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AbsenceMy absence lasted a week and I returned on a Monday morning in April. Written in chalk on the board in the front of the classroom, was a sentence— Jack looked for his book. I tried sounding out the word looked. It was a word I hadn’t seen before. I asked a friend who said it was looked (lookt). I knew that word, but there was no way L-O-O-K-E-D sounded like that. These kids couldn’t be trusted. Nothing could be trusted. It had been a tough week.

When Mrs. Barber began the lesson of course I learned that my friend was correct; an ED ending did indeed have a T sound, further reinforcing my doubt in the balance of the earth. There were more lessons, and I tried to pay attention and concentrate despite my disorientation. It took all the will and determination in my seven-year-old body to not scream or cry.

The day ended with show-and-tell. It was the hardest school day I’d ever been through. I’m sure the class had been notified of the reason for my absence though no one had mentioned anything to me. No doubt they didn’t know what to say, or at least the kids didn’t, but even my teacher hadn’t taken a moment to pull me aside and reassure or try to comfort me.

“Does anyone have anything to show or tell?” Mrs. Barber asked. My hand shot up, I was nearly bursting to say the words, to release my anxiety and pain, to make someone notice that although I was in the same classroom I’d spent the last seven months in, sitting at my same desk, everything (I) was completely different. “My mother died” I blurted out. I don’t know what kind of response I was expecting, but I know it wasn’t stunned silence. No one, not even my teacher knew what to do, or say. I clearly recall the moment of releasing those words yet I don’t remember what happened next. Saying them felt imperative.

I’d spent a week surrounded by grown-ups who had no idea what to do for me, or say to me. I received a lot of toys, but hardly anyone spent time with me. No one knew how to act, so they did nothing. I spent most of the week sitting Shiva in the kitchen with our maid Katie. No one talked about my mother; her absence filled the house.

After that week things at school soon returned to normal. I easily caught up on the week’s learning I’d missed, and resumed regular kid activities. School became the safe and normal place in my life, while home was uncharted territory. At school everything was the same, at home nothing was. In neither place did anyone acknowledge my mother’s absence.

I didn’t like my teacher, Mrs. Barber. She was old (she retired the year after I left her class) and she was old-school—strictly business; a stern disciplinarian with no warmth. After school I watched TV alone or with Katie until I went to bed in the room I now shared with my grandmother; a woman much like Mrs. Barber, who had just lost her only child. I rarely saw my father who now worked six or seven days a week, and had essentially stopped talking.

By the time I got to Mrs. Suskin’s second grade class I was starving for love, and she delivered. I think my neediness and pain were apparent, and she showered me with kindness and affection. She was kind and affectionate with all the kids, but I think she was a little extra tender with me.

In preparation for parents’ night in the fall we had to write an essay for our parents. Mine was a short piece about my desire to disappear, because I felt like my presence was painful to my father. She took me aside and told me my essay was very good, but maybe I should write something else for parents’ night. I’m sure she could imagine my father reading my essay and breaking down in front of the other parents.

I know she gave him the essay because years later I found it with my old report cards and book reports. He never said a word about it. I don’t remember what my replacement essay was about, but she confirmed what I was learning at home; other people’s feelings were more important than mine. Missing my mother must happen in silence. Her absence was mine to hold.


This piece was written for the  Yeah Write Super Challenge I am participating in.  I was given an assignment to write a personal essay on the topic school.

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  • July 23, 2016 - 1:28 pm

    Paul D. Brads - Educators Must be aware of the impact they have on children. This is very good.ReplyCancel

    • July 23, 2016 - 9:52 am - Thanks! I think they are much more aware now than they were in 1965.ReplyCancel

  • July 23, 2016 - 5:09 pm

    Tamara Rhiannon Barclay Oliver - This is stunning. Thank you so much for sharing this incredibly vulnerable and tender time in your life.ReplyCancel

  • July 25, 2016 - 10:00 am

    Melony Boseley - This has me crying, Nancy. Thank you for showing such a vulnerable side of yourself. The adults in your life certainly were doing the best they could but really failed you in a lot of ways.ReplyCancel

  • August 3, 2016 - 7:12 pm

    Jan Wilberg - This is wonderful. I loved it.ReplyCancel

  • March 10, 2017 - 7:34 pm

    My Seventh Birthday; Things Change » Chefs Last Diet - […] one in my family knew what to do about or for me after my mother’s death. They kept me home from school for the week we sat shiva*, and I wandered the house. My brother was a baby, and taking care of him […]ReplyCancel

  • July 5, 2017 - 6:33 am

    Powder Blue Thunderbird Convertible » Chefs Last Diet - […] from the sadness that permeated every corner of the house and the echo of my mother’s absence. The year had been a hard one, and going to Baltimore was the first thing that felt normal in […]ReplyCancel

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