The air was crisp and the trees wore the bold colors of autumn’s tapestry as mother and I drove to St Johnsbury,Vermont. I felt adventuresome, and excited to go to boarding school. It wasn’t until we went to bed that night that the reality of it hit me. I had been delighting in her company without fully realizing that the next day she would get in her car and drive away. I had felt deprived of her before, but now I felt abandoned and panicked.
She lay sleeping, her face turned from view. I studied the way her hair fell against the pillow and the gentle rhythm of her breath. Her nightgown of silken pink with satin borders invited touch, but I resisted. I was afraid to wake her, afraid to betray my intense desire for her comfort. I was her problem child, the difficult one. Everything about me took extra time and energy. She gave what little time she had, but I always hungered for more.
As I stared into nothingness, I fantasized that she would rise in all of her feminine splendor, lean over me, place her warm lips against my hair and whisper, Sweetheart, I’ve made a mistake. I could never leave you here. I love you far too much to be away from you. Let’s work this out differently because I simply can not bear having you gone. I pulled my thoughts back. That was not going to happen. I needed to be strong.
I met my housemother in the morning, Hazel Simpson. She was entombed in a closet-sized room near the front door. Welcome to Brantview, she said, attaching herself to my mother. We’re all looking forward to having your daughter with us, and what a lovely girl she is. My mother looked down at me and smiled, while Mrs Simpson squeezed my face between her thumb and chunky middle finger. We’re getting such good quality girls these days. Look at this one. She has the face of an angel. For years we had such troubled children, now that’s all turning around. She released my face and went back to exchange pleasantries, assurances and goodbyes with my mother. I said my own farewell amidst promises to write .
My room was on the third floor of the Brantview mansion. Mr. Fairview had been a prominent figure in the community, when he died his home became the academy’s dormitory for girls. The boys were not so lucky. Their building was cheap and small, sat on the edge of a traffic lane and was badly in need of repair. The Brantview mansion, by contrast had long rambling walkways, a tree lined drive, and an archery course. The building had turrets, balconies, winding cherry stairwells, stone fireplaces, two pianos, coves for retreat and perches with views of the town. The front doors were arched, grand and windowed with stained glass.
I met my room-mate tucked in a corner of the balcony, sitting in the sun hugging her knees. She was shorter than I, had long chestnut hair and a German heritage that showed in the structure of her face. I’ve already taken half the closet and chosen this bed, she said. You can have the other one. Her bed faced the window, while mine faced the wall. I picked up my suitcase and headed for the closet. To my surprise, it was large enough to be another bedroom, and overflowed with the most fashionable and expensive clothes I’d ever seen. A second wall was lined with shoes in rich shades of polished leather, while half-opened drawers revealed boxes of feminine finery. I drew back from the sight of it. Such opulent beauty. I’d never seen such finely crafted garments. I didn’t know they existed.
Nice things, I said.
Just thanks. That was it, like it was all nothing. I decided to unpack later.
I stretched across the bed and began reading the house rules:
No riding in cars. No boys in the girl’s dormitory beyond the front steps. Week-days the bell will sound at 6:15 AM. You must have your bed made, room clean and leave for the dining hall by 7 . You must always sign in and out indicating your exact location. Women must wear dresses at all times. Men require a jacket and tie. After school there is an hour of free time before going to the academy for supervised study. Lights out at 9:30. Rounds will be made by the housemother. Non-compliance will result in demerits. Accumulated demerits will result in loss of free time, or denied week-end activities. Week-ends can be spent away from school on special occasions only with written parental consent. The list went on.
To my surprise, the routine and structure of the academy were just what the doctor ordered, and the fresh air was good for my health. I marched through my days like a fine little solider, counting myself lucky. There was no way to do badly in school. Each evening we went back to study hall to complete our homework, if we didn’t understand something a teacher was there to explain it. My isolation and illness seemed far behind and I found myself embracing life for the first time.