*From our The Day I Grew Up series:
For most people, growing up is a gradual, almost unseen process. Not for me. I can tell you the exact moment I grew up. It was at 7:45 a.m. on a damp January morning in 1958 when I was twelve years old.
The previous July, my father’s Foreign Service job had taken us half way around the world from the United States to Madras, India, where we would live for the next two years. It was my first trip on a plane.
Early that January, my sister–who was ten–and I left for Kodaikanal, the only school in south India accredited for American students. Kodai was a boarding school located at a hill station 7000 feet above the heat, disease, and crowds of coastal Madras. We wouldn’t return for five months.
I felt a mixture of excitement and powerful dread. What would the school be like? Where was I going to sleep and eat? Would anyone want to be my friend? How would I manage without my parents, especially my mother? I’d never been away from home overnight before–not even to summer camp. I was scared.
We sweated in the tropical heat as we packed the bulky footlocker full of our clothes and as many sweaters and jeans as we could find.
As my parents drove the 350 miles across the flat Indian plains between Madras and Kodai, we passed women working ankle-deep in rice patties, families living in mud-hut villages, and children tending water buffalo. The smell of cow dung and cooking fires filled the superheated air that blew through the open car windows. We drove through dusty towns with old names that sounded strange to my American ears. Mahabalipuram. Trichinopoly. Madurai.
Finally in the late afternoon, we started up the Palani Hills. The potholed road was nothing more than a twisting, narrow shelf slashed into the steep hillsides. Walls of dirt and weeds crowded us on one side; a sheer drop made us dizzy on the other side. We met few other travelers, but each hairpin curve and blind corner required a blast of our horn before approaching. From time to time we heard an answering honk, and had to creep around the curve until we saw them. Tires clung to loose paving and gravel as the vehicles maneuvered to the very edges of the road to pass each other.
Just when I thought I couldn’t stand another minute of the swaying car and the heat, a refreshing coolness drifted through the car windows. I opened my eyes and sat up. We were driving among banana trees; little green fruit peeked from under the giant glossy leaves. Soon towering eucalyptus trees shaded us, giving off a pungent aroma as the leaves rustled together. At a bubbling stream, women rhythmically beat clothes on rocks to clean them.
We drove through a gate, then rumbled over a wooden grate. It covered a ditch that stretched from one side of the driveway to the other. I found out later it was a cow guard—the bars were just far enough apart to keep free-roaming cows from wandering onto the property. I sighed nervously. This school was definitely going to be different.
All of the buildings bordering the driveway were made of stone. A chapel sat by itself to the left, and a whole series of buildings joined by corrugated, metal-roofed walkways climbed the slope on the right. Stone walls were everywhere.
As the car slowed at the top of the long driveway and circled the grassy flag pole area, my heart beat faster. I shrank back into the seat. I didn’t want to be abandoned in a place I’d never been before. In that pre-Internet world, there weren’t even telephones to call home, only letters. I wanted to go back to Madras.
We unloaded the car and took our things into the dorm. My room was downstairs; my sister’s upstairs. My roommate wasn’t there. She’d been to the school before and was off somewhere with her friends. My mother helped me put sheets on the thin mattress and unpack my clothes. She took care of me, making sure I was settled in. Then we went to the only hotel for dinner and to spend the night.
The next day I tried not to cry when I hugged my parents goodbye.
“You’ll be fine,” my mother said as my sister ran off with some kids her own age.
I gave my parents another hug before they began the long trip back home, and watched as the familiar blue car drove slowly down the hill and disappeared out the gate.
They were gone. How would I manage? Who would take care of me now?
Early one morning shortly afterward, I had my answer. I stood once more on the damp grass at the top of the driveway. A thick, gray mist swirled around me, and clung to my clothes and hair. Breakfast in the nearby dining hall was over, and the others, in small, chattering groups, had gone back to the dorms. Everything was quiet. I was alone.
There, isolated by sight and sound, I finally knew.
In a life-defining moment, I realized that at twelve years old, I was on my own. I was the one who would take care of me.
On that morning in January 1958, I grew up.