Timeline: Eleven

(This follows on from Seven Through Ten and, before that, Zero Through Six)

1991, aged eleven: The day I leave for the next seven years, my mother brings me a mug of hot chocolate in bed. We are staying at my grandma's house---my mother's mother's house---and in the afternoon the three of us leave together, three generations of daughters packed into my grandma's tiny white Ford, foreign objects (a lacrosse stick, a tuck box) jammed into the boot, everything clearly labeled with my name.

We stop on the way there and my mother takes my picture against a field---I am wearing purple---and then she puts the camera on the roof of the car while she's thinking about something else, and we drive off without it. She'll get it back later, but we don't know that yet; for now we can only worry about it, and the worry about the camera is compounded with the worry about today, because today is my first day of boarding school, my first night away from home. Everything is ending. Everything is beginning.

When my mother and grandma leave that evening---after the neverending unpacking, after the nervous meet and greets, after the polite festivities---I'm hit, powerfully and suddenly, by the understanding of how alone I am. I am surrounded, I realize, by forty other girls in the boarding house, nine other girls in my dormitory, eighty other girls in my school year, five hundred other girls in the school, and I don't know any of them yet. Devoid of any melodrama, this is the one thought that occurs to me---quite plainly and logically---in the hours and days until I see my mother again the next weekend: no-one here loves me.

I go home to Hong Kong at Christmas and my whole family is at the airport to greet me, my best friend Anna, too. My mother films me with a gargantuan camcorder as the frosted glass doors part and I push my luggage cart through the airport crowds. For the next three blissful weeks, I am cucooned within my family again, waking when I want to, sleeping when I want to, no longer at the mercy of bells or rules, mercilessly free of any semblance of institution.

But the time comes for me to leave again, and when it does, I am wearing a knitted reindeer sweater and my large purple glasses and I sit with my mother and father in a booth at the airport cafe close to midnight, and honestly, I am telling you right now, if there was something I could do this very second that would guarantee that I'd never again feel as desperately, achingly miserable as I did in that airport cafe that night---all of us tremulously trying to tell each other it would be okay, that the days would go quickly, we'd see each other soon---I would do it this minute, and if it was illegal, I wouldn't care.

As the airline chaperone leads me through another set of sliding glass doors---these ones, thankfully, not frosted---to the snaking immigration line, I wave at my parents, I wave and I wave and I wave. Tucked into my sleeve is a handkerchief sprayed with my mother's perfume---White Linen by Estee Lauder; I still can't stand to smell it, even now---and I will sleep with this handkerchief clutched in my fist every night for the next two hundred nights, well into 1992. And sometimes I will wake up and I won't be able to find the handkerchief, and I will nudge my friend Beth, sleeping in the bunk above me, and I will whisper to her, panicked, that I can't find it, and she will sigh and grunt, but she will lean over, she will climb out of bed, and she will find it for me. She will find it for me every single time.

House of Jules
Feb 20, 2008

This made me tear up!
House of Jules

Feb 20, 2008

I'm weeping onto my toast.

Feb 20, 2008

I am a first-time commenter, although I have been reading your blog for nearly a year. Thank you for sharing this story from your life! I am preparing to undergo a huge transition and, quite honestly, am struggling to cope. I needed to be reminded that even though I feel like everything is ending, soon everything will be beginning!

Carol Snider
Feb 20, 2008

My mother left me for three months when I was six (she went to Germany -- to have an affair, it turns out -- my dad stayed home in Berkeley, and my three-year-old brother and I went to live with an aunt in Sacramento. I never understood then, nor since, how any mother could leave her young child, or allow her young child to go away.

Even now, with four adult children, I am DREADING the day next summer when three leave for college at once. I know they're plenty old enough (at 18, 18 and 20, fergoodnessake!) and independent and ready, but the 6-year-old child in me, the one who was leftalone, somehow still wonders if it's an OK time to let them go.

I'm so sorry you felt that pain! But it seems to me that you are now close with your family, in spite of the pain of that separation and feeling of not being loved. Yes?


Feb 20, 2008

OH how this post broke my heart! It reminded me of all the times I'd experienced similiar emotions as a child.

I just found your blog last week and its these 'recaps' of your life year by year that held my interest to the point of adding you to my google reader. Thank you! You mix well with my evening tea...

Twice Five Miles
Feb 20, 2008


Feb 20, 2008

Oh, this was heart-wrenchingly lovely.

Feb 20, 2008

Beautifully written! Your life truly has been made up of hellos and goodbyes in airports! From all of your travels at such a young age and living in so many different places - your wanderlust is built into your soul.

Feb 20, 2008

It makes me so sad parents can send away their small children like that! I'm so sorry you had to go through that.

Feb 20, 2008

This story is so fascinating... I longed to be sent to a boarding school when I was ten or eleven, but my parents couldn't afford it.

Feb 20, 2008

I love the recaps of your life...especially this one. I can't imagine how difficult the tranistion was for both you and your parents. Even believing they were doing what was best for you, they must have been heart broken.

Feb 20, 2008

The bit about the handkerchief made me cry.

Feb 20, 2008

This was just lovely. And heart breakingly familiar.

My mother left me when I was thirteen and every time I would visit her and then have to leave again it was the worst pain of my young life.

Feb 20, 2008


Feb 20, 2008

I know that feeling. It's awful.

Feb 20, 2008

This makes me remember my boarding school days so clearly. The feeling of being left on my own in unknown territory - I felt so betrayed. And yet in the end I learned to love my parents for sending me off allowing me to experience.

Feb 20, 2008

Whew. That sounds like a desperately lonely time. It must have been so hard for your parents. I can't imagine sending my son away to summer camp - let alone to the other side of the world. Alone. I'm wondering, why did you have to go?

Feb 20, 2008

That was so touching. My eyes are welled up with tears. I hope my boss doesn't walk by and wonder what the hell I'm crying about.

Feb 20, 2008

My eyes are a little misty.

I just thought you should know what you're doing to me.

Nothing But Bonfires
Feb 20, 2008

I should clarify a couple of things:

a) I went to boarding school because it was going to give me a better education. Because my family has a history of moving around (uh, you don't say), it was decided that it was best for me to at least have ONE stable thing in my life -- I'd already been to, like, ten different schools by the time I was eleven, and that's not so bad when you're younger, but once you start getting into your teens, where you don't want to be yanked around so much, and you're going to have exams to take soon (in England, you take super-important exams at 15/16 and 17/18), it's probably better just to be in one place. That place was England because that's where my parents are from, and the British education system was the one I'd been raised in. Plus, I grew up reading the boarding school fiction of Enid Blyton (you should check out the Mallory Towers and St. Clare's series if you want to see the REAL predecessor to Harry Potter) and so boarding school just seemed fun and exciting. Also, I had both grandmas (and other assorted relatives and family friends) living pretty near my school, and I spent a LOT of time with them, in the absence of seeing my parents. I have a much closer relationship with my grandparents than any of my other siblings because of it.

b) Eleven was really the worst year; it all went uphill from there. I wrote a bit more about it in this post, if you're interested: http://www.nothingbutbonfires.com/?p=94

c) When I said I felt that "no-one here loves me," I meant in the SCHOOL, in the environment I was in. I didn't mean that I felt unloved by my parents, or sent away or shipped off or abandoned or anything like that. It just occurred to me that I was totally on my own -- at least for a while, until I made some friends (which I did).

d) It was pretty bad for me, but I think it was WAY worse for my parents. I'm sure my mother probably still regrets the decision when she wakes up at 4am and can't stop thinking about it, but hey, guess what, I turned out okay. I probably wouldn't send MY kids to boarding school, but I also probably wouldn't choose NOT to have gone, if I had to do the whole thing over again. It was pretty character-building, and a thousand things about me are the way they are because of that experience. Plus, one day I may get off my ass and get a novel out of it.

Camels & Chocolate
Feb 20, 2008

I am just loving the Timelines - especially since for the past year I've been reading your blog I've been thoroughly confused on how the Life of the Burns has unfolded (considering you've bounced around just a tad in your 28 years). And I may just have to steal your timeline idea for my birthday post this weekend, though of course I'll give you credit and mine will be about 5 posts shorter than yours, as I haven't had nearly the interesting existence you've enjoyed =)

Feb 20, 2008

Ohh... it breaks my heart to imagine you clutching that handkerchief and waking up to see that it's missing. My mother wore the same perfume at that time in my life, so not only can I see the memory as you describe it but I can also smell it.

Feb 20, 2008

Thank God for the Beths in the world, no?

Nothing But Bonfires
Feb 20, 2008
Feb 20, 2008

Just piping up to say I'm joining in with the other misty-eyed commenters. Wonderful piece--I'm very much enjoying your timeline.

Feb 20, 2008

I too am misty. If I wasn't at work I'm sure I'd be bawling. You have a true gift for writing and telling stories. Through the entire post I could feel the love to and from your parents.

Someone Being Me
Feb 20, 2008

Awww...my heart breaks for the 11 year old you. That is tough. May I ask what a tuck box is?

Feb 20, 2008

You do seem, from your blog entries about your life, to be quite a well adjusted character as a result of your experiences/travels/family. Even leaving my pretty unstable family for college at 17 was unbelievably difficult. Eleven must have been something else entirely, particularly in those moments before you make friends. I bet you have more of a sense than many of us that friends are everywhere for the making. One question I have -- is this all from memory, or did you keep a journal? If the former, I envy your vivid memory and ability to recall these emotions. If the latter, well done, you.

Feb 20, 2008

Oh, this made me cry. This was heartbreakingly sad and yet not at the same time.

Did all of your siblings go to boarding school? If not, why the change?

Your travels have inspired me. We leave in a month for Belize and Guatemala on a 10 day backpacking extravaganza. I can't wait :)

Nothing But Bonfires
Feb 20, 2008

Just from memory, though I WISH I'd kept more of a journal. I did during the last few years.

And Tom went to boarding school too, but not Luke and Susie.

Feb 20, 2008

Lovely post as always. And you should DEFINITELY write a novel. In fact, I COMMAND IT. (Taps you with sceptre.)

(Takes off crown.)

Feb 20, 2008

Happy belated birthday. I was born Feb 10th, 1980.

Long live the year of the monkey, or something.

Sarah Marie
Feb 20, 2008

I love moms.

Feb 20, 2008

Whereas I would have sold my eyeteeth to go to (my imaginings of) boarding school. Thanks for the great stories, enjoy them all.

Feb 21, 2008

I love your writing. It's absolutely beautiful. Don't you sometimes wish to go back in time to certain points and hug your old self and let her know that everything turned out okay?

Feb 21, 2008

This is so beautifully written. Your eleven year old self seems so vulnerable and scared...and yet, there's a sense of invincibility when you're a girl that age that comes through too. Well done, Ms. Burns!

Feb 21, 2008

Oh, I remember it so well, how your Old Girl drags you around, trying to keep you distracted; your trunk that your mom packed the week before is now your only reminder of home and you're almost afraid to open it; trying to hold back embarrassing tears, because who wants to be the CRYBABY on the first day?! And there's that awful moment when your mom and dad are saying goodbye for about the hundredth time, but this is really IT, and it's nowhere near as glamorous as it was in Jane Eyre, and suddenly their car rounds the turn by the stone wall and cherry trees, and they're gone, and your heart is like a gigantic lump, and your eyes tingle and your nose burns, and it's best to go find a quiet place...
A week later, everyone is your best friend and you're jumping hurdles through the freshman lounge like exuberant ponies, but that first day...oh, it hurts.

Feb 21, 2008

This was lovely.

Feb 21, 2008

I loved this post, as I love almost everything you write. I've been reading you since the Charleston days (yours, not mine!)
I'm glad you clarified the things you did in the comments. I realized some people weren't understanding. I've read enough about your family - especially your parents - that I was certain it was something they did FOR you, not TO you. And while you can never know for sure about the "road not taken" you've turned into such an amazing young woman that I can only believe they knew best.

Feb 21, 2008

Holly, you say you "might get a novel out of it?" Looks to me like you've got yourself a pretty good start.

I imagine you are already collecting this time line in another place to "pitch" to an editor, because I for one would purchase your book, as I'm sure most would.

Feb 21, 2008

Others have said the same but to add one more

I teared up about the handkerchief.
And I too was desperate to go to boarding school at that age and reading novels about girls in boarding school. I love these little snapshots.

Feb 21, 2008

I heard you say it. The novel thing. It's there in digital type, which is binding you know.

I'm holding you to it.

Feb 21, 2008

"Everything is ending. Everything is beginning."

Love that line. I moved a ton when I was young and felt that way each time I had to start all over. Never without my parents though. I can imagine that's much more of an experience than I had. Anyway, love this post. So much feeling packed into such a small space. You truly are a gifted writer.

Feb 21, 2008

I went to boarding school too (in Windermere...it actually was a LOT like Harry Potter...minus the whole magic part) and your post brings back a lot of memories/emotion for me. I couldn't wait to be left alone in this exciting place...until a few hours after my mum left and I had that realisation that nobody there loved me...it was scary. I wouldn't take back a second of my boarding school experience though.

Feb 21, 2008

I loved boarding school, I used to look forward to the end of the holidays!

Feb 21, 2008

oy. you're making me tear up.

Feb 21, 2008

ps. i read roald dahl's about a boy and his boarding school experience and i can only imagine you also got into a lot of mischef. but hopefully no caning.

Feb 21, 2008

My boyfriend loved boarding school in Canada but his 2 year younger brother hated it and cried something fierce everytime he had to go back. I believe it was only about an hour away from their house too!!

Feb 21, 2008

I'm so glad you explained the reasoning behind the decision to go to boarding school in the comments. I was having a really hard time reconciling the image I have of your parents (nice, fun, adventurous people) with my pre-concieved notion that only mean parents send their kids to boarding school. Now that you've explained it, it all makes sense. It's kind of like how my parents almost sent me off to an all girls Catholic school. They were only looking out for my best interests. Lucky for me, we moved away and I got to attend public school :)

The Over-Thinker
Feb 23, 2008

White Linen is my mom's scent, too. To this day, it takes me back to hugs after punishments, hugs after arguments, hugs after achievements.

I love your writing, Holly--I sure hope you're considering an official memoir.

Feb 25, 2008

this was sweet.