Mrs Howe. How on earth I remember that after so many decades, I do not know… but that was the name of my headmistress on my very first day at school. I can still ‘see’ her in memory… can see her in assembly, holding up the vases she collected for the school… could still describe her office, where we sat and read to her, one by one and where, every Christmas, the glittery wings were affixed to the archangel. It is probably the only time in my life I have been angelic… but it took me years to stop picturing Gabriel as a girl.
I started school at four. Before that, there was nursery school, when I was going on three and I remember that too. I remember my grandmother waving us off, that very first day and telling me to be a good girl. The raised beds, like hospital trolleys, on which we were obliged to nap, like it or not. The lunch we were forcibly fed if we didn’t eat. The coat-peg with a picture of a blue and red yacht…I was never happy about that. All the other girls had flowers, bears and butterflies. I got a ruddy yacht. Even worse… I could have written my name myself, but no, we were not supposed to be able to read or write at that age… so I had to live with the yacht. The only good bit was the old caretaker. He’d known my grandparents and mother years before and would let me come into his garden at playtime. I can still see the battered greenhouse where he grew vegetables and, when they were ripe, he would let me pick and eat fresh peas, which I have always loved.
It is odd what we remember, a lifetime later. They must have been very important at the time to linger in memory so clearly and for so long. It makes me delve into other memories, chains of association sparking whole movies on the screen of time.
I remember my sons’ first days at school… and the guilt I felt at not being worried, when all the other mothers seemed to feel they had to cry and regret ‘losing’ their babies. “He’ll be perfectly fine,” said the teacher. “But you can stay with him if you like… ” In both sons’ cases, they had already wandered off to play, not missing me at all…
It seems strange, seeing my granddaughter, not yet three and heading off for her first day at school, to realise that not only was her father once this size, but I was once this size myself, and still recall so much and so clearly. I wonder too what Hollie will remember of this first day when she is my age and her granddaughter heads off for that first day in her turn. With a fair bit of luck, I might even be around to ask her.