Handprints No Longer Small

In these graduating times, cause for celebration and remembering: smeary handprints won't forever stay messy or small.

We are driving to preschool. Puffy white clouds roll about in a Southern California sky. He is two weeks into his first year at preschool.

"Oh man," he says. "I want to go to preschool forever."

Today is his last day of preschool. We hold hands briefly before he breaks away to do a little spinning dance. When he finishes, he regards me.

"Do you know why I like preschool, Dad?"

I can think of countless answers, but I know he already has one.

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"Why?"

"Because they don't make me take a nap."

Today is his first day of kindergarten. Before going off to her teaching job, his lovely mother has picked out a handsome outfit and packed a yummy lunch. She's also taped a sweet note and a Dennis the Menace cartoon to his Winnie the Pooh backpack. In the cartoon Dennis is on the swings at the playground. Leaning over his shoulder he says to another boy, I just play part-time. My real job is going to kindergarten.

When I wake him, he looks bigger.

"Are you getting bigger?" I ask. "I told you not to get bigger."

He hops out of bed.

"I forgot," he says.

He is in second grade. Sometimes we still walk to school holding hands, but more often he is very busy bending to examine curious items and pocket pretty much all of them so that we may find them in the washing machine later.

We are not holding hands when he regards me somberly.

"Dad? Can I go to a close college so I can stay with you guys?"

Today is his last day of elementary school. They hold a Maypole dance; everyone performing an intricate over and under dance of ribbons and laughter that was impossible five years ago. I walk home with a neighbor whose daughter was also part of the Maypole graduation. This neighbor, he is always joking. Today he is not joking. Today he looks at me and says, "You know how you never think about things ending? But it all comes to an end. There's a last time they'll ride on your knee but you don't know it then. A lot of things happen like that."

Today is the first day of middle school. During middle school he has decided he will bike to school with his friends, but on the first day I drive him. We pass his elementary school on the way. In the gauzy early morning sunshine kids play on the playground.

He is silent for a moment and then he says, "Look at all the little kids."

As we near the middle school the sidewalks are packed with students. Some of the girls don't look like middle schoolers at all. He is sitting in the backseat. When I glance in the rear view mirror he is bug-eyed.

Today is the first day of high school. When I drop him off at school he looks back for only the required second. I work at home, my office walls plastered with mementos. Very unprofessional, but they are far more important to me than work. On this day when I get home a small handprint outlined with a few messily glued seashells catches my eye. Beneath the hand print is a poem many parents know. It speaks of frustration and smeared handprints on the furniture and walls and fingers that won't stay either messy or small. The words of the poem are fading away.

I stand there far longer than I should.

In thirty eight school days he graduates. Not that any high school senior -- here in Ventura or across the country -- is counting. Last night while he was upstairs in the shower his beautiful mother turned to me. Her hands were shaking just a little. I knew this because she was holding a plate and I was trying to figure if I would have time to snatch it out of the air.

"Remember how he always liked to be held?" she asked. "I miss that closeness."

We both smiled half smiles.

Today at school he heard from the college he wants to go to. Regarding phone conversations or texts, he does not prattle on. Between classes he sent a text.

I got in.

The college is close to us, but we know he will not be staying with us.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine is the author of eight books and lives in Ventura. His most recent novel, “Juncture,” is a cerebral “Jaws”; a suspense-filled thriller, a story of primal love and our changing oceans and, perhaps, a final fork in the road.
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