By Priscilla Whitley
It was a late July morning as we drove up Route 22 on our way to Great Barrington Massachusetts. In the front seat next to me my sixteen-year-old daughter, her shoulders slumped as usual, was characteristically silent. The summer sun made the black car hot and I reached over to turn up the air conditioning. We’d made this trip many times each year, in every season, though this time it was different.
“Too cold for you now? Let me know, we just may have to keep turning it up and down until we get there. Want to be in charge of that?” I knew my chatting wouldn’t make a difference but I had to try.
“I’m fine.” She turned slightly toward the window, her long blond hair falling softly down her back. It was all I could do not to reach over to give her a gentle stroke. But my touch seemed to be unwanted these days.
For me the trip to visit this college seemed a waste of time. She hadn’t entered her senior year and her interest in school had vanished. I’d already made up my mind she wasn’t going here, but these days I grabbed any opportunity to be in proximity to her. And so I agreed to make the trip.
It was only the two of us at home, she being my long awaited one and only. Her father and I had separated three years previously. I thought we could settle into a new routine, even envisioning the coming years would make us a true team. Though with her father rarely coming around she didn’t trust him and it was easier to blame me for his leaving. School wasn’t a place she wanted to be for it didn’t hold the answers as to why her life had gone through such painful changes, and only a few friends understood the losses which came quickly these past three years.
We continued our drive in silence. Up by Thunder Ridge where she first learned how to ski, zipping down the hill in an exaggerated snowplow, her little arms outstretched, “Look at me, look at me.” Through Pawling where the boarded up dirty red brick buildings used to house a school for delinquent youths. As a little girl she’d stare at the overgrown grounds, her pretty hazel eyes serious, “Mommy, I promise I’ll never do anything bad to be sent to a place like that.” Then past the intersection where we pulled off on another hot summer day while she threw up on the side of the road and I stroked her back as she cried. After that we’d always point and laugh as we drove by. Now nothing.
The Berkshires, Great Barrington, Stockbridge, Lenox were special to us. When we were all together we spent one glorious summer at a small cottage on Stockbridge Bowl. A place of my own childhood. I’d take her out in the rowboat to the island, filling her imagination with stories of pirate treasure, her little hands splashing in the wake. As she became more confident of herself in the water we’d swim to the dock where I taught her how to dive, chin tightly to her neck, arms pointed neatly down.
On the lush lawns of Tanglewood Music Center she perfected her cartwheels eventually falling asleep on my chest as the music played on into the night. Everywhere I went she also wanted to be. To the library for books, lemonade on the porch of The Red Lion Inn and lazy afternoons together in the hammock.
Like most mothers I’d read the countless articles on the volatile teenage years and heard the endless discussions of the vanishing self-worth of girls, though I still hadn’t expected it would be this way now. I tried hard to look back to when I was a teen, but those seemingly long, confusing years were so wrapped up in all about me I couldn’t find any perspective. My sweet little girl, the one who used to twirl around the house, sit on my knee, take my hand, now sat gazing silently out the window.
“Horses, look horses!” I said, breaking the silence and slowing the car. Our silly joke since she was little, shouting it out as if we’d never seen one before. After making the turn through Millerton we’d see them in the rolling pastures, their graceful necks reaching down for some grass. Horses were a love we always shared. I think I saw her eyes move slightly to take them in, then withdraw again.
Two summers ago after a night of thunderstorms a fire destroyed the barn where she’d ridden since she was seven. All 31 horses were lost. The pony she’d begun her lessons on, the stunning dark chestnut who’d taken her over her first jump and the horse her father had recently bought her after he and I divorced.
Donner, with his white blaze and dark eyes followed her every move, giving the unconditional love she must have felt she lost with the breakup of our home. At fourteen the barn was her anchor, her community, the one place she felt safe and truly loved. By morning nothing was left but memories and a sad little girl who now had no footing in a swiftly lost childhood. The fire had taken these beautiful animals and her innocence along with it. And neither one of us knew where to begin again. It was as if I stood on one small deserted island desperately trying to keep her in sight as she, on another in the distance, sat weeping by herself in the sand.
I’d thought I could protect my child. As I put on the fake merry smile, not having any idea really how to make this better, she through those past years slipped into the quiet of her own thoughts. I wasn’t allowed in.
We made the turn at Lakeville gliding down the hill into Salisbury where in the past we’d always stop at the White Hart Inn.
“Thirsty, thirsty, thirsty.” Her little girl voice would say it over and over again knowing how it made me laugh. Back then we’d sit on the high stools at the dark wooden bar while she sipped a ginger ale topped with a bright red maraschino cherry, her little legs swaying back and forth.
To my surprise the Inn was shuttered.
“Oh, no, what a shame, our favorite place. Shall we stop at the deli? Thirsty, thirsty?” Another silly phrase we never seemed able to give up.
“No thank you.” Her back still to me. “I just want to get there.” So we started up Under Mountain Road towards South Egermont.
Cleaning up her room one morning the previous year I’d come across some books she’d tucked under her pillow. Books about loss. At first this worried me thinking it would only reinforce her own losses. Quietly though within her own time she had been processing, like we all must do, how to integrate her past with her future. Now last week, as she headed towards her senior year in high school, she wandered out on our deck one evening and unexpectedly said she had something she wanted to discuss.
She looked so tall standing over my lounge chair, startling me as I stared out to our lake, the water smooth, the swans gliding in the dusk. “I made a call,” she said quietly. “And made an appointment for an interview at Simon’s Rock. It’s next week. Please, please don’t be mad, I want to go and see it.”
Bard College at Simon’s Rocks in Great Barrington is a college for those who haven’t finished high school. A neighbor’s child attended though at this point I knew nothing more.
“No,” I got up and started for the house surprised with the harshness of my voice. “You’re not going there.”
“Please go with me and see.” She reached out softly for my arm and I turned to see she wasn’t a little child anymore begging for what she wanted.
“I have to think about it.” The idea scared me and her courage stunned me. How could I say no when for the first time in so long she wanted to try? I pulled her close not able to say anything. Or did I not want her to see me cry?
We turned onto Route 7 into Great Barrington passing Searles Castle then up the steep Alford Road coming out of the thick forest to a view of a plush valley below. For the first time in our two hour trip she looked over to me. “Here it is.”
We’d arrived at this small college campus, an inviting New England red barn on our left, then a turn onto a meandering drive over a small creek. Up the hill we found the Tudor style administrative office. I parked and without me asking she combed her hair, smoothed her dress and together we went in. I walked behind her amazed at how my child, so filled with sadness, now confidently put out her hand to introduce herself.
This small liberal arts college accepts students who have finished the 10th or 11th grade. A place for those who are ready for college now. But she wasn’t ready. At home she stubbornly turned away from school and could barely get herself to class. I could only see this as an escape from me, her father and her memories?
I waited for an hour, maybe more, wandering outside then back again only to go out into the bright sunlight once more. This was her idea, not mine, and I wasn’t about to let her leave home yet. Now I wished we had never come here today. Finally the door opened and she reappeared with a bright smile I’d almost forgotten was possible.
“Mommy, let’s walk around…please.”
Together we toured the campus, saw the dorms, the classrooms and went into the library.
“This is where everyone ends up, our idea of a student union,” our guide pointed out. Though there were the stacks of books, there were also sofas, cozy floor pillows and long windows allowing in the bright sunlight. For a moment I could see her here among the books, eager for exciting new experiences again like the girl she used to be. But, oh, was she ready?
We drove back into Great Barrington settling ourselves in a tapestry laden tea room. I still couldn’t imagine any words she could say which would allow me to let her leave high school, to leave our home and take on this challenge. What would I do without her? I didn’t think she’d noticed, but these past few years had also shrouded me in my own fears, sadness and self-doubt.
She took a sip of tea then placed her graceful hands on the table. How long had it been since she’d looked directly at me like this?
“This is my chance,” she said, her voice even and in control. “I know it is. Here I can start over again. I can’t go back to that high school. Then it’s all the same. Every day a reminder of what was. I don’t know how to make it better back there. But here I get to begin all over again. Here is a place where someone will ask me what I think. Please try and trust me. I want to be happy again… and I want you to be happy again too.”
We finished our tea and started back down that familiar drive home, the summer sun dipping gently behind the mountains. Unlike our drive up, unlike these past few years, we now spoke. She didn’t beg or try to convince me, but calmly explained her reasons. And I thought back to another July evening many years earlier. On the day my mother had suddenly passed away, my father had taken me outside on that warm, balmy night. He’d put his strong arms around me. “Everything is going to be all right,” he assured me, “It will be different, but it will be all right.”
By the time we arrived home I’d reflected on my own life and how I learned through experience there are many positives in our world and one, two or even three or more negatives can’t change that. There are so many things we can’t control. But what we can control is what matters. I decide if I win and my daughter decides if she wins. And I decided right there, as I pulled into our driveway, I needed to take that leap into the unknown or no one wins.
August ended and we made the same drive back up to her new school. For the past six weeks it had been like watching a delicate shell splinter and crack beginning to reveal the young woman I would eventually get to know. I had listened to her and decided I needed to let her go. We’d lost our way for a while, but never the love. Now we hugged tightly as she whispered, “Thank you for giving me this.” And then we were waving goodbye, the sunlight catching her hair as she stood on the top of the same hill where one summer day a choice was made that offered each of us a new start.
Author’s Note: One of the most wonderful surprises I discovered after having a child was how I immediately gave up the all about me. Such a relief to bid that farewell. My life would have been so narrow without my daughter. She’s taught me, inspired me, and introduced me to ideas I would never have encountered, all done with her courage, her determination and now her commitment to those less fortunate. My father was correct, no matter the unexpected changes which occur we do eventually work them out. Different really is all right.
Priscilla is a freelance writer focusing on personal essays. She’s recently been published on Scary Mommy, in Chicken Soup for the Soul and within The Weston Magazine Group. She is also a feature writer for The Record Review in Bedford, NY. Priscilla is the facilitator of The Candlewood Writers Workshop in Fairfield County, CT.