on that big yellow bus and never looked back.
But in fact, he is still adjusting to the big wide world of school, to a day full of fire drills and pizza parties, art class and intercoms. Maybe, when he looks out into the hallway and catches a glimpse of a dark-haired man with a kind smile, he’s reminded of the dark-haired man with a kind smile who plays Batman to his Robin and reads to him in the morning and wraps his precious blue ya-ya around his shoulders when its time for bed.
Because all this time, underneath the long-sleeve shirt with lines on it, is a little boy who just misses his dad.