An Alternate History

The following story and characters are fictional and based on incidents from a childhood memory of the author.

“Cheerleading and singing don’t mix. Did anyone ever tell you that?” Tess was getting tired of hearing this. She was facing this dilemma and several others, and they were causing great frustration. On a September afternoon, she burst into the house, slammed her books down onto the kitchen table, and railed at her mother.

“Mom, I just can’t figure this out. Everything is changing in front of me, and I don’t know what to do.”

Edith stopped what she was doing in the pantry, came into the kitchen, and looked at her daughter, puzzled. Tess was normally very contained and sure of herself. She was a good student, played sports, sang in the chorus, and did not have problems at school.

“What’s the matter? Is something wrong at school?”

“I thought I knew what I was going to do and where I am going to college,” she said as she sat down and put her head in her hands. “Now I am not sure at all. There was an assembly today with teachers and some college admissions people, and they told us lots of stuff I had never thought about, and it changes everything.”

“Tess, dear, calm down and tell me what has changed to make you so confused. You have been planning to attend the junior college next fall in their Medical curriculum. Have you changed your mind?”

“They are talking about four-year schools being a better preparation for your life, college majors, scholarships, admissions process – all kinds of stuff. Now I wonder if I have made the right choice. There are so many choices I could make. How do I know I have made the right one?”

Edith pulled out a spiral notebook from the desk in the corner of the kitchen. She was always using notebooks for her projects and plans. There was one for her second daughter, Jennie, for her Girl Scout projects and music lessons; one for Grandmother’s medicines and foot doctor; and several for her own gardening and home projects. Tess always admired her mother’s organizational abilities and tried to emulate them, with some success. Her school work benefited from an organized schedule and a neat desk in the den away from household activities and noises. Now, her mother slid the notebook and a pen down onto the kitchen table and sat down facing Tess.

“What we need to do is start writing down all the stuff you are talking about, all your questions, and everything that is going on in that head of yours. We’ll get it organized, and then you will be able to make some choices.”

“Is there anything to eat? I’m starving,” Tess interrupted. She headed for the pantry and opened the cake tin her mother usually kept filled. Sure enough, there was the favorite chocolate cake the kids always loved. She cut a slice and poured some milk, then came back to the table. Eating between meals never hurt Tess’s appetite, so Edith did not mind that she had cut into the cake.

“Okay, let’s start writing,” commanded Edith. “What is your first question?”

“Do I have to give up cheerleading if I want to keep up my grades?”

“Write it down” Said her mother. “We’ll sort out the answers later.”

Tess began to write, and she did not stop for more than a half hour. She did not need prodding, since once she started, she could not stop. She filled many pages, crossing out and adding to, and finally she looked up with the first smile her mother had seen since she came bursting through the front door an hour ago.

“Now let’s put them into some sort of order so that you can organize your thoughts.”

Tess began writing again, this time with real purpose. She felt she was getting somewhere, digging through the morass. Once she had sorted her questions, she and her mother began finding patterns in her thinking. They thoughtfully discussed what they saw as an emerging solution to her confusion. It is safe to say that this mother and daughter usually got along well enough to discuss matters openly, with disagreements worked out easily, and this afternoon had been a fun and productive experience for them both.

As long as Tess’s older brother Ryan was out of the room, Tess could be herself and say what she had on her mind without criticism. Ryan had always been a distraction and criticized her for even the smallest things, even ridiculing her in front of his friends. He had done that since they were small children, and they often fought as a result (with words, not fists). We must note that Ryan was now living on his own, having started working for a furniture company in Portland after his high school graduation two years earlier. He had gotten an apartment with a buddy, and he was at his girlfriend’s a lot. Not much more to say about that, except that Tess was glad he was away.

Suddenly, Jennie came running into the house with Gray Kitty in her arms. Jennie truly loved animals and seemed to always be cuddling one or another of their pets – kittens, rabbits, chickens, or a dog. The spunky ten-year-old giggled over the kitten’s antics and its warm and fuzzy feeling against her face.

“What are you doin’, kid?” asked Tess as she plopped down onto the aging sofa against the far wall in the large farmhouse kitchen. Jennie continued to purr along with the cat and didn’t answer. She didn’t appear to have homework.

“Don’t forget to tickle those ivories before dinner,” Edith reminded Jennie from the next room. She had been taking piano lessons for several years and was getting to be very talented at music. Tess had also taken lessons for a number of years but had given them up in favor of her numerous school activities.

I won’t forget,” chortled Jennie. “You know,” she said to Tess “that I want to be as good as you. I want to be just like you when I grow up,” she smiled up at her big sister. The cat jumped down. Jennie scrambled after it, but the impish cat darted behind the sofa.

“Oh, Jennie, you don’t know how hard it is to grow up. I feel so confused about what I am going to do. But you are sweet to say so. Come on, let’s go find the bunnies and see how they are doing. They love it when you come home from school.” They left through the back door.

After dinner, Tess took out her books, along with the notebook full of words. She suddenly felt a thrill go through her body as she experienced the touch and smell of books and paper. They were her friends.  She stood in the hallway by the living room, closed her eyes, and let herself melt into the moment, as she realized that her life was about to change, and she was in charge.

The next morning, Tess bounded downstairs, skipping the last four steps and jumping onto the floor below. She had been doing this for as long as she could remember. She loved using her body to express herself, hence her cheerleading. Jennie was already at the table gulping down chicken noodle soup, her favorite breakfast. She slurped a “hello” and Edith and Tess made quick work of their oatmeal. Henry, Tess’s step-dad, had just left for work in Portland, and the school bus was due in a few minutes. “I cannot tell you how much you helped me yesterday, such clarity. I think I have made some decisions. We have to talk later.”

Edith looked over her glasses quizzically. “I can’t wait to hear, and don’t forget to see Mrs. Hawkins.”

“I won’t. She is pretty important in all of this.”

“Are you staying after for cheerleading?”

“Practice hasn’t started yet; it’s only September. But I may have to stay for other things, especially if I can get an appointment with Mrs. Hawkins,” she smiled. “I’m glad I drew her for my guidance counselor. I get along really well with her. Thanks for all the help in sorting things out,” she said pointing to her pile of books. “That helped me so much. See? I have my notebook on top of my books. They are my closest friends right now. I depend on them.”

Her mother laughed and shook her head as she headed into the pantry to begin cleaning up from breakfast. She never knew what her daughter was going to say. At age 17, Tess was either all grown up or still a kid who liked to tumble and do cartwheels.

Jennie brushed her teeth, while Tess waited for the bathroom.

“Hurry up, pip squeak. The bus will be coming up the hill any minute.” They could see the bus coming up the hill from quite a ways off, and they usually left the house with a bang of the door and a run across the street, making it just in time. It was always like that, and no matter how hard Edith tried, she could not get the girls moving any faster, and to not bang the door closed as they left. She had about given up on all that. Until the new school year got underway and bus scheduling sorted, Jennie and Tess took the same morning bus. The afternoon buses were different, and Tess could get a ride home on the second bus if she got down to the corner in time, usually another mad dash.

The school day was busy as usual, with scheduling tight and not much time for anything extra. Tess had managed an appointment with Mrs. Hawkins during her study hall. Mrs. Hawkins was also the home economics teacher, and they had formed a good relationship when Tess took her class as a freshman. In the mid-1950s girls were required to take home economics, and the boys took shop. Tess wanted to take shop too, but was not allowed, as she needed to concentrate on her college prep. She probably could not have taken shop anyway because only boys took shop. She loved to step inside the shop room and smell the wood and the sawdust. It reminded her of her Grandpa Young’s wood shop when they lived in Portland, and he would make or repair furniture – so lovely a memory.

She walked in and lowered her books on the desk in the home economics room. She had already signed up for fall classes, but she had time to make changes if she wanted to, and this is what this meeting was about. She had given up Latin (she had had two years of that) and was signed on for her second year of French, American History, and Advanced English Composition. She had more than enough credits to graduate, but she needed a fourth class and could not decide on that. Tess also told her about the session with her mother from the day before, showing her the notebook and her notes, and making sure she understood that she was making her own decisions. Mrs. Hawkins said she understood that and took her time as she questioned Tess about several things. The meeting lasted for about a half hour, and they scheduled another appointment for the following week.

She squirmed and smiled all the way home on the bus because she was excited to talk to her mother again. Edith was out when Tess got home, but this allowed her time to get it all together. She spread her papers and notebook out on the kitchen table, making sure they were organized properly so her mother would understand what she was doing. Edith parked her car out front in the circular driveway and began to unload the groceries. Tess went out to help her but could not wait to begin talking about her day.

“Wait a second,” Edith said impatiently. “I don’t know what you are talking about – Changes? A five-year plan? Scholarships? Help me with this, and then we can make some tea and talk.”

With mugs of tea on the table, Edith and Tess poured through the notes and diagrams.  “It looks to me that you have diagrammed your coursework for the next five years. You are taking a completely different track than you had planned. Am I right?”

“Mom, you are exactly right, and the reason is that my aptitude test . . .”

“An aptitude test – when did you do that?”

“I took it a couple of days ago with Mrs. Hawkins. I wanted to wait until everything was finished before I told you about it. It shows that my talents are not in the field of science, but in the liberal arts – art, music, literature, or even doing something in sales. Because of these results, it makes no sense to go through a science-based program. I could do it, but why struggle with something that I don’t have an aptitude for? So I have decided I want to go to Colby College and major in English. Remember when I went to Girls’ State last year at Colby? I loved that campus, the buildings, and I really loved being in the dorm rooms with the other girls. It is a really good school, Mom. Do you think I could go there?”

“Whoa, there young lady. You’ve just done a complete turn-around. I need time to process this, and your father will definitely have something to say about it. It’s one thing to aspire to a fine school, but there are other considerations, such as money for one.”

“I know, Mom, I know. It is probably way too expensive for me. But what do you think of the idea of going to a four-year school?”

“I think that is a good choice. You need to be challenged. There are many fine schools in New England. We need to discuss all these options before we decide. And an English major – where did that come from? “

“It is my best subject, and there are lots of things you can do with that. And I’m giving up cheerleading.”

“What? That is always your most fun thing.”

“The reason is this. I am going to take music as a subject. I know how to read music, and I sing in a choral group, so it is perfectly appropriate. Anyone who takes music has the option of learning an instrument, and I have chosen Voice. Cheerleading and Voice don’t mix. Cheerleading can ruin your voice, and I have already been doing this for five years. If I ever want to use either my singing voice or my speaking voice, then I need to take care of it and learn how to use it.”

There was silence. “You have been doing your homework, haven’t you? Who told you about Voice?”

Mr. Dartmoore. He is not a voice teacher, but he is a very smart man. He applauds my decision and will arrange for voice lessons for me. That will be the fourth class I have been looking for. Liberal Arts has so many possibilities, but medical science is limited to just that. You taught me so much by working with me on a plan. I can easily use that skill for other things that need to be unscrambled.”  She gave her mother a big hug without either saying more.

It was Friday afternoon, and Jennie got herself a snack as soon as she came in. “Nancy is coming for an overnight tomorrow. We are working on a Girl Scout camping badge. We have to learn to cook something for a campout.”

“That sounds fun,” Tess said, looking over the edge of her book. “What will you make?”

“I don’t know. Mom’s going to help us.”

“We had something interesting at school lunch this week. It was shepherd’s pie, and we had a salad with apples and walnuts in it. Would you like to know how to make the salad?”

“Sure. We never have nuts in things.”

“The reason for that is due to Ryan’s nut allergy.”

“You mean Ryan’s nutty allergy?” she said with a laugh.

The girls liked laughing together, and even though there was a big age gap, they could always find things to laugh about. Tess went to the den to start her homework.

Just then, Ryan burst through the back door leading into the kitchen. “Hey everybody, what’s cookin’?”

“I’m having cookies that Mom made. You can have some if you want. There are no nuts in them.”

“Absolutely I do,” he said while reaching for the cookie tin.

“Nancy’s coming over tomorrow and we’re going to cook. We have to learn something for a Girl Scout badge.”

“Are you still doing Girl Sprouts?” he said mimicking her enthusiasm.

“Yes, and it’s not Sprouts, stupid. Why do you always have to make fun of me?”

“I’m not. You’re just too sensitive. Where is everybody?”

Tess came in just then and ignored Ryan, as she reached for the cookies. “Where’s Mom, Jennie? I need to talk to her about something.”

“I think she’s next door. What do you need to talk to her about?”

“It’s about my college applications. There are so many questions I don’t know how to answer. I don’t need to get them in just yet, but I need to be prepared.”

“College? I thought you were going to Westbrook to be a medical “sexitary.” What happened to that?” he said mockingly.

Tess picked up a book and threw it at him. “Will you get out of here. You are nothing but a trouble maker. Mom!”

Edith walked in just then and glared at her son. “What are you up to now, Ryan? Did you come here just to start trouble?”

“I can’t help it if my sisters are perfect subjects for a little teasing. They are just into all these cute things. And how come Tess is making more college apps? I thought she was done with that. Is she trying to be a big shot or something?”

“She is making plans for her life, something you never wanted to do. And she will make something of her life. It is really quite exciting.”

“Thanks, Mom. I’m happy to have your support.”

“You have that, dear daughter. And so do you, second dear daughter.”

“I guess I don’t fit in here with the ‘dear daughters.’ Think I’ll go home.”

“You could stay if you would change your attitude and be nice to your sisters,” said Edith as she put her hand on his shoulder. “Ridiculing your sisters is not being a dear son. Do I hear an apology?”

“Okay, I’m sorry, but you need to explain this college thing to me.”

“Maybe later. Right now I need to discuss some things with Mom, privately. Can we go in the living room, Mom?”

“Oh, so it’s private, huh. Well, I guess I’ll go home. Nothing for me here.” He left through the back door, grabbing a few more cookies to go. Immediately the tension in the room lowered considerably.

Tess had tears in her eyes as she gathered up her papers and notebook. “Why does he have to do that, Mom? He is so awful to me. I am so glad he doesn’t live here anymore. I don’t think I could function.”

“I don’t know, but you can’t let it distract you, which is what he’s trying to do. You will do well if you just don’t argue with him. Let’s go into the other room. What are you going to do Jen?”

“I have to call Nancy and make plans for tomorrow.”

“Good idea,” she said as she and Tess went to the living room.

The following week, Ryan came by. Tess was in the kitchen alone doing homework. She looked up but did not speak. He sat down across from her and watched her for a minute. “You know, I do value your smart brain, and I think it is great that you are going to college.”

Tess did not answer right away. She was afraid he was setting her up. “If that is an apology, I accept,” she said after a minute or so. “I do work hard, and I want more than just staying here in a small town all my life.  So when you ridicule my attempts to improve myself, it just really hurts. I don’t like fighting with you, Ryan, but you get me so mad sometimes.”

“I know I can be a real brat, but maybe I’m just a little jealous, that’s all.”

“You don’t have to be jealous. Just use your brain to be the person you were meant to be and make something of yourself.”

“Yeah, okay, I’ll think about that,” he said as he got up to go. “And tell Jennie I’m sorry I was a jerk.”

“Okay, thanks for coming by.”

Time went by.  Ryan married his girlfriend, and was made retail manager of the furniture company. Jennie continued with her music education, becoming a music teacher and marrying her professor, who played the oboe. They had three children.

Tess graduated with honors from high school. She went to Colby College, and with scholarships, working summers, and money left to her by her grandparents, it all worked out okay. She majored in English with a minor in French Lit, eventually earning her Ph.D. She wrote several books. She married her financial advisor, and they had two children – a boy and a girl, who were the light of their lives. And all because of a Plan her mother devised to unscramble the mess she was in.