For most of my sixty-plus years toward the end of August, I begin to anticipate the month of September. What a perfect month! The daytime temperatures are warm, even hot; but the evening and nighttime temperatures are a comforting cool that’s perfect for sleeping with the windows open—the night sounds a soothing lullaby. September has a particular smell all its own. Go outside on a beautiful September day and just take in a deep breath of fresh air and you’ll understand what I mean. The chipmunks and squirrels are chattering and scurrying on the quest to ready themselves and their families for the cold winter months. The have-a-heart trap really gets a workout this time of year!
On Luigi’s last walk of the night, I look up at the stars so bright and close, but it’s the moon that captures my heart, and as I walk with Luigi I sing: “I see the moon; the moon sees me….” A song Mum would always sing to us as we cuddled close on the swing at night, the thrum of night insects the background music.
On a beautiful September, with clothes blowing in the autumn breeze, smelling so clean and fresh, Mum would break into song. Her rich alto voice regaling The September Song. I love that song and my favorite rendition, I would have to say, is the one Mum would sing. I would pause whatever I was doing to listen as Mum’s vibrato made goose-bumps on my arms. I used to feel the song was written for me, September baby that I am. It wasn’t until I was old enough to understand the words that I came to love its sad, tender poignancy.
When I was very young, September meant birthday cake, and I would mark time through the month with birthday cake. Joanne’s birthday was celebrated on the twelfth and then Dad’s, the eighteenth. My birthday followed Dad’s by three days so, more often than not, his birthday cake became my birthday cake, too.
Mum baked and decorated the best birthday cakes! These were “scratch” cakes, mind you; and she would pipe on shells and stars and write “Happy Birthday” over the icing. Beautiful and delicious! The finished cake would sit on a pedestal in all its regal glory for all admiring eyes to see and maybe a small finger here and there dragged through the frosting, the anticipation too much!
September also was the month when I began my love-hate relationship with school. In September 1954 I began first grade. All of a sudden I went from waiting for my brothers and sisters to return home from what seemed like a daily eternity to suddenly run-skip-walking to keep up as we headed for the bus stop and the humungous yellow school bus. Back in those days, there we no “dry runs.” One day you were at home talking about this mysterious thing called “school,” and the next day your tiny, innocent five-year-old self was smacked right over the head with school—including a scary bus ride! It was Kathy’s responsibility to lift me up onto the steps until I could manage on my own. Really, should kids be sent to school before they can even navigate the bus steps? Of course, for me with my slight vertical challenge, that would have meant not going to school until I was forty.
That September despite getting the knack of, and love for, oral reading, Miss Patterson felt I needed to be with the slow readers in the “blue bird” group to help them along with the hard words instead of being with the faster-reading “red birds.” While waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting for one of my fellow blue-birders to sound out the word “stop,” (for goodness sake already…sss-t-aw‑p…Stop! Stop! Stop!…how hard can it be?) I learned to love day-dreaming! “Linda,” says Miss Patterson, “you’re supposed to raise your hand if you know the word so you can help your fellow blue birds. Are you day-dreaming?” I learned that teachers ask difficult questions just like parents do. Hmmm…what’s the right answer here? Yes, I’m day-dreaming? No, I’m paying attention? School was not turning out to be “a piece of cake,” so to speak!
First grade was hard! If that September was the harbinger of days to follow, October through May were going to prove more than a little difficult for me. I was forever being asked things I knew but was too shy and too scared to give the correct answers. I couldn’t articulate my feelings to my siblings nor would I have even if I had the words. I somehow had learned very early that you don’t whine and complain; just learn to deal. Besides, all the siblings seemed perfectly adjusted to/in school. There must be some trick to it that I’d pick up, so I toughed it out and rejoiced when summer vacation began.
Toward the end of August 1955, Mum went to Wards (Montgomery Ward) and bought school clothes. I got a new dress that looked like a jumper with a blouse attached. I loved that dress! It was a beautiful plaid of fall colors. That September that dress was my pick for the first day of school and for my school picture. Mum had some pretty pearl clip-on earrings that she attached to the yoke of the dress. When I got to school for picture day, Mrs. Mildred Hilliard told me I looked very pretty and I nearly peed my pants with embarrassment! After recess one boy I really liked asked if I would keep his marbles for him (how provocative is that?). I was just beside myself with joy! I took his dusty marbles and mine and put them in the pocket that the yoke of the dress made…marbles being warmed by my tiny chest and warming my little soul. Even with all that joy, I wasn’t feeling quite well. I didn’t know what was wrong, but my head just didn’t feel right.
As my birthday approached, I was very excited. School was going well–Mrs. Hilliard recognized my reading ability and put me with the “fast” readers, I was slowly becoming confident enough to answer questions, and I was even making some really nice friends. Still—when I woke up in the morning, I couldn’t open my eyes…literally. The lids seemed to be almost glued shut. I would lie in bed and pry my eyelids open with my fingers while pain, like a thousand sharp needles, would shoot through my eyes. I’d run down to the kitchen once I had my eyes open and Mum would take off my pj’s and wash the “sleep” from my eyes, and get me dressed for school. I really didn’t feel well, but I didn’t want to miss school and Mrs. Hilliard, who for some reason seemed to like me as much as I loved her. I would lag behind on the way to the bus stop and through most of the school day. I couldn’t wait to get home just to lie down, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to manage the pain that made my eyes and nose feel as though they were on fire.
Dad’s birthday, September 18, fell on a weekend that year, and so we celebrated with cake—my name and Dad’s inscribed on the top. Just looking at my piece of cake made my stomach clutch, but…it was cake. Who passes up cake? I was going to be seven years old. By the standards of the Catholic Church, I had reached the age of reason, and I reasoned a little cake wouldn’t hurt. But all I could manage was a little cake.
Each day it became increasingly difficult to pry my eyes open to the point that I had to get Mum to intervene. She would apply a warm wash cloth to my eyes and ta-da! Eyes open…ready for school. Still feeling crappy, but trouper that I was, I was still marching off to do battle with the alphabet.
September 21, 1955. I awoke but no amount of prying would budge my eyelids. When I put my fingers to my eyes, pain shot through my face. My eyes felt twice their normal size. I could see just a slit of light through my left eye. I made my way down to the kitchen, and when Mum saw me she gasped in the middle of wishing me “Happy Birthday.” I knew then something must be very wrong. Mum pulled me onto her lap and no amount of warm compresses would pry my eyelids apart. Mum lay me on a black leather settee that was at the far end of the kitchen (where Dad would eventually build a breakfast nook) and covered me. The windows and doors were open. I could smell my beloved September and watch the kitchen curtains billow in with the breeze; but if I moved ever so slightly, the pain would make me want to puke.
That evening Dad carried me to the car, and I lay in the front seat between him and Mum. This was, of course, before seatbelts; and I’m so glad it was! I was so comforted there between my parents as we headed for Dr. Wilson’s office in Dayton, PA, my head in Mum’s lap. Mum and Dad spoke in hushed tones in Italian, presumably about me and my pathetic self. I assume the older siblings were watching the younger siblings because Duff would have been a mere three years old at the time and Chip would have been only nine years old. With Joanne in charge and Kathy as her first lieutenant, the boys were in safe hands.
As we waited in Dr. Wilson’s office, Dad went across the street…or somewhere. When he came back, he whispered in my ear to open my hand. When I did, he placed the biggest candy bar I’d ever seen through the small slit in my eyes in my hand. And, he told me, it was all mine; I didn’t have to share it. How great was that! You have to know in a family as big as ours being given permission not to share was huge. Even though I hadn’t eaten all day, I couldn’t bring myself to take a bite. I treasured that candy bar anyway.
We didn’t get a diagnosis until Mum and Dad took me to the specialist that Dr. Wilson referred us to—Dr. Yocki (spelling?) in Kittanning. I had herpes zoster—shingles. Dr. Yocki was so kind and gentle with me. He told Mum he’d never seen such a brave little girl and that he had seen grown men scream and cry with the pain. Well, please, I did cry with pain, but I took the compliment anyway. I didn’t see the shingles themselves until I could finally open my eyes a little and Mum passed me a mirror. Holy cow! From my nose up, I looked pretty bad—very bad! Between the swollen eyes and the shingles, I brought new meaning to being beaten with an ugly stick.
That September passed with no more incidents or surprises. I survived my bout with shingles with just a few physical scars that have now receded so that they are hardly visible, but the emotional scar that I may one day again experience that pain haunts me. And, no, I haven’t gotten the shingles shot but have intended to for some time without following through. And don’t remind me about intentions because I do know where they lead.
As a retired teacher, September has always been a month filled with anticipation. From the moment Staples would come out with their back-to-school ads and flyers, I was like a kid at Christmas—“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” to coin a phrase. I couldn’t wait to load up on school supplies! Then there was the excitement and challenge of meeting new students and colleagues, finding out their stories, passing along skills students could use for the rest of their lives (ahem…typing!), enjoying the give and take of a classroom of excited kids, laughing and crying as a new year unfolded were like life-giving waters to me. I loved settling into the rhythm of school life and the intellectual stimulation of every minute of every hour of the day! Even now that I’m retired, I have to make a couple of trips to Staples to check out the pocket folders, colored papers, pens, notebooks—oh (and sigh), the calendars and organizers! I still gravitate toward kids I see in the store to ask about their school year.
It was a September (1971) that brought Ken into my life. This tall, handsome guy from somewhere around Pittsburgh that all the young girls had a crush on…who saw something in me that I didn’t see and who changed my world. Who could make me laugh about the silliest things when I was as serious as a heart attack. Who tricked me into holding a large boa constrictor in front of a gymnasium full of students and then he ran for the door! And who stuck up for me and elevated me when I needed it most. And who still makes me laugh and still supports me these forty-plus years later.
And it was in September 2001—that awful day—colleagues, friends, and students all struggled to understand how any one group could be so misguided and so filled with hatred and rage. That September I cried along with everyone else and stood with conviction to recite the pledge to the flag, determined that I would not allow intolerance and ignorance to dictate my response to others. I remember leaving the school building that day and wondering how it was possible that the sky could be so beautiful, the sun so warm on my skin, in the face of such despair.
That one awful September day made me realize what a gift it is that our family is fortunate to be able to continue making beautiful memories of perfect September days. And I feel fortunate to be able to tell our 95-year old mother of the memory I have of her singing the September Song, and the warm feeling hearing her singing those familiar lyrics again just recently gives me. The vibrato may be gone from her voice, but her memory of the words was still strong and touched my heart as never before. –lcjt