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Life in Dewey House
We listened to the Beatles. Glenn Gould played the Well Tempered Clavier. I wound my straight blond hair up in curlers and ironed Terryís curly black hair straight. It was 1969, and we were seniors.
Smith College is a small private womenís liberal arts college in central Massachusetts. Founded by Sophia Smith in 1871, it is distinguished, as are many of its graduates: Anne Morrow Lindburgh, Gloria Steinem, Julia Child, Sylvia Plath. It is beautiful. It is well run. It felt like a big happy, incredibly expensive orphanage to me, when I arrived in the fall of 1966.
I lived in Dewey House, which Iíd chosen after careful study (of a catalog). At Smith the students live in houses. Some houses are like dormitories, others are like large private houses. The former consisted mostly of the big brick buildings making up the square we called the Quadrangle, or the Quad. Dewey was a large Greek Revival house with an added el. There were a dozen bedrooms on the second floor and another five on the third floor, which was like a finished attic.
Lynne tells a funny story: "Steve and I met a man when we were hiking in New Zealand who is married to a 1977 Smith grad. We visited them the last time we were in NYC. She was in awe of the fact that I had lived in Dewey House. She asked how I had the pull be assigned to Dewey House! Huh? She had an amazing fantasy about the grand life that we experienced there."
My room that first year was a dormered double at the very back of the third floor. Windows peeked out through tall trees onto the manicured one-lane, car-less roads that wound between the houses and classroom buildings. Two other freshmen lived across the hall. There was a little tiny single near the stairs, which had been assigned to another freshman, and two larger singles where a couple of juniors lived. On the second floor, there were large and lovely doubles in the front (which would have been the good-sized bedrooms in the old house) and adjoining singles - we called them suites - in the back hall, which was the el. Upperclassmen had the nice front bedrooms, and the remaining freshmen had the suites.
In our day, every house had a diningroom and a kitchen staff. We took turns waiting tables, which meant setting out serving dishes and clearing the tables. The food was halfway decent, and everybody had to dress for dinner, which meant putting on a skirt. That rule was abolished during my four years. Since then, dining as been centralized, which seems like a shame to me, but it is undoubtedly a necessary cost-saving measure.
On Friday afternoons we had tea in the livingroom, with tomato juice, crackers and, of course, tea. We had silly gym suits. Looking back, they were kind of cute little cotton gladiator costumes. But we loathed them. I picture coming in on Friday afternoon in my red gymsuit, having tea, playing bridge and rushing up to change for dinner.
If I had to rate the years of my life, Iíd say my years at Smith were among the best. Not that I was happy all the time there. I remember fear, uncertainty and even loneliness. My second year, I was quite depressed. But I also remember long walks in deep snow, late nights nodding over John Locke, and winter afternoons in the warm, damp greenhouse, examining odd specimens of rare tropical plants.
The Browsing Room in the library was a generous room with a high ceiling and big windows all along two walls. The old domestic oriental rug was the largest I have ever seen. The room was furnished with worn, over-stuffed chairs and ottomans, reading lamps, and wooden tables. You could turn a chair around to face a window, prop your feet up on a steamy, pleasantly cantankerous iron radiator, and call it studying.
I must have learned something. I read a lot of books. Some of the courses I took made me feel positively guilty: I read Jane Austin, Emily Bronte, Charles Dickens, Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, you call that work?
What is touching, looking back on how we were then, is how unformed and hopeful we all were. We thought we might do anything. Looking back, I was empty-headed. Magna cum laude. How can that be? What did I know? There was heavy weather out in front of all of us, I think. There were no near ports for me, thatís for sure. Itís just as well we didnít know.