Remembering Robert

I knew Robert almost my whole life. Even back in elementary school, he was very, very smart. He would invent games from our history lessons that the rest of us would play….until he invented something else. He excelled in every class. At seven years old, he was already a Big Man On Campus.

Our families were friends. He had a very elegant Mother who fascinated me with her grace and style. She wore her long blond hair, immaculately, in a bun…or as was in vogue to say in those days, a “chignon.” I thought there was something very intriguing about a boy who had a Mother who wore a chignon.

By our Senior year in High School, we had become “a couple.” At first, it was nice. We had both won the leads in the Senior Class Play “Our Town.” He brought me oranges to rehearsal because he had read they helped in voice projection. He walked me home after school. One day, we circled the pond in the park across the street from his house several times as we practiced our lines. The next day, he told me his Mother said he had to apologize to me AND my Mother for “taking me into the park.” This puzzled me. My Mother adored Robert. I had a feeling he could have taken me into Mexico and she might secretly have approved. It was also apparent that his Mother watched that Park like she was the Head Ranger. We had never even held hands that day. I never “went into” that park again with anyone…that I didn’t imagine Mrs. M, perfectly coiffed, observing all from afar.

Let me tell you, Robert was having a fabulous senior year. He was on the Football team, and President of this and that. In our big class of 680 seniors, he ranked academically always in the first three. He used to say, he had been Number 1, headed for Valedictorian until “Joan.” He thought he was being humorous, but I didn’t find that very funny, and the woman with the chignon didn’t either.

He had been accepted to Harvard, Yale and Williams. I remember this because I spent long months listening to the mantra. In the Guidance Office where I volunteered during study hour, he was a Demi-God. The Guidance staff genuflected whenever his name was mentioned. On the day I was to have my Senior appointment, to review my tests scores and talk about my goals, my future…Mr. English, our guidance counselor beamed at me, my file unopened.

“I don’t have to give YOU any advice”, he said. “You’ve landed the best catch in the senior class.”

That was pretty much… it. That was not what I wanted to hear.

I left school that day upset. And for some reason, upset with him.

A few days later, a boy I liked, a COLLEGE FRESHMAN, no less… called and asked me to Green Key Weekend at Dartmouth. I said yes; My Mother said no. It wouldn’t “be nice.” It wouldn’t be “fair to Robert.”

That’s the day I decided to dump him. Not immediately, no. I had to be cautious. I had to be clever. I had to bide my time.

There was my Mother, who would take it hard.

There was HIS mother. sophisticated and scary.

And there was The Prom Weekend: ….The Formal Dance…The Show and Dinner in NYC…then The Day at the Shore. His Mother had bought all those tickets; my Mother had bought all those clothes.

But I formed my plan. As the “the Best Catch in the Senior Class”, he couldn’t possibly be that hard to unload on some other girl. There was already a devotee named Agatha, pining in the wings. He was good-looking; he was brilliant; he had a Mother with a chignon. To anyone other than me, that would be irresistible, right? I had to make him see we were wrong for each other. But I also had to get through Prom.

And so my campaign began.

I told him the oranges he brought me made my lips sore so I couldn’t kiss him. I only agreed to see him on double dates with my best friend in tow. When he continued to press me on this issue, I confronted him in front of his locker, “Why do you keep asking me to go out on Fridays when you KNOW Pauline is working.” In the meantime, he had decided to accept an appointment to West Point. He kept asking me if I would visit him, would I wait for him. I was evasive. Actually I couldn’t wait for the military to cart him off.

We got through Prom weekend tolerably well but my mission of having HIM dump ME was not progressing. If anything, for this young man… to whom everything came so easily…my aloofness and acidity had only increased his ardor. I thought after Prom we would see less of each other. But my own Mother seemed to be in collusion with him, trumping my attempts to avoid him. “Be nice.” she’d say. One day she announced proudly that I was chosen above all other mortals to be his date at his “Appointment Party.” This grand soiree would be attended by the Congressman who had appointed him to the Academy, other luminaries, my family, his family, other friends. I was beginning to feel like a turkey being dressed for Thanksgiving and my Mother was the beaming butcher.

The Appointment Party began well enough, but just before dinner a girlfriend and I slipped into the Ladies Room. She was swooning a bit over Robert, as everyone was that night. She said I was “so lucky” to be dating him. “I hate dating him ” I replied, “He’s a a-a -a… stuffed shirt.” Not terribly original, no…but it was hard, even for me, to find anything negative to say about the town’s Golden Boy. “A stuffed shirt” was a poor retort and a pathetic insult.. but it was quite enough for the woman with the blond chignon who emerged from the stall behind us.

“I am so terribly sorry to learn you feel that way, Joan.” said she frostily and she swept out. My friend soon followed. I slumped in a chair, mortified, terrified, trying to imagine my next move. The ladies room attendant offered me a stick of gum. No doubt this was the most interesting night on the job she’d had in weeks.

I’m not sure how long I stayed in there. I knew his Mother would tell my Mother and she did. Eventually, my Mother dispatched her aide-de-camp, my sister Dawn, the perfect one. What had possessed me to act this way? Whatever was I thinking to say such a thing about Robert? How long did I plan to hide in the Ladies Room? Mother wanted me at the Party. Now.

So I returned to my seat at the head table. Robert and his family were mercifully working the room.

And so it ended. Until the next year. And a year and a half after that. Till one March, he introduced me to my husband.

We stayed in touch….though loosely over the years. Robert graduated from West Point with stars…an academic achievement that meant he could go immediately to graduate school. He got his Masters from Columbia. He served two tours in Viet Nam…where he was subjected to the chemical, Agent Orange. While he was enrolled in law school , he was diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually kill him. He graduated at the top of his Law class, while simultaneously undergoing chemo and radiation. He struggled with his health for the rest of his Life. Actually he died in Viet Nam…it just took years to happen.

A few years before he died, I saw him at a West Point reunion. He took both my hands and said “What do you say to a girl you haven’t kissed in all these years?”

He leaned in to give me a brotherly peck and abruptly stopped “Hey” he said…”You haven’t been eating oranges, have you?”


8 Responses

  1. What can one say……he obviously was a prince of a gentleman since he introduced you to your husband!
    When I think back to my dating days (so far in the past, thankfully), I can remember when I “dumped” the young man that everyone thought was perfect for me. There was no real reason other than in a very vague way that I cannot even explain to this day, I did not like that suddenly my life was plannned for me before I was even out of high school. We had started dating his senior, my junior, year. We went to every movie that came out during the time we dated (until midway through the summer after I graduated from high school) – my children are always surprised that I, a non-movie goer today, am so familiar with early seventies movies. My parents and his parents got along quite well and we both had a good relationship with the other’s parents. He wanted me to apply to his college (Grinnell – which I did go to visit) so that we could be together. I wanted space – I had only recently gotten my own bedroom after sharing one since I was 13 months. And even though I knew I would have a roommate at college, I figured that by going somewhere where I knew no one, at least, if I wanted to be alone, I could be alone without having to account for my whereabouts. Having a steady boyfriend who was possessive was not in my cards.

    One evening, he mentioned that when we had children, he wanted to name our first daughter Gwendolyn. He liked the poet Gwendolyn Brooks (he was an English major). That was when it dawned on me that this would not be a relationship that could be a lasting one (at least on my end) not that I did not like the name Gwendolyn rather I could never imagine having a daughter with such a name. The question was, like yours, how to bring it to an end. At the time, I worked as a recreation supervisor at a playground about two miles from my home – he would often come at the end of the day and pick me up so that I would not have to walk home in the sultry Missouri heat and humidity. There was a male classmate of mine who would often come by – he was friends with one of co-workers (male). I began flirting with him when my boyfriend came by. At first he just ignored it but after a week or two it began to bother him. He said something to me about the flirting – which I denied. His feeling became even more hurt when I left work early one day, walking home while the object of my flirtation rode his bicycle along side me part of the way home (a friend of mine happened to see this and told him). That was it – he left the next day to go back to Grinnell – it ws almost the end of summer. My parents were curious as to what happened – but never said anything to me directly though I heard them questioning my brother as to what I may have said to him (nothing – I felt rather ashamed of my behavior).

    The funny thing is what happened after I left for college several weeks later. The very first day of freshmen orientation I met the young man who would become my husband – though we did not marry for another five years – we would spend all of our time together (except when we were overseas at our respective junior programs, summers, and the year we attended and finished our MA degrees). When we weren’t together we wrote almost daily.

    My students always find it so romantic that I met my husband the first day of college – and that I knew, when I met him that we would some day marry. They ask me how I knew – to which I replyI don’t know, I just knew just as I knew (though could not really explain) that my high school boyfriend would be nothing more than a high school flame.

  2. cks, I love, love, love your posts.

    Someday I will write about how I came to first date my husband. Suffice to say, that Robert and I developed a “pattern.” We were never on the same page at the same time.


    And those cadets could be cagey.

    Robert’s beautiful Mother is still alive. We emailed after his death. At the reunion, he said over and over…”Do you realize how lucky we were?”

    We grew up in such an innocent, almost for us…idyllic time. Days of white sport coats and mum corsages for football games. We had loving supportive families that were always there for us.

    I wrote out a lot of the stories for her…a lot of the things he said that showed his joy…that I felt she’d want to know.

    He absolutely “knew his luck.”


  3. Note to self: Be sure to show Joan’s “Remembering Robert” and cks’s follow-up coup de grâce to any young man foolish enough to think he’s the one steering the love boat.

  4. Benny:

    Yes, young men do think at times they are “steering the love boat” (I loved that metaphor) and there is many a young woman who believes that she is the skipper as well. The real love boat, however is more, I think, like a punt that one lazily floats down some narrow English stream – the oars sort of at half rest while the occupants recline against the cushions with a book half opened beside them. Only the current really knows where the boat will go – while the occupants may dip an oar into the water occasionally, the current with its eddies really carries it along. So too, I think it is with real love.

    The mistake many young people (and older ones too) make is that they believe that they can direct the course of love – I think that is in part seen in the lavish weddings that seem lately to be the norm – that if a large enough show is put on, the show itself will validate the couple’s feelings for each other. Real, lasting love cannot be directed or manipulated. It has its own rhythm. Love finds one when one least expects to be found.

    • Alas, we men do not deserve your generous opinion of us. And serendipity, I fear, cannot make up for our stumbling about.

      The good men I know acknowledge that in matters of home and hearth, and especially in concerns of the heart, they more reliably pull on the oar when first given the appropriate signals by their wives or girlfriends—signals sometimes almost too refined for the slap-dash, crude receivers so often in sleep mode between the ears of even the best men among us. Indeed, I’ve come to think that men who deny carrying inferior circuitry can be intelligent or honest—but not both. Or they may still be very young.

      That young men seem particularly befuddled by (if not inept when with) young women can be illustrated in many ways—and often most amusingly. For example, I recall a phone call some years ago from my son when he was spending the summer at Oxford University. He had gone there with several dozen of his university’s top undergraduates. Young ladies made up roughly half the group. All the women were remarkably accomplished; my wife and I had met several of them during earlier visits to his university. At any rate, my boy couldn’t restrain himself from expressing his shock at seeing these top-flight ladies as they stepped off the bus that had just returned from a day trip to London. Each of them was dragging immense shopping bags loaded with “items of adornment” they had purchased from Harrods and other famous emporia. Somehow he couldn’t accept the notion that these brainy women would succumb to a materialism so alien to the intellectualism he and his male buddies presumed to be the only road to integrity. I told him to get used to compromise in these matters, that civilization would have sputtered and died eons ago had women not grounded men in the here and now, and that a young woman wholly uninterested in items of adornment would almost surely fail to transform a household into a home—if, that is, she managed in the first place to find a worthy fellow indifferent to her own appearance. I then asked him what he thought of his two sisters, both academically accomplished and yet more than capable at a moment’s notice of storming any mall. To his “Of course I love and admire them, Dad, but they’re different,” I responded, “No, they’re not.” No more was said that day on this topic.

      My son has grown up a great deal since that phone chat.

  5. What lovely sharings! Worthy of a nice cup of tea and a read in Victoria Magazine. Why don’t you submit them, Joan and cks?

    Someday I’ll share how I met my first husband… And second…. and third…. All quite amazing. ( I’ve been widowed twice. Wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy ) But I’ve also been amazing blessed. I’ll share someday.

  6. Call me a romantic (I do not teach a course in Victorian England for nothing), but there is nothing better than a good (or several) love stories – Joan and dsl. There is more to the story of my husband and me – but that is for another time.

  7. I want to hear all those stories.

    This is what I hope this Blog will be…a place for the stories, and the lessons and the retelling of the times of our lives.

    Yours and mine.

    Interspersed with a few of my political rants, but I must go, alas, wherever the Muse leads me.

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