When I left high school for college, I boarded a train in Oakland, CA, bound for Kalamazoo, MI. Looking up the AMTRAK schedules listed now, I think it must have been the California Zephyr route, which ends in Chicago, and then there is a connecting train to Kalamazoo.
Why was I headed for Kalamazoo? I was looking to get as much distance from my high school life and identity as possible, and forge a new identity, where no one knew me, no one knew how shy I was, and I might be able to become someone completely different!
I realize, in retrospect, that I had no idea what I was doing, and, my mother, who didn’t go away for her undergraduate studies, didn’t have much experience to guide me. She had gone away to New York City for graduate school, and, because of that experience, she refused to let me take my first choice – going all the way to NYC myself to attend the New School for Social Research (which I did the following year, anyway, but under much different circumstances).
On this train ride, I had all my belongings packed into the largest backpack I could find at REI. It looked something like this:
And, for bedding, I had my trusty sleeping bag strapped on the top.
My arrival at Kalamazoo College confronted me with countless surprises – being housed in an all-girl’s dorm (probably a choice the campus made for me based on my young age, I was 17 when I arrived there), and finding that they had assigned the rooms based solely on alphabetical order of our last names, placing me in a room with a roommate who had all her furnishings in coordinated pink, and who had never been outside of Kalamazoo.
At Kalamazoo, I discovered how different my growing up in California was from my fellow students in the Midwest. And, I met my future first husband. The experience that came to me as I read Bittersweet was my first meeting of his family at Thanksgiving of my first year away from home. His family kindly extended their hospitality, as I would have had to stay in the dorms, having no resources to get back home for the break.
Coming from a home with a single mom, and only one sister, younger than me by 6 years, it was quite a shock to find myself in the noisy and tumultuous home of my then boyfriend. He is the fourth of nine children – five boys and four girls. I had to learn all their names, and they all had nicknames to learn, as well. In fact, although my sister had a nickname for most of our lives, I had never had one, but was given one by my future in-laws. Since my boyfriend was “John-Boy”, I, naturally, became “John-Girl” (which served an additional useful purpose in that, they all learned how to pronounce my actual name properly, and not pronouncing the first syllable like “Jan” as in the shortened form of Janet).
My week with my future in-laws was a challenge. They were very physical – I would find myself sitting quietly in a main room, reading a book, and find that one sibling after another would come in, sit down, and then free-form wrestling would ensue. They were all so comfortable with each other. Sure, there were sibling rivalries and tensions, most of which I discovered or was told about later, but on this first visit, they just looked so blissfully comfortable with one another’s company, in a way that I had never seen in my own family.
It was an eye-opening experience, and it’s influenced my own parenting. Although I will likely never be as comfortable with physicality and athleticism, I think because of meeting this family, I have greater tolerance of my two boys now, and their high decibel level, at times!!
This memory was prompted by reading Miranda Beverly-Whittemore‘s new book, Bittersweet, which tells the story of a young woman on scholarship to a prestigious eastern college, Mabel, who is invited to spend the summer with her college roommate’s family on their private estate in Vermont. Family secrets emerge along with shifting identities, hidden crimes and unexpected plot twists. Join From Left To Write on May 20, as we share our impressions of the story.
As a member of the From Left To Write book club, I received a complimentary copy of this book.