Boarding School Blues, chapter 3

The “Five and Tens” corner of Merrimack and Central streets in Lowell

Boarding School Blues

By Louise Peloquin

Chapter 3: Readying

Summer was coming to an end and back-to-school preparation topped Maman’s agenda. Blanche helped her mother take the inventory of the leftover school supplies. How many number two pencils, ball point pens, erasers, copybooks, loose-leaf sheets and folders could they salvage from last year? Were the twelve-inch rulers broken, the pencil cases torn, the school bags big enough? Did anyone need a new lunch box? Were hand-me-downs available? Maman never waited until the last minute to get the kids ready and she took great pains to turn the process into a game, explaining that each change of season was something to look forward to.

After a summer of going barefoot, living in a bathing suit, swimming in a pond, and catching catfish, revving up enthusiasm for school was not a done deal. The kids found it extremely hard to relinquish the summer routine but Blanche knew her mother would lighten things up by turning shopping for supplies into a scavenger hunt. On the way to Woolworth’s Five and Dime on Merrimack Street she’d chirp, “Let’s see who can find the largest box of Crayola crayons? Last year we covered our books with brown super-market bags but how about splurging on craft paper this time? What colors shall we choose? How about pumpkin orange and peacock blue or lime green and bubblegum pink!” Exclamations such as these punctuated the shopping sprees.

Getting Blanche ready was more complicated than purchasing traditional school supplies. SFA had forwarded a lengthy list of “essentials”, the articles which would allow the boarder to slip into her new life. At first glance, the list seemed similar to a future bride’s trousseau, with bedding, bath and garment items. Precise descriptions accompanied all of the articles – two sets of solid-colored sheets, three white bath towels, four white face cloths, one pillow, one woolen blanket. On and on it went. The boarders were not brides-to-be and therefore no hint of luxurious comfort, or of sensuality, was tolerated. So much for the wedding trousseau comparison. Simplicity and austerity ruled. This was even more obvious in the apparel list. The weekday uniform consisted in a mid-calf length, navy blue, box-pleated skirt and a starched white shirt. A navy vest embellished with the school crest – a hand holding a book and a cross – completed the look. Accessories consisted in navy, woolen, knee-high socks and low, black pumps. Wearing this type of garb was conducive to study according to SFA. However, the real objective was squelching what was considered feminine fashion frivolity. Ample sizing was meant to hide the budding female silhouette. The baggier the better, it seemed. Weekend gear allowed for a hint of cheer. Navy blue gave way to either forest green or maroon skirts, again box-pleated and long. Matching V-necked pullover sweaters replaced the weekday vests. Pants of any kind were banned.

Maman had planned a special shopping day alone with her soon-to-be high schooler. Blanche sneaked a look at the shopping list and wondered whether or not SFA was a finishing or a reform school after all. She was particularly perplexed by the “sleepwear specifications” – two ankle-length, high-collared, flannel nightgowns. No pajamas allowed. She couldn’t figure that one out. Leaving her favorite, tiger-print cuddly PJ’s at home would be devastating. She wore those whenever she felt blue, had a migraine, or caught a chill. They were like Linus’s security blanket. On top of that, she hated wearing nightgowns because they always rode up to her waist by morning. “No tiger PJ’s at SFA? That’s the last straw!”.

Blanche’s special shopping day arrived. Although having her mother to herself for a whole afternoon was a rare privilege, she wasn’t enthused. It was one of those sunny and warm late August days and all of the kids were cooling off swimming then slurping rainbow-colored popsicles. It was a perfect summer afternoon, among the few remaining, and Blanche had to get out of her cut-off jeans to don a skirt, get cooped up in a dusty old store and try on dreary-looking clothes she already hated. She suggested skipping the fitting room sessions. “Maman, maybe I don’t even need to try things on because we’re supposed to take larger sizes. That means everything will fit, right? And yesterday you told us you missed going to the pond. You’ve been so busy getting all of our back-to-school stuff. We thank you so much. The things you’re getting me are great but you don’t have to waste too much time this afternoon. If you want to go to the pond, maybe you could give me another diving lesson please? I still bend my knees too much when I hit the water. And you’ll be able to cool off too. You must be very hot today wearing nylons and high heels. I don’t want you to be tired and sweaty because of me”. Blanche’s plea fell on deaf ears and off they went.

When they entered into the Bon Marché department store on Merrimack Street, they crossed very few shoppers. Clever people had known better than to waste such a heavenly day in a store. “There’s nobody here so maybe we’ll get the shopping done fast and I’ll be enjoy a couple of cannon balls off the wharf before dinner”, Blanched still hoped. Sure enough, her mother ticked off the items in record time mainly because Blanche couldn’t care less about selecting her bath towels or sheets. “They’re all very pretty”, Blanche assured. Maman told herself that she was blessed to have a daughter who wasn’t fussy. When it came to the choice of nightgowns, Blanche cunningly stated, “you wear them so you know which ones are best; I like your taste in nightgowns”. Blanche’s words were not entirely true but rather echoed what her mother liked to hear. Maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do but if it could get her out of this old ladies’ store and into the pond more quickly she would say almost anything. Thus, she became the not-very-proud owner of canary yellow and Wedgewood blue flannel sleepwear fastened high at the neckline with a satin bow. “Lovely and so very warm”, Maman rejoiced.

Mother, with daughter tagging along, had found practically all of the “essentials” but the shopping spree wasn’t over. The prospect of a swim was becoming dimmer. “Sheets, towels, pillow, blanket, uniform, nightgowns,…”, Maman read the list aloud. What possibly could be left? “Mon Dou! We’ve almost forgotten your underwear and your weekend outfits!” The image of the cool invigorating water evaporated from Blanche’s mind as her mother spoke. “I’ll  never get to the pond on time. Another summer day lost forever”. Off they went to the undergarments department. Blanche didn’t care about underpants or those horrid “training bras” she was supposed to wear now that her body was “developing” to use Maman’s term. During the summer, she didn’t even bother with underwear because her “uniform” was a bathing suit.

“Good afternoon Madam. We’re looking for bloomers for his young lady. Seven pairs in medium please?” Maman chirped. “Bloomers? What are those? Sounds like tulip bulbs planted in the Fall to bloom in the Spring”, Blanche said to herself. The sales lady brought out a pile of nylon, nondescript pieces of fabric with a large hole on top and two smaller ones on each side. Blanche had never seen any and wondered what their use was. Maman explained that these were the type of underpants required by SFA. Since the buyer was not allowed to try them on, the sales lady held a pair up to Blanche’s back side for size assessment. Blanche thought:  “these things are like tents with holes in them! And why did Maman ask for medium size when I usually take small?”. So she dared comment: “ They’re pretty big, don’t you think? They could slide down to my knees when I run in the schoolyard. I still have plenty of underpants which are not worn out at all so why spend on these?”, she added, quite proud to show off her sense of thriftiness. She had heard her parents talk about being “penny wise and dollar foolish” and about “making do with what one has” and so forth and so on. No way would that argument work because her mother icily responded, “these in a larger size are what you need. Your new school is not a place where you’ll be running around like a child. You’ve become a young woman about to embark on her secondary studies. Yes Madam, we’ll take them, thank you very much. You can wrap them in tissue paper please.” Blanche despaired inside, “No PJ’s and tents on your bum instead of underpants which I hate wearing anyway. Life at SFA will be lousy and I’ll look like a scarecrow wearing all of these crazy-looking clothes. This is a nightmare!”

While Blanche was confined in the Bon Marché with her mother, visions of her younger siblings danced in her mind. Aunt Rita had offered her babysitting services that day and had planned for swimming and a picnic that Mama labeled “unwholesome”. Bright orange Cheetos, barbecue-flavored chips, and spicy crackers completed the peanut butter and jelly sandwich lunch. A bag of penny candy accompanied the cucumber slices and carrot sticks for snacking. Thermoses of pink lemonade and iced water were ready to quench thirst. Blanche tried hard not to dwell on the sadness of missing all the fun.

She tried to conjure up pleasant thoughts, knowing that Auntie had certainly put some candy aside for her. Blanche’s favorites were jumbo fire balls, candy necklaces, NECCO wafers and candy cigarettes. A good part of her weekly allowance went towards these treats and she rationed each bite. Although she willingly shared with her siblings, she managed to stretch the stash over seven days. Enjoying the candy piece by piece became a ritual. Fireballs were for tree climbing exercises when she needed to boost her energy level. Candy necklaces were for days when she pretended to be a dainty princess. NECCO’s were for stressful times when crunching the thin wafers soothed her. Candy cigarettes helped her make believe she was a Hollywood actress casting a wishful glance at a potential beau with a flutter of eyelashes and a puff of imaginary smoke. Eating sweets in a dramatic fashion intensified Blanche’s pleasure. She was also very much aware that her mother didn’t approve of frequent consumption because it was “so bad for teeth”. But the thought of doing something somewhat “bad” was enticing and made the candy even more delicious.

With a lovely smile, the Bon Marché saleslady handed the carefully-wrapped bloomers to daydreaming Blanche who let the package slip from her hands. Maman shot a stern look at her daughter who instantly came back to reality, picked it up and said the expected “thank you Madam”. “Always remember the magic words”, Maman endlessly repeated to her children. At this point, there was no more hope for a swim. The afternoon was wasting away and Aunt Rita’s picnic had certainly been devoured.

“Be satisfied with what you’ve got”, Maman’s words came to mind. “Yeah”, Blanche thought, “today I got some stupid things for boarding school and I got sweaty and stinky staying inside this stuffy store. But at least we’re going home now”. She did an about face and turned towards the exit when her mother shouted, “Blanche mon amour, we haven’t yet finished your shopping. We’ve kept the best part for the end: the week-end outfits”. Maman was ready to set out for a treasure hunt. “Oh no! We’re never gonna get outa here. What else do I need? I pitched in all of my graduation money for this. I could have bought another LP and a ton of penny candy. This is crazy!”

The destination was the young women’s department on the second floor and the search began for one forest green and one maroon skirt with matching pullovers. Blanche was beyond discouraged and followed her mother like a robot, staring ahead with fixed eyes and treading stiffly, one shuffling step at a time. The old building didn’t have proper air conditioning and a couple of lonely-looking fans were feebly blowing dust. Blanche was suffocating. Droplets of sweat pearled on her forehead and her baby-fine hair stuck to her head like a skull cap. She had had enough but she had to carry on. She looked at her mother thinking that the afternoon had certainly taken its toll. On the contrary, Maman continued her shopping mission, head held high, erect posture, alert gaze and high heels tapping the wooden floor. She simply wouldn’t allow fatigue to stop her before the task was done.

They arrived at the young women’s department and another honey-voiced saleslady approached them. “How can I help you today? Is there something specific you have in mind for this young lady?”, she asked. Turning to miserable-looking Blanche. she added, “Can I get you a glass of cold water dear? Perhaps you’re thirsty? And, of course, a glass for you as well Madam.” Blanche thought: “Here’s a lady who gets it that I’m not OK right now.” Maman responded even before Blanche had time to say “thank you”. “We’re fine Madam. It’s just been a busy afternoon getting all of the required boarding school items. But we’ve been having a grand time haven’t we chérie?”, announced Maman without even looking at her daughter. A drained Blanche murmured, “Yes Maman but I really would love a glass of water because I’m so thirsty. Thank you so much Madam”. Maman finally took a look at her daughter and saw that she indeed appeared to need some refreshment. A plastic cup arrived and Blanche took a long, unladylike gulp. She had never found water so good, so cool, so comforting. It was as refreshing as a melting popsicle. She drank up and handed the glass back to the saleslady with a renewed “thank you”.

Sensing that Maman wasn’t the dilly-dallying type, the saleslady indicated a rack of skirts and invited the shoppers to take their time to browse. Before giving mother and daughter a bit of space to look around, she softly murmured to Blanche: “You’ll have no problem finding something nice, dear, and I’m sure your choice will look marvelous on that cute little figure of yours. You take your sweet time now. And if you need me or if you want another water, just give me a holler.” Maman had heard everything and let out a resonant “humph”.  “Ladies never raise their voices” she had often told Blanche. So “a holler” would certainly disqualify for the “ladyship” status. But doesn’t kindness count too? Blanche was deep in her thoughts while her mother examined every skirt on the rack. The saleslady noticed Maman’s reaction, ignored it and winked mischievously towards Blanche.

Blanche was somewhat invigorated after drinking the water but now felt as if a migraine could come on. The sound of her mother’s heels tapping the old floor was unpleasant. The harsh artificial lights made her squint. Her tummy was a bit queasy and she felt light-headed. But she didn’t complain. Maman, delighted, presented two skirts. “Here are your week-end outfits. How lucky we are to have found such pretty skirts! Come now; let’s try them on”. Blanche followed her mother into the dimly-lit fitting room. “Let’s have our own little fashion show!”, proclaimed Maman with a voice that made Blanche wince. “I can get through this; I can do it; this is the last thing on the shopping list”, Blanche told herself, trying to ignore her now throbbing head.

She tried the skirts on and surprised herself by actually liking them. The first had the obligatory box pleats but was attractive with its dark red, old rose and soft pink hues. “This is an authentic tartan kilt, made in Scotland”, Maman specified. “It really suits you. With your scholarship stipend and your gift money we can afford it.You’ll be careful not to ruin it so that your sister can wear it later on”. Maman never failed to plan ahead. Blanche was happy to get something from Scotland because she had always loved Scottie dogs even though they were said to be high-strung. The kilt was the first satisfactory acquisition of the day. Her head felt a little better as she looked at herself in the mirror. “Thank you Maman; it’s really nice.”, she gushed.

“Here’s the green one; just look at how elegant this one is!”, Maman triumphantly announced. While removing the kilt, Blanche took a look at the knee-length, A-line, moss-green and teal plaid skirt. She noticed that it wasn’t amply cut and slipped it on. From the narrow waistline to the curve of the behind, the fit was perfect. She turned in front of the full-length mirror to admire herself, something that rarely happened. “I love it! I really love it!”.

Then a thought made her enthusiasm come crashing down: “Maman, I thought the week-end skirts were supposed to have box pleats. This one doesn’t. Will I get into trouble when I wear it?” Breaking rules was frightening but as soon as she spoke up, she bitterly regretted her words. Here she was about to finally get something stylish and she had to open her big mouth. She was sure her mother would have second thoughts and replace this nice skirt with a dowdy one. “I’ve ruined everything again”, thought Blanche. Much to her astonishment, her mother responded “yes the list DOES say ‘box-pleated’ but I particularly like this one. Besides, it’s for the week-end so what harm can there be? It’s modest. I do not see what could pose a problem. I shall speak to the headmistress myself if need be. I intend on purchasing it and that’s that.”

Maman’s words reached her ears like a new but already favorite tune. She was dumbstruck. Was there a hidden facet to Maman’s personality? As Blanche’s head pain dissolved, her heart swelled and she spontaneously threw herself into her mother’s arms. She wrapped her lanky arms around her mother’s neck, squeezing as hard as she could. “Oh Maman, I love you SO much. Thank you for everything. I promise I’ll work hard at boarding school and you’ll be proud of me.” Blanche had discovered that her mother was not the rigid monolith she appeared to be. For the first time, she felt a special connection with her mother, an indescribably wonderful feeling.

The early evening August sun still showered its rays on passers-by. Mother and daughter left the Bon Marché shoulder to shoulder since holding hands wasn’t possible with so many parcels to carry. They turned to one another as they walked down Merrimack Street, joking and giggling about how sweaty they both were and how they would have enjoyed a nice swim. They were happy together.

Dinner time was coming and Maman hadn’t really thought about meal preparation. But she turned to her eldest child and said: “No doubt your brothers and sister had a grand time today with Aunt Rita who certainly spoiled them. Don’t you think we deserve a treat of our own? How about getting ourselves a Raspberry-Lime Rickey at Woolworth’s soda fountain? That would nicely close our mother and daughter afternoon, don’t you think?” With a skip in their step, a smile on their face and warmth in their heart, mother and daughter headed towards Woolworth’s.

*  *  *  *  *

Boarding School Blues is a fictionalized story by Louise Peloquin of life at a Catholic high school in 1960s New England. The full story will be presented in regular installments over the next few months with one chapter appearing every other week.

 Read Chapter 1: The Announcement

 Read Chapter 2: Facing the Inevitable

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