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My mother and father divorced when I was nine. A year after that, my father remarried. The following year my mother remarried, and I was sent to boarding school.
Almost everyone at Rose Haven School for Girls in Rockleigh, N.J. had divorced parents. I suppose that was Rose Haven's reason for being.
The "overseer" - Miss Van Strum - and her head honcho, Ms. Carlsen - terrified me. Accustomed to affectionate parents, I found these two not-so-young/not-so-old women cold and distant disciplinarians of youngsters who probably could have used an occasional lap, or at least a hug.
Neither hugs nor laps were on offer - but after a sharp rap on my shoulder, I did learn to say "excuse me" when it was my turn in line to pass in front of the overseer as she stood in an open doorway like an expectant hawk waiting for an unmindful pigeon. This was her method of providing a useful lesson in good manners, if not good will.
The only things that saved me that bleak autumn were my two roommates. One was a tow-headed imp of a girl called Ann Kniffen. The other was always good-natured Michelle Farmer, 11-year-old daughter of Gloria Swanson. We three were 11 years old and, like most 11-year-olds, we did a lot of whispering and giggling in our beds after dark.
Beyond fun, Michelle was an "old girl" who knew the ropes at the school. She took her oddly manufactured punishment for any minor infraction - circling mindlessly around the driveway for some specified time - with equanimity. And because I saw she was a self-sufficient, independent stoic, whose manner led me to understand she thought crybabies were a useless lot, my pride demanded that I emulate her. I didn't cry.
Michelle never bragged. She didn't have to. My imagination was sufficiently fertile to conjure up visions of her glamorous adventures with her famous mother. It was clear to me her life was dazzling compared to mine.
Then, because we giggled after dark once too often, Miss Van Strum assigned Michelle to another room and installed in her vacant bed a decidedly less appealing roommate called Frances who introduced Ann and me to the theory of human copulation when she revealed that to make a baby a man puts his "teapot" inside you.
In youth, you don't have to look for education. It falls from the trees.
When Christmas holidays arrived, I went first to Manhattan to stay with my father and his new wife in their upper east side apartment.
My stepmother had a silver fox jacket and a mink coat. My mother said she wouldn't wear dead animals. I felt I was in no man's land....without even knowing what that was.
I really missed my mother but when my father put me on the train for Long Island on Christmas Day I pressed my face close to the dirty train window to keep him in sight as long as I could.
As the cars rumbled and swayed down the tracks toward my mother's new home, I realized this was to be the pattern of all my young Christmases to come.
I thought of Michelle with envy. It was easy for her not to cry and carry on. She was secure, sophisticated and pampered. She wasn't traveling alone on a nasty train on Christmas Day. I wallowed in the misery of it all.
One of my presents that year was a plush "sleepy monkey" with a zipper down his back where I could stuff my nightie. I took him back to school with me, more for cuddling than for stuffing. When Michelle and I were reunited, we found we each had a sleepy doll. Hers, however, had no zippered pocket.
She thoughtfully assessed me and my monkey and then handed me a gift card that had come with hers. "Keep this inside your doll for me," she said. "I don't have a place to put it." I read the card as she watched. It said, "Michelle, darling. Why haven't you written."
I must have looked puzzled. Matter-of-factly, Michelle explained: "I can't write to her. She never sent me her address."
She turned away but not before I glimpsed an unaccustomed brightness in her steady dark eyes.
Whenever Christmas weltschmerz overtakes me, I remember Michelle.