When I was five years old, we moved to a neighborhood that contained a wealth of little girls around my age. After living on a farm with no one to play with but three rotten older brothers, this was heaven. During summer vacation, we girls scrambled around together playing jacks on cement porches, dressing Barbie dolls under picnic tables, holding roller derbies on cracked and heaved-up sidewalks, and catching tadpoles in local ponds. We’d generally eat lunch at the home of the mother unlucky enough to be closest when our stomachs started growling. We wandered from one activity to the next in gentle summer chaos.
But just as every rule has to have its exception, our neighborhood of scrape-kneed, ragamuffin girls also contained Mr. and Mrs. Dart and the five little Darts: Mary, Mindy, Mandy, Molly, and Mavis.
Most of us dressed each morning in the first clothes that came to hand, in a wild rush to get outside and fall off our bikes or crawl through the grass in search of lost Barbie shoes. The Dart girls were always immaculately turned out in pressed white cotton shirts, navy or red shorts, terribly white socks, and tennis shoes that were never anything but blazingly white. The rest of us had wild kinky hair (long before it was fashionable) or lumpy uneven braids or ponytails escaping from rubber bands. The Dart girls had short bobs with picture-perfect bangs always half an inch above their eyebrows. And while the rest of us roamed wild and free, Mrs. Dart felt her girls’ growing minds would best be developed by Summer Projects.
So every summer, on the first day of vacation, Mrs. Dart would meet with her girls to outline The Project. One summer it involved physical fitness, and a flurry of swimming, tennis, and horseback riding lessons ensued, all skillfully and cheerfully taught by the indomitable Mrs. Dart. Another summer occasioned the Household Arts Project, during which the girls learned baking, knitting, dressmaking, and how best to wield a dust rag.
Mrs. Dart always graciouisly invited us to join in, and often we eagerly began, but we never lasted long. One by one, we’d fall off the Projects wagon. Later we’d be found lying in the dust poking sticks at anthills or arguing over whose turn is was at the Monopoly game we’d started three weeks earlier. We lacked the diligence to stick to a Dart Project, but occasional bouts of boredom led us up on the Darts’ steps for progress reports, and during the Dart girls’ two free hours every afternoon, when they joined us in tag or jump rope or bike riding, they filled us in.
In my tenth year, Mrs. Dart announced the Summer of the Collections. She expounded on the delight, education, and camaraderie to be gained from joining the legions who gathered this and that. She then sent the girls to the library to decide what they would collect.
Mary, two years old than I, decided on foreign recipes. She spent her summer carefully copying curries, crepes, pilafs, and stews into a loose-leaf folder. Once a week she cooked a recipe whose ingredients weren’t impossible to come by or too objectionable to a good Lutheran family. (This particular collection must have been hard on Mr. Dart, a staunch meat-and-potatoes man. He tried. He persevered. But he drew the line at chocolate-covered bees and bull testicles in aspic.)
Mindy and Mandy, the twins one year my senior, decided on tried-and-true collections: butterflies and matchbooks. Mindy was much too kindhearted to actually kill a butterfly, so instead she made a scrapbook of pictures cut from magazines and nature pamphlets. Under each picture she entered, in a neat hand, each specimen’s common and Latin names, locale, habits, and any other tidbits she could cull. We all found her book quite impressive.
Mandy was allowed to collect matchbooks on the condition she bring them to her mother or father to have the matches removed. In those days, every bank, restaurant, gas station, and hair salon had bowls of matches sitting out. Relatives traveling to New York or Hawaii sent back exotic samples. Mandy even made friends with a local printer who saved her a matchbook from every wedding he handled.
Seven-year-old Mavis, the baby, took a short cut.
The girls’ grandparents had brought back a basket of seashells from a trip to Florida. She simply looked the shells up and then glued the shells to sheets of posterboard, printing their names in bold block letters underneath. Nini Fizzarelli commented that they didn’t look real because they didn’t look wet, and Patsy McMullen suggested clear nail polish. Mavis nearly asphyxiated herself, but at the end of two days every shell was covered and did indeed look perpetually wet.
That left nine-year-old Molly. She came up with an idea which she happily hugged to herself and would not share. She had always been the perfect little Dart, following through Projects without a qualm. But this summer she begged Mrs. Dart to let her work on her project privately and surprise them all at the end of the season. When the Dart girls joined us in the afternoons, Molly refused to talk. The more we questioned, the more tight-lipped she became. It was maddening. We pretended not to care.
August came and the day approached when the girls would exhibit their completed collections. The grandparents were invited, a backyard picnic was planned, and excitement mounted in the neighborhood. We knew we’d be invited over to see the collections and to share homemade peach-vanilla ice cream. Two more weeks…nine more days…
On day minus-five it happened. I overheard my dad whispering to my mom. The Dart girls had been out with their grandparents, and Mr. Dart came home to find Mrs. Dart in a swoon on Molly and Mavis’ bedroom floor. Evidently she had finished the laundry and was putting away Molly’s white socks when she saw in the back of the drawer the nine-by-twelve inch clear plastic box Molly had requested to house her collection.
Inside the box, Mrs. Dart saw rows of cotton balls, each with a label declaring a date and body part, such as “July 3, elbow.” There was something else on each cotton ball. Molly had acquired a collection of scabs.
We found out later that she had carefully lifted off the souvenir of every bump and scrape she’d gotten over the summer and had paid Billy Barnstrom on the block behind us for several of his scabs as well. (The well-mannered Molly just didn’t bang herself up enough.)
At the picnic, Molly made an official announcement, under her mother’s stern eye, that her collection had gotten misplaced somewhere, though it seemed clear from the buzz and a couple of odd jokes made by Grandfather Dart that everyone knew all about it.
Summer came to a close and school began again. The following summer, Mrs. Dart enforced a Full Disclosure Act on all Summer Projects.
By the way, I hear Molly now lives in Washington State and is a well-respected hematologist.