I sat in the stuffy, dusty attic staring at the picture of a young girl. She was a somewhat attractive girl, although, it was plain to see that she took no pains to enhance her appearance. There was a bare minimum of makeup visible. Her blonde hair was carefully brushed, but no attempt had been made to fashion it into any sort of style that would further highlight her best features. The only adornment that could be seen was a fine silver chain that looped around her delicate neck.
The one thing that leapt out at you was her eyes. They were a very pretty shade of blue. They were definitely a feature that one would remember if they were turned in your particular direction. However, the color wasn't the thing that made you take notice. It was the intense determination that grabbed your attention. You could almost feel the heat burn you as you took in the fierce resolve that her gaze contained.
These were the eyes of a young lady who was going places in life. No obstacle would ever be too large to keep her from her appointed goal. Hard work and gritty willpower were two virtues that she would have in abundance. This was most definitely not a young lady that would ever stoop to using her looks to get her places in life. No, this young woman was certainly not someone to ever be trifled with.
I smiled to myself as I read the caption beneath the photograph -- "Sandra Parker, Valedictorian 1976."
The book that I was holding in my hands was my old high school yearbook from St. Benedict's Catholic School. The young lady in the photo was me.
How had I managed to hold on to this old thing for the past thirty-one years? I was not exactly what anyone would ever call a sentimental person. I preferred to use my energies in life to concentrate on the next challenge before me, rather than reminisce over days gone by.
I was very meticulous in my cleaning habits. Every Fourth of July I would cull through the clutter that I had acquired during the past year and have anything was that wasn't of vital importance hauled away. I wondered how I could have somehow missed the dilapidated box that had held this old relic.
I made myself comfortable amongst the dust bunnies - below the bare light bulb suspended from a wire dangling from the rafters overhead and absently leafed through the old yearbook. I couldn't help but smile at seeing some of my former classmates that I hadn't even thought of in many years.
God! We looked so young!
The more that I browsed through the pages, the more I began to study each and every face of my fellow graduate. In the legal profession you learned to watch the eyes of those you were dealing with for any telltale sign of fear or evasiveness that might flicker across their surface. It was a trick that I was quite good at and it had given me an advantage in many situations.
As I looked at the eyes of one classmate after another, I noticed something that almost all of them had in common. In each of their eyes you could see a hint of pure, unadulterated joy. After all, for many of them these photographs were taken during the last really carefree days that they would know. What did high school kids know of the real world of bills and taxes and troubled marriages?
From time to time, I would turn back to my photograph. I searched in vain for any sign of that same light heartedness that was so plainly etched into the other student's faces. As hard as I tried, I could find no evidence that the young Sandra Parker emitted anything but an aura of raw determination and strong will.
"Was I really that much different from all of my peers?" I wondered.
Surely, I must have had many things in common with them. After all, hadn't I been elected class president? Nobody would have voted for me if I had been so much different from everyone else.
I flipped to the pages that had been reserved for each of us to gather the signatures of our fellow classmates. Rather than feeling any sense of fond nostalgia as I read through their written offerings, I began to sink more and more into a state of melancholy.
Where were the little personal remarks that friends always scribbled in each other's books? Where were the pledges that we would always be close friends throughout the rest of our lives? Where were the little inside jokes that no one who wasn't a part of our tight little group would ever understand?
I was surprised at the paucity of the number of people who had actually signed my book. The ones who had signed had only left little, short notes along the lines of "Good luck at Princeton", "To the smartest girl in our class", "Best wishes in the future", and (worse of all) "You have my respect".
A knot was forming in the pit of my stomach as the past started coming back to me. Not the conveniently warm memories that I had convinced myself were a part of my past, but the true memories of how it had really been for the young "Sandra Parker -- Valedictorian 1976".
As I once again turned back to the page with my photograph, I remembered how I had always felt left out of so many things that were going on during my high school years. I remembered all of the talk about the various parties that my classmates were attending, the school dances, the sleepovers, and the latest gossip of who was dating who. That type of frivolous behavior might have been alright for the others, but they weren't the daughter of Bertram and Elizabeth Parker.
My father had been one of the most respected attorneys in the state. He was the best at what he did and everyone knew it. Even after I had begun to garner a little attention in the legal arena, there were always plenty of people that would feel compelled to relate some little story of my father's exploits upon learning who I was. Most often, these stories were not of the warm and fuzzy variety, but rather, a retelling of how my father had ripped into some up and coming legal hotshot or corporation and left them sobbing for mercy.
My mother had been a competitive figure skater. When I say that she was a skater, I don't mean that she was a young woman who merely liked to skate. No, she had been to the Olympics in both 1956 and again in 1960 and was one of the most well known female athletes in the entire world at one time. In short, she was probably the most driven person that I have ever known.
These were the genes that had been passed along to me. I can't honestly say that I was ever aware that I was an unhappy child. I had just been raised to set lofty goals for myself and any goal was a challenge that must be conquered. If my resolve ever faltered for a moment, my parents were there as an example to redouble my efforts and keep me focused.
My mother was often quick to point out that you only had one chance to prepare yourself for the rest of your life. You didn't get a second chance to go back and do it all over again. You had to get it right the first time.
In today's permissive society, that may sound like a harsh philosophy in which to raise a child. However, I have never found any fault with it. The intensity that had been forged in me from an early age made it possible for me to graduate from Princeton in just three years. From there, it was on to my law degree and today I am one of the youngest vice presidents and one of only a handful of women presiding over a major corporation in America.
No, I wouldn't have had it any other way. While I saw the looks of joy in the photos of my former classmates, I wondered how many of them would have wished to switched places with me now. How many would wish to be able to live in one of the houses that I owned? Or to drive one of the luxury cars parked in my garage? Or to be able to travel the world whenever the mood hit them like I could? How many of them had enough money in the bank to live comfortably for the rest of their lives even if they never earned another nickel?
Maybe it was just the atmosphere of being in that dingy attic, but my once steel-like will crumbled for just a moment.
Yes, I could travel the world whenever I wanted to. But, did I? Of course I didn't. There was always another meeting to prepare for or a crisis that could not be entrusted to anyone else. But, that was just part of being a responsible, mature adult, I rationalized. I always thought there would be plenty of time when I got older that I could indulge my urge to travel.
And, houses? I owned three in total -- including the magnificent beach house on Cape Cod that I was presently rummaging through the attic of. In addition to the houses, I also owned three condos in Miami, Los Angeles, and New York City. These were three of the most exciting cities in the whole world. Who in their right mind wouldn't be just a bit envious of that?
It was a thought that should have lifted my spirits. However, it had the entirely opposite effect on me. I found that my depression only deepened as a tiny voice crept across my conscious mind.
You own houses, yes. But, do you have a home?
A house is merely a structure for keeping the outside world at bay. Other people owned homes. They had loving spouses and perhaps even children. They had families that cared for each other and with whom they could share all of life's ups and downs. They had a team that they could always count on, no matter what obstacles life may set in their path.
I thought ruefully, that I too had once had that. I had been married for twelve years until the divorce became final nearly ten years ago. My husband, Bill, had been an attorney at a different firm. I had thought that he, of all people, would understand the pressure that we constantly toiled under and the commitment that one must have in order to be successful.
The sixty to eighty hour weeks that I had put in at work had slowly crushed the life out of our marital union. The accusations and recriminations had started slowly, but grew in their frequency with every passing year until we were left with little more than a seething resentment of each other.
I have always been more than willing to shoulder my share of the blame for our failed marriage. I knew that I could sometimes be very demanding and that I didn't suffer the failings of others easily.
Sometimes? Face it Sandra, you were about as subtle as a steamroller on the best of days
But, what's wrong with being demanding? Was I supposed to just sit quietly by while Bill and our daughter, Lindsey, made mistakes that they would only regret later in life? Couldn't they see that it was my way of saying how much I loved each of them?
At least, Bill was a grown man. He had the strength and maturity to deal with whatever perceived criticisms may have come his way. Lindsey was not so fortunate. The more that I tried to help her, the more she seemed to turn away. It should not have come as any surprise when she asked to be allowed to live with her father after the divorce. Surpised? No, but I had indeed been crushed inside when she made her intentions clear.
I tried to schedule as much time with my daughter as I possibly could. I always made sure that there was a special room in any of my residences reserved for her use when we were together. I've watched her blossom into a beautiful young lady. Whatever differences I may have had with Bill, I have to give him grudging respect for the marvelous job he did in raising her.
I felt a small tickle on my cheek and quickly brushed it away -- fearing that it was a spider or some such disgusting insect. I was surprised that the culprit was indeed not of the arachnid family at all. I looked at the spot of moisture on the back of my hand as if it were an alien creature from another planet.
"Sandra Parker, what has gotten into you today?" I asked myself, "Do you think that sitting here crying was going to solve anything? Maybe we should all just sit down and have a nice long cry together!"
I recognized the words immediately as one of my mother's favorite admonishments. The mere thought of the look that she used to have in her eyes as she towered over me was enough to snap me back to the present. Crying was a waste of time that never did anyone one little bit of good. I set the yearbook aside and started to pick myself up from the floor. That was when I noticed something else that was in the box that had contained that wretched book.
In the bottom of the box was a timeworn jewelry box. It had been many years since I had even thought about that box. I knew what it was immediately. I hesitantly reached for it and lifted the lid. Inside was my old St. Benedict's medal suspended from its delicate silver chain -- the same chain that I had worn in my yearbook picture so many years ago.
My head swam as I fingered the long lost pendant. I searched my memory in an effort to remember what the priests and nuns at our school had taught us about the venerable St. Benedict. I smiled as I thought about the stories they had told us of how St. Benedict had lived as a hermit for many years. Later in life, he had left his self-imposed isolation to found the first seminaries where other fellow hermits could come together and live in brotherhood.
Without even thinking about it, my fingers opened the clasp. I placed the necklace around my neck, and refastened it securely. All of a sudden I felt a certain kinship with the patron saint of our old school that I had never felt before. I wasn't used to the self-pity that seemed to have taken hold of me during the past hour or so as I had rummaged through this dusty attic. St. Benedict, of all people, might be able to give me the strength to deal with the feelings of loneliness and regret that I was now experiencing.
There's no such thing as second chances, Sandra.
My mother's words again came floating back to me. I had long ago given up any belief in the silly superstitions that the good nuns had tried so hard to instill in us. I shook my head that I had almost slipped back into believing those quaint notions again. Yet, I left the necklace in place. It felt somehow comforting as it nestled against the soft skin of chest.
At long last, I brushed the dust that clung to my clothes, snapped off the old light, and carefully climbed down from the dusty attic. The clutter would just have to wait for another day. I suddenly felt completely exhausted and wanted nothing more than to lay down for a little while. I wasn't sure if it were the memories that had assaulted me during my excursion in the attic of maybe an allergy to the dust, but I was feeling decidedly lightheaded. I made it as far as the sofa in the living room before I laid down and fell sound asleep.
I awoke some time later. I wasn't sure how long I had been asleep, but I was surprised to see that the sun had begun to set. Rather than being groggy as one might expect, I felt surprisingly good. I got up from the couch and stretched. Something felt different, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I walked through the house on my way towards the kitchen to find something to eat.
As I passed by a mirror in the hallway, I stopped to see if there was any dust still clinging to my hair. When I looked into the mirror I froze in shock! Instead of my reflection, I was gazing into the face of a stranger!
No, not a stranger -- I knew this face. After all, it was the same face that I had just been looking at in the yearbook. It was the face of "Sandra Parker -- Valedictorian 1976"!
I stood there staring with uncomprehending eyes. How could this be? Was I only dreaming? I slowly lifted a hand to touch my cheek and looked on with amazement as the reflection in the mirror did likewise. I could feel the touch of my fingertips against my smooth cheek. Surely, I wouldn't be able to feel the touch so clearly if this was only a dream, would I?
Sandra, you never dream
This was true. I only viewed sleep as a necessary activity to prepare oneself for another day of work. I couldn't recall having a single dream since I was a really little girl. But, if this wasn't a dream, then what in the world was going on here? I did the only thing that I could think of -- I ran upstairs to my bedroom to check the reflection in my full sized mirror.
I don't know what it was that I was expecting. Maybe, a burst of energy would clear my head and reality would somehow swim back into focus? However, when I arrived in front of the mirror in my room, I was greeted by the same sight. My younger self stood there gazing back at me with the same open mouthed expression that I was wearing.
Another small detail caught my eye. The clothes that I had been wearing when I had embarked upon my attic cleaning assignment now hung on me baggily. I wasn't what anyone would call heavy to begin with. I stand five foot-four and weight one hundred and twenty-five pounds. However, the waif that stared back at me looked to be the same one hundred and three pounds that I had weighed in high school.
A sudden thought occurred to me. I reached up and grasped the neckline of my t-shirt between my thumb and index finger and pulled it outwards. I lowered my eyes and looked down my distended top.
"Oh, my lord," I muttered.
I quickly reached down and pulled the t-shirt completely off. My hands flew behind my back and unclasped the now loose bra and let it fall to the floor. My eyes slowly raised to once again look upon the image in the mirror. The sight that I beheld was a vision that any forty-nine year old woman may have fantasized about at some time in their life.
There I saw, captured in the glass, was the image of me at the peak of my beauty. My skin had that fresh-scrubbed glow of vitality that until now had only been a distant memory. It hadn't yet been ravaged by the consumption of countless fast food meals or been neglected for far too long from the use of gentle body washes and creamy moisturizers.
I slowly placed my hands over my flat stomach and traced my fingertips along the flawless skin. I raised my eyes slightly and took in the sight of my small breasts. They were the same small size that they had been thirty-one years ago, but they stood up proudly, without any of the sag that came from aging. If this was indeed a dream, then I fervently hoped that I would never awaken from it!
Without even thinking about it, I lifted my hands up to cover my young breasts. A soft sigh escaped my lips as I gently applied pressure to the small pink nipples that poked through my extended fingers. I swayed on my feet momentarily at this unaccustomed feeling. I have never been the sort of woman who ever had the time to waste in indulging themselves in such activity. I had always considered self-pleasure to be degrading and the time could always be spent in some other endeavor that would be far more beneficial in the long run.
I suddenly was swept up in the desire to see what the rest of me looked like. I quickly peeled off my shorts and panties and kicked them aside. I couldn't believe what I was seeing reflected back at me! I ran my hands down my sides and over my narrow hips. My smooth legs looked to be quite toned and the tiny thatch of light colored pubic hair was the only contrast to my milky complexion.
"How come I had never noticed just how lovely I had looked when I was a teenager?" I wondered to myself as I stared brazenly at my nude reflection. I turned around and looked back over my shoulder and nearly came to tears when I gazed upon my bottom. Soft, round, and high, there was not even a hint of the sag that I had become accustomed to seeing.
I almost squealed with joy as I spun back around towards front again. My sudden movement made the St. Benedict necklace bounce against my soft skin. I stared at it for a moment. Could this somehow be a tiny miracle being performed by the Patron Saint of school children? I laughed at my silliness in dredging up that old superstition. However, I also made no attempt to remove the necklace from its place around my neck.