Polly's Porch/Durham--The Freshman
Father buys $1 hen house, paves way for entrance into UNH
Class Day at UNH was highlighted by a friendly game of volleyball.
“I do not want to go to college.”
I said this as firmly as I could. I had been accepted at Lesley Kindergarten Training School in Boston.
“Just try it for one year,” my father replied for at least the hundredth time. He had only had a business education and thought a B.A. degree was the best of all backgrounds.
“When you graduate you can study for a career.”
This said in 1927 when marriage was the career most girls dreamed of. I finally realized how important this was to him and gave in. It was the middle of August and colleges started in September. He consulted the principal of my high school who was not optimistic and proved right. No openings until second term when there were drop out spaces to be filled. The next person contacted was the daughter of a farmer friend who lived in New Hampshire and would be a senior in the fall at the University of New Hampshire. Would she find out if Polly could apply? The answer came back “no” – all out-of-state quotas were filled.
“How about in-state?”
“No problem,” was the reply.
The next day I was informed my father had bought a house and land in Epping, N.H. for the sum of $1.00 from the farmer. My application was sent in with the New Hampshire address. I was accepted as a freshman. In fact, my marks were raised 10 points, because the high school I graduated from had a high rating. The house purchased was a hen house on a plot of land. The second term I changed my address back to Massachusetts and paid out-of-state tuition. My father said if there was an empty place no reason I should not fill it. We sold the property back for the same price. My father had his way. I was going to college.
My mother loved clothes. This was her chance to buy me whole new outfits like blue serge dresses trimmed with white linen collars, twin sweater sets, pleated wool skirts, fancy stockings with designs, saddle shoes, pumps, rubbers with my name printed inside so as to find mine in a pile discarded when you went visiting on a rainy day, overshoes, a beret, and heavy pleated wool bloomers and a middy blouse for gym. The results: an overheated freshman in a very warm September! And finally, a checkbook with an allowance – and stern admonishments to keep within the amount.
Registration day found us lugging a foot locker, suitcase and boxes to a basement room in a dorm. No sign of roommates. Then came the difficult part for me. An anxious child and now an anxious teenager. My stomach would cramp at any new experience. The remedy that worked best was a tablespoon of Scotch whiskey in a glass of warm water. I detested the smell and taste but it worked. I could relax and stand up straight again. No one in my family drank liquor but there was a bottle of Scotch available for medicinal purposes. I did not become an alcoholic, because at least once a day my mother or my father chanted nice girls don’t drink, use lipstick, use nail polish, do not smoke, etc. It went on. Thinking I might be anxious sometime during the day, my father had put two tablespoons of Scotch in a small vanilla bottle in his suit coat pocket. Evidently when he wrestled with the footlocker the bottle broke! We walked to the building where I was to register. I did not notice the odor until inside when it seemed fumes of liquor came everywhere from my father.
“Feel in your pocket to see if the bottle is leaking,” I hissed.
He brought his hand out of his pocket holding a piece of glass! My stomach looped into a double knot. After a trip to the men’s room my father emerged still faintly aromatic. I registered. My father was satisfied. I couldn’t stand up straight. I had a stomach ache.
College life began. Chemistry was a mystery to be solved. In English class I could almost hear the teacher sniff when I answered that my favorite poet was Longfellow. If I had said Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese poet I’d read and couldn’t understand and still can’t, he probably would have nodded his approval. I thought cooking would be an easy way to obtain some credits. How wrong I was. Any one of the girls in my class could have run a cafeteria. They’d been brought up in the kitchen – many on farms. One of my assignments was to stuff and bake a fish – the main dish for a dinner we were preparing. I couldn’t get a firm hold on the slippery thing. It almost defeated me. A stuffed fish belonged on a board on the wall – a trophy to be displayed.
Every freshman had to take some kind of exercise. I signed up for field hockey, forgetting that I couldn’t do anything that required a lot of energy. After a bout with scarlet fever I had a heart murmur. I pulled on the pleated blue serge bloomers (large enough for three of me), took my hockey stick, was picked for a team, and rushed every which way on the field – but only once. The doctor’s instructions reached the authorities.
The dining room was for freshmen only. We walked to it using only one side of the road and had to wear our freshman “beanies.” I bravely tried drinking coffee. No one wanted to drink milk. It was rumored that it had salt peter in it to make us less passionate. I had never heard of salt peter. I was a very late bloomer and I connected passion vaguely with the Episcopal Church – hadn’t I heard a reading from the Bible about Christ’s passion one time when I visited there with a friend? I went to the Unitarian Church – the church of Presidents. Our Sunday school room in the church basement was only a few feet from the tomb of the two presidents (Adams) and their wives and we never discussed passion.
My social life was a mixture. I was rushed and joined a sorority which limited my friends. I did not smoke, nice girls didn’t, but I inhaled enough second hand smoke to have lung problems now. I dated, seldom more than twice with the same man. The reason I guess was “nice girls don’t.”
About every organization invited groups to cookouts in the college woods. I had never had that kind of experience before. I had found heaven. I enjoyed being with a friendly group- toasting hot dogs and marshmallows over an open fire – making s’mores for dessert, signing new songs – new to me. I never refused an invitation to that kind of affair.
Homesickness was something I fought every day from about 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. The tears wouldn’t stop. Later I was told the house mother thought someone had died in my family. I always wore dark blue dresses with detachable linen collar and cuffs or dark skirts and sweater sets. She was always asking me to tea about that time of day, but never questioned me. I sat with a cup of tea in one hand and a soggy handkerchief pressed first to one eye then the other. I’ve never overcome that feeling. Even now late in the afternoon I sometimes have a faint longing for home. Is it remembering my father coming home from work and we were all together for dinner or later just my husband and me at that time of day? I don’t know the answer but it is a sad, lonely feeling.
When May arrived I looked back on the year. I had survived. I decided to return in the fall – a sophomore – a wise fool.
Downtown Durham has the same feel today as when Polly was at UNH.
This article first appeared in "A Pig in Congreve - and Other Stories of a Growing University", printed in 2001 by JOURNEY WITH ME, INC., Newbury, N.H.
Photographs supplied by the UNH Milne Special Collections and Archives and Alumni Association.
Copyright © Rye Reflections 2006. All rights reserved.