When Veronica was nine she desperately wanted to become a Girl Scout. Actually, not a Girl Scout, she wanted to become a Brownie. They had beautiful brown uniforms – dresses with sashes and little matching berets. She wasn’t sure if Brownies sold cookies like the Girl Scouts did, but she associated them with treats, perhaps because of their evocative name.
They wore excellent, tall socks, with ribbons, or something ribbon-like, at the top. They were so put together, those fashionable Brownies. Not like Veronica, with her childish red tennis shoes and jeans all faded and threadbare at the knees.
Veronica was living with her grandparents at the time and had seen pictures of a cousin in Girl Scout get-up. She didn’t think the green outfit was as fetching as the Brownie uniform, but imagined that her cousin’s Scout membership would help convince her grandmother that she, Veronica, should be allowed some similar extracurricular activity. Her grandmother promised to talk it over with Veronica’s mom, who was currently in another state, looking at houses she and Veronica’s stepfather couldn’t afford.
Veronica’s stepfather, Harvey, was retired from the Merchant Marines. Five years ago he had swept Veronica’s mom off her feet with promises of fidelity and additional children. He was older and jealous and his mouth was full of wide, Michigander vowels. Veronica’s grandparents were worried about her mother’s choice in men. She couldn’t point to her first marriage as a success, that was for sure.
Harvey was usually on his best behavior when visiting Veronica’s grandparents, but he was an awkward mix of reserved and overly familiar. Her grandmother cringed visibly every time he addressed her as Mom. “Not possible for me to have a son only seven years younger than I am. Not just unlikely, not possible. The nerve of that guy!” She once asked Veronica’s mother if she couldn’t find any nice men her own age. Her mother’s face had turned white and she had left the room in anger, but later, Veronica noticed her mother looking at her stepfather differently. Sizing him up, maybe, wondering if she had agreed to this second marriage too soon. Perhaps thinking she had spent her cute shape and good teeth on someone who was already past his sell-by date. This is what Veronica imagined, in any case.
For her part, Veronica liked Harvey. He didn’t hug her or read to her or hold her on her lap the way she fantasized a real father would. The way her actual father had, before he faded away. But Harvey could build almost anything out of scrap wood and he liked the movie Paper Moon. Veronica was fearless around grown-ups and a pretty accomplished liar, and Harvey would promise that the two of them could go on the road together and rob people blind, just like in the movie. He said she had an A+ personality and could be president or maybe even go to the Merchant Marine Academy. Veronica thought maybe he’d stick up for her about the Brownie thing.
Veronica’s grandmother did finally broach the subject with Veronica’s mom, who apparently thought the whole idea of Scouting, or Brownies, or Campfire Girls, or whatever, to be too expensive and too much work. She already felt guilty about saddling her folks with Veronica (just for a little while, she told them), and didn’t want her mom having to drive Veronica all over town or deal with some busy-body, over-achiever mothers.
Veronica’s grandmother was, in fact, relieved to not have to track down some officious Brownie troop leader. She disliked door-to-door salesmen, even though her husband sold vacuum cleaners for a year or two when they were first married, and she had nightmares about accompanying Veronica on cookie-selling missions. But she felt bad when she saw how disappointed Veronica was, and told her not to worry, she’d think of something else.
A couple of weeks later, Veronica’s grandmother introduced her to Snowy Simpkins, Sunday school teacher and volunteer leader for the Gum Grove Presbyterian Primroses. “Just like Brownies!” Veronica’s grandmother whispered.
Not exactly like Brownies. Primroses met right after church on Sundays. Sunday school first, then church service, then Primrose meeting. They also had Wednesday after-school activity time, but Miss Simpkins told Veronica’s grandmother that she could skip that, at least for the first few months. Veronica’s grandmother said maybe, about the Wednesday meetings. Maybe later.
As a Primrose, you mostly had to learn bible verses, and you got to make pictures with glue and macaroni. There was no selling of cookies, no camp-outs, and no lovely brown uniforms. They had pink beanies and pink vests.
If you learned enough bible verses you got the pink beanie for free but the vest cost money. And eventually, when you got older, there was rumored to be a skirt involved, but none of the Primroses at Gum Grove Presbyterian were either old enough or rich enough to have the skirt. Veronica was sure the vest wasn’t going to be in her grandparents’ budget so she didn’t even ask. The pink beanie wasn’t very cute either. When Veronica stared at herself in the mirror with it perched on top of her head, she didn’t seem smarter, or prettier, or mysterious in any way.
The beanie reminded her of the damp church basement where the Primrose meetings were held, and when she looked at herself with the beanie on she could only imagine doing the kinds of things you did at those meetings. Like playing hangman with names of the disciples. Or singing the Apostles Creed to the tune of a Shawn Cassidy song. She couldn’t imagine a glamorous Brownie kind-of-life with that beanie on. She couldn’t tip her beanie at a jaunty angle like you could a beret. Beanies were stupid, she decided.
She stopped begging her grandmother to take her to the extra Wednesday Primrose meetings, and eventually pretended to be sick after church, every week. “More like a shrinking violet than a Primrose,” her grandfather teased. When she got accepted to the Merchant Marine Academy, people would stop describing her with the names of flowers. She might even change her name, she thought, to Jessie or Sandy or Tony. Something less floral.
She finally called Miss Simpkins and said she wasn’t coming to any more meetings. Maybe it wasn’t in her power to be a Brownie. But it was in her power to quit Primroses, and when she did, she experienced a tiny spark of something. Rebellion, maybe. Or pre-adolescent angst. Or that feeling you get when you decide you’re not willing to settle for the thing you don’t want. That was when it all started.