My best friend from age zero, Kristine, had a step-great-grandmother who lived in a doll hospital in a little farm town in western Minnesota. The step-great-grandmother told Kristine’s mother that Kristine and I could take a little vacation there the summer we were both eleven. We could stay in the old farmhouse that belonged to the second cousin of the step-great-grandmother; we could stay on the second floor of the farmhouse and the family that farmed the land (not the second cousin) would “keep an eye on us.”
And so our mothers told us we could pack our clothes and food supplies in suitcases our dads didn’t use anymore, so we did—packed matching blouse and short sets, socks, tennis shoes, bathing suits, a towel each, our favorite crackers, pasta, three jars of spaghetti sauce, peanut butter, 6 bottles of real coke, and our moms put us on the Greyhound bus and waved as the bus pulled away from the St. Paul station.
There was no one to meet us when we arrived, a brilliant July day, so we walked to Kristine’s step-great-grandmother’s doll hospital at the end of Main Street, but she wasn’t there, so we asked a neighbor how to get to the farmhouse(we had that address and the name of the family written on a piece of paper) and they told us and we started walking. When we arrived, the man who ran the farm took us upstairs, showed us how the oven worked, how to turn on the gas burners, and left.
Were we exhausted? I see us trudging down the highway, two miles in the bright sun, carrying our fathers’ suitcases. I see us setting up our little vacation home, setting out the pasta and sauce, realizing we would have to walk back to town to buy milk if we wanted cereal in the morning, putting our books on the nightstands on either side of the sagging double bed, staring out the windows at the endless rows of corn, the stand of trees at the end of the driveway. I see how completely at ease we were in that freedom. After we made the space our little home, we walked back to town, spent our allowances on milk and treats, walked back, lit the gas burners, boiled all the pasta that we had, heated the sauce, ate dinner at a little card table, and went to bed when the sun went down.
So many small towns had public swimming pools. Oh, America, what has happened to you? We left the next morning for the pool, our swim suits on under our little outfits, our towels folded over our arms. The pool lives in memory—vast, blue, chlorinated within an inch of our lives, the high diving board, the middle-sized diving board, the baby diving board, a Goldilocks kind of logic that worked for us. Of course we swam all day. Of course we were in heaven.
Kristine finally said we had to go to her step-great-grandmother’s place and find her, so we pulled on our clothes over our wet bathing suits, walked to the edge of town, pounded on the door, and the step-great-grandmother opened the door, remembered who Kristine was, seemed completely startled to find us there, took us into her doll hospital where we stared at headless dolls, and doll heads without bodies, at tiny stands where doll heads were perched next to boxes of real hair from the local beauty parlor ready for her step-great-grandmother to turn into wigs for the dolls. There were racks of thread, and needles of every size, and hundreds of dolls who were doing ok and more that were broken, slumped and resting on every surface of the house. There were rows of porcelain legs, arms, hands; there were tiny tiny teeth to glue back into doll mouths, there were tiny and not tiny outfits on hundreds of miniature hangers.
She gave us a cookie each, and some water, and thanked us for coming. So we walked back to the farmhouse, ate more spaghetti out of the pot we had left on the stove from the night before, started opening all the closets and cupboards and drawers in our little home, and found, to our great delight and bewilderment, a stash of about a hundred true romance and raunchy detective comic books. We were such innocents. The picture of us, taken with Santa when we were five, could have stood for the girls we were then, at eleven. We started reading and the world shifted a little, then more. We spread the comics out all over the floor. We read fast, then slow, then we stopped, saying we had to save some for the next day. And so we stopped, our dreams stunned and out of any context we knew, because of what we had seen and read.
Our third and last day we walked to the pool again. We swam, we dove from the highest diving board, and then the sky turned gray, then black, then green, a life guard blew a whistle, the other children raced for their homes, and we left the pool, stopped to buy ice cream for our final night of vacation, and began the walk down the highway. The rain came in torrents, lightning dazzled, thunder exploded. We were beyond wet, we couldn’t stop laughing. Two cars stopped, one after the other, offering us rides, aghast, I think, at us, how young we were, alone in the storm. Our mothers had told us never take a ride from strangers, so we turned down their offers. Another half mile, and we knew enough to be more afraid of the storm than any stranger. A pick-up truck stopped, the man ordered us into the back of his truck, and we obeyed. At the farmhouse we waved good bye to him in the pounding rain, then ran inside. Oh, we were so happy, so untouched, so fabulously wet, and then dry, and then into pajamas, and then more spaghetti, still sitting on the stove, day three, then more of those racy, scary, amazing comic books, with plots we had never imagined, with women in dresses we assumed we would never wear, with men pressing women up against walls of houses, and trees in forests, and kissing them in such ferocious ways I am left wondering about these artists.
In the morning our mothers arrived to pick us up. Why didn’t they have us come home on the bus? I have no answer. They were happy, looked around the farm, thanked the family for looking out for us (insert many exclamation points here!!!, since neither spoke to us after our arrival)and Kristine and I, raised right by these two strong women, had our place so clean, the comic book stash so well hidden, the giant vat of spaghetti thrown away, the pots clean, the bed made, our suitcases packed—we knew how to do all of this.
Why were we allowed to have private lives? Why this freedom? Why no sense of danger? Why no calls to check on us? But check on us with who? And again, oh, the bliss and beauty of privacy, of making our own way, our wisdom, our stupidity, our competence, our joy.
“What Were Our Mothers Thinking” first appeared in I'm With Stupid Stories, edited by Geoff Herbach
Deborah Keenan's latest books are From Tiger to Prayer (broadcraft press), So She Had the World (Red Bird Chapbooks) with paintings by Susan Solomon, and Willow Room, Green Door: New and Selected Poems (Milkweed Editions), the winner of a Minnesota Book Award for poetry. She's a full time professor in the MFA program at Hamline University, and has taught at The Loft every year for more than 30 years. Her new full-length manuscript is called The Saint of Everything. She lives in beautiful, mysterious Saint Paul.