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In Training for a Heroine

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As I recall it now, looking back from the lofty heights of my eighteen years, it seems difficult, not to say impossible, that things should have turned out differently than they did. We are so well-settled and cozy now, my father, my Aunt-turned-stepmother and I. Though I still do not think of myself as a young woman of privilege and an heiress, I do find such great value in the circle of love and security I am surrounded by. But now as I pack my trunks in preparation for my remove to Mt. Holyoke Seminary, I am reminded of the journey I undertook that summer of 1894 which so changed my fortunes in every way imaginable. If I strain my thoughts back through the intervening years, it becomes possible to determine the pivot points, the moments in time on which all subsequent events hinged. I wonder as I stuff newspaper into a hat to preserve its shape while imprisoned in a hatbox, what I would be doing now if one of those streams of other time and action had prevailed.

I stand upon the narrow bridge across the water, and upon the knife’s edge of a decision. Should I put my hand into Mr. Callender’s, and risk making irreparable the break with Mr. Thiel? I had wavered in the agony of choice so long, not knowing which of these men to trust. Which would lead me astray and which toward a future of knowing myself valued and precious. With the thunderbolt of the revelation that had come to me by the falls, I realized that Enoch Callender was my Uncle. The man I had so enjoyed talking and walking with, the man I felt truly understood my soul and my way of being, was an actual relation, something I had never thought could be possible. I could go with him, to his home and family, as odd and cheerless as they could be, and they would be my home. My family. Perhaps under the influence of another sky, of New York or Amsterdam or Vienna, the strange tension of the family would melt away. They might become dear to me and genuinely loving under the benign influence of better principles and less swayed by the odd hold of the Berkshires and the two houses of gray stone. It might at some distant remove that Joseph and I should fulfill what was clearly in Mr. Callender’s heart and on his mind by marrying and joining the lines and fortunes of the Callender estate back into one purpose. Still hesitating, but as always swayed by his honeyed tone and words, I stretch out my hand…

I am in the corner, in the way a shadow hangs unseen, as Mr. Thiel turns from the great fireplace and nods at Aunt Constance’s gravely delivered words. Somehow I understand that the Jean who witnesses this is out of time and place, the same and yet not the same as the toddling Jean who sleeps nearby in a wing backed chair under a blanket. Both of their faces are drawn and the evidence of sleepless nights lies beneath their eyes. They are discussing young me, what is to be done with and for me. They intend to spirit me away and leave behind whatever malevolent forces have gathered against my continued good health and safety. A short interval for throwing anyone involved off the scent, and then away. A blink, and I stand on a railway platform as Aunt Constance struggles to maintain control of a large basket in the grey light of dawn. She looks about carefully, feigning a general lack of interest while doing her best to track the few passersby as they move in and out of the railway station and onto the cars. Just as she reaches for the conductor’s hand to assist her up into the train, a different hand closes around her upper arm like a vice. A voice, not very familiar but chilling nonetheless, tells Nanny-dearest that she is wanted back in Marlborough as quickly as possible. Isn’t it handy that he, Mr. Enoch Callender, should happen upon them and be so very willing to drive them? As the cloth covering is stripped from the basket to reveal a sleeping child curled within and Aunt Constance is implacably hustled away from the train toward a well-sprung buggy, I cry out in fear and worry but am not heard.

I wander through a familiar doorway, glancing about to see whether Aunt Constance was currently in her office or off around the school somewhere. To my surprise, though the main substance of the office is as I have always known it to be, there is an indefinable air of something different. The pictures on the wall are not the same. The sofa and chairs of the visitor’s area are arranged before the fire just as they always have been, but the pattern of the upholstery is not that which I am accustomed to. Most startlingly, in the area away from the visitor accommodations, I see not one, but two desks standing side by side, flanked with bookcases and straight chairs. What change was here wrought, that would see Constance Wainwright’s domain so altered? Just then, the low hum of conversation could be heard approaching from the hall. In swept Aunt Constance, as cool and unflappable as always, but just behind her stood a figure I only vaguely recognized, being neither the young girl nor the doting mother of the portraits I had seen. She was, however, unmistakably Irene Callender. My mother. What wondrous magic was this, which showed me my mother restored to health and vitality? She holds in her hand a letter, which she has clearly been discussing with Aunt Constance. She settles herself on the visitor’s sofa and looks pensive. It seems the letter is the latest in a regular correspondence from an old beau, Daniel Thiel. She reflects that she sometimes regrets not having married him when he asked her, yet she loves her life in Cambridge, teaching at the school and working side by side with her dear friend Constance. She does worry so about Enoch, but with time and distance away from him and his ongoing conflict with their father, she is able to believe that burden not hers to shoulder.

I come back to myself, shivering slightly, as though my thoughts had brought their own chill wind with them. I cannot say that I would not give much to have my mother alive, even though I had no childhood memories to dwell on. However, I fear the price to pay would have been too high. And how can I trade what is for what might have been, especially when I have found my peace with the way things are and what I hope will be? I would not want to become another Uncle Enoch Callender, fruitlessly and silently blaming everyone for my misfortunes except myself as their ultimate author. Better to look at the world head-on and seek to meet the new challenges before me. As I hear the door open below and the sound of Mac’s voice calling for me to come and greet him, I close the trunk lid on my belongings and the door in my mind’s eye on my fancies.