When my children were young, the big yellow school buses crisscrossing the neighborhood streets were my official timekeepers. Weekdays revolved around the sound of their diesel engines. The first bus of the morning carried middle school- and high school-aged students. I remember the days when I never could imagine that my grammar school children in front of my eyes, wearing Pokémon socks and innocent smiles, would ever pull off the trick of growing big enough to travel on the early morning bus. The future felt as far away as the high school, which is at least a good half-hour ride to the adjacent town.
About forty-five minutes after the first bus, the next bus, carrying grammar school students, roared down the road parallel to us. That meant that breakfast dishes were tossed into the sink, backpacks flung over shoulders and the three of us dodged out the front door, down our cul-de-sac, past the next door ranch-style house. By the time we made it to the stop sign (we always did!), breaks squealing, the bus halted completely in front of us. Eli, the bus driver, swung the door open, ppssss.
The vocal magnitude of the two words ballooned big and booming, and made you feel as if you were on the other side of a bear hug. Eli’s broad beaming face erased any clouds as well as the discomfort of cold, hot, rainy days. His vigorous body language, combined with his waving hands, hailed in each new day as if it were a greater victory than the one before.
My children climbed up the metal stairs. Once they were safely inside, perched on their seats, Eli accelerated, spewing diesel exhaust fumes along the way. In those days, I was clueless about the toxicity of diesel fumes. Those were the days when I poured over parenting books, sure they would continue to navigate me and my family on the road map to happiness. Certainly those were not the days that reading books like the New York Times bestseller Before We Were Yours provided me with therapeutic relief. The historical novel by Lisa Wingate is based on Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. From 1924 to 1950, Tann got away with stealing and selling an estimated 5,000 children. It is also estimated that behind the organization’s closed doors, around 500 kids died at the hands of Tann, not to mention the countless children who were mentally, physically and sexually abused. In a morbid way, after I was dealt my unspeakably painful playing cards in the game of life, the book left me feeling as if I were the lucky one. I had the lucky hand.
Anyway, during the childrearing years, life went at a fast pace, but I moved in a slow enough pace to appreciate my bubble home. Weekdays, I performed household chores and tackled freelance writing assignments while keeping my ears open, listening for the big yellow school buses. Their daily routes helped to increase my productivity. “I have to hurry up before the kids’ bus gets in” outlined my day better than a day planner and kept me feeling safe and secure.
Years went on and before I knew it, magically, my kids graduated to the big-kid yellow school bus. Then in a flash of an eye, my grown children went to live on their own.
Before as well as after our family tragedy, apart from my Spotify background music in the kitchen, I blanked out most outside interference and noise, and fell into the routine of my days. On occasion, vaguely, I would hear the release of the squeaky air brakes on the school buses. Then suddenly, the world was completely floored by the Covid-19 pandemic and the neighborhood was emptied out and quiet. It were as if everyone of all ages were playing hide and seek, but none of the players got beyond the “hide” stage. Sometimes out of the blue when my blue moods would lift a tad, I had a sensation to roam outside and patrol the neighborhood, shouting “Olly olly oxen free!” and cry for life to wake up.
I’m not sure what the mask mandate is, but a few weeks ago, I am sure the town children started school again. I was driving down the road, and the cheery man bus driver with thick, white Santa Claus hair slowed down the big yellow school bus and waved at me. In the last few years of my children’s high school education, he replaced Eli’s job after Eli retired. I wrestled with my emotions and inspected the empty school bus. Suddenly, I gazed through the sight wearing my pair of rose-colored glasses and called out in my mind, “Olly, olly oxen free!”
I looked up and down the bus, but it remained empty. My imagination would not escort me beyond the reality in front of my eyes. The bus pulled away.
Hours later, running errands, I walked outside the drugstore in a strip mall. I heard a big yellow school bus barreling down the main road. I glanced up and spotted the sweetest looking ginger-colored boy I could imagine. He looked like he was around eight years old and wore the identical glasses my son did at that age. The loneliness in his face was as familiar as my arm hairs. The aura of isolation around him was overwhelming as if the big yellow school bus, completely empty, swallowed him whole. Sadly, the look on his face told me that he had learned early in life to accept his fickle finger of fate as if it were change returned from a vending machine. The bus, carrying the boy, moved past me and disappeared.
I wanted to wave the bus down. Wind the clock backwards. Instead, I stood like a prism. Pain passed though on every side until I became numb, my usual state these days. Like the boy on the bus, I accepted my state of isolation and managed to drive home and survive the day. The next morning, at the sound of the diesel engine, I move outside on the back balcony and observe the bus pick up the grammar school-age children. As I watch above ground, I think: this is my universe. It’s interesting to think how the shapes of galaxies are influenced by their neighbors, and I recall how many tragedies our little universe has endured: the spouses that have died before their prime, and the parents that have lost young adult children due to a number of different causes. I can clearly see the young mom who joined us at our school bus stop, later dying from cancer before her children ever graduated high school. I also visualize one child, older than my children, holding a saxophone case who also shared our bus stop for a few years, only to later die at 28 years old from what is rumored was a drug overdoes.
I think of how my neighbors and I have suffered alone and in solidarity with others. I picture how we have grieved inside our houses as the world spun on, as the big yellow school buses met their mapped out routes, crisscrossing the neighborhood as if invisibly connecting every single person who lives here, and who once lived here through the generations. My isolation lifts, realizing that gravity holds us all together like hundreds of billions of stars in a galaxy. We are all the lucky ones on the same path to the same final destination, I say out loud as I watch the big yellow school bus muscle its way into the distance and realize how very little I see from this spot. Concurrently, I am filled with a child-like excitement of taking the very first school bus trip, having faith there is plenty of room inside and the big fat seat in the big yellow bus is designed for comfort, intuitively knowing that everything will be alright, because the route is planned. In the sheer scale of things, it is larger than our own milky way galaxy and defies imagination.