Boarding School

windowThe 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.

Lattice at night

 Hush, I told myself, as I accidentally clanged pots and pans together in my sister’s kitchen. It was three a.m. I couldn’t sleep and had a hankering for lattice-topped apple pie.

Hard to be quiet when I didn’t know where anything was. Four large cupboards lined the walls near the table and six more hung near the refrigerator. Below those were banks of drawers and closed doors full of mystery. In my frustration I pulled a divided casserole dish from storage but could not imagine my tasty creation being squeezed and divided in white corningware. After much not-so-quiet opening and closing, I hit the pie tin jackpot in the corner near the lazy susan.

We’d brought home a large bag of apples that afternoon from the Amish farm near-by. The day was crisp and bright, full of cider, squash and piled pumpkins. The apples called to me in shades of on-fire red to be peeled, doused with honey and butter, baked and enjoyed. I got up in the night to obey.

My sister’s life is full of order, her cupboards and refrigerator the same. Her large country kitchen holds the knotty pine table that served as a banquet table in my parents restaurant. Now her children gather around it with their children and a wayward Aunt Karen from Oregon. She wrote emails last summer telling me how she’d refinished and varnished the table. I would never have dared spread flour over the surface, or used a knife to fashion strips of dough if it had not been 3 am, if I had not been alone in the kitchen with the vision of a warm apple pie where sleep ought to be.

My sister does things just right. She has rules with definite rights and wrongs. I  guessed what I was doing would fit into the right category in the morning, but my time and method would give her one of those looks that said, It’s okay, I love you anyway, if she had found me out at night.

Long story short, I never found the spice drawer, so the finished product was bland, but well received, even appreciated and fussed over. She wrote me an email today, which was my first day home after an eight hour plane ride. It said, I felt a real sadness at your being gone.  So I went upstairs and wrapped myself in the comfort of your corduroy jacket, which I wore for the rest of the day and then put on again this morning. It is a little piece of you and it brings me more comfort than you know.

I miss her too. A sister is a precious thing, especially one that can tolerate a west coast eccentric who can not follow the rules.

written October 1, 2008

Are you coming?

We weren’t supposed to be there. The house was condemned but I could not resist. My best friend, Roberta lived in that house. We snuggled together in her bed, played on the floor near french doors and stood at the double sink resenting each dish her mother told us to wash. The place was a palatial estate in a depressed Appalachian way. It sat up high on acres of land next to an equally large barn supported by thin layers of slate. The land was bordered by rutted fields and deep woods. I told my husband I wanted to visit but it was more a dare than expectation. I was surprised when he pulled our rental car up the dirt driveway and opened my door.

I stepped out into tall wet grass feeling brave and criminal. There was no evidence of a path as we moved through weeds growing in tangles around our knees. We climbed rotting stairs near plywood covered windows, listening to sounds of the wind fluttering autumn leaves near the large yellow poster that hung on the door. Stay Out, No Trespassing, Violators will be prosecuted ~ the usual threats. The house was weather-beaten grey and pulled me so powerfully into the past that I expected to see myself there. The door hung crooked on rusted hinges and would not close. My husband was immediately uncomfortable and wanted to leave, but I was entranced. If anyone comes, I told him, wedging myself through the door, I will simply explain that I was Roberta’s friend, and they will give me news of her. Of course, I had not seen or heard from her in 50 years, but in such a small town someone would know.

Inside we found hundreds of boxes covering the floors in various stages of decay, looking as if someone had prepared to move, thought better of it, and simply walked away. The frame of the double sink pulled my attention to the kitchen. I remembered cleaning eggs from blue metal dishes speckled with white, and eating bowls piled high with sweet frozen cream from the ice box. The double sinks stood alone and erect in an otherwise gutted room. I continued to walk into what used to be the parlor, where I found the piano we once gathered around to sing. I walked over more rotting boxes and pressed against keys that resisted touch. The tone that whispered back was distant and sleeping, as if it were trying to remember its voice after a half century of silence. A sadness filled me at its loss. It stood in its splendid German casing holding firm to its place in the corner.

The french doors opened between the living room and the parlor, each rectangular glass still whole and intact, except for one near the floor which was completely missing. I remembered that cracked pane because I played next to it as a child, watching sunlight dance in its disfigured face. Those days stretched and grew into endless hours. Now all that remained was covered in dirt, with musty smells clouding water stained walls.

How amazing, I thought, to visit a house from my childhood. How astounding to find it standing with many of its contents unmoved, while real estate in my world was unaffordable and scarce.  This would have been torn down decades ago in the west, with dozens of houses erected on the land. My life in Oregon seemed a dream away. Here I expected to see Roberta’s father dressed in dark trousers and boots, and hear the sound of his ax striking logs for the fire, as he piled his arms high, the smell of fresh cut birch in his path.

On the other side of the archway stood the family’s china cabinet, the wooden doors askew, the drawers toppled and crooked, the wood still rich with studied craftsmanship and quality, like a war-torn ship that washed ashore from another century.

My husband followed in my footsteps eager to bolt. Let’s go Karen, he pleaded. There’s nothing here but decay and junk. Let’s leave. But I could not pull myself away. I was following a thread from my youth like a determined detective.

Yes, dear, go, I answered. I’ll be right behind you. But I lied because I could not stop. As he turned to leave, I pulled a fallen door from my path and climbed up uncertain stairs until I had a view of the second floor. My eyes drifted across the room, and up to a glimpse of pale sky. The structure was all brick and lath, exposed beams and foundation lumbers. No boxes up here, just decades of neglect and a past taken down to the bones. I recognized the hallway and could see into the empty spaces that use to house beds, handsewn quilts, wash basins, and chamber pots. For a moment I saw the girl I used to be in her flannel pajamas, bare feet and dirty face, her blonde hair springing free from the tight french braids her mother labored over each morning.

Are you coming?  my husband asked again. Where are you Karen? This is so unsafe. Don’t go up there.  And so I listened, turned and left, thinking as I walked away, that the house was forever changed and at the same time unchanged, just like myself.

written September 30, 2008