Brand building through storytelling

The lost girl on my mind

In my only memory of Pamela Mason, we’re reluctant cooking partners in Mrs. Boynton’s eighth-grade Home Ec class. Pam and her girlfriend get busy with the wooden spoons while I stare out the window and wait for the bell to ring. Pam takes a dim view of my indolence. She mutters to her less assertive friend, in a tone calculated to get my attention, “All Rona knows is Shakespeare!”

Pam has the take-charge bearing of a girl much older than 13. I figure she must know to deal with blown fuses, colicky babies and other predictable annoyances of adult life. She most certainly knows how to put me in my place—the one I’ve earned with my willful disregard for muffin tins and frying pans. I’m so famously inept at Home Ec that I failed Mrs. Boyton’s test on white sauce by proposing this recipe: dump everything white into a pot (sugar, flour, milk, marshmallows) and bring to a rolling boil. Nobody wanted to be my cooking partner, so Pam is stuck with me, the class nerd. I take a wild stab at winning her respect: “Shakespeare? Ihate that wherefore-art-thou stuff! So high-flown!” While I rant about Shakespeare, Pam gets on with the task at hand.

Almost 50 years later, I’ve replayed this scene countless times. Pam’s image never quite comes into focus. I think I see a pencil skirt and cardigan buttoned to the neck, although I wouldn’t swear to it. I’m pretty sure about the hair—a shining beehive, like a Seventeen model’s—because I’d tried to copy that style but was waylaid every time by an explosion of frizz. I want to get the details straight, to know who Pam was before her photo made the front page of every newspaper in New Hampshire.

Pam had moved away from my town by then. A high school freshman in Manchester (an honour student, all the papers said), she had posted an ad in a laundromat, offering babysitting services. A man called her one snowy evening—January 13, 1964. She never came home.

When Pam first went missing, the halls of my school seemed to quiver with alarm. “Never take a ride from a stranger,” we’d all been told. But Pam had been seeking a babysitting job, not a joyride. And besides, this was peaceful New Hampshire, where people left their front doors unlocked. How could a girl we had known vanish into the night like a stone into a lake? Some of the girls must have thought, “It could have been me.” That prospect never entered my mind. I cared even less for babysitting than I did for making white sauce.

For me the horror was that Pam, who had seemed so formidably competent, had been powerless against her abductor. Even worse, I could feel no affection for my stolen classmate, no shred of sisterly feeling. I hadn’t liked her, yet I had envied her. And what I envied her for had been exposed as no stronger than a moth’s wing.

Pam’s mother pleaded from the headlines for her daughter’s life, as mothers always do when a child is taken. My own mother showed not one iota of sympathy: “Where was she when her daughter took that call? What kind of mother lets her daughter go off in a snowstorm with a strange man?” I felt ashamed of my mother, and of myself. I had always thought of women as the sympathetic sex. Yet here we were, passing judgment and competing for illusory rewards. Most vigilant mom, best wife-in-training.

Eight days after Pam’s disappearance, her body was found in a snowbank.  This much I had more or less expected (even kids know how these stories end). What I didn’t expect was the brutality my former classmate had endured—raped, beaten, stabbed and shot.

Nor could I have predicted the uneasy silence that descended on our school. I had no words for what Pam’s death meant, and I wanted some wise grownup to help me find them. Not what we now call a grief counsellor but a large-hearted listener, an unflinching witness to injustice and a bearer of hope. My mother, it was clear, would not be that person. And while I had several teachers with a rare understanding of the adolescent heart,  I don’t recall any of them speaking of Pam. Looking back, I can’t fault them for this: the whole country was already mourning the unthinkable. Two months had passed, almost to the day, since the assassination of our President, the boyish and buoyant John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

I comb the byways of Google for traces of Pam but history has reduced her to a faceless victim. Almost everything I find concerns her killer, Edward Coolidge, who in 1991 walked out of prison, a free man, after serving 25 years—so little for the life of a 14-year-old girl. It offends me further that the public record should forever link her name to his. In my personal gallery of loss, she sits beside JFK. I don’t know if she’d like that, anymore than I know who her favourite Beatle was or whether she preferred the Stones. I hope so.

Click here to read a favourite post on a related subject, “Hometown kids, older and wiser.”

 

Posted by Rona



Previously posted comments:

Comment
Lynne
September 29, 2010 at 9:09AM

What an eerily beautiful tribute to a former classmate. I had several people in my classes growing up who could have been Pam’s twin, even though they didn’t become murder victims. Sometimes there are just fringe people in your life that don’t make that big an impression while they are alive, but become almost famous after death. Pam feels, to me, like many of the “know it alls” in school I knew who later discovered that they were as clueless as the rest of us…

Reply
Rona Maynard
September 29, 2010 at 10:10 AM

You know, Lynne, in other contexts I was quite a know-it-all myself. You should have heard me pass judgment on movies, music, clothes.

Comment
Leigh
December 27, 2010 at 5:05AM

Strange that I found this. There is a blizzard today and was thinking about Pam Mason. My sister was her best friend in Manchester. My sister never really recovered from the incident, as she had to testify at the trial, as she was called first to babysit for the monster. I was too young to remember. Strange that no book has been written on this. My Mom told me that he was a suspect in other unsolved murders at the time. Terrible miscarriage of justice. RIP Pam.

Reply
Rona Maynard
December 27, 2010 at 6:06 AM

Leigh, how devastating for your sister, who could have been the murdered girl. I’m so sorry.

Comment
Dawn McDonough Delude
March 10, 2012 at 3:03PM

Rona,

I guess this is the time in my life when I am reflecting on the past and how can I do that without going back to Oyster River. I struggle to put a face to Pam Mason, whom I was quite close to, while I can see your face clearly, and we were not close friends at all. Usually I sat behind you in classes because of being seated alphabetically by last name, and as you would sit and twist your hair around a finger and look out the window, I would often wonder what you were thinking. I think I knew even then that your mind was not remotely in that classroom. I look forward to reading “My Mother’s Daughter”, and I hope that you are well and happy.

Comment
michele
December 17, 2012 at 2:02PM

My mom told me Pam’s story. I worked with her dad the year her killer was released. Her dad was just a shell. He had also lost a child to a bad car accident. At that time in his life you’d think there was nothing that could hurt him. Not true, he broke a little more….

Reply
Rona Maynard
December 17, 2012 at 4:04 PM

Sorrow upon sorrow. Thanks for visiting here, Michele. Your comment expands my understanding of this terrible affair and its reverberations through the years.

Comment
Susan Wells
December 29, 2012 at 7:07AM

I’ve been thinking about Pam, as I do so often. We were best friends and in every class together from kindergarten through the 5th grade. She taught me how to skip, eat worms [cold spaghetti], play in the clay soil near our homes, and have confidence. She was full of confidence. She was a wonderful friend to me. When she moved to the West Side, we still would meet at the movies downtown. I heard stories about her parents breakup, but Pam never talked about it. When Pam disappeared, it marked the beginning of a very difficult life journey for me that continues to this day. I got pregnant right around that time, and my life went in an entirely different direction than I would have imagined. I had not made the connection with Kennedy’s death until you mentioned it in your blog. I remember the day he was killed and we were all sent home from school. But I think the pain of losing Pam overshadowed the assassination. Coolidge should have died in prison. Thank you for writing about her and sharing your memories. She did have a beautiful head of hair. I will always remember her as my best friend in early childhood and early adolescence. Thanks again, and best wishes for 2013.

Reply
Rona Maynard
December 29, 2012 at 10:10 AM

Susan, your abiding love for your childhood friend shines through every line of this comment. Hold onto those memories. Record them before you forget the little details that keep Pam vivid in your mind. I hope you’ll write your own story about her because it seems to me you have a lot to say. It’s in adolescence that most people experience the most acute, heart-filling emotions they will ever know, and in your case those emotions are bound up with the loss of someone who helped me you the woman you are today. I’m so sorry this formative friendship was wrenched away from you. Thank you for writing.

Comment
Martha M. Jacques
July 03, 2013 at 9:09PM

Rona,
Thank you for writing this story. I was very young when Pam was killed and yet I knew the story of her murder as my father was the attorney general who prosecuted the case against her killer, Edward Coolidge. It was moving to read your memories of Pam and of the times. My family still thinks of Pam.

Reply
Rona Maynard
July 20, 2013 at 5:05 PM

Hi, Martha. I’ve been terribly slow to respond to your comment. My apologies. I was touched to hear that the prosecutor of Pam’s case was so affected by it, and that his entire family remembers Pam. Sometimes there’s quite a gulf between law and justice. Thanks for writing.

Comment
Susan McTague
November 24, 2014 at 9:09PM

Rona, I happened to see Unsolved Mysteries the other day and it was about Rena Paquette’s death. Of course, Pam’s name came up and it brought back vivid memories of that snowy night she went missing. We lived up the street from Pam and my father was the principal of the school she had attended. I saw her often and her face lives on in my mind. That night we were outside shovelling snow and it gives me chills as I realize that the car she was in drove past our street as we continued to shovel totally unaware of the horror that was taking place. We had heard screams but we aways did since kids used to yell as they drove on that hill so we figured it was just kids fooling around. We were visited several times as the police questioned my father for any clues as to where she could have gone. Who was she friends with? What kind of student was she? Was she ever in trouble? My father was visibly upset when her body was found. My sister and I were numb. My mother felt the pain that only a mother feels. Since that time, every snowstorm brings me back to that night and I imagine it will continue as innocence was lost with this brutal crime. Edward Coolidge hopefully has a place in hell waiting for him. His time in prison is insignificant compared to the barbarism of his crime. Pam has been gone for a lifetime but that night and the days following are always with me and my sister. When we speak of Pam one of us always says “We were outside shovelling”

Reply
Rona Maynard
January 10, 2015 at 1:01 PM

Thank you, Susan, for sharing your painful memory of the night Pam Mason was murdered. The image of you and your sister in the snow, hearing screams as you shoveled, will stay with me. Your story reminds me that a crime like this unravels so much more than the life of one family. It affects everyone who knew the victim, or was part of the story in some way unrealized at the time.

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