Elise Moser on her first day of school

Elise Moser as a girl

Elise Moser, age 9

The only memories I have of my first day of kindergarten are a couple of fuzzy images. Outside, I stood on the sidewalk, my left arm extended upward because my mother was holding my hand. I was scared — I had no idea what was going to happen.

Inside, the hallway of the school was huge — a broad, shining field of towering animals: fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

But kindergarten was actually my second school.

I don’t remember the first day, but I do remember a lot about the many days I spent in nursery school. It was in the Borough Hall of our tiny town. For years “Borohall” was one word for me and merely identified the little building behind our house with the small playground, and beyond that the big broken-down shed where the town’s yellow garbage truck lived. Every morning I ran through our backyard, crossed the narrow gravel road, and deked between the playground equipment to the back door.

Inside the Borough Hall was one big room. Most of the kids came in through the front door — only spitting distance from the back door. We hung our jackets on a row of hooks and then ran to the closet to get our smocks. We did a lot of finger painting.

Our nursery school teachers were Miss Ellie and Miss Ilus (pronounced Ilush). Miss Ellie was beautiful, a tall, elegant crane of a woman with a lush hood of gray hair and a generous smile that allowed a curious child to spy her unusual dental work. Miss Ilus was her sister, but she was more like a robin, a small, charming woman with a close brown cap of hair. They were both moderately wrinkled and calm and kind; I have no memory of them when they weren’t smiling. I can only imagine that they were perfect nursery school teachers.

Miss Ellie and Miss Ilus (I continued to call them that until I left town at seventeen, and would still address them that way today except that they must be long dead) lived with their mother, who was even smaller than her daughter Ilus — a sparrow perhaps — and who bore the very cosmopolitan name Coco. I couldn’t have known this while I was in nursery school, but I came to know — as if I had always known, as kids often know things — that they were Hungarian Holocaust survivors. I assumed that that explained why these two grown women lived in our small New Jersey town with their elderly mother; in my young mind their unusual arrangement was a result of their traumatic displacement. (It may have been.)

In retrospect, I have the impression that they were very cultured people, with elegant taste and knowledge of art and music. I had no idea then how a cataclysm of global proportions had uprooted these lovely women and replanted them in my life. But how lucky I was that I had their gentle care for my first days of school.


978-1-55498-334-6Elise Moser is the author of an adult novel (Because I Have Loved and Hidden It) and more than two dozen short stories. Born in Brooklyn, she now divides her time between Montreal and Sauk City, Wisconsin.

Watch for back-to-school blog posts from Groundwood authors running from August 15th – September 15th. Everyone at Groundwood hopes that this school year will bring you new friends.

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