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By Amy Phillips Penn

Natalie S. made an impression.

She first caught my very bored glance at Sunday school, a weekend event I considered punishment. Ironically, my atheist father would escort me there in obedience of his wife’s commandments, while she slept in. I disliked Sunday school intensely. It was boring; it was serious; it required homework; and it took place on my day.

Natalie was the only person in class who took Sunday school seriously. She scribbled notes ferociously, asked questions, and always did her homework. She was the Stepford student of the sixties.

Years later, as classmates at the Hewitt School, we met again.

Natalie quickly took her place as the number one student at Hewitt, too. Teachers called her the Rock of Gibraltar. In addition to earning the scholastic gold star of perfection, she was chosen to play the Madonna in the Christmas pageant.

Her life was tidy and indulged. Even her family’s apartment—a duplex on Park somewhere in the 70s with a winding staircase that defied dust—was perfection. A Picasso hanging in the guest bathroom managed to seem insignificant while a medley of other museum worthy artwork was tastefully displayed elsewhere.

Natalie’s father was a Senior Partner at one of the best brokerage firms in New York. Her mother wore mink-lined raincoats, and a cold stare.

Senior year, Natalie was elected Student Council President. Sure enough, she took the job as seriously as she approached life. Our skirts were ordered to be no shorter than the middle of our knee (this in the year of the seductive mini!). So Natalie the seamstress would squat down to measure my skirt with a wooden yard stick as I imagined safety pins protruding from her mouth.

That year I was wrestling with my physics class. I didn’t get physics, and I definitely didn’t get why I needed to take it. Everyone (headmistress, parents, and physics teacher) agreed that I shouldn’t have to endure an arguably unnecessary course that would plunge an otherwise sanguine grade average into red alert territory. The only one concerned was Natalie. She sat me down for a serious talk.

“What if one day you really need physics in your life? Maybe you should try harder,” she advised, serious beyond her teenage years.

I knew then what I know now: I would never need physics listed on my mental or spiritual resume.

Following graduation, I never saw Natalie again.

But I would think of her again.

We Hewitt girls were jolted into disbelief upon learning that Natalie’s mother had jumped to her death—straight out of their Park Avenue apartment, or the Carlyle Hotel, depending on which version you heard.

Natalie’s mother had been distant, regal, perfectly coiffed. Now she was gone, and the truth was messy.

We wrote the expected condolence letters.

Her father remarried shortly after, reportedly never making sense of his first wife’s tragic ending. He had given her the perfect life, after all. Right?

Later, I heard that Natalie was happily married, a mother (plus nanny or two) who belonged to “women’s clubs” in London. Life was good—perfect maybe.

But even later, I learned that Natalie had literally followed in her mother’s footsteps by flinging herself out of a window.

There were rumors as to why, but none fit.

When I think of Natalie today, I have to admire her relentless quest for perfection. I smile at how serious she was as a young girl. Then I wonder if anyone—including Natalie—ever knew who she was.

Rest in peace, my friend. No mortal is perfect, but you came pretty close.

 

Featured image courtesy of Art Blart

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