(Courtesy of flickr.com)
When I was in high school, I went on a week-long camping vacation with my friend Melissa Brown and her family. (This was either the summer before my sophomore or junior year; can’t recall which.) I also don’t remember precisely where we went, although at a guess I would say it was either upstate New York or Vermont.
I was terribly excited to be invited and even more excited to be allowed to go. My mother’s maternal instincts (similar to those of a grizzly with a cub) allowed me little room to maneuver in life, a situation poignantly felt by a teenager of 14 or 15 to craved some freedom. I had spent a lot of time with the Browns and enjoyed their company. Maybe all those hours holed up in Melissa’s room spinning teenaged dreams is what turned the wheel in my favor. At any rate, and against all expectations, my mother let me go.
Almost forty years on, my memories of that time are understandably blurry. I recall the nightly campfires and helping with meals; canoeing the narrow, grass-choked lanes of the lake (or was it a pond?); taking long walks; and playing pretend with Melissa (mostly westerns; we were big into ‘Alias Smith and Jones’ at the time and, no, we weren’t too old to play pretend, at least not away from the censuring eyes of most of our peers. After all, we were writers!)
At some point, we ended up in some town browsing the shops and Melissa and I came across a rack of mugs. They were narrower than the one pictured above, the outer surface smooth but glazed with a mottled grey “stoneware” look, and patterned with flowers. Each mug sported a different sort of flower and a different color — purple, blue, red, orange, yellow…there might have been others, but that’s another thing I can’t recall.
Melissa and I shared three very close friends at the time — Wendy, Kristin, and Eileen. We decided to buy ourselves each a mug and to split the cost of mugs for the other three. I opted for blue and I think Melissa chose purple (although I could be wrong, but as she loved amethysts, I think that’s a safe bet), and something tells me we chose yellow for Eileen, but now I’m grasping at vague shadows. At any rate, we purchased the mugs and presented them with a flourish once we were all together again.
Those mugs were like a club badge uniting the five of us into a little pentagram of camaraderie at an age when life can be damned difficult, so fraught with change and teenaged turmoil and angst. Sitting together at one of our homes or at school, enjoying a cup of tea and the sharing of ideas and dreams, worries and troubles, we became strong at our most vulnerable. Unstoppable.
That’s probably why I reacted so poorly to the breaking of my mug.
How it happened was this: We’d graduated high school and each of us was moving in different directions. Wendy was off to pharmacy school and Kristin to nursing school, both locally but not likely to bring them together any time soon. Melissa headed for Rochester, NY and I struck out for Putney, VT. (Eileen, who had graduated the year before us, had chosen work over college.) This was to be my first time away from home alone, with no one I knew nearby, and I don’t know who was more nervous about it, me or my parents. We must have presented quite a sobering aspect upon our arrival at Windham College, with all of us dreading the moment of separation. We found my room, met my roommate Joyce and her mother, and set about rearranging the furniture and settling in. And that’s when it happened.
I had unpacked the mug with loving care and set it on top of the dresser. Dad, not realizing it was there, went to move the dresser and down the mug crashed, smashing to bits on the concrete-covered-with-linoleum floor.
I burst into tears. Oh, how I carried on! I know now that it was an accident. Hell, I knew it then, although I didn’t behave as if it was. I know Dad felt awful about it, and Mom chastised me for my behavior, but I couldn’t help myself. I bawled like a baby and, I’m sure, made a horrid, childish spectacle of myself when I most wanted to appear cool and mature.
But here’s the thing (and this insight has only come with time) — I think the loss of the mug signaled the severing of the ties that had kept me grounded for so long. My friends and I had grown together. They were my true family, my security, but now we had stepped apart, each onto her particular path. I could not envision — could not tolerate the idea of — life without them. In retrospect, I’m sure that none of us felt particularly grown up and assured at that point in our lives. (Well, maybe Wendy did. She was always the most confident of the bunch.) Speaking only for myself, I can say was that I was terrified, totally adrift without my friends and ill-equipped for the adventure that lay ahead.
But, you know, I survived that journey and all the others that came after. Survived disappointments and heartbreak and loss. Survived success and pleasure. I’m still surviving it. My particular road has rarely been smooth. (It’s more like corrugated cardboard.) All but one of my dear old friends fell by the wayside for a time (their choice as well as mine), though I’m happy to say that of us (except — sadly — one) have reconnected over the past few years.
But I still miss that mug.
And one of these days, I’m going to find another. When I do, I’ll put it in a place of honor to remind me that there are things we hold, things we lose, and things worth remembering.