I inspected myself in the mirror, staring at the blue plaid jumper, white blouse and maroon tie that comprised my Catholic-school uniform. I was in the second grade and already tired of the same old outfit day in, day out. My one foray into autonomy was the baby-blue beaded cashmere sweater my mother had given me on my seventh birthday. I slipped it on, reveling in its softness, the simple sophistication of the beading and pearl buttons which caught the light. I modeled it in the mirror, smiling to myself, taking great pride in something a true princess would possess.
“Patty, hurry, you’ll be late for the bus!” my mother called with an edge to her voice. I hurriedly did up the buttons of my sweater, and ran into the living room to collect my school books and bagged lunch. My mother gave me a hug and a kiss, and with a loving swat on my backside, she sent me out into the cool autumn day. I hurried down to the end of the block to the bus stop. The big yellow school bus was just coming into view as I arrived. Whew, I had made it in time once again.
“Hi Patty!” the bus driver greeted me, manipulating a lever to operate the door. He was a congenial man, the essence of “fat and jolly,” with a ruddy complexion and a happy smile.
“Hi, Mr. Wakowski,” I said. As shy as I was, the friendly driver always put me at ease and I looked forward to seeing him. Sitting down on the empty seat just behind him, my attentions were divided between the suburban Chicago tract neighborhoods outside the window, the back of Mr. Wakowski’s head, and his happy countenance in the wide rearview mirror.
Within fifteen minutes, I had bid Mr. Wakowski good-bye and was lining up with all the other students in the school yard before the first class of the day. The school bell clanged steadily like a fire alarm for ten seconds and the body of students moved into the school, dispersing into various classrooms.
I felt flushed and warm inside the school building. When I got to my class, I peeled off my sweater and placed it next to my lunch on a rack in the cloakroom. Combing my hair with my fingers, I strode to my desk. And the school day began.
It was nearly lunch time. A wave of pain hit me. Despite my reluctance to bring my discomforts to the attention of Miss Higgins, I finally gave in. When the pain became too harsh to ignore, I stood up and walked to the front of the classroom, something I would never do under normal circumstances, a thrilling momentary departure from the norm.
“Miss Higgins,” I said, clutching my stomach. “I have a bellyache.” I heard one of my classmates giggle. Then I knew I should have said “stomach ache,” which was a much more sophisticated way of putting it. Dismayed that I now appeared to my classmates in a foolish light, another wave of pain suddenly wiped out all feelings except for itself and I knew I was going to faint.
Miss Higgins grabbed her chair, dragged it to me and sat me down on it. “Why, Patty, I believe you’ve got the measles,” she said.
I forgot what happened between that point and the moment I realized I was lying on the plastic couch in the nurse’s office awaiting a cab that would come for me and take me home. The prospect of riding in a real taxi excited me -- a princess getting chauffeured all by herself. But that thought did little to assuage my vision of my sweater and my lunch on the rack in the cloakroom. It would be there when I returned tomorrow, I promised myself. Too tongue-tied to ask for my things -- the thought was too radical to even conceive, it was probably that moment when I released my prized possession to the universe.
When I returned to school a week later, bedridden much longer than I had bargained on, of course the sweater and lunch were both gone. When I asked Miss Higgins about it, she said to ask the Principal’s secretary, to check the Lost and Found. When I asked Mrs. Reeper, the Principal’s secretary, about my sweater, she shook her head. No one had turned in anything fitting that description.
I took the loss of the sweater hard. Who would have snatched it? Why had my most prized possession been taken from me? Even now, four decades later, I think tenderly of it. Although it would not fit me anymore, and I have no descendants to whom I would have given it, I recall its feathery softness, the beaded patterns, the cool pearl buttons, the impossibly baby blue. It resides in memory more crisp and monumental than if it had gone the way of all my other children’s clothing, passed down to my sisters, then donated to the Salvation Army.