My mother used to walk to school when she was in elementary. I would never let my kids do that, not these days, but her mom thought it was safe. At first. My mom didn’t let me walk to school, either, but for completely different reasons. I asked her why, in elementary school, and all she would say was that she didn’t want to scare me.
She did tell me, eventually, after I’d gone away to college. I’ve never seen my mom talk about something with that kind of fear in her eyes. I’m not saying she’s fearless — nobody is — but there’s a difference between the worry I saw when she was afraid my grandfather wouldn’t survive his surgery, or the anxiety she felt that time our car broke down in the bad part of town, and what I saw in her eyes when she told me the story.
My grandmother let her walk to school because 1) that’s just what people did back then, I guess, and 2) the neighbors on either side of their house had kids in my mom’s grade, so they all walked together. Mom is sure they didn’t start walking when they were kindergartners, but she can’t pinpoint their exact age. She said she thinks this was in second or third grade, but she knows it was at least the second year she walked to school.
She came home one day, mid-fall, and asked my grandmother, “Why don’t the other kids walk home?”
My grandmother, needless to say, was confused by this. She thought my mom was referring to the neighbors, the boy and the girl who lived on either side of them. She called up the neighbors to make sure, and she asked my mom a few more questions. No, that’s not who she was talking about. She called my grandmother silly for asking.
My mom told my grandmother she was talking about the other group of kids, the ones who didn’t talk. They always walked on the other sidewalk.
This confused my grandmother. She hadn’t realized there were other kids in the neighborhood who walked to school. Most of them took the bus. My grandmother wanted my mom to walk because she was always concerned about health and fitness, and she wanted my mom to get the exercise. She also liked that it gave my mom more independence.
It took a lot of questioning from my grandmother, but, as my mom recalls it, she eventually gave her a more concrete description. The other kids always walked on the opposite side of the street from her and the neighbors. She never heard them say anything. She didn’t recall hearing their footsteps, either. She only saw them in the morning, and she only saw them in the fall.
It came out that, yes, she had always seen them in the fall while walking. No, they weren’t there every morning, but almost. They only appeared when it was foggy. It didn’t have to be foggy everywhere, though. Sometimes was only foggy where the other kids were walking.
Mom remembers not being able to see much of the other side of the street. The fog blanked it out, like someone had taken a giant eraser and scrubbed it over the world, leaving only vague impressions of what was supposed to be there. The other kids existed in that mist like grey shadows, colorless and ethereal. Mom said when she watched them walk it was like watching an old film being played in slow motion. The other kids didn’t walk slowly, though. They kept pace with Mom and her neighbors.
Mom said the other kids usually ignored her. She tried calling out to them. So did the neighbors. They responded only once, but not out loud. They turned to look at her. She said her and the neighbors ran the rest of the way to school that day. The other kids’ eyes caught the light and reflected it, like a deer or a cat. They shone in the fog like chips of diamond hit with a spotlight, casting the other kids’ faces into even deeper shadow.
Mom’s story made my grandmother uncomfortable, but she didn’t quite believe it. Even when she talked to the neighbor kids about it, who gave her a similar description, she felt doubtful. So, one day, she walked to school with my mom and the neighbors.
Grandmother never talked about it, to me or to mom, but from then on either she drove Mom to school or sent her on the bus. Mom said they say the other kids that day. Grandma held her hand way too tight. She said she thought my grandmother was more afraid than she was. She thought the other kids were weird, but they’d never hurt her. Seeing my grandmother’s reaction was what terrified her.
If she’d told me this story when I was in elementary school, I would think, now, that she was just making up a reason why I couldn’t walk. She didn’t, though. I never questioned her about walking anyway, because it never occurred to me. I took the bus. That’s just what I did.
When she was telling me about the other kids, I could picture them, on the fog-shrouded sidewalk on the other side of the street. The picture in my mind wasn’t of my mom’s childhood neighborhood, even though I knew it well, because my grandparents lived there my whole life. It was of my neighborhood.
The picture in my head wasn’t from across the street, walking, placing myself in my mom’s childhood shoes. It was from a bus window on a foggy day, with me drawing a picture on the glass and looking through the now-clear smiley face to see a group of children walking, grayed out by the fog, whose eyes lit up like beacons when they turned to watch the bus passing by them.
I don’t walk anywhere in the morning during fall.