by Camille Armantrout
On the day I graduate from eighth grade, the putty-colored Coldspot fails. My parents, bless their hearts, have decided to throw a party in my honor and I am puffed up like a brine-injected Butterball turkey. All that party food: the finger sandwiches, green Jell-O, and cream-filled cake will spoil if my father doesn’t do something quick. So he drives off in his blue Falcon wagon and returns with two used refrigerators.
1968 has already been a rough year. Body counts spill from our televisions, and The New York Times oozes turmoil. My father and his mother, my Nana, are nauseated by the Vietnam War and the brutality surrounding the civil rights movement. My father secretly supports the anti-war movement at the risk of losing his shot at tenure with prestigious Monmouth College.
It’s an election year and the Democratic Party is off-balance. Lyndon B. Johnson announced in March that he won’t run for re-election, turning him into an even lamer duck. As president of the New Jersey Democratic Woman’s Society, Nana is working overtime to keep her party from capsizing. In April, James Earl Ray shot Martin Luther King dead on a hotel balcony less than a week before my father’s forty-second birthday. The country seems rudderless and hell bent on tearing itself apart.
But I’m not paying attention to any of this. Today I am solely concerned with my own impending glory.
My parents and five younger brothers mill around the kitchen half an hour before we are due to squeeze into the Falcon for the drive to St. Jerome’s Elementary School. I stand between the back door and the fireplace, one foot on the stairs. Dad has weathered the refrigerator crisis and towers over the situation with an uneasy look on his face, wondering perhaps, what else can go wrong. And then, in an act of self-sabotage, moving in slow motion like the Six Million Dollar Man, he reaches for the stack of rented party plates. Hurling them to the floor, he bellows, “No one is leaving this house!”
Shards spray across the linoleum, bouncing off table legs and cabinets. The room explodes, everyone scuttling backwards. Heart pounding, I leap up the wooden steps two and three at a time and dive into my bedroom. Snatching the stiff, plastic-wrapped cap and gown off my bed, I fly down the front stairs, and shoot out the front door. Just like him to ruin my big day, I think. I know I’ll pay for my insurrection, but I don’t care.
I sprint across lawn and asphalt to my best friend’s house and arrive sweaty and tear-stained in time to catch Franny, her parents, and sisters. Of course they have room in the car for me, her father says, pulling a lock of hair from my sticky cheek. He looks me in the eye as he says this, making sure I know he means it and that he really cares. I try and meet his gaze without blubbering. In the back seat, Franny makes me look at her eyebrows to make sure she has plucked them evenly.
The ceremony feels as sacred as a wedding or a funeral and my fourteen-year-old classmates handle themselves with uncharacteristic grace. Clouds of frankincense mingle with the scent of moth balls wafting from our robes. Sunlight beams through stained glass like God himself. The rustle of our starched gowns reduce the swishing nuns’ habits to an inaudible whisper. Parents stifle squirming children.
After the blessing at the altar rail, we turn to face the pews. I peer at the colorful light-bathed faces, searching for my family. The church spills over with kids I’ve played countless games of hide and seek with, but I don’t see anyone from my house. The bitter realization hits like a punch; my father, the college professor, is too mired in his own autistic hell to acknowledge my academic accomplishment. He doesn’t care that I am the first of my generation to make it through eighth grade.
Tears prick my eyes. It hurts, and I’m disappointed with myself for letting it show.
And then I see her: my tiny Polish Nana standing against the back wall, out-shining all the pride in the room. I raise my head, chest pushing against the heavy fabric. After finger cakes in the church basement, Nana and I will escape, leaving that smelly gown behind. Perched regally in her Studebaker, I will accompany her to the bakery for a loaf of corn rye. We will stop at the little farm with the doe-eyed Jersey cow for raspberries, butter, and cream.
Nana will take me to her tidy house on the hill at the edge of the woods, with its cool, shaded lawn and four laughing dogs. Over bowls of berries and cream we’ll admire the cardinals outside the picture window and the way the teardrop crystals cast rainbows upon the carpet. The dogs and I will scramble up the wooded hill to the sandpits, returning breathless with a few precious chocolate stones. After dinner, we’ll all sprawl in the carpeted living room. I’ll curl against the sofa arm next to Nana’s emerald club chair and watch The Jackie Gleason Show and the Million Dollar Movie.
I congratulate myself. I did more than graduate from grammar school today; I walked away from my father’s house. Today I learned that my happiness does not depend on one man’s approval. I have other champions. My real education has begun.