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THE WEIGHT OF INK, A NOVEL BY RACHEL KADISH

I hate to think of what I would have missed if my daughter had not given me this unusually structured, magnificent novel for Christmas, 2021. It was published in 2017. That I had never heard of it is, to me, like being the geologist who didn’t notice an earthquake he was standing on.

The first page of The Weight of Ink is dated twice: June 8, 1691, and II Sivan of the Hebrew year 5451. The place is Richmond, Surrey, which was then on the outskirts of London.

The first sentence of the first page: “Let me begin afresh, this time to tell the truth.”

The very next page is dated four hundred years later, November 2, 2000, in London, where Helen Watt, an ailing professor, near the end of a less than satisfactory career, is about to get access to the papers in which the unknown writer promises this time to tell the truth. One of Helen’s former students, whom she doesn’t remember, and his wife, are legally prohibited from finishing the remodeling of their recently purchased 17th century house in Richmond until the authenticity and historical value of a cache of papers recently discovered by an electrician behind a panel can be evaluated. If Helen can identify the author and place him or her in the context of that time when the Great Plague was about to arrive in London, she will retire in some glory, thus redeeming her career. To do this she must unlock the mysteries before her younger colleague, favored by the department head, does.

Thus, two women are connected across the centuries, Helen Watt and Esther Velasquez, an immigrant from Amsterdam who, contrary to the norms of the time, was permitted to be the scribe for a blind rabbi, a role usually reserved for men. The novel switches back and forth between their lives as Esther, secretly a philosopher and seeker of truth, navigates her tenuous situation, and Helen and her young assistant, study the papers to unlock their mysteries, most importantly the identity of Esther – who they at first naturally assume is male.

What is delicious for the reader is the dramatic irony in the novel’s architecture: Helen and her assistant and their competitor can only read the papers while the reader of the novel has access to all the rich dimensions of Esther’s life in the time when Jews were only recently allowed to live in England. The reader always knows more than Helen does and hopes that Helen will catch up in time to win her race. The reader cares just as fervently for Esther to find her truths and survive.

Thus, The Weight of Ink thrives vibrantly in several genres simultaneously: mystery, historical novel, career novel, feminist novel, while transcending all genres via the literary quality of the writing. Here is Helen approaching for the first time the house where the cache of papers is still behind a panel:

“She approached the door, her cane slipping on the irregular stones. Her breath was uneven from the unaccustomed exertion – she slowed to calm it. On a narrow window beside the door, a reflection of her own bent figure. As she leaned closer, it rippled as though on the dark surface of a stream: a pale aged professor in her outdated suit. Tilted to one side, leaning on her cane.

——— Straightening, she took the cold iron knocker in her hand. Both – the smooth weighty metal and her thin quaking hand – were impervious to the sunlight that fell profligate over everything: the door, the marble threshold, the sleeves of her wool coat. The knocker’s blows reverberated dully through the thick door and died. And in the silence – the unmistakable silence of an old house – she felt, for just an instant, the old feeling: the impossible ache of standing so close to a piece of history. A feeling like something dropped endlessly inside of her – like being in the presence of a long-ago lover who had once known her every inch, but now refused to acknowledge her.”

I figure I extracted about a third of the richness in my first reading. I’ll get another third in the next. And if I’m still around in a year or so, I’ll read it for the third time.

If you haven’t read it for the first time yet, you’re in for a treat.

THE WEIGHT OF INK, A NOVEL BY RACHEL KADISH2022-07-01T21:52:42+00:00

An Introduction to Right-Wing Radio Jock Mitch Michaels

THIS IS AN EXCERPT FROM NO IVORY TOWER, BOOK THREE OF THE MISS OLIVER’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS SAGA

It was three o’clock in the morning and Mitch Michaels was wide awake.

Ordinarily the two Vicodins he had swallowed at midnight would have taken him all the way to six o’clock, and then there would be the limo ride to the studio where, as soon as he leaned forward into the mike, he’d imagine all those people nodding their heads, guys mostly, driving to work all over the country, their shoulders relaxing because they were hearing what they already believed, and his pain would melt away. But there was no show today because it was a holiday weekend and he was not in his New York apartment; he was in his summer house on the beach in Madison, Connecticut, and without the daily morning rage vent to look forward to and with the disturbing presence just down the hall of Claire Nelson, his daughter’s long-legged, willowy guest with the raven hair and deep-set, innocent eyes, he knew that, in another half an hour, if he didn’t take another pill, the electricity that was then a mounting tingle at both sides of his lower back would pulse down through his buttocks and explode in his hamstrings and toes like bombs going off every minute and a half. Ninety seconds exactly. He’d counted them. It never varied. The worst part was waiting in between.

He didn’t need to turn the light on to find his way down the hall to the bathroom past the room where his daughter Amy and Claire were sleeping because it was just a little shingled cottage, which he and his wife had bought when he was still a sportscaster for seventy-five thousand dollars. Seventy-five thousand! It was worth six hundred thousand now. He knew because he’d had to pay her half that to buy his half from her when they divorced—which he was happy to do—until he figured out that it made her rich enough to enroll their daughter in that school. “How would you feel,” he’d asked on his show, pretending he was talking about some other family, “if you had no say in what kind of a school your daughter goes to?”—forgetting that most of his listeners sent their kids to public schools and didn’t have any say either. The more he’d learned about Miss Oliver’s School for Girls in Amy’s freshman year—how the students addressed their teachers by their first names—or even nick names! How the kids were allowed to dress like savages and read books like Catch 22—as if they knew enough by then to know why we fought that war and what guys died for—the more cheated he felt. It didn’t help that his ex-wife, as sole custodian of his daughter, in total control of when and if he could visit with her, had obtained a court order prohibiting him from stepping foot on the campus.

In the bathroom, he opened the medicine cabinet and reached behind the row of bottles containing aspirin and ibuprofen and vitamin C and Barbasol Shaving Cream to where the one containing the Vicodin pretended to hide, opened it, and shucked two into his palm. Only ten left. He put one back and swallowed the other. He’d learned to take them without water because water was not always handy, and besides, if he drank water now, he’d have to get up and pee when what he needed was to be obliterated in sleep. The doctor in Madison didn’t know there was a doctor in New York who filled out prescriptions too—or, anyway, pretended he didn’t.

On the shelf beside the sink sat his daughter’s guest’s toilet kit. Toilet. What a nasty name for what’s in there: toothbrush, toothpaste—lipstick maybe? What else? He reached, touched the soft leather, ran his fingers where the zipper was slightly opened, then, shamed, pulled his hand away. Never before in his life had he imagined that a teenager would stir him. Girls that age, especially if they were as beautiful as this one, were people you needed to protect! He didn’t understand that this one’s ability to stir feelings very near to lust in him was a purposeful application of power, in this case just for the hell of it, and he was as addicted to being around power as he was to painkillers—because maybe they were the same. But he did understand that when the Vicodin kicked in and he was back in bed in the dark, not counting the seconds until the next explosion, he might dream of her, and because he hoped he wouldn’t and still wanted to, he was shamed still more.

An Introduction to Right-Wing Radio Jock Mitch Michaels2022-05-19T21:33:37+00:00

THE SINKING OF THE US.S. VERMILION

Not long ago, my grandson asked me to show him a picture of the ship I served on as a very junior naval reserve officer from August, 1953 to February, 1955. I pulled my I phone out of my pocket and typed in USS Vermilion, AKA 107, expecting to see a picture like the one above:

Vermilion was part of the amphibious fleet. She was a freighter carrying 24 landing craft topside and cargo such as jeeps and trucks below decks, which, anchored off the target beach, we unloaded into the landing crafts. We deck officers would then scramble down the embarkation nets, jump into one of the landing craft and lead the way into the beach.  This was practice war, not war for real. The Korean war had ended just before I entered the navy.

As the phone warmed up, I wondered if Vermillion had been de-commissioned, maybe even scrapped.

Instead, a video started playing of the ship with its superstructure stripped off, huge square holes cut into its sides, about to be sunk, re-purposed as an artificial reef, to support aquatic life off the coast of South Carolina. I know very well this is an appropriate use for all those tons of metal, but I was struck with an unexpected surge of grief and a feeling that this was terribly wrong. Without her superstructure, she was humiliated, like the traitorous women shorn of their hair and made to walk naked in the streets at the liberation of Vichy France. What kind of reward was this for her faithful service?

Sailors, whether naval or civilian, live on ships. They don’t go to work. They work from home. Now what was once my home, and that of 150 others, was headed for the bottom of an ocean. I thought of the houses on the banks of rivers, drowned when the rivers were dammed to make reservoirs. Are they still houses? If not, what are they now, under all that water?

I began to understand that what grieved me most of all was that Vermillion’s death was death by sinking. Every naval officer, standing watches on the bridge, focuses on seeing to it that sinking doesn’t happen. This is especially true when steaming in formation, which is most of the time. Vermillion was over 400 feet long, with only one propeller and was therefore not very maneuverable. Reversing the propeller at “Emergency Full,” caused the ship to shudder and shake, but it would be almost a mile before her forward motion stopped. If I remember correctly, her turning circle was 2000 yards, but in formation, we steamed 1000 yards apart. A recipe for collisions.

Serving in the Combat Information Center, otherwise known as C.I.C – and also, sometimes, as “Christ, I’m confused!” – I made a mistake that almost caused a collision one night on the 4am to 8am watch. We had just received two orders to be carried out at once: a change of course for the whole formation of many ships and a change of position within that formation. I recommended turning left at standard speed, forgetting that another ship was positioned behind us and to our left – on the port quarter in Navy speak. The officer of the deck took my advice and ordered a left turn, and then I realized my mistake and rushed to the bridge. By then, the officer of the deck had also realized the mistake and had ordered back emergency full and hard right rudder. Vermillion continued turning left and going forward for what seemed like hours while everything shuddered and shook. Indeed, compared to an automobile accident, it did take forever. Our standard speed was 12 knots. The two ships got so close to each other the water between frothed up in spray. Standing on the port wing of the bridge, I could have shaken hands with the skipper of the other ship standing on the starboard wing of his ship. The collision siren on both ships screamed as crewmen leaped out of their bunks. Then the two ships stopped sliding toward each other, running parallel at first, then moving clearly away.

And then Vermillion’s captain took me aside and yelled at me for 45 minutes. I had nothing to say.

Watching the video, my grandson and I saw huge billowing flames and smoke burst out of the Vermillion. Explosives had been planted in her to speed her death. She started to slide under the surface, stern first, her bow pointing toward the sky and slowly disappeared, leaving fountains of water and spray on the surface as air escaped upward out of her. And then she was gone.

And then another video came on. In praise of the virtues of vacationing in South Carolina where the scuba diving is quite special. Fishes, striped bass among them, calmly swimming along the deck ,  while a singer sings about jumping right in and then no other than John Denver sings about Carolina on his mind. I was especially entranced by a close up of the huge winch for the anchor chain, while he, who is no longer with us, sang on.

I was the officer in charge of the anchor detail. In the fall of 1954, we were sent up the Chesapeake Bay to shelter from a hurricane. The wind was so fierce that, in spite of using both anchors and steaming ahead one third speed, we dragged anchor for several miles. When the storm subsided, we brought both anchors up. The starboard anchor, which is the one that is always dropped, had a thick coil of wire wrapped around it. I sent for a member of the repair division to cut through that wire with a blow torch. Just as he started, I warned him to be careful not to burn a hole in the shackle that holds the chain to the anchor. “What did you say?” he asked turning his head to me, away from his job and burning a hole in the shackle. For the next six months, every time the captain ordered me to drop the starboard anchor, I dropped the port anchor. He never noticed. If he had, he would have yelled at me again – but not for 45 minutes.

My grandson was fascinated by the videos and John Denver’s singing. He might take up scuba diving someday. But, after I put this link in here, so you can watch the videos for yourself, I will never look at it again. the sinking:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUfmb8R_iqs 

The singing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEzR-6vm8Ig

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THE SINKING OF THE US.S. VERMILION2022-05-16T22:24:42+00:00

WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA,CONFESSIONS OF A CUBAN BOY, BY CARLOS EIRE, PUBLISHED 2002, WINNER NATIONAL BOOK AWARD

Like in all great narrative, the opening lines reach beyond the particulars of that narrative to identify for us what is universal in the story, in this case paradise lost, Adam, looking back on what disappeared, the instant he lost his naivete.  The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me. That’s how it would always be from that day forward. Of course, that’s the way it had been all along. I just didn’t know it until that morning. Surprise upon surprise: some good, some evil, most somewhere in between. And always without my consent.

‘That morning’ was when his father told Carlos Eire, “Batista is gone. He flew out of Havana early this morning. It looks like the rebels have won.”

In 1962 at the age of 11, Eire was one of the 14,000 children airlifted out of Cuba, exiled to physical safety and emotional turmoil, by, and from, his own parents, because Fidel Castro came to power. Eire’s memoir describes his boyhood with lyrical precision that brings every scene to life and is full of nostalgia, not just for the privilege and affluence he took for granted as a part of the upper crust in Batista’s, world, but also, indirectly, for his innocence about Batista, who, in cahoots with the mafia and the CIA, was a cruel, murderous dictator, surely no less and maybe more, evil than Castro.  Eire’s father was powerful judge who sent his children to the same private school in Havana that Batista’s children attended. One of the key moments in the memoir comes when Carlos accompanies his father to the courthouse and watches his father act as both judge and jury, dispensing summary ‘justice’ to the less than powerful, then, after only three hours of work, returning to his comfortable home and art collection.

Memoirs are never about what happened; they are about what the narrator remembers about what happened, and how he or she shades that memory toward one version of truth. Carlos Eire reveals which truth he chooses in the final verse of the poem which serves as the preamble to this stunning memoir:

Still, all of us are responsible for our actions.

Not even Fidel is exempt from all this.

Nor Che, nor his chauffeurs, nor his mansion.

Nor the many Cubans who soiled their pants

before they were shot to death.

Nor the fourteen thousand children who flew away from their parents.

Nor the love and desperation that caused them to fly.

In my opinion, any person with the sensibilities that enabled Carlos Eire to write to write so superb a story would eventually become an outcast wherever he ended up living.  If Fidel had lost and Batista won, and Carlos’ family remained at the top of society, still wealthy and powerful, he would have eventually learned that Cuba was never the paradise he had thought it was, because it wasn’t a paradise for most. He would have left in his heart but stayed in place, rather than the other way around. To me, that is what makes Waiting for Snow in Havana universal. This is not a story of what happened to happen to Carlos Eire. This is the story of the nature of exile, of the experience of diaspora, wherever it has happened and wherever it will happen again.

I didn’t read Waiting for Snow in Havana when it came out in 2003. I wasn’t even aware of it. Several months ago, browsing in a bookstore I saw the those words in the title: Snow in Havana? No way could I resist.

This one’s a keeper. I’ll remove a book from my shelves to make room for it, and if I’m lucky enough to still be here in a year or so, I’ll read it again.

WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA,CONFESSIONS OF A CUBAN BOY, BY CARLOS EIRE, PUBLISHED 2002, WINNER NATIONAL BOOK AWARD2022-05-16T22:21:34+00:00

MOTORCYCLE SUNDAY

April 29, 2019

1965

On the June morning of my son’s tenth birthday, I woke up in a surge of joy. For three days it had been raining, but now the Sunday sun poured through the window onto my face. We wouldn’t have to postpone the birthday party after all.

“At last you’re awake!” my wife said, reaching for my hand. “I’ve been waiting for hours.” Her head rested on my shoulder, and her body touched mine all along its length.

“Yes, it’s Siddy’s birthday,” I said. “And the weather’s fine.”

“I know. I’ve been watching the sky through the windows.” She turned and planted a kiss on my chest. “Mmmm. Nice.” And moved my hand under her pajama top.

“Peg, we better not. Siddy’ll wake up early today.”

“We’ve got time,” she murmured, then kissed me again and began to unbutton her pajama top.

Of course it was just then our bedroom door burst open and our son charged into the room and up to the side of the bed. Peggy pulled back from me just in time. “Happy birthday, Siddy!” I said, and under the covers, Peggy buttoned her top again.

The sun coming in through the windows lay on the lovely roundness of Siddy’s head and lighted his blond hair and I reached out to hug him, but Siddy was jumping up and down and was unhuggable. “Hey, get up. It’s my birthday and it’s not raining!” he said.

Peggy sat up in bed and sang, “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Sidereeeeno, happy birthday to yoooou.” She leaned over me and I looked straight up at her round and pendulous breasts under her pajama top while she kissed our son on his forehead, and I was overcome with happiness at the day that stretched out splendidly before us: I would paddle Peggy and Siddy and Siddy’s friend, Petey McLaughlin, in the family canoe across the Barkhamstead Lake Reservoir to a picnic site where we’d cook the hot dogs and eat the birthday cake and give the presents. And tonight, after our beloved son was fast asleep, what he had just  interrupted was a promise Peggy would keep.

An hour later, I got up from the breakfast table to carry the canoe from the shed behind the dorm Peggy and I parented at Miss Oliver’s School for Girls to the station wagon parked in the driveway. Peggy stood up too. “Wait, we’ll help,” she said, glancing at Siddy.

“No, I can do it myself,” I said, tossing my napkin on the table.

“Daad! Its eighteen feet long,” Siddy exclaimed. “And you’re just a little guy. It’s too heavy for you.”

“Sit down, Son. Have another pancake,” I said in my jauntiest voice.

“Are you kidding?” Siddy said.

I pretended I didn’t hear him and went out into the spangling June air, and bounced happily across the lawn to the shed. There, I flipped the canoe over, righting it, put one hand on the nearest gunwale, the other on the furthest, lifted, then kicked upward with my knee on the underside of the canoe, and lo and behold: the canoe was precisely balanced, inverted above my head, the middle cross brace resting on my shoulders. I carried it triumphantly toward the family station wagon parked in the driveway. Halfway there my arms began to quiver and the middle thwart hurt the back of my neck, but I glimpsed my son watching me through the kitchen window, surprise stamped on his face.

Then there was the sound of tires on the driveway’s gravel and I turned my head under the canoe to see the McLaughlin’s’ Volkswagen bus delivering Petey for the expedition, and Petey’s father, Hugh McLaughlin, at the wheel, grinning. With a grunt, I raised the canoe higher to slide it up on the roof rack. But I failed to lift it high enough and the bow hit the roof of the car and the canoe lurched out of my hands and crashed to the driveway just as Hugh slammed on his brakes and skidded to a stop inches away. I saw Siddy’s I told-you-so expression in the kitchen window, and then Hugh poked his head out of his bus and said, “Jeez Fran, ya ougta take up weight lifting!”

Hugh’s son Petey jumped out of the bus without even looking at me and ran into the house. “Wow, look at him run!” Hugh exclaimed, unfolding his six and a half feet from the bus. “He’s gonna be a star.” Hugh had been a basketball hero at Ohio State, a hulking force beneath the boards. Today he was wearing a red sweatshirt with Ohio State Basketball emblazoned on the front and his crew cut was even shorter than usual. I liked to joke that Hugh’s academic major at Ohio State was putting on his jock and his minor was tying his shoes, but Peggy always reminded me that all Hugh’s real estate developments made a lot of money and they always reserved the best land for open spaces. “Without even being asked.”

Hugh gazed down at the canoe. “Whasamatter? Can’t ya get it up?” He laughed. Then he bent down, picked up the canoe, and in one smooth movement slid it onto the rack. “Now I gotta run. Got to get duded up for church. Too bad you’re skipping.”

“Well you can go for us both,” I said. “You’re big enough.”

Hugh laughed again. “Really, though. Today’s the Sunday Father Woodward’s gonna talk about reaching out to the ghetto.”

“Oh he talks about that every Sunday.”

“Yeah, well this time we’re gonna do something, not just talk. You’re gonna love the plan.” Hugh put his arm around my shoulder. “We get these two basketball teams, see. One’s black and one’s white, naturally, and we play on each other’s playgrounds.”

“Oh,” I said, relieved. “I don’t know a thing about sports.”

“You don’t have to know anything about sports, for cryin’ out loud, Fran. These black kids are born knowing. Ever seen one of them jump? Makes one of our kids look like he’s tied to the floor. Obvious racial characteristic.”

I have to admit: I smirked at Hugh. “Being tied to the floor is an obvious racial characteristic?”

“Very funny, Fran.”

I didn’t answer. A vision had just arrived in my head: tall beautiful black people were leaping up toward the distant roof of a huge gym. While some came down slowly, others floated up. All over the gym, a lovely, soothing, up and down grace, a liquid, vertical dance, and I was sitting in the stands, watching. The dance would go on forever and I didn’t care. I would stay there forever too, watching these wonderful people play with their brand new medium: air.

“Fran?” Hugh said. “You here?”

“Sorry,” I murmured.

“Like I said, I’ll take our kids into one of their playgrounds. And you pick up a team of black kids in there and bring them out here to play.”

“Hugh! That’s absurd. They’ve got good playgrounds in there and we don’t have any out here. You’re just trying to have it both ways. You just want to live in the suburbs and not feel guilty.”

“That’s a pretty crappy thing to say, Fran,”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have. I was really talking about myself.”

“Forget it,” Hugh said, and turned away toward his bus.

“Really, I was,” I insisted, trailing after Hugh. “When I think about how much the kids I teach already have –.”

“Yeah yeah yeah,” Hugh was squeezing his huge body under the steering wheel now. He leaned out the side window and said, “The real reason is just the idea of walkin’ into one of those projects and saying, ‘Hey let’s go play some hoops!’ makes guys like you wet your pants. Right, Fran? Or would ya try to read ‘em poetry?” He hit the ignition, gunned the engine, shot the lumbering bus into reverse all in one motion and was gone.

At the lake a little while later, the two boys and I carried the canoe to the water’s edge while Peggy unloaded the station wagon. I was determined to regain the ecstatic mood I’d been in before Hugh’s arrival, but the instant the canoe was in the water, Petey McLaughlin grabbed a paddle and waded on the right side of the canoe straight to the bow where Siddy had made it clear he wanted to sit. “That’s where I sit,” Siddy said from the left side of the canoe. “I told you already I want to paddle, not just sit in the middle.” He started to wade forward too. But Petey got to the bow first and put one leg over the gunwale into the canoe. Siddy looked at me for support.

“Petey, it’s Siddy’s birthday,” I said mildly. “I think we should let him paddle.”

“But I’m the guest,” Petey said, climbing the rest of the way into the canoe and sitting down on the forward seat.

“I don’t care if you’re the King of England, you’re going to sit in the middle,” I blurted, surprised at myself. Normally, I was good at negotiating with children.

Petey hunched his shoulders over and grabbed the seat with both hands beside his hips. “My dad says that guests—.”

“Your father has let out enough hot air already this morning,” I retorted. Petey looked as if he’d just been slapped in the face.

“Daaad! You shouldn’t have said that,” Siddy said, scowling at me just as Peggy arrived carrying the box with the birthday cake.

“Which one of you boys wants to hold the birthday cake so it doesn’t get wet?” she asked.

Petey stared straight ahead. Siddy looked down as if trying to find his feet in the muddied water.

“Maybe you should, Siddy. It’s your cake,” Peggy offered.

Siddy looked up at me. I shrugged. “Siddy, you can paddle on the way home.”

“Oh all right,” Siddy relented. “But don’t forget!” Petey flashed a victorious smile at me, and Siddy climbed into the middle and sat down. Peggy handed him the cake and got in too, right behind him. She leaned back against the center thwart and put her arms around him.

A few minutes later, we beached the canoe on the other side of the lake and carried the hot dogs and the birthday cake and the presents up a steep rise to level ground and a lean-to. It was set just far enough back so we could see out across the lake from in front of it, but could not see the canoe at the foot of the incline.

When I built the fire, it lighted immediately. We roasted the hot dogs on thin green sticks, only burning a few of the hot dogs – which were delicious anyway. Then Siddy opened his presents: a Swiss army knife from me, a compass from Peggy and a New York Yankees baseball cap from Petey, which Siddy donned right then. As Peggy lighted the ten candles on the cake and Siddy blew them out in one easy breath to get his wish, my spirits grew bright again. None of us noticed that behind us, to the west on the other side of the lean-to, the sky was darkening.

After the cake, the two boys told some knock knock jokes and Petey agreed that Siddy told the best one: “Knock Knock, who’s there? Orange juice. Orange juice who? Orange juice glad to see me, Baby?” And then, with perfect timing, as if the passengers waving at us were applauding Siddy’s joke, a sleek old fashioned Chris Craft with shiny mahogany sides and a snapping American flag went zooming by just far enough away for us to see it over the rise, leaving a marvelous wake behind.

Then Petey pointed at the ridge behind me. “I think it’s going to rain,” he said. Sure enough, a line of dark clouds that had just passed over the ridge was coming at us fast.

“Oh well,” I said. “The party is almost over anyway and we’ve had lots of fun.”

“And besides,” said Peggy, “It’s almost four o’clock, and, Petey, we told your dad we’d have you home by five.” She put the remaining birthday cake in the box to take it home. “If we hurry, we’ll beat the rain,” she said, and stood up facing the lake. A second later, she said, “My, my, look what I see,” and we all jumped up and looked.

A hundred yards from shore, the canoe was sailing away down the lake.

“Oh,” I said. “the canoe’s gone.”

“How observant!” Peggy said. Then she started to giggle.

Petey stared at me. “You didn’t tie it up?”

“Why should he?’ Siddy said.

“He was the last one off the beach,” Petey said. “He shoulda tied it up.”

“Yeah, well there’s no tide.” Siddy said.

“It was the wake from the Chris Craft,” I said. “I didn’t think about that.”

“You didn’t?” Petey frowned.

No I didn’t and either did you, you little shit, I thought.

“Well, I wish my dad was here. He’d catch up to it in a minute. He’s a champion swimmer,” Petey said.

“So’s mine,” Siddy announced.

“He is?” Peggy said.

“Yeah, he is,” Siddy insisted, looking directly at me.

I watched the canoe. It really wasn’t very far away yet. Maybe I could catch it. I took off my sweater and started walking down the slope to the beach. Peggy and the two boys followed. “Francis, it will blow up against the shore somewhere,” Peggy said. “We can walk to it,” but I paid no attention. A minute later, I was at the beach, arriving precisely when the rapidly approaching clouds obscured the sun. I peeled off my T shirt.

“Hurry up, Dad,” Siddy urged.

“I am,” I said, as the cold breeze arrived. I unbuckled my belt and took off my jeans.

“You goin’ skinny?” Petey asked. Some of the contempt had melted from his tone.

“Naw, he’ll swim in his underpants,” Siddy said. “There’s probably girls around.”

“If there are they’ll all be wearing overcoats,” Peggy said.

In my underpants, I waded out to my knees. The breeze was now a wind and the canoe was departing much faster. Behind me I heard Siddy call, “I’ll count to three, Dad, all right?” Without turning, I waved an acknowledgement.

“ONE,” Siddy called and I bent my knees. “TWO,” and I stretched my arms out in front of me. “THREE!” Siddy called and I just stood there. I was imagining how much more chagrinned Siddy would be to watch his father get a cramp in the middle of the lake and drown in front of everybody. I turned to face the little group, and said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” and waded back.

Peggy looked relieved. She put her arm around our son. “Siddy, we’ll just walk around the lake to where the canoe lands.”

“Yes, we’ll make it into an exciting hike,” I said.

“But Dad, you said I could paddle back!” Siddy exclaimed, and burst into tears.

Just then it began to pour down rain.

If I hadn’t broken the promise to Siddy, and if I could have stopped thinking about how humiliated I was going to be when Hugh McLaughlin would ask how the birthday party had gone, the hike we took around the lake, walking in single file in the pouring rain, would have been a lark, a funny story Peggy and I would still be telling when we’d grown old, but I knew how ten-year-olds feel when their parents break promises and I could imagine the amazement in Petie’s voice as, right in front of Siddy, he told his father I didn’t remember to tie up the canoe.

It took us at least an hour to get to the canoe where it had finally landed – several miles from our station wagon. We dragged it to the edge of the road and inverted it. I told Peggy and the boys they should get under it out of the rain while I hiked to the car. “I’ll be back in a jiffy,” I lied.

But Peggy wasn’t listening to me. She was looking toward a curve in the road, her hand to her ear. “Do I hear motorcycles?”

Sure enough, in another minute, two motorcycles appeared around the curve, exactly abreast, their riders leaning sharply, water flying from the wheels. They slowed and stopped. One rider was a huge shirtless black man. The rain streamed down over his magnificent shoulders and his skin gleamed. “Hi,” he said. “A bit wet, isn’t it?”

The other rider was white. He was so tiny he had to lean way over so his foot could prop up his motorcycle and he had shoulder-length blonde hair and wore a surprised and sheepish look. I was sure I had seen him someplace before. Emblazoned in red on his soaked sweatshirt was EPISCOPAL URBAN-SUBURBAN BIKE CLUB, INC., and under that, a picture of a motorcycle.

The black man doffed his wool cap, revealing a perfectly shaped, apparently waterproof Afro. “Permit me to introduce myself. I’m Raymond Miller. We seem to be a bit lost. Can you tell us what lake this is?”

“It’s the Barkhamstead Lake Reservoir and I’m Peggy Plummer,” Peggy said, as a gust of wind arrived and the deluge increased. She introduced Siddy and Petey and me. Raymond Miller’s Afro made an arc in the rain for each of us.

“Hi,” Siddy said. “Aren’t you cold?”

“Not at all, young man. I’m having too much fun. Especially now that I know where I am.”

“My Dad wouldn’t be cold either,” Petey said. “And he never gets lost.”

“I bet your dad is a great guy. I’d love to meet him someday and give him a ride,” Raymond said. “And this is my partner in the club. We just inaugurated it yesterday. Father Michael Woodward.”

“Father Woodward?” I said. “Our minister?”

“Oh dear!” the little blonde man said. He reached up to his hair and doffed it as his partner had doffed his cap. I blinked. The little blond motorcyclist was holding a wet wig in his hand. And he was no longer blond. He was bald.

“You!” I said. I knew Father Woodward liked to ride his motorcycle. I’d seen him several times riding through our village, but in his grey suit and round collar, not a blonde wig and not in a pouring rain with a huge, shirtless partner.

“He wants to keep this part of him secret,” Raymond explained. “He thinks it is bad P.R. Too much like Hell’s Angels, and the bishop wouldn’t approve.”

“Well, now you know,” Father Woodward said. “And by the way I missed you in church this morning.” He put his wig in his saddle bag.

“Michael, you’re so funny!” Peggy said. She put her hand to her mouth. “We won’t tell anyone.”

“Oh why not?” Raymond asked. “Who knows what the bishop wants? But enough of that. You all appear somewhat wet and perhaps we can help.”

“Well, as a matter of fact, we were just trying to get back to our car,” I said. It was reassuring to hear my own voice. I’d begun to wonder if being so cold and wet was making me hallucinate.

“That blue station wagon that’s parked a mile or so up the road?” Raymond asked.

“Yes.”

“Well get on, then” Raymond commanded. “And I’ll deliver you to it.”

I hesitated. I was terrified of motorcycles.

“Daad! What are you waiting for?” Siddy said.

“’Put your arms around me, Baby; hold me tight,’” Raymond sang as I straddled the back of the saddle. Then he gunned the engine, the bike reared back and surged forward, going faster and faster as he shot through the gears. The rain beat down on my face, stinging my cheeks, the black tar of the road made thin lines in my eyes and the roaring of the engine vibrated up through my spine. “Well, maybe not that tight,” Raymond yelled above the roar of the engine, but I continued my death grip. Trees, hillsides, parked cars, signs whizzed by. We shot past the station wagon, which appeared suddenly, a shapeless blur, and Raymond started braking and leaning hard to his right. I knew I should lean too, but I didn’t dare, and now we were in a field to the right of the road, bumping crazily, and then Raymond leaned left and we turned left in a circle over the field, and suddenly we were back on the road again, heading faster and faster for the station wagon. We were there in an instant and Raymond braked so fast that I was forced forward against his back.

Now there was only the noise of the rain, as I looked, unsuccessfully, for the keys to the station wagon. First I looked in my shirt pocket where I knew they weren’t so I could postpone the embarrassment of admitting that I had just remembered leaving them in the lean-to. Then I looked in my right pants pocket. Then I rummaged through the sticky wet ball of Kleenex in my left pants pocket, replacing each molten shred next to the drowned matches I’d lit the fire with, so Raymond wouldn’t think I was a litter bug. Then I said, “Oh! I hung them on a nail in the lean-to so they wouldn’t fall out of my pocket.”

“Lean-to?” Raymond asked softly. “What lean-to?” and, with so much to get off my chest, I discovered an urge to tell the whole story. What better confessor could I ever find than this kind stranger? I told every detail and emphasized the part about the canoe drifting off because I forgot to tie it up.

“Well, we all err,” Raymond said. “I mean we all make mistakes. I left my bike on the Staten Island ferry once. Remind me to tell you the story sometime. But right now let’s get you back to that lean-to and pick up your keys.”

Getting up on the saddle again, confessed and forgiven, I felt my fear of riding leave me. It seemed to levitate up through the top of my head and melt in the rain. I put my arms around Raymond’s massive trunk, eager to know him now that he was more than just a ride. “What do you do – I mean when you’re not riding?” I asked, as he kicked the starter.

“Me?” he yelled over the roar of the engine. “I’m in community work. Hang on again.” He shot the gear in and let out the clutch and in an accelerating roar we were off again. We zoomed through the rain and this time when we came around the curve, I leaned way over and it was all so absurd and lovely that I started to laugh. I was still laughing when Raymond slowed the bike and we stuck our feet out in the mud next to the canoe –out from under which Peggy, the two boys and Father Woodward were emerging. “He left the keys at the lean-to,” Raymond said happily to Peggy.

“Lean-to? What lean-to?” Father Woodward asked.

Raymond explained about the lean-to. Then he said, “I’ll take Francis out there to get his keys Then I’ll rush him to his car and he’ll drive it right back here in a flash and get his family and Petey out of the wet.”

“Oh please hurry!” Peggy said.

Raymond nodded. “I know. Even I’m getting cold. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll put my shirt on.” He leaned down, opened his saddlebag and withdrew his Episcopal Urban-Suburban Bike Club shirt and put it on.

“It’s about time!” Father Woodward said.

“Alright alright, get going!” Peggy said.

“No way!” I blurted. I couldn’t believe I was saying this, but I got off Raymond’s bike. “We can’t go home yet.”

“Go on, go on, get going, we’re freezing!” Father Woodward said.

“Oh Michael, put wig your back on,” I replied.

“What?”

“Put your wig back on.”

“Why?”

“To save the day.” I looked at Raymond. “Right?”

Raymond’s face lighted up. “You have an idea?”

“Yes. We’ll all go to the lean-to and have another party.”

“All six of us!” Raymond exclaimed.

“Francis, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s raining.” Peggy said.

“Yes, but look.” I pointed to the sky. Everybody looked up. The clouds were even darker than they were and the rain was falling even harder. “See. It’s going to clear,” I said.

“I think you might be right,” Raymond said. “Siddy, hop on. Petey, you go with Father Woodward.”

Both boys just stood there. I moved to Siddy, picked him up, put him on the saddle behind Raymond. I grabbed Siddy’s arms and wrapped them around Raymond’s waist. “Hold on tight,” Raymond commanded and sped away up the trail to the lean-to.

“Francis Plummer, you’re out of your mind,” Father Woodward said. But he got on his bike. “Get on, Petey so we can get this over with.”

Petey looked at Peggy. “Really? The bike could slip in the mud.”

Peggy smiled. “Your father wouldn’t be scared.”

Petey walked tentatively to the bike and got up on it, his face ashen, and wrapped his arms around Father Woodward’s waist as tight as he could. Father Woodward leaned down then, opened his saddle bag, removed his wig and put it on his head. “Anything to please a parishioner,” he said. And sped off.

“Hurry back and get us,” I called.

When the bike had disappeared around a corner, Peggy said, “Why did you say it was going to clear?”

“Because it has to,” I replied.

A few minutes later, all six of us were huddled in the lean-to, and Raymond began to tell the story of his lost motorcycle. Both boys shivered and hugged themselves and stared angrily at me, but I was sure they were listening. Raymond seemed even bigger in his Urban-Suburban Bike Club shirt and his voice filled the dark little space.

Five minutes later, Peggy pointed upwards at the roof of the lean-to and said, “Listen!” The sound of the rain on the roof had diminished. A minute later, it stopped altogether. We all tumbled out of the lean-to.

In the west, the sky was entirely blue. The bright band of sky was getting wider and wider, its edge, rapidly approaching. “The sun always shines on the righteous,” Raymond said.

I found a flat rock to use for a plate and Peggy lifted the sodden birthday cake out of its box. It was so wet it fell apart in her hands so she dropped it in pieces onto the rock and we ate it with our hands while the sun came out the rest of the way. “I think this is the way they eat in Africa,” Father Woodward said. “I’m right, aren’t I Ray? Communing, like this?” He put his forefinger, caked with sticky crumbs and icing, in his mouth and sucked.

“I have no idea, I’ve never been to Africa,” Raymond said. “But it’s a fine way to eat in Connecticut.” He had a white moustache of icing which moved up and down as he spoke.
“I love eating like this!” Siddy said. “Much better than the other boring old way with forks and knives and all that stuff.” He picked up the last glob of cake, stuffed it in his mouth, and wiped his hands on his shirt.

“Me too. I like it best this way too,” Petey said.

“As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted by the sun,” Raymond said, a few minutes later, after we had sung happy birthday to Siddy again, “I lost my motorcycle for weeks and weeks,” and went on to tell how he finally remembered he’d left it on the Staten Island ferry.

“One hundred and eighty-seven trips before you found it?” Petey said. “Really?”

“That’s what he said.” Siddy said. “A hundred and eighty-seven.”

“Well, maybe a hundred and eighty-six,” Raymond said. “And guess what?”

“What?” asked Siddy, leaning forward.

“After having it gone so long, finding it was better than having it at first.”

“Oh Ray, that’s so typical of you – and why we love you so,” Father Woodard said. He lay back and pulled his Episcopal Urban- Suburban Bike Club, Inc. sweatshirt up under his chin to soak up the sun on his stomach and then put his hands under his head. “If I were you, Siddy,” he said, addressing his words to the sky, “I’d hang out with your father a lot.”

“And besides,” Raymond said, “it was a hundred and eighty-seven. I distinctly remember.”

“What a glorious afternoon!” Peggy said. “It can’t get any better.”

“O yes it can,” I said. “Siddy, Father Woodward and Mr. Miller will ride you and me to the canoe. We’ll paddle it back to the car.”

“Dad! You’re keeping your promise!” Siddy said.

“My dad keeps his promises all the time,” Petey said as Father Woodward, Raymond, Siddy and I stood up and headed for the motorcycles.

When we arrived at the canoe a few minutes later, a huge man was standing on the beach, his back toward us. He was shading his eyes with a hand and staring out over the water. I knew right away it was Hugh McLaughlin. He turned when he heard the motors. Raymond and Father Woodward braked their bikes and shut the engines. Hugh rushed toward us, a frantic look on his face. “Have any of you seen–?” Hugh began, and then saw me and stopped running and stood perfectly still. “O my God! I knew it I knew it. Oh Jeez I knew it.”

“Hugh, everything’s fine,” I said. “I can explain.”

“He’s all right? He’s all right? My Petey’s OK?”

“Yes,” I answered. “And so, by the way, are Siddy and Peggy.”

“He’s really Ok? When I saw the canoe–.”

I slid off the saddle. “Hugh, I told you he was all right. All right? Now let me explain.”

“Well then where the hell is he?” Hugh roared. “It’s seven o’clock. You said you’d be home at five.”

“It is?” I asked. I looked at my watch. “My Goodness, you’re right. How time flies when you’re having fun! Besides, I promised no such thing. I never promise things like that. I’m no good at planning, Hugh, you know that.”

“Francis, where the hell is my son?”

“He’s in the lean-to with Peggy.”

“What lean-to? What are we talking about? Will somebody just please tell me?”

“It’s a lovely lean-to. You’d approve, I know you would.”

“Francis, be careful,” Father Woodward said. “Hugh has a right to be distraught.” He climbed down off his motorcycle and took several steps toward Hugh. “I can explain,” he said.

“And who the hell are you?” Hugh asked.

Father Woodward doffed his wig.

“Huh?” Hugh said. He stared at Father Woodward as if every idea he ever had about ministers, or churches – or even God – was changed forever. “Raymond got off his motorcycle and put his arm around Hugh. He was even taller than Hugh, and his huge hand lay gently on Hugh’s shoulder. “Father Woodward will take you out to the lean-to on his motorcycle,” Raymond explained, “and Petey can tell you what a grand time he’s been having.”

“Right,” Father Woodward said. He stepped nearer to Hugh and took him by the hand. Hugh hesitated. Raymond put his hand on Hugh’s back and pushed gently. Father Woodward and Hugh moved to the motorcycle, and Hugh got on behind Father Woodward and put his arms around his waist. “Here we go.” said Father Woodward and they roared away.

Raymond and Siddy and I carried the canoe to the water and put it in. Siddy put his arms around Raymond’s waist to hug him. It was as high as he could reach. So Raymond lifted him up and Siddy hugged him around the shoulders. Then Siddy got in the in the bow of the canoe and waited, the paddle poised, while Raymond and I shook hands. “Thanks,” I said. “You and Father Woodward saved the day.”

“No, you did,” Raymond said.

I pushed the canoe further out and got in the stern. But I hadn’t pushed it far enough and now it stuck on a rock. Before I could get out of the canoe to push it further out, Raymond waded with his shoes still on to the canoe, put his big hands beneath the stern and lifted it off the rock.

“Wait a sec,” I said, just then remembering.

“What?” said Raymond, still holding the stern, with me in it, above the water.

“You said you were in community work,” I said. “What kind of work?”

“Me?” said Raymond. “I’m a basketball coach.” Then he dropped the canoe back into the water and Siddy and I paddled away.

end

MOTORCYCLE SUNDAY2022-05-16T22:44:53+00:00

How Miss Edith Oliver Founded Miss Oliver’s School for Girls

LIFE IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE ARE PLANNING SOMETHING ELSE

In April, 1925, Miss Edith Oliver, of Hartford, CT, twenty-two years old, the daughter of a wealthy man, lost her mother to pneumonia. A year later, almost to the day, Edith received the news that she was soon to die of pancreatic cancer. She was furious. She’d had plans. That they were vague did not assuage her rage. She’d assumed she would have the time to develop them.

Her father was thrown even deeper into grief, but he soon discovered his daughter’s sense of affront was strangely healing, a contagious energizer, reminding him that he’d not grown rich by being easily defeated. He asked Edith, “Exactly what is it that you wanted to do?”

She had to decide fast now that time was running out. She said the first thing that came to mind: “To start a school for young women.”

“A school? Will they live there?”

That sounded like a good idea, so she said, “Yes.”

“For sanctuary?” he wondered. “Or empowerment?”

“Empowerment? Yes, empowerment. Of course.”

“A school,” he murmured. “Hmm.”

“Yes, Father. A school.”

“Well, we better get a move on then. I’ll supply the money. You supply the inspiration.”

That very afternoon they started to work. In his brand new 1927 Oldsmobile- which she drove – they went south out of Hartford, scouting for a place to locate the school. They agreed it had to be expansive, a rich combination of meadow and forest, preferably bounded by the Connecticut River, and within striking distance of New York City for exposing the girls to theater, museums and concert halls.

They drove through Fieldington, a little village destined to become a shopping center for affluent people, that was fading at the time, as were the surrounding farms, and came upon two farms next to each other, both unusually large for that area and both bounded by the Connecticut River – and both for sale. It seemed that the God they had stopped believing in was trying to make amends for His cruelty. Edith’s father made the offers that very afternoon; the deal with both farmers was consummated within a week.

In the course of Edith’s father’s success, he’d made many connections and he called upon them now, bringing Edith with him to raise enough additional money to build the campus. It was her idea, not his, that they meet with these potential donors in their homes, rather than their offices, and if the man’s wife, after greeting them and causing tea to be served, started to leave the room, Edith would insist she stay. “This message is for you too,” she would say. “You need to stay and hear it.”

Edith discovered her gift, which she was sure belonged more to females than to males, for reading people’s expressions and their body language. She knew instinctively to temper her assertion to the readiness of the male person she was addressing to accept the scientific fact that women, properly educated, could be even more powerful than men. And, just as instinctively she knew to make the ask for a specific amount of money and then stop talking. She would spend the awkward silence gazing intently at the husband’s eyes and then at the wife’s while the pressure to fill the silence became unendurable. At last, more often than not, the husband said, “That was a little more than I had in mind.” Edith would aim her gaze at the wife, waiting for the reprimand: “We, my Dear. A little more than we had in mind.” When that happened there was usually a flushing of faces and another silence before Edith’s father suggested a sum that was only a little less than the one Edith had suggested, and then looked lovingly at his daughter, who cared so much for other people’s daughters she would spend her last days doing this. In six months, Edith and her father had collected enough in cash and pledges to persuade his bank to loan the rest, payable over thirty years. Maybe they could get a board of trustees formed and maybe even some of the buildings built while Edith was still alive.

A year later, Miss Oliver’s School for Girls was officially in existence, though still without students and their teachers. There was a 20-member board of trustees, 19 of whom were women, and a campus consisting of a dormitory, a classroom building, a small administrative building, each clothed in glistening white clapboard. It was during the digging of the foundation of the administrative building that human bones, pottery, and weapons were discovered, conclusive evidence that Miss Oliver’s School for Girls occupied ground on which a Pequot Indian village had once existed. Native Americans had lived right here! They’d sat under the shade of the ancient copper beech tree, a motherly presence that now shaded the administration building. Already the school had a history!

The next job was to find the right person to be the headmistress. She would hire the faculty and recruit the students. The board appointed a chair of the search committee. Edith was one of the members, but it was only an honorary position, as everyone assumed her cancer prevented her actually doing the work.

But Edith had already lived longer than her doctor had predicted. He was mystified, and not a little embarrassed. Edith’s father began to wonder: was the diagnosis wrong? He took her to a famous doctor in Boston, a Harvard man, of course. Elizabeth lay down on his examination table. The doctor prodded her tummy here and there with long thick fingers. He looked up at Edith’s father and wondered aloud why he had subjected her to the stupidity of a doctor from hick town like Hartford. “Your daughter has a condition which produces, via an excess of gas, consistent discomfort,” he said. He wrote a prescription, admonished her to remove beans from her diet, and stalked out of the examination room, shaking his head, leaving Edith and her father alone to process the news.

The next day, June 10, 1928, the board of trustees declared the search completed. Miss Edith Oliver, 24 years old, with a long life ahead of her, was appointed The Founding Headmistress of Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. There was much celebration and joy – though some of trustees did have a worry: would she be so busy she’d never find the right man to get married to and have children?

They needed not worry. Edith did get married. That very day. To the school. For the next 35 years, she had no time for anything other than the building up of Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. Over that first summer, she recruited fifteen girls to constitute the first freshwomen class and four teachers, each passionate about her subject and the empowerment of young women. Each had a vivid, even eccentric, personality. And each, of course, was female.

Edith established two rules right away. The first: There will be no locks on the girls’ bedrooms in the dorm, nor on the door to the dorm parent’s apartment. “This is a community,” she declared. “We trust each other.” The second – because Miss O’s is a sanctuary too – No male, except immediate family members will ever step foot into a dormitory. The consequence for taking advantage of the unlocked doors to steal another’s possessions, and for violating the rule against admitting males into the dorm was expulsion. Two rules were enough. Most rules really aren’t for governing children. They’re for keeping adults calm.

One day, thirty-five years later, Edith looked out through the big French doors of her office, past the ancient copper beech, and said to herself enough. She’d planted the roots – and they were deep – of a school founded by a woman, run by women, with a curriculum designed by women for the way women learn. Beloved of the alumnae who would never let it die, the school she had birthed and nurtured for thirty-five fulfilling years was a world apart, whose intense culture of academic and artistic richness was celebrated in idiosyncratic rituals sacred to its members.

The very next day, Edith, always in a hurry, informed the board she wanted to resign very soon. She gave them a week to get over the shock and then strongly suggested they choose the head of the history department, a woman named Marjorie Boyd, to be the next headmistress. All of Edith’s suggestions to the board were always strong, and the board was always obedient. After all, she was the founding head. Marjorie Boyd was appointed Headmistress, starting July 1, 1963.

In June, the board of trustees organized a convocation to honor Edith. It was described in full-page articles in The Hartford Courant and The New Haven Advocate, complete with photographs, and was mentioned also in The New York Times. In July, Edith departed for the Grand Tour she had postponed to found Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. In Rome, she met a sculptor. They fell in love. She was too old by that time to have children – which, some say, is why they never married. Some also say she was the model for his rather portly nude statues. They lived happily together in Rome and New York City until she died in 1987 – of pancreatic cancer.

How Miss Edith Oliver Founded Miss Oliver’s School for Girls2022-05-17T22:21:04+00:00

HOW MISS EDITH OLIVER FOUNDED MISS OLIVER’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS

HOW MISS EDITH OLIVER FOUNDED MISS OLIVER’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS

LIFE IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE ARE PLANNING SOMETHING ELSE

 

In April, 1925, Miss Edith Oliver, of Hartford, CT, twenty-two years old, the daughter of a wealthy man, lost her mother to pneumonia. A year later, almost to the day, Edith received the news that she was soon to die of pancreatic cancer. She was furious. She’d had plans. That they were vague did not assuage her rage. She’d assumed she would have the time to develop them.

Her father was thrown even deeper into grief, but he soon discovered his daughter’s sense of affront was strangely healing, a contagious energizer, reminding him that he’d not grown rich by being easily defeated. He asked Edith, “Exactly what is it that you wanted to do?”

She had to decide fast now that time was running out. She said the first thing that came to mind: “To start a school for young women.”

“A school? Will they live there?”

That sounded like a good idea, so she said, “Yes.”

“For sanctuary?” he wondered. “Or empowerment?”

“Empowerment? Yes, empowerment. Of course.”

“A school,” he murmured. “Hmm.”

“Yes, Father. A school.”

“Well, we better get a move on then. I’ll supply the money. You supply the inspiration.”

That very afternoon they started to work. In his brand new 1927 Oldsmobile- which she drove – they went south out of Hartford, scouting for a place to locate the school. They agreed it had to be expansive, a rich combination of meadow and forest, preferably bounded by the Connecticut River, and within striking distance of New York City for exposing the girls to theater, museums and concert halls.

They drove through Fieldington, a little village destined to become a shopping center for affluent people, that was fading at the time, as were the surrounding farms, and came upon two farms next to each other, both unusually large for that area and both bounded by the Connecticut River – and both for sale. It seemed that the God they had stopped believing in was trying to make amends for His cruelty. Edith’s father made the offers that very afternoon; the deal with both farmers was consummated within a week.

In the course of Edith’s father’s success, he’d made many connections and he called upon them now, bringing Edith with him to raise enough additional money to build the campus. It was her idea, not his, that they meet with these potential donors in their homes, rather than their offices, and if the man’s wife, after greeting them and causing tea to be served, started to leave the room, Edith would insist she stay. “This message is for you too,” she would say. “You need to stay and hear it.”

Edith discovered her gift, which she was sure belonged more to females than to males, for reading people’s expressions and their body language. She knew instinctively to temper her assertion to the readiness of the male person she was addressing to accept the scientific fact that women, properly educated, could be even more powerful than men. And, just as instinctively she knew to make the ask for a specific amount of money and then stop talking. She would spend the awkward silence gazing intently at the husband’s eyes and then at the wife’s while the pressure to fill the silence became unendurable. At last, more often than not, the husband said, “That was a little more than I had in mind.” Edith would aim her gaze at the wife, waiting for the reprimand: “We, my Dear. A little more than we had in mind.” When that happened there was usually a flushing of faces and another silence before Edith’s father suggested a sum that was only a little less than the one Edith had suggested, and then looked lovingly at his daughter, who cared so much for other people’s daughters she would spend her last days doing this. In six months, Edith and her father had collected enough in cash and pledges to persuade his bank to loan the rest, payable over thirty years. Maybe they could get a board of trustees formed and maybe even some of the buildings built while Edith was still alive.

A year later, Miss Oliver’s School for Girls was officially in existence, though still without students and their teachers. There was a 20-member board of trustees, 19 of whom were women, and a campus consisting of a dormitory, a classroom building, a small administrative building, each clothed in glistening white clapboard. It was during the digging of the foundation of the administrative building that human bones, pottery, and weapons were discovered, conclusive evidence that Miss Oliver’s School for Girls occupied ground on which a Pequot Indian village had once existed. Native Americans had lived right here! They’d sat under the shade of the ancient copper beech tree, a motherly presence that now shaded the administration building. Already the school had a history!

The next job was to find the right person to be the headmistress. She would hire the faculty and recruit the students. The board appointed a chair of the search committee. Edith was one of the members, but it was only an honorary position, as everyone assumed her cancer prevented her actually doing the work.

But Edith had already lived longer than her doctor had predicted. He was mystified, and not a little embarrassed. Edith’s father began to wonder: was the diagnosis wrong? He took her to a famous doctor in Boston, a Harvard man, of course. Elizabeth lay down on his examination table. The doctor prodded her tummy here and there with long thick fingers. He looked up at Edith’s father and wondered aloud why he had subjected her to the stupidity of a doctor from hick town like Hartford. “Your daughter has a condition which produces, via an excess of gas, consistent discomfort,” he said. He wrote a prescription, admonished her to remove beans from her diet, and stalked out of the examination room, shaking his head, leaving Edith and her father alone to process the news.

The next day, June 10, 1928, the board of trustees declared the search completed. Miss Edith Oliver, 24 years old, with a long life ahead of her, was appointed The Founding Headmistress of Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. There was much celebration and joy – though some of trustees did have a worry: would she be so busy she’d never find the right man to get married to and have children?

They needed not worry. Edith did get married. That very day. To the school. For the next 35 years, she had no time for anything other than the building up of Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. Over that first summer, she recruited fifteen girls to constitute the first freshwomen class and four teachers, each passionate about her subject and the empowerment of young women. Each had a vivid, even eccentric, personality. And each, of course, was female.

Edith established two rules right away. The first: There will be no locks on the girls’ bedrooms in the dorm, nor on the door to the dorm parent’s apartment. “This is a community,” she declared. “We trust each other.” The second – because Miss O’s is a sanctuary too – No male, except immediate family members will ever step foot into a dormitory. The consequence for taking advantage of the unlocked doors to steal another’s possessions, and for violating the rule against admitting males into the dorm was expulsion. Two rules were enough. Most rules really aren’t for governing children. They’re for keeping adults calm.

One day, thirty-five years later, Edith looked out through the big French doors of her office, past the ancient copper beech, and said to herself enough. She’d planted the roots – and they were deep – of a school founded by a woman, run by women, with a curriculum designed by women for the way women learn. Beloved of the alumnae who would never let it die, the school she had birthed and nurtured for thirty-five fulfilling years was a world apart, whose intense culture of academic and artistic richness was celebrated in idiosyncratic rituals sacred to its members.

The very next day, Edith, always in a hurry, informed the board she wanted to resign very soon. She gave them a week to get over the shock and then strongly suggested they choose the head of the history department, a woman named Marjorie Boyd, to be the next headmistress. All of Edith’s suggestions to the board were always strong, and the board was always obedient. After all, she was the founding head. Marjorie Boyd was appointed Headmistress, starting July 1, 1963.

In June, the board of trustees organized a convocation to honor Edith. It was described in full-page articles in The Hartford Courant and The New Haven Advocate, complete with photographs, and was mentioned also in The New York Times. In July, Edith departed for the Grand Tour she had postponed to found Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. In Rome, she met a sculptor. They fell in love. She was too old by that time to have children – which, some say, is why they never married. Some also say she was the model for his rather portly nude statues. They lived happily together in Rome and New York City until she died in 1987 – of pancreatic cancer.

HOW MISS EDITH OLIVER FOUNDED MISS OLIVER’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS2022-05-16T22:30:57+00:00

THE TRANSIT OF VENUS, by Shirley Hazard

“They were natural and supernatural, in that blank space, like amorous figures from mythology.”

 

 

When I was a teenager, in thrall to my hormones, I couldn’t imagine a more enthralling love story than Romeo and Juliet. Then I went to college where I succumbed to English professors’ groupthink that Pride and Prejudice takes that prize. And I am still occasionally excited by the notion of re-reading all that sturm and drang about Helen of Troy.

But now that, at age 90, I have been a grown up for a few years, I submit to you, seriously, that Shirley Hazard’s novel, The Transit of Venus, published in 1980, transcends any category. It is what it is, a love story like no other as a great poem is like no other: to change it but a little, changes it altogether.

The “they” in the quoted sentence above are two lovers, Ted Tice, an astronomer, and Caroline Vail, a widow; the blank space is an airport. The sentence comes in the second to the last page in the novel and is earned by everything precedent. It names what the alert and therefore enthralled, reader has sensed from the beginning: that this story is both their story and ours, that in its fluid projection from future to past and back again, its marriage of fate and character, its straightforward prediction of the outcome, and the Olympian distance from which it told, it rises to the level of myth. In my copy, worn out by five readings – three of mine and two my wife’s – the lovers’ fates are predicted on page 12. The novel is divided into four Parts, in each of which the whole arc of the story exists, and the ending is so indirectly narrated that act of divining it is an arrow in the reader’s heart.

I’ll say no more, except that I hope you will read this novel. Don’t read it late at night or after too much wine. It requires your brightest attention. When you read the last page, stop, stay with your emotions for a few minutes, then turn the first page and start again. You will marvel at how even richer your second experience is.

Steve Davenport

 

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THE TRANSIT OF VENUS, by Shirley Hazard2022-05-18T17:35:07+00:00

MIXED METAPHORES

Every Saturday in March and April of 1946, I’d get in the back seat of our new, post-war Chevrolet, my dad behind the wheel and my mother, bundled in fur, beside him in the front, and we’d drive to some rural place in Connecticut, or Massachusetts or Rhode Island in search of a boarding school whose admissions standards were elastic enough to accept me and where, not incidentally, I’d be happy.

If I had any expectations at all about boarding school, being happy wasn’t one of them. But neither my three brothers nor I resisted the idea. Spending the high school years in boarding school was what “our kind” of people did.

Those trips were long and the passing countryside dreary.  If April is the cruelest month, March is the bleakest in New England. It was lonely in the back seat without my brothers. My older brother Henry was already ensconced in Andover and it would be several more years before my parents thought either of my two younger brothers were old enough to leave home.

The only exploratory visit I remember in any detail was at Deerfield, where I was interviewed by Mr. Boyden, the school’s celebrated founder, a jolly and avuncular person who reminded me of Santa Claus. It was clear I was supposed to like him. Maybe that’s why I disliked him. Maybe because he interviewed me rather than the other way around. I didn’t have the presence of mind to interrupt him with questions to help me decide if I’d would be happy there. For all I know, I would have, but I doubt it.

Pomfret School, at the time for boys only, in the north east corner of Connecticut, accepted me, provided I repeat the fourth form, British parlance for tenth grade. My mother delivered me there in September, 1946.

The first thing I noticed when we drove onto the campus was that the buildings were sheathed in red brick. They were beautiful, stately, even to my untrained eye. I didn’t know anything about architecture, but I sensed instinctively that this place was even more royal than those other schools, clothed in their Puritan white clapboard. This was a place for the upper portion of the upper class. Later, I learned that the architectural style was Georgian, named after 18th century British kings. I didn’t feel like a prince.

My mother and I got out of the car. We had no idea which of the buildings was the dorm where I was going to live. We stood there hoping someone would come and tell us, and it dawned on me that I’d be incarcerated here until Christmas vacation, which might as well have been forever. My mother felt the same – I knew because why else but to hide her feelings would she turn away from me? I still wonder whether if I had got back in the car, in the front seat this time, she would have got behind the wheel and driven us home.

A man in a blue suit and a white shirt and red tie hurried toward us. His black hair, lightly greased – not cool for grown-ups of the Anglo-Saxon variety– was combed straight back. “Mrs. Davenport?”

“Yes,” my mother said.

“And this is Stephen?” Turning to me, smiling.

“Yes,” my mother said again. “We call him Steve.”

“Hello, Steve, I’m so glad you are going to be with us. I’m Mr. Banks, your dorm master.” I’d heard the so. Only women were allowed to substitute that word for very. But he put out his hand to shake, and I felt better already.

Then, turning back to my mother, “I’m so sorry you had to wait here. I’d been waiting at the other entrance to greet you.”

My mother was embarrassed to have not read the instructions. “Oh! Were we supposed to enter there?”

“No matter. Let me help with the luggage.”

He and I carried my footlocker into the dorm, then down a long hall. I was sure we were headed to a huge gloomy space, like in a Dickens novel, where a whole class would sleep together.

Instead we entered a big room, flooded with sunlight. There were two beds. “You get your choice,’ Mr. Banks said. “Your roommate hasn’t arrived yet.” Then turning to my mother, “I’ve arranged some refreshments for you and Steve in my apartment. You, especially will want fortification for your drive home.” He didn’t need to add, Because you’ll be alone, away from you son. 

In his modest living room, he served us tea and little sandwiches with the crust cut off. “I’m so grateful,” my mother said, and a half hour later when it was time for her to leave, “So very glad you are Steve’s dorm parent!”

Now years later, whenever I think of Muddy Banks, whose real first name was unknown to us, I feel a rush of affection. He was incapable of anger, even when we pinned a wet sheet to the door of his apartment in the middle of the night and then made a lot of noise so that he rushed out to find out what was happening and collided with the wet sheet. Splaat! Later in the year, he fell for this again. Or did he just pretend to?

He was the French teacher. By senior year, my classmates and I were reading Victor Hugo and Guy De Maupassant in the original, and writing essays in French. I even wrote some very terrible poetry.

And on a bitter winter evening, supervising the study hall whose brown walls imprisoned the low performing students, while the winter wind rattled the windows, he caught me reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row instead of doing my homework. I was ready to hand it to him to save him from the offense of taking it from me, but he didn’t put his hand out“I love that book,” he whispered, and continued his stroll down the aisle between the desks, and I realized he too would have loved to be under the Monterey  sun, next to the blue ocean, comporting himself with carefree people who conducted their lives according to no one’s rules but their own.

Muddy Banks’ opposite was Mr. Joseph Barrelle, (pronounced  bar/ell)  the Latin teacher, whose specialty was finding reasons to flunk us. Permanently on display on the blackboard in the front of the room in large letters was the list of 13 “Flunking Matters” that would automatically earn us a grade of 45 on our day’s oral translation. You just had to begin making the mistake, just say the first word, and he would turn in his swivel chair behind his desk and rap on the blackboard with a long pointer at the specific flunking matter and tell you to shut up, and call on the next student. Everybody but the two or three boys who had a special talent for Latin lived in fear. We sat cramped in ugly brown combinations of chair and desk, each bolted to the floor, the classroom itself as rigid as Mr. Barrelle’s personality and teaching style, waiting to be called on to render into English the assigned 15 lines of Caesar or Nepos – or some other unbearably boring person who had been dead since the beginning of time. Why he thought that normal humans would be pleased to know that all Gaul was divided into three parts or give a shit where Caesar’s fucking impedimentia was stored I’ll never know.

Maybe because when I asked him that very question in those very words, he refused to explain?

Mr. Joseph Barrelle had a special hatred for me . Probably because when I entered his classroom the very first time and saw his name written on the blackboard, I said, “Good morning, Mr. Barrel.”  I guess he didn’t like being addressed as something to store vegetables in. How was I supposed to know how to pronounce his name? He didn’t answer that question either.

Mr. Barelle had a way talking that sounded if his vocal cords were in his nose, and had a strange habit of lingering on a part of a word. One day, after I’d translated a passage ineptly though avoiding flunking matters, he asked me “Davenpooorrrtt, can you swim?”

“Yeah, I can swim.”

“Gooood, because then maybe when you grow up you can get a job as a lifeguaaaard.”

“I’d rather be a lifeguard than a Latin teacher,” I said. I expected a reaction, anger, some kind of punishment, but he just rolled his eyes at the absurdity of the notion that I had any choice.

David E, the least capable of us all at accurate translation, came back from Christmas vacation of our fifth form (junior) year fortified with a trot, our word for a translation into English. Designed for the purpose of fooling the teacher, it was small enough to fit into the bigger book whose passages we were translating into English. What David didn’t know was that his trot contained passages, unfit to be read by students that had been removed from the schoolboy version. Why David didn’t notice this, I can only guess.

Poor David. Did Mr. Barrelle know? Did he read David’s mind? Did he have the original, unexpurgated Latin text by memory? Why else assign 15 lines exactly preceding a section devoted to a detailed description of sexual intercourse between a politician and somebody else’s wife? David read those 15 innocent preceding lines with unusual aplomb. “Thank you, David,” Mr. Barrelle said. “You must have eaten something for breakfast that woke up your brain. Would you honor us by reading the next section?”

“Sure,” David said, smiling victoriously. Then he resumed. He got to the place where penetration was about to occur, before he realized what he was reading, and stopped.

Mr. Barrelle let the ensuing silence get louder and louder. Then in that weird nasal drawl of  his, “David, how much is 45 minus 45?”

No answer from David.

“How much?”

“Zero?”

“Yup. Zeeeero,” Joseph Barrelle said, making a show of entering David’s grade for the day in his grade book.

David,a most affable boy whom it was impossible not to like, started to cry, and Jack W, sitting in the desk behind me, murmured just loud enough for me to hear. “That prick’s gonna pay for this!”

And pay he did. Or maybe what I remember was the visualization of how we would make him pay that came to me when Jack, Win C. and I made our plan. It is hard to believe that we would not have been severely punished, maybe expelled. I still don’t know. Nor care. Real is real whether actually lived or imagined.

Jack, Win and I always got to the field before football practice started. Win, our quarterback would throw passes to me, and Jack, who starred on defense would cover me. So, that afternoon, when Mr. Barrelle took his daily walk, always cutting across the same part of the field every day at that time, as regular in his walking as in his dispensing of 45’s, there would be a very satisfying mistake-on-purpose collision.

We watched Mr. Barrelle approach us through the apple orchard that was near the field. “I hope he doesn’t notice we aren’t practicing where we usually do,’ Jack said.

“Don’t worry,” Win said. Nobody would think we’re evil enough to plan this.”

When Mr. Barrelle got to the specified place on the field, Win called the number of the pass play we had planned:  a long, banana shaped route, my favorite pattern. Jack would stick with me all the way. Everybody would understand that you can’t see somebody who’s dumb enough to get in the way of a pass pattern when two guys are fighting for a ball flying overhead.

Poor Jack! He only managed a glancing blow. I arrived an instant before Jack, and Mr. Barrelle was already flying through the air, upside down.  I wish I’d been a little more skillful in my timing so Jack and I could have equally shared the satisfaction. We kept on running for another dozen yards or so to show Mr. Barrelle, who might have been dead for all we knew, how insignificant he was when away from his Flunking Matters. Then trotted back to watch him get to his knees. “You should watch where you’re going,” Jack said in his most paternal tone.

“Yeah,” Win said. “Its dangerous out here. Did you get permission from your mamma?”

Formal practice was about to begin. We jogged to where the other players were gathered around our coach, Mr. Mansfield.  I could tell by the way he was staring at us he had seen what we’d done. We were in trouble for sure.

But Wendel Doolittle (Manny) Mansfield didn’t say one word to us about it.

A few days later, David E, and I were playing against each other in a scrimmage, David on offense and I on defense. On a certain play, David’s assignment was to block me. He missed the block and I tackled the ball carrier for no gain. “Let’s run it again,” Manny Mansfield said. Now I knew what was coming, so it was easy for me to ward David off and tackle the runner again. “Let’s do it again,” Manny said. We did, with the same result. “Nice try, David,” Manny said. “Sometimes a defensive player knows what’s coming, especially late in the game, right?” David nodded. He was on the verge of tears. So was I. “Good,” Manny said, and we did it again. Once more the same result.

“One more Time, David?” Many asked.

Please say no, I thought. I remember not hearing anything, not a sound. Our world had gone mute with tension.  But I still can’t figure why I felt the stakes were just as high for me as for David.

David nodded his head and we lined up again.

This time he collided into me harder than I had ever been hit up to that time.  He got his shoulder pads beneath my forearm shiver and ran right though me, and the runner went right on by, and now Manny was the one who was trying to hold back tears. “Nice block, David,” he said. “I’d follow you in a war anytime.”

How did he know that that David only needed one more time?

Manny never bloviated about courage and determination, never gave an inspiring speech before a game and never once talked about winning. And most important, he never raised his voice to any of us. He taught us technique.

Years later, after Manny had retired, I paid him and his wife Priscilla a visit at their home in Florida. I told him about the recent birth to my wife and me of a daughter, Elizabeth Wendel Davenport. “We call her Wendy,” I told him. Once again, Mr. Wendel Doolittle Mansfield was suddenly trying not to burst into tears while smiling. It took me a moment to figure out why: Elizabeth was the name of a beloved aunt, Wendel my father-in law’s middle name. Of course, I didn’t tell him that. I did tell him, though, what was true then and still is: how glad I was that my daughter would go through her life bearing his name.

We had other fine teachers: Mr. Cooper Ellis, the owner of many tweed jackets adorned with leather patches at the elbows, an open model T car and a contagious love of literature, would make a big show of guzzling Milk of Magnesia to sooth his ulcer whenever we said stupid things in class. Mr. Henry, our history teacher, referred to always as the Little Red Hen because his political opinions were  too far left of Hitler’s to be acceptable to royals, marched around his classroom, a long pointer on his shoulder like a rifle. It had a bicycle bell on it, which he would ring, then prod a student in his chest, asking “and what do you think Mr. Steve?” No classes I took in college or graduate school were as exciting as the Little Red Hen’s and Coop’s

Late in my fifth form (junior) year we got the glorious news that Mr. Barrelle would resign in June – “to pursue other opportunities.” We were surprised. He seemed to us to be the most powerful person on the faculty.  I was on the staff of the school newspaper in charge of writing headlines, our method for which was to write several versions on the blackboard so everybody on the staff could see them and suggest improvements. But when I got to the blackboard to write the headline for the article about Mr. Barrelle’s resignation, I was surprised to discover my mind was blank. After several minutes I still hadn’t written anything. Mr. Ben (Benny to all of us) H., the faculty adviser to the newspaper, celebrated for his quick intelligence, sauntered across the classroom and stood next to me. “What are you working on?”

“Mr. Barrelle’s resignation.”

“How many spaces are allotted?

“Nine.

“Well, that’s easy, he said, without an instant of hesitation. JOE BLOWS.

“Amazing!” I said. I couldn’t have come up with that in less than a year.”

He shrugged.

“But you aren’t gonna allow it, are you?”

“Hell no.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Good! Glad you’re learning how things need to work.”

“Yeah? Mr. Barrelle didn’t think I was learning anything. He kept telling me the only thing I was going to be good for was lifeguarding.”

“Really? A life of sun, surf, pretty girls in bathing suits? Sounds okay to me – except in the winter.”

“And I always said I’d rather be a lifeguard than a Latin teacher. We were a broken record. Both of us.

“Oh, poor Joe,” Mr. H said.  “I wonder what was eating him?”

Latin was required only through our 5th form year. The last thing I wanted was another year of Latin. I didn’t sign up.

I had no way of knowing that Joe Barrelle’s replacement, Mr. David B—a chain smoker who therefor was known immediately to everyone as Butts – would turn out to be so different from his predecessor. Gentle, funny, a brilliant story-teller, who made the relevance of Latin to the mastery of English vocabulary and sentence structure clear, he brought the classical Roman world alive. I’d made a big mistake.

Years later, when I was teaching English at Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford, CT, he joined our faculty where he was equally as effective as he had been when, as a much younger person, he’d been at Pomfret. We became good friends. One day over coffee in the faculty room, he challenged me: could I think up a more stunning example of a mixed metaphor every day than he could? We’d find a time to compare and declare a winner, sometimes with advice from anybody who happened to be listening. He usually won. We got more and more competitive as the weeks went by and spring approached.

David died long ago – gone to that place fine teachers go to teach the angels. But whenever I think of him, he’s as alive as ever. I’m in my classroom together with teenagers, the most supple minds on earth. Each time, I remember trying my best to reveal a different beloved story, play, essay or poem. But what David does is always the same. He opens the door, sticks his head in, waits for me and the students to notice him. “I have many irons in the fire I, he announces, “and they are all bearing fruit.” 

Then he closes the door and disappears.

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MIXED METAPHORES2022-06-09T23:46:46+00:00

A Weekend I Wish Had Never Happened

I went to a very prestigious, excellent boys-only boarding school deep in the woods of New England, graduating in 1949.  The school was covered in ivy, both the real kind and the metaphorical.  We wore blue blazers, grey flannel pants and ties to classes and to every meal, even to breakfast which was required and was served so early that in the  winter it was still dark. The crest on the breast pocket of the blue blazer said Certa Viriliter. Translation: Strive manfully. Everybody knew – because everybody took four years of Latin, of course. But I liked to tell innocent visitors it meant Drive carefully.

Now that the school is co-ed, I don’t know what the crest says – or would if the students still wore blue blazers. Work hard, everybody doesn’t have the same panache. The faculty was superb; learned, passionate about their subjects, caring. Even then, I understood that some of my schoolmates were cared for more faithfully in loco parentis by these tireless people who taught four classes every day, then found the energy to coach sports, direct plays, advise literary magazines and newspapers and parent dorms, than they were by the real parents at home. Those teachers’ lives were clearly not their own. Most of them were men. I’m still grateful for the rigorous curriculum they delivered to us. Some of them had very attractive wives, the subject in that monkish boyhood world of much lurid speculation and sexual fantasy.

Most of us were WASPS whose families had been in America for many generations. Our fathers all worked in offices and wore suits with vests; our mothers all stayed home in nylon stockings,  civilizing the family, running the house, doing charity work. We had one Italian, zero African-Americans, and several Jewish kids, one of whom was named Jerry. He pretended not to mind being referred to as Jerry Daju, any more than I minded Steve the Tree because I am tall.

During the summer vacation before my senior year, I dated a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. In our house my father, seventh generation Yale, Skull and Bones, required us to come to dinner in a shirt and tie – just like at school. When I picked my girl up for our dates, her dad would be eating supper in his undershirt. But in the navigation of that summer world, away from boarding school, my girlfriend was the sophisticate, not me.

In my senior year I invited her to the autumn prom weekend, the two highlights of which were the football game on Saturday afternoon, against our traditional rival, and the formal dance on Saturday night.  I’m sure now, though I was too naïve to notice then, that of all the girls who came to that weekend, my date was the only one who attended a public high school. She was the only one who had to travel any cultural distance to be comfortable in a school which was also the students’ home, and where there was only one gender, where the teachers were called masters, almost everybody was wealthy and dressed all day every day as if they were going to a wedding or a funeral. I’m sure she was the only girl in attendance that weekend so may years ago who had never set foot in a country club or a yacht club and who didn’t have a parent who’d graduated from college. She went to mass every Sunday morning with her family; we went to an Episcopal chapel every evening, where the lectern was supported by a white marble statue of a knight in armor, kneeling with his sword in one hand and his helmet in another.

I was a football player, so I handed her off for the duration of the game to a friend. I like to imagine that she and he enjoyed each other’s company as they watched the game in the pouring rain. She felt shy and unsure of herself in this strange world; and he felt shy because, not being an athlete, merely a good musician and fair poet, he was of low rank. I am sure, though, that my date, who generally watched football played before large crowds on Friday nights in a stadium, wondered how such mediocre football as we played on a field next to an apple orchard could generate so much passion. She didn’t know the spectacle she was witnessing had as much to do with sibling rivalry as sport: two branches of the same royal family fighting for honor.

At the dance, though, my girl was a star. Not only was she a beautiful young person, she was clearly the best dancer on the floor. My friends, especially the stags, danced with her a lot. They would saunter out from the outskirts of the gym, trying their best to look like Cary Grant, and tap me on my shoulder, “May I cut in?” they’d say. I was very proud of myself –as if her beauty and her grace were my creation, but near the end when there were only so many dances remaining, I shook my head and said, “No you can’t. This was so long ago that boys held girls close when they danced. If you were in love – or thought you were – which is just as much fun and a lot more convenient- dancing was an exquisitely romantic and sensual experience.

After the dance, she and I took a walk. The rain had stopped and it was warm, but it was too wet to sit down. So, clever me, I led her to the auditorium, where as I predicted no other couple would think to go. Alone together in there, still glowing from the words of love songs we had danced to, we did a lot of hugging and kissing. Our world was a chaste one. Hugging and kissing was all we dared – and was enough.   Then I took her to where she was staying, which happened to be the Headmaster’s House. It didn’t occur to me to wonder how she felt staying in a house so large it could have contained several of the one she lived in. Nor how the word headmaster would ring in her ear. I was supposed to have her there by 1am. I was vaguely aware it was past that time when we walked in.

The headmaster had steely blue eyes and grey hair, parted exactly down the center. Think a sober F Scott Fitzgerald grown tall and stern. But I’d been around long enough to look right through that stern look and see his kindness underneath. But my date had not. So, when, just as I gave her a final kiss at the foot of the stairs, the headmaster appeared in an elegant bathrobe at the top of the stairs, she must have been appalled. And when he said, half way down, still towering over us, and pointing to his wrist watch, “Davenport, you are 43 minutes late. Where have you been?” I’m sure she was. She had no idea we were late. She would not have permitted it.

“OH, are we late? I’m sorry. I must have lost track of the time,” I said, with the insouciance only the privileged can muster.  I had nothing to worry about. He was too kind and too well bred to name, right there in front of my date, whatever penalty was ascribed in some ancient ledger somewhere to this particular dereliction. That would happen later, man to boy – if he didn’t forget. He wouldn’t kick me off the football team, or add a damning note to my college applications. I would have to wait table for an extra week, or rake some leaves. The rule I’d broken was the kind you felt proud of getting away with if you did, or chagrined for being dumb enough to get caught. I hadn’t cheated on an exam or stolen something from a dorm mate. “Get to bed, young lady,” the headmaster said, sounding fierce. I’m sure it was his way of expressing his relief that she was home, safe in his house. He had a daughter of his own. She moved past him and fled upstairs. I never saw her again.

She left the next morning, on the first train out, long before the weekend was scheduled to end. When I telephoned her, her sister answered the phone and told me not to call again. Home on Christmas Vacation, I went to her house and knocked on the door. Her sister came to the door and told me to please, just go away. “Tell me why,” I said, hoping that she would say that her sister left because she was disgusted with me for getting her in late, but I knew she wouldn’t. My date had been humiliated, made to feel small, less worthy than her hosts. There was no way she felt she would ever be included, even if she wanted to be.

Needless to say, the school, co-educational now, is vastly more diverse than when I attended it. We do make progress after all. It is probably unnecessary to point out, but worth pointing out anyway, that the more diverse the school is, the more energy needs to be focused on including everybody in the community so that no one will ever feel the way the lovely young woman who was my girlfriend for a very short time felt on that weekend long ago

A Weekend I Wish Had Never Happened2022-05-18T17:38:28+00:00
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