For more than twenty years, my family packed up and relocated to Nantucket for the month of August. It was the wind down to summer before the start up of fall. For the most part, we vacationed with another family that had two daughters similar in age to me and Leslie. If it was overcast, the kids walked into town and poked into Mitchell’s and Vis-a-Vis, stopping at The Juice Bar for a sweet treat before heading home. And if it was sunny, we packed up our totes and relocated to Jetties beach, playing in the sand and every so often renting windsurf boards to help pass the time.
“Liz you’re doing great!” Marla the other mom praised from the shore.
I pulled at the rope hand over hand, lifted the sail to an upright position and windsurfed across the waves. Liz meanwhile was still trying to raise the sail out of the water. When I got too close to a buoyed boat, I partially dropped the sail, swung it around and zipped back the other way. Liz was still tugging at the rope and her mom was still cheering. My mom was too busy knitting a sweater to notice my accomplishments.
In late August, we packed up our belongings and said farewell to the island. After stepping off the ferry and hugging goodbye, Leslie and I crawled into the rear of our car and Liz and her sister Darlene crawled into the backseat of their’s. As soon as the doors were closed and the locks were clicked, Leslie and I exploded.
“Liz, that was the best fart ever!” I sang from the backseat.
“Darlene, that was the prettiest poop!” Leslie chimed in.
“Girls,” my mom warned from the front seat.
We giggled and continued our banter in hushed whispers, mocking a family that regardless of the scenario acknowledged their accomplishments. More often than not, this entertained us the entire six hour drive home.
In high school, my mother paid four tutors to prep me for the SAT. As soon as my scores were certain, she hired a local woman to assist with the applications. A ton of paper was used as I hand wrote essays and made color coded graphs to track the progress. In total, I applied to something like ten colleges - a few reaches, a few safeties and a few in the middle.
“Mom, I got into Muhlenberg,” I exclaimed as I broke through the doorway of her classroom at a local elementary school, the crinkled acceptance letter clutched in my outstretched hand.
“You were supposed to get in there,” she said with a flutter of her chalk tainted fingers, her dismissive tone silencing my excitement.
True, Muhlenberg was a safety. It was a school that was expected to accept me. But it was also the very first letter I received. There was something magical and comforting about being wanted even if the feeling wasn’t reciprocal.
When I got my acceptance letter for Spalding’s MFA program two weeks ago, I immediately rang Leslie.
“Guess what?” I asked.
“You got laid.”
“Um, no. But thanks for reminding me that I need to.”
“I got into a grad school!”
“That’s awesome, Paige,” Leslie squealed. “I knew you could do it. I read your stuff all the time and I love it.”
When our call was done, I rang my mom.
“PJ, that’s great. Paige got into a school!” she screamed to my dad, her voice bouncing off the travertine tiles and out to the lanai.
I let out a childlike giggle while my mom continued.
“I’m really proud of you. But PJ, listen, is it really worth going there? If you don’t get into Bennington, maybe you should reconsider this proposition. Take some time off to improve your skills and then reapply.”
It was right about then that I stopped paying attention. Cradling the handset to my ear, I quietly opened the New York Times online and started reading the latest headlines, my mom’s voice nothing more than a low hum in my ear. By the time I finally hung up the phone, I was a little numb.
When I set out to apply to graduate programs, my one and only goal was to be able to start come the summer. I narrowed down my choices, selecting a collection of eleven prospective programs. I put in a lot of effort trying to figure this all out, mostly so that if I received only one acceptance letter, I would still be thrilled. Sure, attending Bennington or Warren Wilson would set me floating on cloud nine. But Spalding would in no way be settling. I guess my point is I had this all figured out at the start.
As I teeter on the brink of turning thirty-five, anxiously checking my mailbox as though a winning lottery ticket might be inside, I find myself fragile and uncertain and eager for anything but criticism. Without question, my mom’s pings no longer ding me like did in the past. But I still can’t help but be a little jealous of that old family friend Liz. Maybe it wasn’t true that she was the best at everything she did. I might go so far as to say she barely cleared the mediocre bar half of the time. But her mom always beamed with pride as she cheered from the sidelines. And sometimes, not often but still sometimes, I wish I knew what that felt like.