Boarding School Blues: Chapter 23
By Louise Peloquin
Ch. 23: Going Home
At twelve o’clock on the day before Thanksgiving, Sister Gerald’s wooden clapper indicated the end of classes with a beat which reminded Blanche of “Carmen”. The rhythmical succession of loud clicks made her think of Papa singing along to one of Bizet’s catchy arias. He liked to put the LP on when fixing Sunday breakfast. Whipping up the fluffiest of scrambled eggs, the crispiest of bacon slices and the softest of pancakes was Papa’s self-imposed household chore. Blanche could just see him lifting up his bright red chef’s apron, waving it towards an imaginary bull and prancing around the kitchen singing:
“Toreador, en garde, Toreador, Toreador!
Et songe bien, oui songe en combattant
Qu’un oeil noir te regarde
Et que l’amour t’attend.”
(“Toreador, en garde, Toreador, Toreador!
And dream away, yes, dream in combat
That a black eye is watching you
And that love awaits you.”)
At the last verse, he would turn his mischievous green eyes to Maman’s shining dark ones in an effort to make her olive complexion blush. It worked every time. The scene always filled Blanche and her siblings with glee. Giggles would rise and fall like ocean waves when Antoine said “There goes Papa making goo-goo eyes at Maman again!” The kids’ proper posture at table would then morph into wiggles, squirms and screeches of jubilation. Blanche was so looking forward to it all.
While preparing her school bag in study hall, Blanche looked out the window at the bus with its charge of excited day hops on their way to Dracut, Tyngsboro, Lowell and beyond. The banana yellow vehicle drove down the long drive with its passengers cheering and waving to the girls left behind. The driver didn’t seem to mind the pandemonium.
Blanche and all of the boarders behaved as if they had been on a caffeine high when they trooped up to their sleeping quarters to stuff belongings into knapsacks and cardboard suitcases. Faith, Hope and Charity dorms turned into beehives buzzing with activity. None of the supervising nuns tried to stifle the rising decibels.
The upperclassmen were first to place their luggage in rows in the front hall outside the parlor. Seniority had its privileges. Blanche and her friends were among the last in line to exit but that didn’t matter because the long-awaited liberation was eminent.
“What’s the first thing you’re gonna do when you get home?” asked Andy. Without waiting for an answer she continued, “I’m gonna rip this uniform offa me, put on my favorite PJ’s and make myself a huge milkshake with plenty of ice cream, Coffee Time syrup and cream instead of milk. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water! And you Titi? What’ll you do first?”
Titi’s trademark giggle burst out as she blurted, “Are you losing it Andy? Don’t you remember I told you about scouting out the guys in my neighborhood for possible dates? A milkshake sounds great but I can think of something way sweeter on my lips.”
“OK, OK, cut it out Titi. Sure I remember. Chasing guys is not on my list of priorities and I don’t feel like getting all dolled up to be attractive. It’s a pain to have to disguise yourself to get some clumsy dude with acne to take a look at you. I’m not gonna play that game. I want to be loved for what I am and that’s that. What you see is what you get. But hey Titi. if that’s your scene, go for it! Right on I say! But get a load of PF bringing a heavy school bag home. Can’t break loose from her beloved books. Makes her nervous not to have her nose in ‘em all the time. Hey PF, try to dig a new scene man, something which doesn’t include homework for once! Ha, ha, ha! I’m only joking. I know you’re gonna have some fun too. Tell us what you’ve planned?”
Blanche could see that Andy’s normally mocking eye had turned playful and her words really weren’t so mean.
“Well, first thing is putting on my dungarees. Then, riding my skateboard up and down the driveway. Before school started I was beginning to make pretty fast turns on one leg so I wanna practice that again. And maybe I’ll go to an empty parking lot to have more space. But that’ll be after playing games with my brothers and sister. That’ll be the first thing I do after changing clothes.”
“I didn’t know you had a skateboard PF? That’s pretty cool although I wouldn’t be caught dead on one of those things. No chasing boys and no skateboards. You must look OK in dungarees. How about you modelling them for our fashion show?”
Blanche, pleased that Andy’s cynicism was waning, responded, “Yeah I didn’t tell you about my skateboard because thinking about all those fun things takes up too much room in my head and prevents me from memorising class stuff. Besides, when I think of what I can’t do here, I get so homesick it hurts. You guys get it don’t you?”
“Yeah we get it, right Andy?” Titi sympathized.
The girls would have continued chatting but the front door had opened for parents come to collect their offspring. Sister Gerald ordered the underclassmen to line up “in an orderly manner”. None of the girls wanted to irritate her and so they willingly complied.
When Sister left, Blanche, Titi and Andy squeezed one another and whispered in unison “unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno”. Blanche realized that they would always be “one for all, all for one”. Then she heard a familiar baritone voice. Her father was greeting Novice Marieanne who was assigned to door duty that day. “Bonjour ma soeur, je viens chercher ma fille Blanche. I’m coming for my daughter Blanche. It seems that the eve of Thanksgiving is a time for dressing turkeys and baking pumpkin pies rather than for keeping one’s medical appointments. So here I am. Ah! Voilà ma fille! There’s my daughter!”
Although nothing had changed, arriving home was as strange as landing on Mars. As soon as the Plymouth pulled into the driveway, the three siblings raced out the side door letting it slam. Blanche heard her mother shout “Attention à la porte!”, for good disciplinary measure but she soon appeared with a radiant smile, arms outstretched and ready to hug her whole brood. Just the sight of these familiar faces she had so missed made Blanche woozy. A second later four pairs of arms held her and Antoine announced, “let’s give Blanche our tightest octopus hug!”
Jumping up and down and belly laughing ensued creating a sound that could never again be replicated. It was a moment of beatitude, one that Blanche etched in her brain like a precious stone mounted in the finest of settings.
Maman took things in hand. “Les infants, on va laisser votre soeur se changer maintenant. Children, we’re going to let your sister change clothes now.”
“Oh oui Maman!” Blanche went to the room she shared with Antoine, opened the closet and found her indigo blue Wranglers. They were her first pair of jeans and she always felt free, and a teensy bit naughty, when she wore them because some family members didn’t approve of “such vulgar attire”. But Aunt Rita, Maman’s most faithful friend, had declared that dungarees were just fine for kids because they could play to their hearts’ content without worrying about rips and tears caused by roughhousing. Blanche slipped them on and noticed that the fit was looser. “I guess maple butter for breakfast every morning doesn’t stick to my ribs like Maman’s food. That’s OK because tomorrow is Thanksgiving and all we do is eat. If Andy and Titi could see me now, they’d be proud. I’m doing exactly what I said I’d do! It’s weird that I’m thinking of them. I’ve just left the place and I’m already thinking of the people at boarding school!”
She ran out of her room, past her siblings at table lunching on Bologna and mustard sandwiches with chips and chocolate milk. She headed to the garage to locate her skate board. “Blanche chérie, viens manger” her mother called after her. “Come to eat Blanche dear”. “Oui, une minute! I’m looking for my skateboard because I want to practice my turns this afternoon for a little while. Where is it?” she asked., Antoine arrived and Blanche could see that something was amiss.
“Boy! You sure finished that sandwich fast. Why are you looking at me funny?” In a flash, Blanche understood that her precious skateboard had suffered injury at the hands of Antoine, notorious for breaking others’ possessions. None of the cousins ever allowed him to borrow their bikes because he always brought them back with a flat or a bent handlebar. To everyone’s dismay, he never seemed to damage his own belongings. It was an unsolved family mystery.
“You busted my skateboard! I knew it! I told you to use it only if you were very careful and you promised not to try any weird moves with it. Tell me what happened? Go ahead, spit it out.”
Antoine looked genuinely sorry, lowered his eyes and whispered, “I was rolling down the driveway and it started goin’ kinda too fast and I forgot how to stop it and then I was gonna smash into a car so I jumped off and it hit the car and then it went into the curb and got chipped a little. But I found the piece that broke off and Papa said he would glue it back on and make it as good as new. The front wheels got a teeny bit bent but that’s not a problem. I have $4.79 saved up in my piggy bank and I’ll give you the whole thing Blanche. I don’t need to go to the Windsor Shoppe for candy during Thanksgiving because Ma Tante Lucie promised to make fudge. That’ll replace my penny candy.”
During Antoine’s confession, a kaleidoscope of emotions moved Blanche. Sheer anger made her ears drum. Her cheeks warmed and her temperature rose. Her mouth went dry and her stomach knotted. Then Sister Roger’s breathing exercises came to mind. Blanche could hear her say “Whenever you feel anxious, breathe deeply. Fill your lungs with air all the way to your diaphragm. Hold it in for three seconds then exhale through your mouth. Let it all go. Do that five times. You’ll see that it clears your head and prepares you to face whatever comes your way. It’s something to remember your whole life through.”
Blanche closed her eyes and followed Sister Roger’s advice. At the fifth exhale, she felt appeased and opened her eyes to take in her brother’s genuinely repentant attitude. “Well kiddo, it coulda been you who got hit instead of the skateboard. Thank goodness for that. Papa’ll fix it and I’ll show you how to slow down. Now I’m hungry. What kind of chips did Maman get? Lay’s wavy ones are my favorite.”
Antoine let out a sigh of relief. “ Yeah, she got Lay’s chips and your favorite Anadama bread too. And that Dijon mustard instead of French’s yellow. I kinda prefer the yellow but the other one is OK too I guess. But Blanche, you know Papa can’t fix the skateboard! Every time he tries to fix something, it breaks even more. Don’t you remember the time Maman asked him to get a kitchen drawer unstuck and he ended up splitting it with his hammer? Maman told him never to pick up a hammer again. And remember the first time he used the new lawn mower and cut off part of his big toe and had to go to the hospital and they couldn’t sew the piece of toe back on? That was really gross. Remember how Papa had to stay in bed for a few days because it hurt so much? You’re the one who brought him trays of food Blanche. How can you forget that? I guess you’re learning so much new stuff at that boarding school that you don’t have room left in your head for home. I hope you can at least remember fun things like climbing trees and playing hide and seek?”
Blanche was losing the cool she had conjured up with the deep breathing. “I never forget a thing you dummy! And of course I know that Papa is no handy man. Maman always says she doesn’t understand how an artist with the scalpel can be so clumsy around the house. Do you really think I’ve lost my mind? Anyway, since we’re going to Ma Tante Lucie’s house for Thanksgiving, we can ask Mon Oncle Freddie to take a look at my skateboard. If he can build shelves and things, he can fix it. I want my lunch now. But please don’t use my stuff any more without asking me, OK?”
“How can I ask you when you’re not even around? Can we call you up over there?” Blanche was used to her brother wanting to have the last word in every discussion. “OK, OK Antoine. Let’s just forget about it right now. I want my sandwich. And what’s for dessert?”
Antoine always knew the menu. “Well, Maman knows you love Yum Yum Shop fig squares so she got some as a welcome home treat. I prefer the raspberry ones myself.”
“Well that’s great! Haven’t had a fig square in a long long time.”
Blanche and her brother left the injured skateboard in the garage and headed for the house as Maman’s voice rang “À table Blanche!”
* * * * *
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
Read Chapter 14: Back to the Fold
Read Chapter 15: In the Night
Read Chapter 16: Parlez-vous?
Read Chapter 17: On the Agenda
Read Chapter 18: Dress up, sit up, chin up
Read Chapter 19: Post Conference Assessment
Read Chapter 20: Orderliness
Read Chapter 21: Inspection
Read Chapter 22: The Inner Sanctum