The sun was setting when I pulled my battered red Chevy Vega station wagon out of the driveway of the brown shingle house that I had just bought with every last nickel to m\y name, and headed off for Cambridge. The hands on the steering wheel were still speckled with the red paint that I had been rolling onto the living room walls that day, paint financed by the sale of an engagement ring from a former marriage and life.
I was thirty-two years old, a single mother, with a five-year-old daughter and a brand new puppy, living less than a mile from the house in which I had grown up, and I was going back to Harvard ten years after graduation. An adult now, a journalist, a reporter for The Boston Globe, I had hustled and won a prize -- a mid-career Nieman Fellowship in journalism -- and I was off to meet the other members of my "class" for the first time.
In those days, I was breathless. Coping with work and family and love -- what Zorba the Greek would call the whole catastrophe. I was not at all sure how the pieces of my life fit together. At work, I had learned to say what I thought and to write about ideas. I was by no means as confident when it came to the messy business of feelings.
But this September of 1973, I knew, in some inchoate way, that I was on the edge of something more than a year "off." Perhaps a year "on."
That was the past, this was now. I was thirty-seven, a newly divorced mother of four children working as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times with a year ahead of me as a Nieman Fellow. For a woman who had not graduated from college until she was thirty, this new venture felt like a huge leap across a class divide. Getting here had taken a certain amount of audacity, and even though I had an officially punched ticket of admission, I half expected someone to snatch it away at the last moment.
I also had two teenage daughters living for the year with their father back home in Evanston, Illinois, and two younger girls nervously tiptoeing through a strange house, wondering what the year ahead would hold for them. This was by no means a carefree venture. But as I walked down those narrow streets toward the home of Jim Thomson, the head of the Nieman program -- the brick sidewalks scraping the backs of my high-heeled shoes -- I also knew there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I was literally walking into a major life-changing experience, not knowing what would come next. I knew that from here on, everything would be different. I just didn't know how different.
Ellen I remember when I first spotted Pat. She was wearing some kind of full skirt, heels, and bright lipstick; her long, wavy brown hair was parted in the middle. This was Harvard Square in the black-turtleneck, ripped-jeans, straight hair, early-'70s era. She was ironed and starched.
I added it all together and, in the way women will sum up the totality of someone's personality through their shoes and suit jacket, I came up with this: perky California cheerleader. Suburban mom. Smiling, pretty, very Little League, station wagon driving. Verrrrry straight.
Yet I knew she had to be a good reporter in the competitive atmosphere of Chicago to have made it through this process. And from the bios we'd been sent, I also knew that Pat was the only other woman in the class with children. We were both divorced. Cheerleader or not, we had these things in common.
I wasn't looking for or expecting a friend, just a classmate, but I was curious. Maybe there was something below that conventional surface. She had four children to my one and, as if my life were not overloaded enough, had just published her first book. There was a long year ahead of us, so who knew what I'd find out.
Pat I first saw Ellen as I stood in the front hallway of the house, exchanging stiff little pleasantries with a few people whose names I hadn't absorbed. She was tall, with long straight hair and blue aviator glasses, dressed in some kind of loose pants, clearly not wearing a girdle. (I was only weeks away from shedding mine.) I knew there were three other women in my class, but she certainly didn't look as nervous or uptight as I felt. Craftsy orange earrings; no makeup. An in-charge, what's-it-to-you type. I fingered the piece of paper in my pocket that listed all the class members, and glanced around for a bathroom so I could duck in and check them out.
"Well," she said in an easy, cheery voice, "I wonder what bullshit everybody threw to get here?"
How blunt were you allowed to be at Harvard? Not that I wasn't wondering myself how the others had parlayed their credentials into this prize. But here was somebody who actually said it out loud. The thought crossed my mind: How can she be so irreverent in this rarefied environment? But still she had an engaging air that relaxed me, that made me listen for what she would say next. When I learned she was the Nieman who had gone to Radcliffe, I thought, well, no wonder she's so casual. This is her turf. It must all be easy for her.