Straying Home: A Memoir of Changing in Place

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I didn’t see Edward again for more than two years. He graduated and went back to New Jersey where, I heard, he was living at home and working on a volume of poetry and practicing the harpsichord. I still occasionally ran into some of his Amherst friends, and it was from them that in the fall of my senior year I learned the sensational news that Edward had been drafted.

“That’s so like him,” Jerry said in disgust. “He didn’t even try.

Smith had undergone a cultural shift in the three years since I had arrived there. We were told during freshman orientation that students could have boys in their rooms from 2:00 to 5:00 on Sunday afternoons. “You don’t know how lucky you are,” the seniors said when a few of the bolder freshmen complained. “At least you don’t have to keep the door open and one foot on the floor.” Little by little the curfews melted away; by the autumn of my junior year boy voices were audible in the upstairs corridors until long after midnight. One long and emotional Thursday house meeting was devoted entirely to the subject of men in the bathroom; after a good deal of debate we agreed that each of us would hang a “MEN” sign on the doorknob when one of our male visitors was inside. “And everyone’s responsible for cleaning up after their own guests,” someone added forcefully.

“Man on the floor!” we would call when we came upstairs with a new male visitor. One snowy winter night my junior year the fire alarms on every floor clanged: it was the once-a-semester fire drill. Girls filed out grumbling in their quilted bathrobes and fuzzy slippers while the house president stood under a street light in the parking lot with a stopwatch in her hand. We stood for a long minute in the snow after we had all answered to our names and been checked off on a clipboard. Then the door opened again, and one by one three sheepish-looking barefoot boys wrapped in blankets stepped out into the cold. Everyone cheered.

A couple of times a semester each of us was assigned to sit at the little desk in the living room and telephone upstairs when someone had a visitor. In the spring of my junior year I was lying on my bed trying to make my way through a book on the labor movements of the 1890s—I was an American Studies major—when the phone out in the hall rang. Someone knocked on my door.

“Liz, you have a male visitor.”

“You’re kidding.”

I put down the book and went downstairs. It was Edward. He looked healthier than I’d ever seen him, a little bulkier and a little less pale, but anxious. “Oh, hello Elizabeth,” he said, as though surprised to see me. He brushed something invisible away with one long hand.

We sat on the sofa under the living room window and talked. He had finished his basic training at Fort Dix and was home on a two-week leave.

“Then what?” I asked.

It’s embarkation leave,” he said. “I’m in the infantry. They’re sending me to Vietnam.”

It was hard enough to picture Edward at Fort Dix. “You’re going to Vietnam?”

Edward looked strangely detached from the question, almost a little wearily amused. He swept his hand through the air again. “Well actually,” he said “I’ve come looking for all my old friends so they can talk me out of it.”

It took me a minute to understand what he was saying, but when I did I told him I couldn’t do that. “You have to go,” I said. “Your life will be ruined if you don’t.” But I agreed at least to ride over with him to Amherst.

No one minimized the decision Edward was asking us to persuade him to make. Edward was the only one who didn’t seem to take it seriously. One by one we offered our arguments against deserting and, somehow by the end of the afternoon we were the ones who had changed our minds.

“I failed basic training, you know,” Edward said. “I couldn’t get a passing score on the rifle range. I had to do it over and over and I still couldn’t do it. Finally my sergeant just changed the score and put me down as passing.”

“Well, right there,” Jerry said. “that should be enough. Just tell them.”

Edward looked at him. “It happens all the time,” he said.

Jerry and I agreed to go back to Bernardsville with Edward for his last weekend of leave. The house was just the same. Edward’s sister cried at the dinner table and his father was even more silent than before, but his mother kept up a steady stream of questions and answers, jumping from topic to topic. On Sunday morning she set the table in the breakfast room with good china and crystal juice glasses.

“Well, Eddie,” she said as she buttered a piece of toast “what are you and your friends planning for today?”

“Actually,” Edward said, “we’re going to Canada.”

Jerry and I pretty much stayed in the living room after that, sitting silently side by side on a leather bench in front of the fireplace. Edward’s mother screamed in the bedroom; his sister ran up the stairs sobbing. “Eddie,” she said, hanging on his arm “they shoot deserters, they’re going to shoot you! Eddie, don’t do it!” The phone kept ringing. “Yes, yes, it’s true,” we could hear his mother saying. “I can’t talk now—come right over.” Edward’s two older brothers—they worked with their father in the greenhouse business—pulled up noisily on the gravel drive and banged open the front door. The older brother looked into the living room as he crossed the halls to the stairs. “You in on this?” Jerry nodded. He turned and headed up the stairs. “Mother! Where’s my damn mother? Eddie!”

It was dark when we finally left. They dropped me off at Smith, spent the night in Amherst, and continued north.

I got a job that summer waiting tables at an old resort hotel in the northern White Mountains near the Canadian border. All my summer jobs up until then had been quiet clerkish sorts of jobs, like the one in the library two summers ago. When I arrived at the hotel I was given a white uniform and brief rundown on my responsibilities. “Jimmy!” the manager called to one of the busboys who was smoking a cigarette outside the kitchen door. “You ever done this before?” she said to me. I shook my head. “Jimmy! Hey Jimmy come over and show her what to do.”

Jimmy was a narrow-hipped 17-year-old. He showed me where to find the salt and pepper to refill the shakers; how to fold the napkins; where the schedules were posted. He explained to me how important it was to stay in good with the cooks or my orders would always come out last; he told me which cooks were trouble. He took me into a side room and piled dished onto a round metal try. “Practice lifting it,” he said. I grasped its sides and started to lug it off its stand. “No, no,” he said kindly. “Like this.” He half knelt beneath the tray, held one palm up flat, and rose with the heavy tray balanced on one hand. He walked across the room and back and set it down on the stand without rattling a teacup.

“Now you try it,” he said.

I knelt the way Jimmy had and lifted upward. The tray tilted and the dishes slid noisily to one side. I looked over my shoulder and the tray began to fall.

“Don’t look at the tray!” Jimmy said, rushing forward to steady it. “Never look at the tray. Now try it again.”
I tried it over and over. It got a little easier, but not much. The tray was much heavier than it looked; my shoulders began to ache. “You’ll get it, I promise,” Jimmy said, going back out into the dining room. “Just don’t look at the tray or you’ll lose it.”

I cried a little when I was alone. But I didn’t have any option except to learn. My parents had been pleased when I got the job; I had started the summer with no idea what I was going to do for the next three months. We had met up in Hanover where they were visiting for class reunions—that’s where I had heard about the hotel and the waitressing job–but they had long since returned to Indiana where my father had just finished his first year as a college president. I didn’t want to have to go back and tell them I’d failed, I didn’t want to live at home for the summer in a town where I didn’t know anyone. And most of all, I wanted to be close to Edward. I kept lifting and trying, lifting and trying.

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Written by lizseymour

April 9, 2008 at 8:27 pm

One Response

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  1. Is it Breton Woods?

    Noel

    May 16, 2008 at 2:25 am


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