One of my worst moments in school came on the afternoon when Mendenhall Junior High was letting out for the summer. I had cleared my locker and was ready to walk home, a 30-minute journey across a grape vineyard, when I heard someone call my name from across the outdoor basketball courts.
“Brigitte, does your dad have a black pony and a little red wagon or something?” shouted a girl who had until then been much too popular to talk to me.
“No,” I lied.
“Well,” said Gloria, who had recently changed her name to Cathy, “some guy who says he’s your dad is driving some pony cart out there in the parking lot, and he’s asking everyone if they know where you are.”
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I envisioned my father circling the parking lot next to the school office. I knew he was driving Midnight, our racing Shetland, and that he was wearing his silks and the helmet with the red pom-pom on top. He had, weeks earlier, mentioned that he and Midnight might pick me up at school someday in the near future. He believed it would be a treat for me.
I had committed little acts of social suicide all year. I had worn hot pants with desert boots instead of patent leather high heels. I had frozen up during auditions for “Macbeth.” In my journalism class, in which I was the only seventh-grader, I had asked a question so stupid it made all the eighth-graders stare at me.
I could not drive away from school in a pony cart like a child at a country-themed birthday party. So I hid in the restroom of the administration building until my father finally left without me. As I leaned against the door of the bathroom stall, I imagined Midnight’s hooves kicking up puffs of dust on the path through the vineyard while Dad sat alone holding the reins, aware that he had made his daughter ashamed.
My father had been raised in convents and foster homes. He had never experienced the luxury of being embarrassed by his parents.
I thought about my father recently when I stood on the sidewalk outside my youngest son’s school, one of a group of parents seeing their children off on a week-long trip to Washington, D.C., and New York. A Via bus waited at the curb, its engine humming as the last bags were loaded into the cargo hold. My son had wanted us to just drop him off. When he could not make us do that, he suggested that only one of us take him. When it became clear that not only both parents but also his older brother were going to see him off, he decided to ditch us as soon as we got out of the car.
I looked for him, worried that I would not get to say goodbye. I could not find him until the chaperone called for everyone to line up.
I hugged him. “Have a great time,” I said. “You’re so lucky to get to see the Statue of Liberty.”
“I gotta go, Mom,” he said, pushing away from me. I stood by the window, found where he was sitting, and waved. He saw me and looked away. The bus pulled out from the curb. I waved again, harder. He ignored me.
We did not hear from him until 2 in the morning a week later, when he came home. I was almost asleep when I heard the front door open. I listened as he pulled his suitcase down the hallway.
“Mom?” he said, standing at the door to my room. “Are you awake?”
And then he was sitting on my bed, relating every detail of the trip. After a while, he pulled out a present from his suitcase. It was a miniature Statue of Liberty for my charm bracelet.
I am pleased I was able to give him the kind of trip my own parents could never have afforded for their own children. But I am even happier that I could give him the luxury of being embarrassed by me on the afternoon he left. I consider it a gift passed down from my father.