“Barb, are you about ready?”
I jumped about a foot in the air at the sudden appearance of my father in my bedroom doorway. “Yeah, I’ll just be a second.”
“Make sure that’s all it is.” Dad glanced over his shoulder before lowering his voice. “Your mother is ready to pitch a fit if we don’t hurry up.”
“For someone so against me leaving, she sure can’t wait to get out of here this morning,” I mumbled.
Dad’s face softened and he stepped inside the room. He squeezed my shoulder. “She just hates to be late. Rushing stresses her—you know that.”
I nodded and swallowed the sudden lump in my throat. The truth of it was, it stung more than I let on. Mom had woken me close to six a.m. that morning to make sure we were on schedule for the train.
Which left at ten.
And we lived fifteen minutes from the station.
Mustering a convincing smile, I nodded toward the door. “You go ahead, I’m going to do one last check to make sure I have everything.”
Dad nodded but lingered a moment before leaving.
I turned back to face my bedroom, sparse of my favorite things. My desk was tidy for once, all papers and paraphernalia either tossed or stored somewhere out of sight. My dresser was near-bare and my vanity table empty.
All essential items were packed away in two large suitcases, waiting to travel with me to Wellesley.
I crossed the room to my narrow childhood bed and straightened one corner until the quilt could have passed military inspection. Which, where my mother was concerned, was about right.
“Barbara!” my mother called in her sharp voice from downstairs.
Rolling my eyes skyward, I mouthed something I would never have dared say in her presence. “Coming!”
She voiced her displeasure to someone—my sister, probably.
I let out a huff and turned back to my room, giving the place one last cursory glance before admitting it was time to leave.
It was a bittersweet moment to close the door to my room, knowing it would be a few months before I would open it again.
Anna, my older sister, met me at the bottom of the stairs. “All set?”
Dad passed us both then lifted my two cases to take out to the car. “In the car please, before—”
“You haven’t even packed the car yet?” Mom demanded as she rounded the corner, staring at us all as if we had done it to antagonize her intentionally.
“Mom, we have almost an hour before my train leaves. I’m sure we’ll make it,” I said, doing my level best not to let annoyance seep into my tone. “You don’t have to be worried about being stuck with me.”
Mom turned a cold look my way. “I don’t think I need to remind you that it wasn’t me who put this ridiculous notion in your head.”
Oh, God, not this argument again. “You can’t deny that it comes with perks, though, right? Well, just the one.” Me, out of your house. Out of your sight, where I can’t disappoint you anymore.
Anna slipped her hand in my mine and tugged me toward the front door. “Come on, Barb, let’s get going. Do you have everything?”
I picked up my purse and double-checked its contents. “I think so.”
“Well, what are we all waiting for? We’re gathering dust.” Dad bustled out of the door, clattering my suitcases off the doorframe.
Mom took off after him, muttering something about him being obtuse and careless.
Anna rolled her eyes at me and we followed our parents outside to the car.
* * * *
The train station bustled with activity when we got there—people arriving and departing, people crying over departures, laughing at reunions.
Because we were devilishly early, we stopped for a coffee at the little café inside the station. I chose the seat by the window, better to see the comings and goings. It took every ounce of self-control I possessed not to squirm with anticipation in my chair. Patience wasn’t exactly my forte, and I had been looking forward to this day for months.
“Have we lost you already, Barb?” Anna asked, nudging me with her elbow.
I turned to my sister with a smile. “Almost. I’m just… I’m very excited. I can’t wait to see—”
Mom sighed quietly and replaced her teacup in its saucer. “Are you seeing Kenneth tonight, Anna dear?”
“No, not tonight, Mom,” Anna replied before facing me again. “You must be so keen to meet your roommate. What do you think she’ll be like?”
“Here’s hoping she has a better understanding of female obligation,” Mom said with a stiff smile.
Here we go…again.
“There are plenty of other colleges in the area. Maybe this new roommate of yours will help you meet a nice young man.”
“I’ll have a full plate with my classes, Mom.” I dropped my eyes to my teacup, willing my irritation to diminish.
“Well, perhaps if you had listened to my wishes and taken your courses in women’s studies, then you would have the time to pursue some prospective husbands.” Mom smiled over the rim of her cup. The smile was cold, as it had been since I’d told her I was not going all the way to Wellesley to attend a finishing school.
“And if I wanted to study how to arrange the seating plan for a dinner with my husband’s boss, I have no doubt that I would have plenty of spare time on my hands.” I couldn’t hide the bite in my tone and I placed my cup down a smidge harder than I intended. Coffee sloshed over the side, staining the tablecloth.
Mom glared at me—a hard and wrathful look.
It was one I’d seen countless times, not just recently, but throughout my entire life. I turned my head so I faced away from my family. My family who just didn’t understand why today was so important to me.
At a college fair way back in my junior year, a rep had handed me a brochure for the college and I’d known that was the place for me. The pictures of smiling women riding bicycles and attending classes in the old brownstone buildings had me hooked.
Mom had pitched a fit when I had said I wanted to go.
Hardly any of my female peers were leaving home to go to college, and even fewer to go to an all-girls one. For most of those who were leaving, it was to widen the pool of potential husbands.
I, clearly, was not.
Even once she had admitted defeat and allowed me to enroll at Wellesley, my mother couldn’t help but pray that some fraternity boy would steal my heart and turn me into the daughter they made no secret of wanting me to be.
A husband was the last thing on my mind. I was going to Wellesley to become brilliant—to be a modern woman, independent, with a ferocious mental appetite. Successful. Bold. Smart. Many girls attended the prestigious college for the finishing school curriculum, to better prepare themselves for their futures as wives and mothers.
Those girls would truly make my mother proud.
I, however, was going to study art history, mathematics, ancient history, Latin and English literature. Even as a child, I was scolded for having a curious mind, and the inquisitive little girl had grown into a young woman hungry for knowledge.
Ever since that college fair, I’d known Wellesley was where I belonged. And so I had been counting down the days until this day arrived, and it was finally time for me to leave.
The fluttering of excitement that had kept me awake since dawn was stamped down by thick, omnipresent irritation at my mother, who just couldn’t let me be happy.
“Maybe we should make our way to the platform. There’s only half an hour until it leaves.” Dad rose from his chair, knocking his knees against the underside of the table and making the cups chink and wobble.
“Great idea,” Anna agreed.
I left Mom and Anna to follow Dad back out to the parking lot. He hauled my cases out of the trunk and found a luggage cart to make it easier to get onto the platform with them.
“You know,” Dad said as he wheeled the cart in front of him—studiously watching the suitcases and not me. “It’s not too late to change your mind. You know, if you had. Not that you have, but…”
Releasing a quiet sigh, I said, “I haven’t changed my mind, Dad. I haven’t even had a single doubt.”
Dad pushed the cart with one hand so he could loop his free arm around my shoulders. “Call me selfish, but I don’t want my daughter thousands of miles away from home. I’ll miss you, kid.”
“I’ll miss you too, Dad.” Just not enough to stay. “And it isn’t thousands, you silly old man.”
His lips twitched into an amused smile before he turned serious once again. “And… Give your mother a break. Today is hard for her. Despite how she may act.”
What was harder for her—having to finally accept that I wouldn’t be bullied into staying at home and marrying myself off to whoever asked first, or realizing that I had no intention of using my college career to find a match.
We joined Mom and Anna and the four of stood in an awkward, uncertain group.
“Come to the ladies’ room with me, Barb,” Anna said after a few minutes of stilted conversation.
“You had better not be long—the train will arrive at any moment,” Mom called to our backs as we headed away from her and Dad.
“How are you feeling?” Anna asked as she hopped up to sit on the edge of a sink. “Are you nervous?”
I laughed. “I’m impatient.”
Anna wrinkled her nose. “Should I take it personally that you’re in such a rush to run away?”
“You shouldn’t.” I peered into the mirror and dabbed a spot more powder on my nose. The pin curls I’d spent more than hour perfecting that morning were still in place, not a flyaway hair in sight. There were perks to getting up excruciatingly early, it seemed.
“She’s trying, Barb. She just…doesn’t understand.”
“Do you?” I asked, turning to look at my sister—the one who had come before me and done everything right. The one I was measured against…the one who was perfect. In our house, Anna didn’t get the best grades, but she always had a boyfriend. Anna didn’t get a job when she left high school, but helped Mom around the house. Anna broke curfew, but it was okay because she was with Kenneth, the dreamboat whose proposal was imminent.
Then there was me.
The outspoken one. The rude one. The one who butted heads with her mother. The one with absolutely no interest in marriage. The one who dared want more out of life than an apron.
“I try to,” Anna said after a while. “I really do. But you want such different things than me. It’s hard to understand the reasons behind your choices.”
I let out a breath. “It shouldn’t be hard, Anna. I want…I want more than being someone’s wife or mother. I want my world to be bigger than a kitchen. I have brains in my head, and I don’t want to waste them creating the perfect roast chicken. And boys are… Boys are… Boys are so stupid.”
Anna snorted a laugh. “Is that what those big brains of yours could come up with, is it?”
“Shut up,” I mumbled, flicking water from the faucet at her.
Anna shrieked and leaped off the sink. “You cretin!”
“See? You should be glad I’m leaving—your annoying little sister can’t bug you anymore.”
She softened, her eyes showing just how wrong I was. “Barb, don’t be an idiot. I’m going to miss you like crazy.”
“Me too.” For all we were polar opposites, I doubted any two sisters were as close as Anna and I were.
Anna sighed and pulled me into a tight embrace. I sank into her arms, breathing in the familiar honey scent of my sister. “Come on, we really will be late.” Anna led me out of the bathroom, threading her arm with mine.
The butterflies started again in my belly, the excitement back and then some.
“And who knows—you may surprise us all. You keep saying you have no interest in boys, but what if, when you get there, a handsome, intelligent and forward-thinking one appears and you fall head first in love with him?”
I snorted a laugh. “I doubt it. What experience I’ve had has been enough to put me off the male race for life.”
“Barb, you’ve had a couple of dates that Mom bullied you into going on. You probably had more in common with a sponge.” Anna squeezed my arm. “I’m just saying, you could meet someone with similar interests to you.”
“Please, please don’t start this, Anna,” I said quietly. I needed someone on my side. Someone who understood the fact that college—Wellesley—was for me, and me alone. No finishing school. No boys. Just…knowledge. And, hopefully, a lot of fun.
The train was waiting at the platform when we rejoined our parents. Anna threw her arms around me and hugged so hard I feared for my ribs. She whispered for me to write often and to call when I could.
I turned to face my mother. She wore her usual tight-lipped smile that was barely even there. Her face was stern, unflinching as she took in her outspoken daughter she had always resented. “Mom.”
“Barbara. Let us know when you get there.”
With a nod, I turned to follow Dad onto the train. He found me an empty seat and stored my luggage.
“Will there be someone to help you get your things off? What if you miss your connecting train in New York?” he asked, his forehead puckered in worry.
I kissed his cheek and ushered him back to the door. “I’ll be fine, Dad. I promise.”
Dad nodded and turned to give me a stiff, awkward hug. “So… I’ll see you?”
“I’ll see you,” I agreed.
He studied me for a long moment, maybe trying, even at this last minute, to find some kind of reason on my face as to why I was doing this. I was the first person in our family to go to college, and even my father, who supported me as much as my mother allowed, struggled to understand my desire to go.
Finally, he nodded once, and turned to make his way off the train.
I went back to my seat and slid the window down. Anna rushed to the side of the train and reached up. I leaned out of the window as far as I dared and grasped her outstretched hand.
“Be amazing, Barb!” she cried.
My eyes stung and a thick lump formed in my throat. “You too. I’ll see you at Christmas.”
Tears welled in Anna’s eyes, and at last she had no option but to let go of my hand…and let her little sister go.
I sank back into my seat and waved as hard as I could, grinning like a maniac. For all their faults, it was hard saying goodbye to my family. After all, they were the only one I had.