I was fifteen years old when my parents sent me away to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. The camp was located in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, concealed in the Blue Ridge Mountains. You could drive by the entrance and never see it, not unless you were looking, and carefully; my father missed it four times before I finally signaled that we had arrived.
My father drove me from Florida to North Carolina: my parents did not trust me enough to let me ride the train alone.
The last day, we ascended into the upper reaches of the mountains, at which point our journey slowed considerably. The road looked half made, narrow and overgrown; it twisted and turned at sharp angles.
My father spoke little when he drove; he believed one should always concentrate on the road ahead. He'd bought his first car, a Chrysler Roadster, five years earlier, in 1925, so an automobile was not a habit for him but an innovation. We stopped in Atlanta on the first night, and after we checked into our hotel, my father told me to dress nicely. I wore my lavender silk dress with the dropped waist and rosette detailing. I carried my mother's mink stole, which I had taken despite Mother's instruction not to do so. When I was a child I was allowed to wear the stole on special occasions — Christmas dinner, Easter brunch — and I had come to think of the fur as mine. But now that I wore it on my own, it felt like a burden, an accessory too elegant for me. I felt young for the dress, though it was not the dress but my body that made me feel this way. My breasts were tender and new, I still carried myself in the furtive way of an immature girl. My father, in his gray pinstripe suit, didn't look much different than usual, except that he had tucked a lime-green handkerchief in his coat pocket. Not the lime green of today, fluorescent and harsh. We didn't have colors like that then. No, I mean the true color of a lime, palely bright.
At the entrance to the restaurant, I took my father's arm like my mother usually did, and he looked at me, startled. I smiled and tried not to cry. I still clung to the hope that perhaps my father would not leave me in North Carolina, that he had another plan for us. My eyes were swollen from two weeks of weeping, and I knew it pained my father to see anyone cry.
The country was in the midst of the Great Depression, but my family had not suffered. My father was a physician, and people would always pay for their health. And there was family money besides, which my parents would come to depend on. But only after my father's patients were so poor they couldn't even offer him a token from the garden in exchange for his services. I saw all this after I came back from Yonahlossee. The Depression had meant something different to me when I left.
I rarely ventured outside my home. We lived in a tiny town in central Florida, named after a dead Indian chief. It was unbearably hot in the summers — this in the days before air-conditioning — and crisp and lovely in the winters. The winters were perfect, they made up for the summers. We rarely saw our neighbors, but I had all I needed right there: we had a thousand acres to ourselves, and sometimes I would leave with a packed lunch in the morning on Sasi, my pony, and return only as the sun was setting, in time for dinner, without having seen a single person while riding.
And then I thought of my twin, Sam. I had him most of all.
My father and I ate filet mignon and roasted beets at the hotel's restaurant. Plate-glass windows almost as tall as the restaurant were the central decoration. When I tried to look outside to the quiet street, I saw a blurred reflection of myself, lavender and awkward. We were the only people there, and my father complimented my dress twice.
"You look lovely, Thea."
My full name was Theodora, a family name. The story goes, Sam shortened it to Thea when we were two. The beets tasted flat and dirty against my tongue; I tried not to think about what my brother was doing while I ate.
My father told me again that at the camp I would ride every day except Sunday. I thanked him. I was leaving Sasi behind in Florida, but it was just as well because I had outgrown him. I kicked his elbows when I posted. The thought of my pretty paint pony pained me terribly now. His coat, Mother always said, was distinctively beautiful, divided evenly between black and white patches. I thought of his eyes, one blue, one brown, which wasn't so unusual in horses: if white hair surrounded the eye, it was blue; black hair, brown.
Our meal, our last meal together for a year, was mostly silent. I had never before eaten alone with my father. My mother, yes, several times, and with Sam, of course. I didn't know what to say to my father. With all the trouble at home, I was afraid to say anything.
"You'll come home soon," my father said, over coffee and creme brulee, "after all this mess is settled," and it was my turn to be startled by my father's behavior. I sipped my coffee quickly and singed my lips. I was only allowed a taste of Mother's at home. My father rarely spoke of unpleasantness, any kind, personal or remote. Perhaps that's why I knew as little about the Depression as I did.
He smiled at me, his small, kind smile, and I felt my eyes warm. When my mother smiled you saw all her teeth; her face revealed itself. But my father's smile was something you had to look closely for. In this moment, his smile meant he still loved me, after all I had done. I wanted him to tell me that things would be fine. But my father was not a liar. Things would not be fine; they couldn't ever be that way again.
I have never loved a place again like I loved my first home, where I was born, where I lived until the mess commenced. One could dismiss my love of place by explaining that I was attached to the people who lived there, my mother, father, and brother. That is true, I did love these people, but I cannot remember my family without remembering the gardens where they walked, the sun porches where they read, the bedrooms where they retired. I loved the house separately from my family. I knew the house, it knew me, we found solace in each other. Absurd, but there was magic in that place.
I confess that I was as sad to leave my home as to leave my family. I had never been away from it for more than a few nights, and I knew in my bones that it would be changed when I returned.
I would be changed as well. When my parents met me again at the train station in Orlando, all that time later, they might as well have been meeting an entirely new person.
I left my home, my lovely home, and was taken to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, an enclave for wealthy young women, staffed by graduates of the camp awaiting marriage.
I came of age, as they say, at the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.
Adapted from THE YONAHLOSSEE RIDING CAMP FOR GIRLS by Anton DiSclafani by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright 2013 by Anton DiSclafani