Boarding School Blues
By Louise Peloquin
Ch. 13: Reconnecting
The day after the bungled film soirée was special. Blanche’s family was coming to visit. It was late October when leaves lay on the ground in an oriental rug pattern of rust, ochre and yellow. Blanche was waiting in the parlor she had discovered six weeks before during Sister Gerald’s “welcome tour.” How long would the visit last? Would she be able to leave campus? Would her mother receive a detailed account of her behavior and academic performance? Would something go wrong? Blanche’s thoughts were spinning out of control.
Sitting straight in a spindle chair, she was thinking about what to report to her mother.
- She thought she had done OK in the algebra quiz.
- Daily employment consisted in cleaning blackboards, dusting furniture, sweeping and emptying trash while listening to Sister François’s fascinating stories about l’Île d’Orléans.
- Her bed was hard and she had to hide her transistor. Well, maybe she wouldn’t mention the radio because no one knew about it and she didn’t want it to be confiscated.
- She had made friends and enjoyed spending recreation outside where she could run to her heart’s content in the woods around the school and … No. No talk about running around because Maman said that a high school student was too old for that. She’d stick to talking about Yvette, Andrea and Cecile, the day hop who had invited her over during Thanksgiving break.
- French class was easy because she already knew the vocabulary.
- Latin was interesting, Roman Empire history more so than declensions.
- Embroidery was challenging and her cross stitches came out crooked every time but she was trying hard. Maman would appreciate the effort.
- Piano lessons were fun except for practicing scales. She was learning a Bach fugue and had to respect the tempo so Sister Trinity, the music teacher, insisted on using the metronome.
- Sister Roger’s gym classes were great but she couldn’t get the hula hoop to twirl around her waist for more than five seconds. Maybe that would make Maman laugh?
- The food wasn’t so good except for the maple butter and the pâté chinois. But she cleaned her plate anyway.
Blanche listed positive things in an effort to control the emotional turbulence inside her. Displaying the extent of her homesickness would not do. Then she heard Maggie’s chirpy voice fill the hall followed by Maman’s “shush” and Sister Gerald’s screechy “Oh bonjour chère Madame Rejean! How nice to see you. Our Blanche is in the parlor. She is a serious student.” Blanche was itching to bolt right out of the room wondering why Sister Gerald had to waste precious time with empty talk. And why did she say “our Blanche”? No way had she become SFA property! She sat there grinding her teeth and clenching her fists knowing that any show of impatience could shorten the visit.
The door opened. Maggie, dressed in a bright yellow jumper, bolted towards her big sister and knocked her out of the seat. As the two girls and the chair hit the floor with a thump and a crack, thoughts of looming punishment dampened Blanche’s excitement. Fortunately, Sister Gerald had missed the scene.
“Oh Blanche I’m so happy to see you! My friend Janet came over and I gave her my doll and she gave me hers because I like hers better but Maman made me give it back. We ate yellow cupcakes with orange icing because Halloween is coming and they were really good. I made a drawing for you. It’s us at the pond and you in your red bathing suit. Maman has it. For lunch today we drank chocolate milk with Hershey’s syrup instead of the powder stuff and it’s really good. I put more syrup in when Maman wasn’t looking but please don’t tell her. Antoine drank half of my milk and I got mad. Blanche whattsamatta? You look sad. Aren’t you glad to see me? I missed you so much that I cried every day for a long long time but now I’m getting used to it but I don’t like it at all! Blanche are you sick?” Marguerite’s chatter was music to Blanche’s ears, music that made her yearn for the time when she wasn’t an SFA boarder. It was the bittersweet feeling of finally having that big slice of fudge cake knowing that it would disappear too soon. She fully grasped the meaning of “having one’s cake and eating it too.” There she was, drinking in every word, realizing that the visit would end and her sister’s winsome blabber would dissipate into thin air.
Out in the entrance hall Sister Gerald finally stopped talking and Maman made her entrance. She was wearing her red plaid Pendleton jacket, a forest green pencil skirt and brown pumps. Her raven hair was coiffed in a French twist and crimson lipstick outlined her ear-to-ear smile. The austere room suddenly felt cosy.
“Blanche ma chérie, we are SO glad to see you!” Maman’s embrace made Blanche release so much tension, she almost slid to the floor. After six weeks of cloistered life she had almost forgotten how good hugs felt. Maman pulled away to take a good look at her daughter dressed in her Scottish kilt.
“Mon dou, you’re very pale mon amour. Are you sleeping well in your private room? How are your courses? Are you enjoying the piano, art and embroidery lessons? Sister Gerald told me how well-behaved and serious you are. You’ve made friends here and you’re pleased with the educational experience. That’s wonderful news which I shall happily transmit to Papa. He had planned on joining us today but is bedridden with one of his serious migraines. Antoine and Byron are watching over him. They all send their love. You have no idea how excited Marguerite was to visit her big sister. She has been talking about it all week. Here is a drawing she made for you. Tape it to your wall to remind you of how much we love you.”
Maman was making the statements, asking the questions and providing the responses while Blanche looked on, relieved that the monologue exempt her from having to divulge her inner thoughts. The truth was she hated boarding school, she didn’t care about its educational opportunities and she wanted to go home. Latin and piano courses were available elsewhere and mastering cross stitch and crewel wasn’t an essential skill. Furthermore, she had toughened up, had gained a bit of self-esteem and didn’t need to be living in a fortress.
Maman was waiting for Blanche to speak up about her first weeks at SFA and continued her appraisal of her daughter’s form while Blanche was deep in her thoughts.
“You seem to be floating in your kilt. Are you eating properly? You have to eat all kinds of foods in order to maintain good health. Your father and I have always insisted on proper nutrition. You’ve never been fussy Blanche; you’re not going to start now are you?”
All the while Marguerite was leaning on her big sister, holding both of her hands and looking at her with tight lips and a wrinkled brow. “Maman, Blanche is sad because she wants to go home and be our big sister again and that’s why she doesn’t eat the food here because your food is better and they don’t have Yum Yum shop cakes and no candy from Windsor Shoppe and maybe her bed isn’t comfy and she can’t sleep.”
Marguerite’s assessment was spot on and made Blanche smile. She picked up her little sister and twirled her around and around as if they were back home in the living room. The girls’ laughs echoed in the parlor and, for a few moments, “carpe diem” reigned. The twirling turned into ring around the rosie with pocket full of posies replaced by “I wanna hold your HAND!” While the sisters sang, as they had so often done in the past, wisps of hair escaped from Blanche’s pony tail and Maggie’s pig tails shed their blue bows. The girls became one as they stepped and hopped in sheer delight. Maman was moved by this show of her daughters’ bond and did nothing to dispel the magic. Blanche stopped to catch her breath despite Maggie’s “encore, encore!”
Maman announced that they had an hour to themselves and suggested going out for an ice cream. Like a prisoner about to be freed, Blanche leapt with joy making her kilt fly high above her bony knees. She felt as if she could soar like the starlings seen outside the study hall window. Today she would eat a double scoop cone.
Quite a few people were lining up at the little roadside stand that afternoon. They all seemed happy to be outside that beautiful October day and eager to enjoy ice cream made in small batches in the adjacent dairy farmer’s kitchen. The atmosphere announced chillier days ahead but the New England sun generously spread its warm rays like it always did, even in the dead of winter. Blanche was dressed exactly as she was for her arrival at SFA but wasn’t worried about sweating, smelling bad or getting dirty. She was waiting to place her order and reciting the list of flavors to her little sister.
“What are you having Blanche? You learned a lot of new things at that big school. What’s the best ice cream? Maman wants me to have a cup because she’s afraid I’ll spill but I want a cone just like you Blanche! What are the flavors again?”
“Chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, chocolate chip, coffee, chocolate swirl, maple walnut, black cherry, frozen pudding and lemon sherbet. All of these look delicious and I think I’ll have a cup because if I get a cone with two scoops, the top one will slide and fall. If I get a cup, the ice cream will turn soupy when it melts and I won’t have to worry about it slipping off. It’ll turn into a kind of frappe in a cup. You can ask Maman for a cone if you want but I’m getting a cup this time. Besides, I can eat it slowly to make it last longer.” Blanche had always had the knack of presenting options in such a way as to follow Maman’s instructions without frustrating her little sister. Maman was right – a cone in Maggie’s hands would probably end up on the ground. Although she would have preferred a cone, Blanche didn’t hesitate to become the role model again. However, her little sister wasn’t so easily fooled. “You never take cups Blanche! You said cups were for old people or little kids who didn’t know how to lick. Then you taught me how to lick all around the cone so it won’t drip and now I can do it even though Maman does’t believe it. You know I can do it! Remember you let me eat your cone last time we went to Kimball’s? Please tell Maman I want a cone!”
“OK, I’ll tell Maman but I’m going to have a cup with two flavors. So that’ll be a double which is better that a small cone. But it’s your choice kiddo! What flavor do you want anyway?” Blanche was trying to outwit her sister with theatrics.
“I want two flavors too. And I still want a cone! Can I have two flavors in my cone? But I can’t decide which ones.”
The girls were next in line but had not yet made their choice. Maman had had a hard time finding a spot in the parking lot and had just joined them. The patrons behind manifested their impatience and went ahead of the undecided threesome. “Would you like to order for us Blanche chérie? I’d like a small cup of chocolate chip with jimmies please. And you girls, what would you like? Hurry now!”
“I’d like a double cup with black cherry and maple walnut please.” Blanche’s mouth was watering just thinking about sweet juicy cherries and rich crunchy walnuts.
“And you Marguerite?” Blanche used Maggie’s full name as Maman always did and looked down at her with firmness.
“A double cup with strawberry and chocolate swirl and jimmies please.”
Maggie shot a defiant look towards her sister and mother.
“That’s too much. Why don’t you have your usual cup of strawberry? That’ll be plenty. You don’t want a tummy ache do you Marguerite mon amour?” Maman was used to foreseeing the bad as well as the good.
“I can finish hers if she doesn’t Maman. On Saturday night we often have sandwiches so a little more ice cream won’t spoil my dinner and anyway, we’re both hungry. We won’t waste good food.” Blanche winked at her sister.
“C’est bon, very well. Here’s some money Blanche. My my, both of you picked unusual flavor combinations. I don’t know if I would like that. But it’s your taste after all and I’m happy we’re together this afternoon.” In the past, Maman would have tried to persuade her girls to select according to her own preferences but today she was flexible. Blanche understood that her mother was overjoyed to see her. By the time the ice cream arrived, tears rolled down Maman’s face.
“Look Blanche! Maman is crying! She thinks we’ll waste our ice cream and that’s a sin because of the starving children all over the world. Maybe Maman is sad cuz I took a double like you? Oh Maman, please don’t cry. I promise I won’t waste food and get sick.” Maggie broke down as curious onlookers waited to be served.
The three plopped down at the last available picnic table without worrying about the state of its cleanliness. A rounded spoonful of sprinkle-topped chocolate chip made Maman smile and convinced her girls that everything was OK. Maggie followed suit and dug into her double cup. The tears dried as quickly as the ice cream disappeared.
Read Chapter 3: Readying
Read Chapter 4: Au revoir!
Read Chapter 5: Arrival
Read Chapter 6: Settling In
Read Chapter 7: Beginning to Belong
Read Chapter 8: Quick Showers
Read Chapter 9: Inside & Outside Study Hall
Read Chapter 10: Math Manoeuvres
Read Chapter 11: Cinephiles
Read Chapter 12: Camera, Action, Lights