By 17, I was in my second year at Simon’s Rock Early College, an experimental college in the Berkshires. I’m not sure anyone at home noticed when I left. My mother was ecstatically immersed in school (I’d never seen her so happy). She had already completed the rest of her undergraduate credits in record time and was now working towards a Masters in Philosophy. My younger sister and brother had moved in with my dad and stepmother who had recently given birth to my half-brother, and my oldest brother (who’d been at Simon’s Rock the year before I arrived) was living out in Berkeley “finding himself.”
By that second Thanksgiving, Leesa and Betsy (best friends who were sort of friends of mine) said they were staying in a friend of a friend’s rented house for the holiday with a brother and sister from Kuwait (can’t remember their names) who also weren’t going home, I decided to join them. Going home would mean spending Thanksgiving with my stepmother’s extended family who always seemed confused about why my brothers and sister and I were there interfering with my stepmother’s marriage to my father. And anyway, I had so much to learn from Leesa and Betsy and the Kuwaitians who were all so smart and worldy-wise. In fact, most of the students at Simon’s Rock had traveled widely and spoke several languages and discussed politics and particle theory while listening to Steely Dan. Back home in Toledo, I’d been hanging out with girls who spent hours doing their hair and make-up to “go out” and discussed what happened the last time they went out. And we listened to Bad Company. I had some catching up to do.
The day the campus closed Leesa and Betsy and I climbed into my Datson B 210 and drove out to Housatonic. The Kuwaitian brother and sister would meet us there later. They had matching Mercedes and were taking a quick trip to New York City first to go shopping. They were always spinning off in their matching wheels to “The City” and returning with arms full of vibrant new things.
On the way to the house, we stopped at the grocery store filling our cart with Thanksgiving stuff. A frozen Butterball turkey and a big bag of potatoes and iceberg lettuce and cans of cranberry sauce and canned pumpkin pie mix and frozen pie shells and eggnog. Not exactly the meal my mother would have made (before the divorce) but a pretty close facsimile.
The house was one of those old New England clapboards with a big saggy front porch. As soon as we pulled up, I thought, this house is so much better than the dream house my mother had devoted a year to planning in the suburbs, the house with the built-in vacuum (so she could keep it cleaner) and the sauna in the basement (because my dad loved saunas) and Formica counter tops (where she whipped up all my dad’s favorite meals) and the automatic ice-cube maker and the sodded lawn and the hope that a house could save the marriage. “We will all be happier here,” my mother said a lot that year. And not much more than a year after we moved in, my dad moved out. But this old house breathed, the wooden floors moaning under our weight, the windowsills so wide, so deep, so drafty, so unlike the double-paned casement windows guaranteed to shut out the cold.
I loved being in the old kitchen with Leesa and Betsy, absorbing their auras as we cooked. Betsy had blond aristocratic looks; blue eyes and good bone structure and great muscle tone and she was a feminist and a ribboned equestrian. And even though she didn’t pay a lot of attention to me, I really liked her, maybe admire is more the word. Yes, I admired her, especially the way she handled men, I thought, as we stood at the rust-stained kitchen sink scrubbing potatoes.
Leesa was even more remarkable. Everyone was in awe of Leesa. She’d grown up poor in Ireland in the hilly countryside, every day lugging her cello to school through rolling hills and gnawing on a raw potato for lunch. Her family was poor and she wanted an education, so she stowed away on a boat to America and ended up at Simon’s Rock. Her first two years she lived several towns over and worked in a restaurant at night and road her bike to school every day until the founder of the school offered her a full scholarship and she moved into the dorms. She was a triple major; political science, international studies and physics and she was vivacious and fun and she knew how to peel potatoes. One-handed.
We spent the day peeling and boiling and mashing and mixing and basting and Leesa telling more stories of her Irish childhood, of her poor mother who owned only one ragged dress and Betsy of the men she’d used and the contests she’d won and I just took it all in feeling privileged to be here cooking with these amazing women.
Just before we sat down to eat, the Kuwaitian brother and sister pulled into the drive, the shiny headlights form their shiny cars blinding us. They bounded into the dining room, their arms filled with bags from Chanel and Gucci and Tiffany, their necks wrapped in colorful new scarves.
“Looks great!” the brother said flashing his dark eyes over the pale array of food including the turkey, which we hadn’t basted enough.
“Why do you eat turkey again?” the sister asked.
“After we slaughtered the Indians, we slaughtered the birds,” Betsy said.
“Tradition,” Leesa said and passed the potatoes.
Even though the food wasn’t great (wasn’t my mother’s, she always basted to a golden hue) and the house was so drafty I shivered through the night, and honestly, I didn’t know Leesa or Betsy or the Kuwaitians very well and felt awkward and inadequate, that Thanksgiving provided something invaluable, a glimpse of the future. A future that wasn’t dependent on my family, a future that would project the me I was slowly, painstakingly piecing together. And I felt grateful for that.
I wish I could end this right here, these women my role models, my saviors. But the following year, Betsy slept with my boyfriend, more than once. And one day Leesa’s mother pulled up in a stretch limo from Boston and stepped out wearing a very fancy ladies who lunch suit. No poor Irish childhood. No raw potato. I was crushed. But looking back I see how much I wanted, needed to believe in the myth of these women, even after Betsy betrayed me and Leesa’s life turned out to be a lie. Even now. Maybe it was because I’d had to give up the myth of my family and I needed other myths to fill in the space until I created my own.