Read an Excerpt
Saturday, September 21, 1918
In the coming weeks, I would wish that I had done things differently. Thrown my arms around my brother, perhaps, and said, I love you, Jack. Words I hadn’t spoken in years. Or held on a little tighter to Lucy and said, Thank you. Thank you for watching over me, when my own mother could not. But the distance between hindsight and foresight is as vast as the Pacific. And on my family’s last evening in the city, my attention was fixed not on gratitude, certainly, but on myself. My sad, sorry, unambitious self.
Famous American Women: Vignettes from the Past and Present. Curled up on the settee, I read the book from first page to last, hoping inspiration would strike and put an end to my misery. This! This is who you were meant to be, Cleo Berry. Go now and live your life.
So far no luck.
I reviewed. Abigail Burgess Grant, lighthouse keeper at Matinicus Rock, Maine. I tried to picture it: the windswept coast, the salty air, the nearest neighbor miles away. No, I thought. Too lonely. I turned the page. Isabella Marie Boyd, wartime spy. Too dangerous. Geraldine Farrar, opera singer. Not nearly enough talent. I lingered over the entry for Eleanor Dumont, first female blackjack player, otherwise known as Madame Mustache. My spirits lifted a little as I imagined my brother’s expression.
Lucy sat across from me, dressed for dinner and muttering over her itinerary. Jack stood near the parlor’s window, pouring whiskey into a glass. His tie had been pulled loose, a navy suit jacket tossed onto the piano bench. We both favored our father, Jack and I, with gray eyes, hair black as pitch, and, to my sibling’s everlasting embarrassment, dimples deep enough to launch a boat in. He glanced over, caught my eye, and tipped his glass in my direction. A friendly offer. Sixteen years my senior, my brother practiced an unorthodox form of guardianship: tolerant in some ways, overbearing in others. Whiskey was allowed. Young men were not.
I shook my head, then asked, “What does an ornithologist do?”
Jack placed the stopper into the decanter. “An ornithologist? Someone who studies birds, I believe.”
Disappointed, I looked down. Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey, ornithologist. No, too boring. This was impossible.
“Do drink that behind a curtain, Jackson,” Lucy said, looking out the window to where Mrs. Pike could be seen entering her home across the street. Mrs. Pike, the only neighbor we knew who took the Oregon Prohibition laws seriously. “That woman would have us sent to Australia if she could. Cleo as well.”
“I don’t think they ship criminals to Australia anymore, darlin’.” But Jack obliged, moving out of sight.
Lucy frowned at me. “Are you sure you’ll be all right while we’re away?” She paused, careful not to look at her husband. “You do know you can always come with us.”
Jack cleared his throat, not even attempting to mask a pained expression, and I couldn’t help but smile. Tomorrow he and Lucy would be on a train to San Francisco to celebrate their thirteenth wedding anniversary. It was to be an extended vacation, with some business thrown in on Jack’s part. They would be gone for six weeks.
“No one wants their sister around on an anniversary trip,” I said. “It’s the opposite of romantic.”
“Thank you, Cleo,” Jack said. Lucy looked ready to argue.
“I’ll be fine. Truly,” I added, knowing the real reason she worried. “We’re too far west for the influenza. Everyone has said so.”
I had heard of the Spanish influenza. Who had not? A particularly fierce strain of flu, it had made its way down the eastern seaboard, sending entire families to the hospitals, crippling the military training bases. The newspapers were filled with gruesome tales from Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. Cities so far away, they could have been part of another country. But that was the extent of it. We were safe here in Oregon. In Portland. The Spanish flu had no interest in the northwestern states.
“Very well,” Lucy said, defeated. “But here, this is for you.” She handed me her itinerary. I looked it over. It contained their train arrival and departure information, as well as the names of friends located the entire length of the Pacific coast whom I could call on for assistance should I need it. Also, a reminder that they would be returning on November third, a Sunday, and would stop directly at St. Helen’s Hall to bring me home.
The same old complaint lodged on the tip of my tongue, and I bit down, hard. I didn’t want to spoil their last evening by showing how unhappy I was. They knew already. But inside, I wanted to kick something.
Many of my schoolmates had homes outside the city, traveling in from towns such as Coos Bay, Eugene, Bend, and Sisters. Others hailed from farther out: Juneau, Coeur d’Alene, Walla Walla, even Honolulu. Some lived in the student dormitories during the week and spent weekends with their families. Others traveled home only during the holidays.
I was a day student. Jack drove me to school each morning on the way to his office, and I walked home in the afternoon. Or rode the streetcar. But while Jack and Lucy were away, the house was to be closed up. Our housekeeper, Mrs. Foster, given leave. She would also be traveling tomorrow, by steamboat, to visit her son in Hood River.
I had begged to be allowed to remain at home on my own, not liking one bit the thought of six weeks in the dormitories—away from my comfortable bedroom, away from any hope of privacy. My brother was unsympathetic. He had boarded throughout his own school years. He said it built character. And that I shouldn’t grumble, because no matter how awful a girls’ dormitory might be, a boys’ residence was a thousand times worse.
I skimmed the rest of Lucy’s notes. I was to telephone the Fairmont San Francisco once a week, each Saturday, to confirm I remained in the land of the living. Good grief, I thought.
“Good Lord,” Jack said at the same time, peering over my shoulder. “Lucy, she’s seventeen, not seven.”
Lucy gave him a look, then proceeded to guide me through every part of their schedule. I resisted the urge to close my eyes. The smell of roasting potatoes drifted from the kitchen, and I remembered Mrs. Foster was preparing a salmon for our last supper. Beyond Lucy, the luggage was piled high in the front hall, enough trunks and suitcases and hatboxes to send six people off in style.
Trying to be discreet, I lifted a corner of the itinerary and peeked at my book. Maria Mitchell, first American woman astronomer, director of the observatory at Vassar College. Kate Furbish, botanical artist. Harriet Boyd Hawes, pioneering archaeologist. My head fell back against the cushions, and I sighed, long and tortured.
“Who has let in the bear?” Lucy exclaimed.
I straightened. While I’d been woolgathering, Jack had settled beside Lucy, his glass cradled in one hand, his other arm flung across the back of the settee. Two pairs of eyes regarded me with amused exasperation.
“All this heavy breathing,” Lucy continued. “What is troubling you, Cleo?”
Well, what harm could come from telling them? They might be able to help.
“It’s only September,” Lucy said, after I explained my dilemma. “There are nine months left of school.”
“You can’t be the only one trying to figure things out,” Jack added. “I wouldn’t feel like a chump just yet.”
“But I do. I do feel like a chump.” I counted my friends on my hand. “Louisa is getting married in July.” I ticked off one finger. “Her fiancé is almost thirty and has already lost most of his hair. But he’s very rich, and her papa thinks he’s very handsome.”
Jack snorted. Lucy laughed, smoothing the skirt of her sapphire-blue dress. My sister-in-law was small and fair-haired and pretty, with eyes more amber than brown. No one was ever surprised to learn she had been born in Paris. She looked French and carried herself in a way that made me feel like a baby giraffe in comparison. Tall and gangling, with Mrs. Foster constantly having to let out my skirt hems.
A second finger ticked off. “Fanny is moving to New York to study poetry. She plans to become a bohemian and smoke cigarettes.” Recalling this bit of information, I felt a twinge of envy. New York City. Tea at the Plaza. All those museums. How glamorous it sounded.
Jack interrupted my thoughts. “What kind of unorthodox institution are those women running?”
I dropped my hand. “Rebecca already has her early acceptance letter from Barnard. Myra is sending in her application to the University of Washington. Charlotte, Emmaline, and Grace are all going to the University of Oregon.” I set the book and the itinerary on the table, beside a well-thumbed copy of American Architect. “And Margaret will wait for Harris. Then there’s me. I do know I want to attend university. Maybe study art. But I don’t really care to paint portraits. Or landscapes.” I bit my lip, considering. “Maybe I can study French. But what does one do after studying French?”
“Marry,” Jack said. Lucy smacked his knee lightly, but she smiled.
I looked into the fire, feeling gloomy. My schoolmates at least had an inkling of a plan. I had nothing. No plan. No dream. No calling. The uncertainty bothered me, like a speck in the eye that refused to budge.
“I am utterly without ambition,” I said.
At this, Jack leaned forward, pointing his glass at me. “Now you’re just being melodramatic. Not everyone leaves school knowing their life’s purpose, Cleo. And those who do often change their minds ten times over.” He waved a hand toward the window. “Sometimes you need to go out in the world and live a little first.”
Lucy reached over, gathered the itinerary, and tapped it against the table until the edges lined up. “Go to university,” she said, sympathetic. “See what interests you. Young ladies today have the
freedom to do what they like.”
“Except become a bohemian,” Jack said with a warning glance. He tossed back the rest of his drink and stood. “There are enough sapphists in this city as it is.”