Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sam of Green Gables

This story is not precisely related to green, but it makes me think of green, because I was so fresh and young and naive when it happened.

The summer I was 17, my mom flew with me from CA to MA to take me to college. I was her first to fly the nest, and looking back, I think she might have felt a little weird about it, too. She had planned to stay a week at a nearby hotel so we could hang out when I wasn't in orientation.

Smith College is a National Arboretum, and the lushness of the campus in early September can barely be described. As a life-long desert-and-ocean girl, I was shocked at the verdant grass, the clambering ivy, the thick maples. When I saw my dorm--Lamont House--for the first time, I got choked up, because its brick and columns looked like something out of a movie.

My new roommate, Burnette Crombie of Knoxville, TN, was the sweetest girl in the world. She was a teeny blond early-rising biologist with a penchant for ballet. In other words, she was not me. I stuck close to her, though, since I knew she belonged to me, and I didn't know who or what else did yet.

My "Head of Freshmen" Young Ran Ra (she told us to call her "Y," and we did, unvaryingly) took a few of us to Davis Student Center for a "frappe," which sounded like it was going to be an omelet and turned out to be a chocolate shake. I would have many, many more just like it before I graduated. She was hyper-enthusiastic, but I still wasn't convinced.

My mother had taken me to a department store I didn't recognize for a motley collection of dorm fixings, including a red gingham comforter, a white lamp on whose shade I left the plastic for four years, and a set of plain, white sheets. From the room, I could hear the deafening bass of Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" emanating from down the hall, the room of one Rachel Harrington, aka "The Fire Captain." For at least a week I thought that was just her nickname, but I later learned it to be an elected house office. Being somewhat bold for 17, I asked if she could turn it down a little. "Of course not," she said cheerfully. "FRESHMAN." Rachel was a senior.

After dinner that first night, all 32 incoming freshman were gathered in the living room for a discussion of house rules. Most of them looked like regular people, but some stood out. We all had to go around and introduce ourselves by our nicknames. I chose Sammy Jo (some of you will be too young to remember Dynasty) which did not stick. A gorgeous blond to my left, Meg, said she was sometimes known as "Meg McMuffin." We're calling her that to this day. A very tall, Goth-looking girl with a scowl said "Call me...Sunshine." We're still joking about that, too. I don't remember all the nicknames, but I remember this one brash curly-haired girl kept raising her hand and saying things like "Can we smoke in here? Because I am not going to make it through this meeting without a cigarette." and "How strictly do you enforce the drinking age at the house parties?" I leaned over to Burnette and whispered "Check out this one. She obviously comes from a bad home."

Funny thing. She came from a home exactly like mine--large, Jewish, New York-based, lots of yelling. And while we hated each other with relish for about four months, the tide shifted in the second half of the year. Let me put it more clearly: that was 26 years ago, and she now also lives in San Diego with her husband and two daughters, and we've never been out of touch.

I hated her because she was everything I wasn't--a cool, big-city girl, with confidence and chutzpah. While I pretended I had a little of that, inside I was quaking with terror. I hadn't been away from home since summer camp when I was 15. I was 3,000 miles from home. I missed my sisters. The food scared me. As the hours ticked by, I desperately checked my watch, wondering if it was going to be too late to call my mother when it was finally over. Eventually, I realized it didn't matter: I would call her anyway.

The line for the pay phone was very long, since we were responsible for contacting the phone companies for room hook-ups and that would take three weeks. In front of me, Sandy from Canada was whispering to her mother, "I would TELL you, but everyone is STARING at me and I can't get any PRIVACY" as I tried to look the other way. Behind me, Michelle from Boston (the first time I'd heard that amazing accent) was explaining that she had a lot of pot and would share. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe normally, willing myself somewhere quiet in my mind without a gang of crazy strangers. It wasn't working.

Then it was my turn. I fairly dove into the phone booth (it had no door) and dialed my mother's hotel. When she answered, I could tell I'd woken her.


"Mom! It's me! I just got out of the house meeting! I wanted to call you! How are you!"

"I'm sleeping. It's 11:30. Let's talk in the morning."

"But Mom! I have lots to tell you!"

"Okay, let's have breakfast; you can tell me then."

"But Mom!"

"What is it?"

"Mom! It's just that I..." With horror, I realized I was choking back sobs, even though everyone in the phone line could see me. I turned my back to them and hunched down into the cubicle.

"Is there something you need right now? Just tell me."

"Mom! I..." But there was the rub. I didn't NEED anything right then. My needs were being provided for. But I wanted something, oh boy, did I want something. I wanted my mommy.

"I don't have a fitted sheet!" I burst out. "Both the sheets are flat sheets!"

There was a short silence. " need a fitted sheet?"

"YES! Everyone else has them. We made a mistake when we bought mine. WE MADE A MISTAKE! We need to go back to the store!" I realized I was shouting and I didn't care anymore.

"Okay, calm down. We'll go get some tomorrow. Get some sleep."

In the morning, I called her. I didn't have time for breakfast, because I had a meeting for my major. Could she meet for lunch? She could--after all, she didn't have any other business in town besides me. I called her at lunchtime. Some new friends had invited me to lunch at their dorm. Could we meet for coffee in the afternoon? Okay. I called her then, too. The new friends had invited me down to Paradise Pond to write letters. Then there was a BBQ. Could I meet her for breakfast the next day? No problem.

The next day, I was walking back from the bookstore with a couple new friends when we ran into my mom. I waved the friends on, especially when I saw that my mom's arms were piled high with sheets. I felt a wave of shame and regret.

"Thanks, Mom. Sorry I've been so busy."

"That's okay--that's why you're here."

"I'm sure I'll have some more time later in the week. We'll get together then."

"Actually, I changed my ticket. I'm heading back in the morning."

"WHAT? You can't go. You said you'd stay all week."

"I know, but you're busy, and you don't need me. And I have three other children back home who do."

I didn't know what to say or do. Why couldn't she just stay living down at the hotel for the rest of the year, in case I needed her? But as soon as I thought that, I knew it didn't make sense. I had to let her go.

And I did. And I was fine. By the time I saw my family again, four months later for Winter Break, I couldn't understand why I'd been homesick. The very idea sounded absurd.

But I never forgot it. And to this day, when I go to Northampton in September, I feel 17 again.


Anonymous said...

Before we know it, we'll be taking our girls off to college! Yikes! xoxo Nork

Stephanie said...

Green indeed sweet girl.

Writing letters at Paradise Pond...Really?

Wonderful tale.

Sam said...

I still remember what I said the first time I saw Paradise Pond: "Where I come from, we call this a lake." :)

And yes, I wrote lots and lots of letters in those days. Hundreds. I mourn the passing of letter-writing...

Anonymous said...

Love this, it so reminds me of my first days away at university... :) Lix

Mary said...

Lovely post and timely for me, given my little reunion this past weekend!



Anonymous said...

Just beautiful. An all-time classic Sam.
More, more!