Boarding School Blues
By Louise Peloquin
Ch. 14: Back to the Fold
Mother and daughters weren’t thinking of the fleeting minutes. Instead, they were lingering at the picnic table scraping their paper cups with flat wooden spoons, extracting every last drop of melted ice cream. Maman started examining her eldest child from head to toe.
“This outing was good for you Blanche. The sun has given you a little color. I see that you’ve got a few blemishes. I hope you don’t pick at your skin? You know how touching your face spreads germs. When you’re home for Thanksgiving, we’ll go to the pharmacy for a special cleansing product. Speaking of grooming, here’s a “Seventeen” magazine. This issue has advice about skin and hair. Remember ma chérie, the way one treats oneself when young affects one’s wellbeing throughout life. That goes for health and beauty routines as much as for school.”
Maman had never bought a magazine for Blanche who welcomed it as a change from her daily academic reading. Skimming over the glossy pages, she saw tips on using cosmetics, finding one’s style, socializing and becoming the life of a party. Why had her mother given her an issue of “Seventeen” and what good would it do? After all, she was cooped up in a boarding school. Instead of questioning her mother, she thanked her.
Maman had another surprise in her satchel. “I’ve got a box of fruit slices from Mrs. Nelson’s Candy House for you to share with your friends. A little something sweet won’t do you any harm as long as you brush your teeth after eating.”
“Thank you so much! We brush our teeth in the morning and at night. We’re not allowed to go up to the dormitory during the day. But yes, I’ll share with my friends, especially Yvette and Andrea. Their nicknames are “Titi” and “Andy” and they are a lot of fun. Titi comes from Hartford and speaks good French and sometimes we talk together so that the others don’t understand. And Andy is from Woonsocket and is really smart in everything but doesn’t like to study hard so…” Blanche wanted to talk about her new friends – the good, the bad, the ugly and, most of all, the fun. But a glimpse at the watch made her mother bolt from the picnic table.
“Mon dou Blanche! We’ve passed the hour and you must get back to school immediately. Don’t worry mon amour. I’ll speak to Sister Gerald and tell her that your tardiness is entirely my fault. We’ll be together again for Thanksgiving, only a month away.” Maman’s agitation made Blanche wonder if her mother sensed that violating the SFA timetable was a no-no.
They hopped into the Plymouth. Maman peeled out of the lot making her daughters slide across the vinyl seat and push the unlocked passenger door open. Blanche managed to yank it shut while a police officer, parked across from the ice cream stand, witnessed the scene. Apparently, he didn’t like what he saw and signaled for Maman to pull over.
“Your license and registration please Ma’am.” She handed over the documents. “Thank you Ma’am. Let’s see. Your papers are in order. You weren’t violating the speed limit but you DID exit the parking lot without making a full stop before proceeding. AND you obviously didn’t verify that the door was properly closed despite having two passengers in the front seat. Thank goodness the young lady here was quick enough to pull it shut. Imagine what could have happened if she had not reacted so quickly Ma’am. Well done Miss!” Officer Kehoe, as his badge indicated, commended Blanche then looked sternly at Maman. “No ticket today but this a warning. Take the time to make sure doors are securely closed and the road is clear before exiting a lot. Pardon me for saying. – you don’t look like the reckless type Ma’am. Now move along.”
Maman’s face turned to bright pink. Blanche could see that she was furious and itching to defend herself. She looked up at Officer Kehoe as he handed back the license and registration. “Thank you officer.” Officer Kehoe didn’t notice the fury blazing in Maman’s dark eyes and walked back to his cruiser. She took a minute to inhale and exhale reminding Blanche of Sister Roger’s speeches on the calming effects of deep breathing. “I guess Sister was right about that” thought Blanche.
With hands firmly on the wheel and eyes fixed on the road Maman drove the couple of miles to SFA at a snail’s pace while silence reigned. She pulled up to the front entrance as she had done six weeks before. This time, there was no heavy luggage to carry up the stairs. Sister Gerald opened the door before anyone had time to ring the bell. To Blanche’s astonishment, she didn’t look angry.
“Chère madame Rejean, we understand that this was your first visit with our Blanche and that keeping track of the time was not on your mind so we’ll forget our Saturday afternoon schedule for once. I hope you enjoyed your visit Blanche? Oh, is this your little sister? Bonjour ma belle, you’ll be a student with us one day just like our Blanche, won’t you?”
Blanche spoke up before Maggie had a chance to utter a word. “That’s possible Sister but she has to start grammar school first. I’ve begun telling her about my classes here.” Blanche couldn’t believe the words coming out of her mouth. Somehow she had picked up schmoozing skills from savvy upperclassmen.
“Oh oui, très bien, very good Blanche” responded Sister Gerald. Then turning to Maman who still hadn’t recovered from the unplanned meeting with Officer Kehoe, she added, “please Madame Rejean, do come in to say your goodbyes to our Blanche. You have fifteen minutes.”
“Merci beaucoup” responded Maman as she entered into the parlor followed by her two daughters. No one settled in a spindle chair and Maman’s usual eloquence was dormant. Maggie looked lost and Blanche was trying to figure out how to lessen the pain of separation. With a bogus smile, she turned to her sister. “What will you be for Halloween this year? A princess, a ghost, a wicked witch? Ha, ha, ha! It’ll be loads of fun and I …” She couldn’t say she wished she could join her siblings for Halloween because that wasn’t the way to leave Maggie.
“I was a princess last year remember? Byron is a ghost this year. He’s using Antoine’s old sheet and cutting holes in it for eyes. Antoine didn’t tell us what he’ll be because he wants it to be a surprise. I’m going to be a Penacook because every time you tell stories about them, you think Byron is the only one listening but you’re wrong. I do too! I found pretty feathers in the yard and Maman said she would make me a headdress and buy me moccasins with colored beads on top. I’ll be the BEST Penacook ever! Blanche, don’t you take walks around here? If you find feathers, please can you keep them for me because I’ll be a Penacook EVERY year from now on. They are the best; you said so yourself.” Maggie’s joyous chatter was a good sign and Blanche was happy to have dodged the topic of goodbyes. All the while Maman observed the girls and Blanche knew her mother was proud.
She wanted to think of good things ahead. “Maman, my friend Cecile who takes the bus in from Lowell every day wants to invite me over her house during Thanksgiving break. Her mother is a nurse at Saint Joseph’s Hospital with Papa and said he was a very good doctor. C is really nice and sometimes I help her with schoolwork. Can I go over to her house please? She has a record collection with classical music too, not only rock ’n’roll. She’s very polite and kind to people even when they’re mean.” Blanche was trying to get her mother to say “yes” right away.
“Oui, oui mon amour. What did you say her name was? Cecile Coucy? Oh yes, I know her mother. Good family. I’m so pleased that you are making friends here. I knew you would. Is she the only one?”
When there were only five minutes left to the visit, Blanche and Maman were turning into chatterboxes with a million things to say. Bells were echoing in the SFA halls to summon the boarders to prayer and study before dinner.
“I want to go to Blanche’s friend’s house too Maman and what are those bells?” Maggie headed for the hall. Maman grabbed her hand to pull her back. Sister Gerald poked her head inside the parlor indicating that the visit had come to an end. She didn’t look harsh or impatient.
“We’ll pick you up at 3 the day before Thanksgiving Blanche. The school day will be shortened to allow the boarders to head home before dark. You’ll return to SFA the following Monday morning instead of Sunday evening. I’m very pleased indeed with the way I negotiated that privilege. I’ll tell you about it when you’re home.” Maman had found her tongue and seemed to have forgotten Officer Kehoe. All of the unpleasantness had given way to plans for a memorable family reunion. Simultaneously, Maman and Blanche threw themselves into one another’s arms for a bear hug which mussed the elegant French twist and loosened the little pony tail. Maggie joined in the embrace with her irrepressible giggle.
“Bye Blanche! I’ll make you a drawing of my Penacook costume.”
Separating was hard but the visit had been invigorating. With her issue of “Seventeen”, her box of candy and Maggie’s drawing in hand, Blanche trotted to the study hall where the girls were reciting beads with Sister Roger.
Other boarders had had visitors that Saturday afternoon but Blanche was the only one who had returned to campus late.
“What is this?” whispered Andy as Blanche took her seat in study hall. “Why should YOU have special treatment? I heard Sister Gerald sucking up to your mother. She didn’t do that with anyone else.” Andy, was grumbling but trying to appear as if she were reciting “Hail Marys.” After the rosary, Sister Roger announced that dinner was in forty-five minutes. With a flashing smile she added “that’s perfect for making progress in your week-end assignments.”
As the saying goes, if looks could kill, Blanche would have been executed so the best way to dodge the dirty looks was to crack open the books. Without delay, she proceeded to tackle the Latin assignment.
- Quis nautīs pecūniam dat? (Who gives the sailor money?)
- Filiae agricolae nautīs pecūniam dant. (The daughters of the farmer give money to the sailor.)
- Quis fortūnam pugnae nūntiat? (Who announces the fortune of battle?)
- Galba agricolīs fortunam pugnae nū (Galba announces the fortune of battle to the farmer.)
Translating simple sentences was quite tedious and she was eager to start on Roman Empire history. She managed to slog through the Latin by the time the dinner bell rang.
The sound of a wooden clapper snapped the girls to attention and, one by one, they marched down to the dining hall where platters of chopped ham salad sandwiches with dill pickles had been placed on the tables along with bowls of shiny red apples from nearby orchards. “Maman would think this is a healthy meal” determined Blanche. “She would have added a few chips for what she calls ‘crunch appeal’ though. We always have chips with sandwiches because SHE is the one who enjoys them most! I’m glad I had a double ice cream today because I don’t feel like ham tonight.”
It seemed that Titi figured out why Andy was still giving Blanche the cold shoulder. “Hey PF, Your Maman is beautiful and your little sister is so cute. They were glad to see you, I’m sure. Visits go by really fast huh? Well, let’s try to enjoy the rest of the week-end. Last night was such a let down with the three-minute movie. Did you and your family talk about what’s going on in the world? At the beginning of October, the nuns told us about Pope Paul VI’s Mass at Yankee Stadium and his UN speech. But what about the latest scientific discoveries and the Red Sox versus the Yankees and the hit parade? The New York World’s Fair closed but what else is happening out there? We don’t know ANYTHING! It’s as if we were on another planet. I wish I had my transistor here.”
Blanche was about to divulge that she had one hidden in her cell but finally decided against it. Instead, she slid her box of candy, stashed under her pullover, onto her lap.
The girls ate their sandwiches, crunched into their Delicious apples and bantered about the next movie Sister Roger would present. Andy stopped trying to make Blanche feel bad about the overextended family visit. That was the cue to place a red rectangular box, wrapped in silky gold ribbon, on the dinner table. “My mother brought this to share with my friends – fruit jelly slices from Mrs. Nelson’s Candy House in Chelmsford. They’re little half-circles in different flavors and topped with sugar crystals. Here, have one.”
In an instant, Sister Gerald appeared on the scene. Blanche, quick to the draw, not only offered her a sweet but also suggested that the box be passed on to the headmistress. Sister took a slice. “Merci chère Blanche. I shall have one but I know that your mother’s intention was for you to share with your classmates and that is what you will do. There is nothing wrong with an occasional treat.”
Sister Gerald delicately placed the sticky candy in her mouth and proceeded to chew, causing her dentures to click. The unusual scene stunned the girls. “Money bags” had not only let them keep the confectionery but had also encouraged them to enjoy it.
The pretty box went around until each fruit slice disappeared. Blanche decided to keep it to store bird feathers for Maggie. Besides, Mrs. Nelson’s would remind her of this unusual day.
Recreation in the brisk October dusk turned out to be as sweet as the candy. The girls were happy together talking about the people they would see, the things they would do and the food they would eat at Thanksgiving. Sharing sweets had cleared away all bitterness.
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
Read Chapter 13: Reconnecting