College Girl: The Diaries That Planted the Seed in Wanting to Be a Writer

By Betty J. Cotter

At fourteen I discovered Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead in our small village library. The collection of diaries and letters, published the year before, tells the story of her marriage to Charles Lindbergh, their travels around the world, and the heartbreaking kidnapping and murder of their first son, Charles Jr., in 1932.

“Mrs. Lindbergh is a remarkable woman, captivating, alive, sensitive, poetic,” I wrote in my journal. “She has a fresh and honest way of describing thoughts and emotions that we all have but find difficult to describe; she does so with remarkable detail. I only wish I had her talent—and sensitivity.”

Ironically, in that last sentence I sound like Anne Morrow, the shy and insecure ambassador’s daughter who married the world’s most famous aviator. In her introduction to Bring Me a Unicorn, which chronicles her years at Smith College and meeting Lindbergh, she called herself “the youngest, shiest, most self-conscious adolescent that—I believe—ever lived.”

On the surface, we had little in common. Morrow was a daughter of privilege; her father, Dwight W. Morrow, had been a partner in J.P. Morgan & Co. before his diplomatic posting to Mexico in 1927. The family took European vacations; General Pershing came to dinner. It was assumed Anne would attend a Seven Sisters school, and her big dilemma was whether to follow her sister Elisabeth and their mother to Smith, or strike out for Vassar, a favorite of her friends.

The daughter of a sawmill operator in rural Rhode Island, I had neither money nor connections. Occasionally a scruffy Swamp Yankee stopped at our old farmhouse for coffee, but no one came to dinner; on our rare vacations we drove to Vermont and stayed in a motel. But with the young Anne Morrow I still found affinity: she longed to be a writer, which was my fervent wish, and she had two sisters, as I once did.

In June of 1974, a dream began to form in my mind of following in Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s footsteps. Her diaries had planted the seed; then I read The Bell Jar and discovered Ms. magazine. Sylvia Plath and Gloria Steinem also were Smith grads; if you wanted to be a woman writer, Smith was the proving ground.

Immediately, I met discouragement. That June my parents were considering leaving Rhode Island, and my twenty-three-year-old sister launched an all-out campaign against the move. Somehow I became a pawn in her argument.

June 8

More talk of moving to Vermont. All afternoon Andi has tried to convince us it’s financially impossible, and “Why don’t you move around here?” She’s just worried because she knows if we move up north, she’ll have to stay here and get a job. She also said it would be financially impossible—difficult, maybe—for me to attend college. “Jeannie, the only way you’ll ever get rich is if you marry into money or, like Aunt Dot, you have a driving, aggressive personality and highly competitive nature . . .” God, I thought I already did.

Although they had grown up on a farm during the Depression, my mother and her sisters were all highly educated. Dot received a PhD in biology from the University of Tennessee and taught at an exclusive women’s college in the South. Ruth was a registered nurse, and Marg had a teaching degree. My mother had caught the train every day to Providence to attend the Rhode Island College of Education, a normal school where her tuition was paid by the state. Besides her teaching courses, she studied English literature, Italian, mathematics, and the sciences. Her graduation portrait hung in my parents’ bedroom, and she still owned her college sweatshirt. But she had stopped teaching long ago, when I was born.

My sister, however, had missed her chance at college. The reasons why were shrouded in family secrecy, or maybe just glossed over by the rationalizations people make of complicated truths. After graduating from high school and enrolling in Rhode Island College, she simply did not go. No one talked about it much; Andi complained she had no luggage, which even to my then nine-year-old ears sounded like a flimsy excuse. I suspected her passivity was connected to our oldest sister’s death two years before. Ever since Mary Jane’s car accident, Andi had vegetated at home, without a job or a driver’s license or any interest in obtaining either. She spent her days shampooing her long auburn hair, reading Photoplay magazine, and paging through fashion catalogs. Once a week her beau, a married man in his fifties, picked her up for a date and returned her three hours later.

Undaunted by her precedent, I sent away for the Smith College catalog. I whiled away hours reading its rich descriptions of history, political science, geography, and English literature courses. I imagined myself strolling on the campus dressed in a plaid jumper like the young women featured each fall in Mademoiselle magazine. Plath, like her character Esther in The Bell Jar, had been one of those women selected to edit the magazine’s annual college edition.

I collected other catalogs, including one from my aunt’s institution, where girls leaned out the windows of ivy-covered dormitories. I imagined porches fronted by wisteria and long classroom discussions about my favorite Southern writers, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. When Aunt Dot visited that summer, I mentioned my interest. I expected her to expound on the college’s virtues. Instead she looked pained. “You wouldn’t fit in there, Jeannie,” she said.

Why? Because I was a Yankee? Or for some other, more embarrassing reason—such as our poverty? Would she be ashamed to have her niece on campus? What was it about me that made me unfit for the college where my aunt had made her career? I was too embarrassed to press the issue. I shoved that catalog to the bottom of the pile.

Even Anne Morrow had had obstacles. Once she arrived at Smith, she struggled to finish her tests on time or turn in papers by their deadline. “Mother—I really have done so wretchedly on these exams,” she wrote to Mrs. Morrow on January 31, 1927. “It sometimes seems to me such a frightful waste of money and everything to try to give me an education.” In vain she compared herself to her mother and sister Elisabeth, with all of their scholastic honors. I understood that pressure. Like Anne’s college grades, my high school ones were inconsistent. I was too fixated on boys to study the subjects that bored me: algebra, Latin, physical science. My notebooks were full of marginalia—Rolling Stones lyrics, dirty jokes, sketches—or long notes to my friends speculating who liked whom or what might happen at the next dance.

That all changed my junior year. All my voracious reading, the afternoons spent with the Sunday New York Times and Saturday Review (borrowed from the same village library), woke my sleepy intellect. I began getting all As, writing short stories, diving deep into plays, biographies, poetry collections. In the fall of senior year, I was named a winner of the National Council of Teachers of English writing contest. Suddenly colleges from all over began mailing me their catalogs; an English professor at Rhode Island College sent a recruiting letter.

Our class advisor, a young teacher and high school friend of Andi’s, had gone to Rhode Island College when my sister did not. I figured she would understand my dilemma. But when I mentioned Smith, she shook her head. “You wouldn’t fit in,” she said. “You know what those schools are like. How will you feel when all your roommates are taking ski vacations and you can’t afford to go with them?”

Was I supposed to know how to ski? What on earth did that have to do with college? But her answer was just a more specific version of Aunt Dot’s. I would not fit in; I did not belong. It was time I faced facts.

In the summer between my junior and senior years, I found a substitute, another private all-girls school with an impeccable reputation, but closer to home.

August 4, 1977

We drove up to Wheaton College yesterday afternoon, as I had an appointment for an interview and a campus tour. Wheaton is a small, private, and very expensive institution in Norton, Massachusetts, a country town just outside the urban clutter of Attleboro. The campus is a contrast of traditional affluence (a dark, high-ceilinged dining room with wood panels and a red plush carpet) and austere modernity (the science building with its long, narrow windows reaching to the roof), a reflection of both its serene country setting and its proximity to the urban culture of Boston and Providence.

I might have been writing a college brochure; God knows I had read enough of them. I was further impressed by the “very warm and gregarious young woman” who interviewed me, who spoke “informally but with the definite purpose of drawing me out of myself and sensing my integrity and intellect.” I had two questions for the tour guide: Was it true you had to pass a swimming test to graduate? (Yes, a requirement that dated to the Titanic sinking.) And what about the opposite sex? (She assured me the school was “no convent, believe me.”)

I was left with a very satisfied impression of Wheaton; the balance of academia and social/extra-curricular concerns, its manageable size, the warmth and cordiality of the people, the aesthetic beauty of the campus and its accessible location. But the solid barrier of expense—$5,850 popping out at me whenever I saw the genteel decoration of dormitory parlors—seems almost insurmountable. Wheaton would perhaps suit me, if I had the advantages and attitudes of the affluent.

I never applied. I could play the role during the tour—I could come across as smart and ambitious. But I left my Swamp Yankee parents in the car, my father smoking his Camels, my mother dressed in Sears polyester. I knew that they, like their daughter, would not fit in. I couldn’t swim—that was even worse than not knowing how to ski. I was too embarrassed to ask about financial aid. It all just seemed impossible, my sister’s prophecy coming true.

The pile of college brochures grew thin, until all that was left was a small state school in New Hampshire. I liked the pictures of students lounging on the lawn, of ivy-covered buildings and tennis courts and maple trees. That October, I visited the campus of Keene State College. My parents again stayed in the car. I did not bother applying anywhere else, and my application was quickly approved. But if I had learned anything, it was that acceptance did not guarantee attendance. I can still see my mother standing over the kitchen table, looking at the first bill for $450. “I don’t know where we’re going to get this,” she said, making sure I heard. I started to wonder what else besides luggage my parents had denied my sister.

I dug in. I had given up my dream for what I considered a reasonable substitute. I longed to get out of Rhode Island; I wanted a real, ivy-covered college experience, and Keene State looked the part. My grades were good. I had won prizes and scholarships.

Unlike my sister, I would not give in easily.

That summer, my grandmother threw me a going-away party. The relatives on my father’s side came and gave generously. My aunt and uncle presented me with a new set of blue luggage—two soft-sided suitcases and an over-the-shoulder bag. That made it real: I was going to college.

August 23, 1978

Boxes and a foot locker crowd the floor space of my room. Bags of cosmetics, Kleenex, laundry soap sit in the corner. It is a room in transition, a home about to be abandoned.

Two more days home, and then—Keene or bust? It’s hard to imagine. I can’t see too far ahead. I know this is, ultimately, what I want to do, but I know the first weeks will be hard. I’ve left high school far behind, but what of the friends I found there?​​ . . . What of the identity I carved here?

I can pack my life up, in boxes and suitcases, but unpacking it—in one piece—may be impossible. I will never be like this again.

And that was the dilemma. The only way forward was to leave behind the baggage of youth for a new self. All of the demons that had chased Andi were there—the fear, the embarrassment, the anxiety: of not fitting in, of homesickness, of change. But I zipped up those new blue soft-sided suitcases anyway and let my father load them in the car. Keene was not Smith College, and I was not the ambassador’s daughter Anne Morrow Lindbergh or the prodigy poet Sylvia Plath. But I was going to make my way in the world as best I could.


Betty J. Cotter is author of the novels Roberta’s Woods (Five Star, 2008) and The Winters (winner of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts Fiction Fellowship, 2006). The first chapter of her novel Moonshine Swamp was published in the inaugural edition of Novel Slices (2020) and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can find her online at swampyankeewoman.wordpress.com.

Betty J. Cotter
Betty J. Cotter

Submit your essay about reading the right book at the right time to our blog!

Disclosure: Capsule Stories is an affiliate of Bookshop.org, and we will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Please consider buying your books through Bookshop.org to support independent bookstores—and Capsule Stories!