In the midst of a midlife slump, I am thinking back on the most daring thing I’ve ever done in my life. In the context of my ‘fraidy-cat youth it still amazes me—50 years later—just how bold and inventive this maneuver was.
When I was a freshman at Bryn Mawr College, in a suburb of Philadelphia, my mother decided that I was going to attend a dance some 70 miles away at Lafayette College, where my father taught Art History. Mother decided that one of his students was ideal date material for her only daughter, who, at the end of her freshman year in college, had never been on a date, much less ever been kissed by a boy.
As it happened, this dance took place on the very night that my geology class had its big field trip with an overnight stay in Scranton, Pennsylvania. You absolutely, positively had to be on this trip; in case of illness, you had to take the trip the following year, at which time you’d receive your final geology grade. Most of the Humanities students took geology as their science elective, figuring it would be easier than biology, chemistry, or physics. But since this was Bryn Mawr, the class was anything but easy. In addition to punishing classwork, we were sent out on field trips to hack away at the Wissahickon mica schist. All in a week’s work, though, and I had even come to terms with the overnight excursion, which had to be completed At All Costs. Fortunately for my mother, the route to Scranton took us right through Easton, my home town
“We’ll just have you get a little bit sick, stay at home for the dance—that way you can sleep in your own bed—and then I’ll drive you to Scranton in the morning.” This from my deeply conservative, law abiding immigrant mother! Now, how to be just sick enough to exit the bus in Easton, but well enough to go on the trip in the first place? We couldn’t have me disqualified before I got on that bus.
With the help of medical texts from the library and a supply of lip liners, I practiced painting on what I imagined measles might look like before they were full blown. My medical chart revealed that I’d never had them (nor mumps nor chicken pox), so this was in our favor. As was the fact that my basal temperature is lower than average and my lips were, even at that age, very pale.
On the Friday morning of the trip, I carefully placed the various lighter-than light-dots on my face, neck, and arms. Once on the bus I wiped off my lip gloss, removed my jacket, and proceeded to feign symptoms. I gradually decreased my emotive energy, slumped in my seat, parted my lips and lowered my eyelids to half-mast. My concerned seatmate alerted the authorities. “But I’ve got to go on the trip,” I wailed as we headed north. Our professors praised my determination, but agreed that it was probably best for me to be dropped off at my parents’ house, if only to avoid spreading contagion if in fact I did have measles. It was agreed that, if I felt better, I could join the group the next day.
So imagine two huge chartered buses chugging up the steep hill to my parents’ house where my mother stood on the front stoop appropriately wringing her hands as her little malade imaginaire drooped off the bus. Once inside the house, she had me rest from the ordeal—and it was; I was actually running a fever simply from the nerve this whole thing had required—and then put me into date mode: curled hair, pretty dress, etc.
I wish I could say that it was worth it. The boy in question was simply horrible in every way, from his halitosis to his sweaty hands to his way of introducing me only as Dr. Gaertner’s daughter. Clearly, my value lay uniquely in the fact that he had snagged the prof’s daughter. Ugh. The attempted kiss was aborted by yours truly with the excuse that his braces were hurting me. It was probably the worst first kiss a girl could get, but my mother was happy, and in the dynamics of our family this was paramount.
We did drive to Scranton the next morning, where I was “all better” and finished the trip without further incident. I have told this story to only one other person. Technically, Bryn Mawr could revoke my diploma for impersonating illness and missing one day and one night of the course requirement.
Looking back on this episode with astonishment and satisfaction, I am still amazed that I wasn’t more afraid of the tremendous risk we were taking. Astonished at how calmly I undertook the preparations and how confident I was that we would succeed. Satisfied that I colluded with my stern and humorless mother in so outrageous a prank. The idea of hatching a naughty plot with my normally strict mother was sufficiently delicious to brush aside any moral qualms, any hesitation. Did my subconscious assume that I could/would blame her if we were found out? I honestly don’t know.
The triumph at getting away with the whole thing was of course tempered by the fact that I could never reveal this to anyone . . . a family secret that I have not shared until now, when, I hope, it’s OK to savor this youthful escapade and celebrate the bravery of that naïve girl who really, really wanted only to please her mother.