The longer I sat by myself on my Dad's dented WWII trunk, the more desperately I wanted to disappear. All the other girls at camp had pretty new brass rimmed navy or forest green trunks with their pink or green script monograms on top. Although I was proud of it's history, my trunk had Dad's name, rank and serial number stamped in regimented white ink on top.
As always, every August 8th, the camp bus dropped us off promptly at noon in the gravel parking lot of St. Simeon's School. Stepping off the bus into the hot Virginia air was like climbing into the inside of a dryer. Hazy and 99 degrees with 77% humidity. Sticky yuck.
As I anxiously sat on top of the rusty trunk, I longingly watched the steady stream of station wagons parade by as my friends were picked up by their happy and hugging parents. After six weeks away, they were on their way home for a celebratory Sunday brunch or sweet tea on the porch. I nervously tried to relax, and quietly plastered a pleasant smile on my face, as I had seen my mother do many times when she was unhappy, which was often. Many of the other mothers, as well, had similar plaster smiles on their faces. The fathers seemed to have only closed lipped, slight smiles as they were busy loading the heavy trunks into the back of their station wagons.
Yes, the FFV's (First Families of Virginia) taught their children to always look and speak pleasantly to others. Lovely social manners on the surface, but in this high society, if you were a nobody from nowhere or a transplant, and you or someone in your family had as much as a slight social faux pas, or public mishap, you were spoken about underneath every one's hot Virginia breath. I was slowly surpassing embarrassment heading into mortification. I knew if something bad had not happened to my parents, word was going to get around. Great. After the bankruptcy, just what my ridiculously small family did not need.
I recognized my best friend's Kingswood Estate station wagon , the kind with the wooden paneling on the side, rounding the parking lot and I knew Carter Fairfax's entire family would be arriving to pick up her and her sister Taylor. Mr. Fairfax would be loading both their trunks into the back. Cute and tall Randolph Fairfax, my childhood crush, with his irresistible dimples and dark eyelashes, would be in the car too. Great. So, there I sat, helpless to do anything, hopeless without any family present, knowing there would be no room for my trunk in the back.
Mrs. Fairfax kindly spoke to me in her high pitched and old Virginia accent and asked: "How are you Carolyn? Did you enjoy camp? Is your Mother coming to pick you up? Please tell her 'hello' for me." Embarrassed, all I could do was to stammer out: "Hey, Mrs. Fairfax. Yes. Carter and I had such fun. I guess Mom's just a bit late, but I will tell her 'hello' for you. Thank you." After Mr. Fairfax placed Carter and Taylor's trunk into the back of their wagon, he told me he would come back and drive through the parking lot just to make sure I was not still waiting. All I could choke out was: "Thank you so much, Mr. Fairfax." After the Fairfax family drove off, I was alone in the parking lot. Even the bus was gone.
As I silently sat there with a sunken heart and gravel dust in my mouth, I thought about how to get home without help, so social tongues would not wag. I could try dragging my trunk the 1/4 mile home, but even as buckled and cracked the old sidewalks were, the neighbors, including our doctor and my piano teacher, would neither like the sight nor sound of me scratching up their sidewalks. I could risk leaving my trunk in the parking lot, with it's smashed up and broken lock, but could not risk loosing most of my clothes, I owned so few, and Mr. Fairfax might then return to an empty parking lot, and would be stuck lifting the trunk himself into the back of the station wagon.
As I sat there, so very hot and sweaty at this point, and got thinking about how lucky our family was to have the Fairfax's as true friends. So many of the other country club set had in an unspoken way ostracized us, and in an unwritten way crossed my parents off the cocktail party list. Ditched cold. At 12 years old, what a momentous real life realization and "a-ha" moment that turned out to be for me. Right about then, I heard the distant crack of the gravel.
Mr. Fairfax said nicely: "So, let's get you home." as we loaded the trunk into the back. With no radio on, and no chatting, the 1/4 mile drive home took forever plus two days. As Mr. Fairfax pulled the car up to the front walk, we both silently unloaded the trunk from the car, and carried it up to the porch. As happily as I could, I thanked Mr. Fairfax as he immediately and silently headed back to his car, waved, and drove off.
Yet another great. So, there I stood on the old, wide front porch of the house we had to rent, the "poor house" as my Sister and I called it, a dilapidated Victorian house with good bones, but no air conditioning, one original oil heating grate, broken fireplaces, and holes in the thick plaster walls. Fallen from a childhood of ballet, tennis, tap, piano and horse riding lessons to an after school existence of helping my left-handed Mother, who taught me how to paint, wallpaper, plaster and sparkle. I had spent the last year trying to help around the house, doing the grocery shopping and cooking dinner, washing and drying dishes by hand, as we had no dishwasher, endless laundry and ironing, left-handed of course because this is the way the ironing board was set up, cleaning the house and all the yard work. This beautiful old house was falling down around our heads. Without warning, patches of plaster in the upstairs hallway would come crashing down on top of our Old English Sheepdog, Muffin, sleeping in the upstairs hallway and on guard for us in the middle of the night.
With the trunk safe on the porch, I opened the always open front door and called out: "Mom?" No answer. Walked into the kitchen. No one. Walked into the Den. My Father's desk, chair the couch and the color TV were gone, yet two chairs and the Persian rug my Mother had purchased remained.
Up the front stairs, rounding the top into my parent's bedroom, I noticed only my mother's antique dressing table and rush chair but saw a turned up rug pad in the middle of the room, and nothing else. The king bed and wood paneled headboard were gone. I ventured into my little sister's room. She was probably playing at a friend's house as usual. Where in the world was everyone? Out of the side of my ear, I heard mom's 1959 portable AM radio playing a Barry Manilow song: "...and I'm ready to take a chance again, ready to put my love on the line..." I heard my mother's garbled alto voice singing softly along. What the heck?
Peaking into the Guest Room, there was my Mom, laying on one of my great-grandmother's antique twin beds. She had her beloved peach leather colored, portable radio, with the matching handle, beside her, and a butter knife in her hands. Her right wrist was splotched with blood. I then smelled a waft of alcohol. Was my mother drunk? Yes, she took three fingers of bourbon to my father's two fingers, but she never drank during the day. Glancing at the Seth Thomas mantle clock on top of the old fireplace, it was 2:15 in the afternoon. What is happening?
I gently coaxed the butter knife out of my mother's hand and dressed the surface wound on her wrist. She was still singing along to the radio. "I'm home mom," I quietly said. She smiled and said: "Your father and I filed for divorce." I replied: "When?" "Three weeks ago," she answered. Then smiled and closed her eyes.
While mom slept, I began unpacking my clothes arm full by arm full from the trunk on the porch, and began the gargantuan task of washing an entire laundry room packed to the gills full of clothes plus mine in the trunk. As mom slept into the evening, I fixed my little sister and myself a spaghetti dinner and turned on the evening news. President Nixon was resigning, but I was not. I decided right then and there I was going to grow up.
Submitted to Real Simple Magazine's 2014 "a-ha moment" 1500 word story contest.