Years ago I knew a girl from Virginia named Caroline. She was the kind of girl who could have a deep scar across her forehead and still look exceedingly gorgeous. In fact, she did.
The youngest of three sisters, Caroline was taking the year off between high school and college to play piano. The oldest sister, Anne, had been a few years ahead of me at Sweet Briar College. The scholarship and originality of her honors thesis, "The Cult of Elizabeth I," still had several of the English profs agog and they would mention it in class at every opportunity. After graduation Anne went up to the University of Virginia to take her sciences in order to get into medical school. From our alum magazine, I know that she is busy practicing medicine and mothering four children – with tireless originality I am sure.
The middle sister, Sarah, was just a year ahead of me and the one I knew best. Smart, good-natured, self-deprecating, Sarah was fun to be around.
Over Halloween weekend of my junior year, I went home to Lexington with Sarah. Caroline was living at home, playing the piano and working as a tour guide at the Robert E. Lee museum. Anne was living at home and commuting to UVA. Their mother had gone to Bryn Mawr and with her hearty and hail manner there was a tinge of Katherine Hepburn. Their father was a tall and gracious southern doctor who struck me a someone who might be prone to melancholy.
Shortly before Sarah and I drove over the mountain to Lexington, I discovered that when the family had lived in Bluefield, West Virginia, in the 1960s Sarah had gone to elementary school with my ex-boyfriend Scott.
"I remember sticking my tongue out at him in second grade," she recalled with a big HA HA. I had recently been tempted to do the same thing, so I understood perfectly.
A few weeks before Scott’s parents, little understanding the ups and downs of our romance, had invited me to Bluefield, a three-hour drive from Sweet Briar, for my 20th birthday. When I arrived he handed me a long, slender package wrapped in the front page of his family's newspaper. "I knew that you wanted one," he said.
It was a beautiful olivewood soprano recorder; a lovely gift. "Thank you," I said. What else was there to say.
That evening the Shotts took us down to dinner at the Martha Washington Inn in Abingdon and to a play at the Barter Theatre where, during the depression, New York actors would come down to Virginia to perform for room and board. It was a wonderful night, and I was glad that Scott’s parents liked me.
But here I was now in old Lexington sitting around the dinner table with the parents from On Golden Pond and their accomplished daughters. The clever word play, the inside jokes, the gentle admonishments from the mother, and the blithe and erudite references from the father were enough to scare the heck out of any middle class Yankee girl. Yet they were all so playful and welcoming and kind that it was hard not to thrill at their good company.
Earlier Caroline, at Sarah’s urging, had sat at the grand piano in their living room to play something she was working on…something dramatic and Chopin-y, I recall. But what I remember most is that after she finished the Chopin, as a afterthought, she launched from memory into Scott Joplin’s "Maple Leaf Rag." I’d been artlessly stomping my way through Joplin’s rags for years, and the nonchalance and perfection with which she played made my soul feel lowdown.
After dinner I took my bag up to Caroline’s room where I would be staying in an extra twin. I noticed a slim volume on her bedside table titled Le Nouveau Testament.
Merde, I thought. She's 18 and she reads the Bible in French.
Sarah had gotten tickets to a local production of A Man for All Seasons and then we were to go over to a Halloween party at the house of a bunch of boys we knew on the Washington and Lee University campus . The theme was "Come as your favorite dead person," and I had spent some time at the Goodwill store near school finding an awful dress that my grandmother, Gladys Blanche, might have worn. I decided going as my grandmother would be really funny and clever. For two dollars I found a knee-length shift with a navy background that looked like a Jackson Pollack painting and had a white Peter Pan collar.
But after the play Sarah and I ended up going somewhere else that I now can’t recall. We arrived at the party late and uncostumed. I turned a corner and there was Caroline in a frumpy skirt and cardigan and pearls surrounded by three or four boys. A girl I knew from Mary Baldwin saw me looking at Caroline and said, "Isn’t that funny? She’s come as her grandmother."
"Very funny," I said, watching her. Caroline’s laughter was so natural and careless and the deep scar on her forehead (deepened, according to Sarah, because it had repeatedly become infected and had to be drained when she was a little girl) made her look more alluring and interesting than ever.
On Sunday afternoon, All Saints Day, as Sarah and I drove back to Sweet Briar, I said, "I’m intimidated by your sister."
"Which one?" she said with a laugh, "older or younger."
"Both, but mostly younger."
"How would you like to be her sister?" she said turning to me and betraying a measure of self-doubt I’d never really thought she'd meant before this. I knew it was a serious question, but she quickly changed the subject. "You know, two summers ago we went back to visit friends in Bluefield and tried to fix Caroline up with Scott."
"You did?" I tried to imagine my ex-boyfriend/still-basically-best-friend with the sophisticated young Caroline. "I met him only a few months later. How did I stand a chance?"
"Oh, it didn’t work out. He was working the night shift at the paper writing obituaries and that was the only night we were in town."
"Thank God," I said before remembering that it didn’t make much difference considering the present state of things.
That spring Sarah graduated, and I’ve never seen any of the sisters again. I know Caroline enrolled at the University of Virginia that fall, but that’s the last I’ve heard.
A few nights ago our son Colin threw a stick at his brother and knocked my soprano recorder off a table on our porch which opens onto our kitchen.
"Watch out, you idiot, that’s Mom’s recorder," said Martin. He and I play recorder duets occasionally. At 11 he takes the harder parts because he is, without the slightest question, the more accomplished musician.
Scott was emptying the dishwasher and I was sitting at the kitchen table reading the district court report in the local weekly newspaper in order to put off making dinner. I have a rule that says I can’t stop reading the paper until I see a name I recognize in the court reports.
Without looking up I said, "Dad gave me that recorder for my birthday back when he didn’t like me very much."
"When did I ever not like you?" Scott asked, truly shocked.
"I gave you a lovely, thoughtful gift, didn’t I?"
"Well, yeah," I conceded and glanced up at him. He stood at the counter holding the silverware caddy.
"Why can’t women ever forget anything?"
"Men remember stuff too."
"I don’t remember much," he said walking across the kitchen to the silverware drawer. "I don’t remember what I ate for breakfast this morning but you remember what I was wearing at dinner 20 years ago."
"You always remember that time I kicked you in the leg," I reminded him.
"You did kick me in the leg! We were in your yellow Rabbit."
"No, we were in your ’76 Mustang."
"See," he said.
I walked out to the porch and picked up my recorder from the floor, its mouthpiece worn from years of bad playing. I rubbed it between my palms like a clay snake. “You could have married Caroline whats-her-face,” I called over the clink of silverware hitting the drawer.”
"Who?" he turned to look at me across the opening between the kitchen and the porch. "Oh, her," he said, a smirk in his voice. "No. I wouldn’t have married her. She had a big dent in her forehead and you didn’t."
Copyright © 2005 All rights reserved.