Ninth Grade Dreams

I wanted to be popular. The type of girl that guys drool over and that girlfriends cling to while giggling hysterically about some life-changing event. One of those guys, preferably someone tall, dark, and not too handsome would ask me on a date. Not just any date, but a late night movie where you tremble in fear when a serial killer sneaks up on a defenseless little kid, and the boyfriend squeezes your hand to show that he’s there to support you. Or maybe he’d take me bowling. No, that’s no good as my dad just might show up and send poisoned arrows our way. Definitely not to a school dance as I have no sense of rhythm.

The guy, probably named Stan, would ask me to go steady after that first date. He’d tell me how much he liked my hazel eyes and slightly off-center smile. I’d smell the shaving lotion on his chin and nod, speechless in the classic sense. I’d wrap my arms around his muscular shoulders, nestle my tear-filled face against his neck and feel his Adam’s apple move up and down as he swallowed back his own tears. He’d pull back a bit, slip off his school ring, and offer it to me as a token of his “like.” I’d smile stupidly and admire it in the fluorescent lights of the theater lobby. Then I’d stick it in the deep pocket of my overcoat so as to not lose it.

The next day I’d beg my mom to take me to Woolworth’s. While she meandered the aisles gathering miscellaneous junk, I’d rush to the yarn section. My eyes would light up at the rainbow of colors awaiting my careful selection. Like every other girl in my school, I’d choose alpaca wool. A sky blue color, the color of his eyes. At home I’d wrap the yarn around and around the ring until it fit snuggly on my ring finger and plan how I was going to show it off at school.

Those were my dreams. There’s a song that tells you to reach for the impossible. It would take a miracle to make any of these things happen, as I was an overweight, painfully shy teenager. I had no friends and was clearly toward the bottom of the social pecking order. Unless I could be reinvented through plastic surgery, fat removal from over 90% of my body, and a hefty dose of makeup, applied liberally to disguise my puppy-dog sad face, the impossible would remain impossible.

So, what did I do? Smiled a lot and changed my hairstyle to a ratted-out bouffant. Dabbed on cheap, yet tasteful cologne and asked my mom to sew more contemporarily styled clothing. Practiced the “cool” walk and the “I-don’t-give-a –darn” egotistical look that the school’s cheerleaders displayed naturally. In a rather foolhardy moment, I submitted my name to run for Student Body Treasurer, thinking that if I plastered my posters all over the campus, that I would rise in social stature.

When you’re unpopular, you are as invisible as Glad Wrap. The odds of ever experiencing that first date decreased daily. Boys weren’t interested in the homely-looking girl who wore glasses that sported wings sparkling with fake diamonds. Or the smart girl who got the best grades in math and who spoke Latin like the ancients. And who could throw further than many of the boys who hung out at the neighborhood park.

No matter how longingly I looked at the athletes and cheerleaders, they uniformly never saw me. In the teenage world, you are who you hang out with, and what popular kid would want someone like me tagging along? Let alone as a girlfriend who hung on your muscular arm and leaned against your chest as you walked her about the campus. Wasn’t going to happen.

Geoffrey, the high school punching bag for pranks and tasteless jokes, stepped up one lunch break and asked me on a date. I put on a plastic smile and attempted to move far away, as the cheerleaders had repeatedly done to others like me. Geoffrey, however, was persistent. He pushed his thick-lensed glasses up his acne-covered nose and smiled. His favorite ratty sweatshirt, dirty slacks, and scuffed black dress shoes stunk almost as bad as his unwashed hair, but not quite.

His belly hung over his belt and his hairy wrists stuck out from his too-short sleeves. Talk about nerd. Geoffrey was beneath me on the social scale, not worthy of a platonic nod hello. The idea of going to the upcoming school dance was no more attractive than sitting in a darkened theater where his body odor would overpower the entire audience. Even so I said yes, despite the interior warning lights that blinked crimson, just to experience that first date.

What a couple we made. Me in my homemade pretend-silk, A-frame, square-necked dress that was in style five years earlier, while Geoffrey wore a black suit two sizes too big accompanied by a stiffly starched white shirt that crinkled audibly when he moved. He placed his left hand on my waist, while gripping my hand in his sweaty right. We stumbled around the dance floor, stepping on each other’s feet accompanied by loud guffaws and barely stifled snickers.

If Geoffrey had thought about asking me to go steady, he must have erased that thought from his mind after a rather emotionless and sloppy kiss while standing on my front porch. All evening I’d thought about what excuse I could offer. The best was that my dad would kill Geoffrey, a likely scenario. After drying the slobber off my lips, Geoffrey simply walked away.

So, I didn’t have to decline the going steady offer. Part of me was disappointed, as it meant that I wasn’t worthy of even his “like,” but the other part of me rejoiced.

Still without a “steady,” I solved the dilemma by purchasing a cheap man’s ring which I wrapped in blue alpaca and wore proudly.  When asked, I wove a magical story of the perfect boyfriend that I’d met while visiting my aunt in Vandalia, more than fifty miles away. My face glowed with an imitated “in love” radiance. I stood taller and blessed the popular kids with an “I’m one of you” sophisticated smirk. I invented dates, details, and dialogue.

Ninth grade turned out to not be too bad. Popularity continued to evade me, but I put on a good show of “belonging.” I experienced a first date, even though it was with the nerdiest boy in school. Best of all, I went steady with my secret self.

Being Me

For the longest time, I really didn’t like myself. I knew, intrinsically, that somehow I was not the child that my parents wanted. That’s a hard cross to bear.

I was not pretty. I was not talented in any way. I took a long time to learn things. My memory was not the best, so I repeated the same mistakes over and over.

I was not girly. I wore dresses only because that’s what my mother gave me to wear. I wanted to wear pants and shorts and t-shirts because that’s what my brother wore.

I hated long hair. It took too much time to brush it, and then what I got older, it was difficult to style it because I had no skill in that area. I wanted short hair cut in a “boy” style. When I finally did get it sheared off at shoulder length, it angered my father so much that he called me foul names.

In terms of academics I was not my brilliant brother. He excelled in science. I excelled in nothing. No, there was one thing that I could do better than him! I could write beautiful cursive.

I was so slow to learn that I spent most lunches in a tutoring room, supervised by a strict nun who offered no support. I hated the room in the summer as it was sweltering. In the winter, however, it was shelter from the cold.

In high school I discovered that I was good at math and languages. I was still awkward. I was still not pretty. I was still not girly. I was now able to wear shorts and jeans at home, but had to wear dresses to school and church. I felt fat and dumpy. When I sat, the width of a single one of my thighs matched the width of both of anyone else’s combined.

I discovered that I had a talent for bowling and badminton, so played on my high school teams. I was not the best, but I held my own. This gave me something to crow about. I held my head higher and walked prouder.

When a young man asked me out, I felt desired. Not at first, but as he continued to date me, I accepted his amorous fumblings with positive regard. Because of him I began to understand that beauty is not defined by what you see on television or in magazines, but what others see when you walk by.

Once I was in college I realized that my skills in math and languages were appreciated by my professors. My heart swelled with pride.

When contacts came on the market, I entered a trial program on my campus to wear them. Without my glasses I didn’t feel as old-fashioned or as clumsy. I dated several men at the same time! Wow! Imagine how it felt to be popular for the first time!

I smiled when I walked about campus. I greeted casual acquaintances and sat with people I barely knew. I worked in the bookstore and found myself a valued employee. I was a good roommate and a good friend.

As my circle of friends grew, so did my self-esteem. By the time I graduated, I must have had at least fifteen friends! A record number for me.

After college I had no choice but to return home, back to the environment in which I was less-than my siblings. I was subjected to cooking lessons which I never mastered. I was forced to clean house every day, including my sibling’s rooms which I felt was grossly unfair. I was little more than a servant.

To make matters worse, I could not find employment. I applied wherever I could. I was rejected over and over because potential employers didn’t like that I was a college graduate with no office skills. I wasn’t even hired to distribute cards from store to store! What skills would that require?

The longer unemployment went on, the lower my self-esteem plummeted. At home I was that unhappy, unfeminine little girl. I was worthless because I lacked domestic skills and had no desire to learn. My activities were monitored, so I was not allowed to be social. I could only go out when my activities were chaperoned by an adult.

I was an adult! I was twenty-one. I could drive and vote and drink legally.

When I finally got hired at a now defunct furniture store, I was out of the house forty hours a week. I bought a car. I rented a studio apartment. I was free! And once again I began to like myself.

From there I slowly became who I am today. It was not an easy road. I spent hours alone, but I also went skiing, saw movies, ate out with colleagues. I saw Joan Baez in concert. I went camping in the Santa Cruz mountains. I took a class in hiking and went with the group. It was tough! My backpack was canvas on a metal frame. By the time it was packed and on my shoulders, I feel over backwards! But I went.

The rest of my story, my story of learning to like myself, was like climbing a ladder. Each rung up taught me that I could do things, that I could succeed, that I had value.

When I look back and I realize how long I struggled to overcome those early restrictive years, it’s amazing that I emerged as me. I wish I could spare all girls the struggle. What I can offer is my life as example.

No matter where you are in life, never give up on yourself. Fight against whatever forces hold you back. Find something that you do well. Anything. It doesn’t have to be academics. It doesn’t have to lead to career, but it could.

Believe in yourself. No matter how others treat you, no matter those who try to hold you back, know that in you, there is value. You have much to offer the world.

Like yourself. Be you.

 

Fascination with Trees

I can’t recall a time when I was not drawn to trees. They amaze me. Day after day they change. Imagine something that grows taller and wider at such incrementally slow pace that it is invisible to the eye.

They also change with the seasons. Some burst into new life when the sun begins to shine in spring. Tiny green buds sprout forth, signaling the wonders that are to come. Those buds become leaves. All kinds of leaves, in all shapes and sizes and colors.

When I was young I collected leaves. I especially loved the ones that fell from maple trees. Such broad leaves! So green in spring and summer, but when fall arrives they morph into shades from red to orange to brown. I loved them all.

I miss maple trees. They grew in the woods behind our house in Ohio, but not here in California. They had the most amazing seed pods! They were shaped like wings and if you tossed them above your head they would twirl down to the ground. I did this over and over, season after season, never growing tired of the display even into my teen years.

Where we lived in Ohio all trees shed their leaves in the fall and remained bare throughout the cold winters. I understood the winter to be a time of rest, a time to store up energy to be ready to burst into action at the first sign of spring.

So it was for me. In the winter I huddled inside where it was warm, venturing outside only when bundled from head to toe. Even then some days my breath froze on my eyebrows and hair, my teeth chattered and I thought my fingers and toes would crack and fall off.

We moved to California after my ninth grade year. The seasons here are not as differentiated as in Ohio. What we call winter is nothing to people who live in the Midwest, North or East, for there it snows and temps can drop well below freezing. Here I think it’s cold if it is below sixty!

Because our seasons are not as sharply delineated, not all trees go through the autumnal changes. Looking out my window right now, I see some leaves in shades of red, but just as many that are still green. We still have flowers in bloom and low-growing bushes covered with leaves.

In time, all but the fir trees will lose their leaves and be bare. It is a good thing, as even our California trees need to rest, to be still in preparation for the wonderful gifts that are to come.

Trees that produce fruit amaze me. They are so generous, so thoughtful, even when their human caretakers are less then vigilant. Day after day apples and pears and oranges and other wonderful things ripen, all for us. Gifts for us!

Some fruits require a little work to get inside. Some don’t. I tend to love fruit that you can bite into and have your mouth filled with sweetness, the juice spilling out of your mouth and onto your chin. Every time I eat an apple I am thankful that I am blessed with having such a marvelous thing to eat.

When I go walking around my neighborhood and see fruit growing on trees, I want to reach up, pull off just one and take a bite. But I don’t. I don’t know how needy the owners are. Perhaps that apple is their only sustenance of the day. Perhaps the orange is their only access to vitamin C. I would not want to steal that reassure from them. So I walk on.

In our neighborhood there are not as many trees as when we first moved in. Some have died. Some have been taken down by their owners. Some removed by the city because their roots were intruding into the pipes. I miss all those trees, the once grand, sprawling trees that hung out over the road creating a marvelous canopy! So beautiful. Now gone.

We often get to drive through forest on our way north and east and south into the mountains. I love to look at the trees, how magically they grow out of rock and cling to the sides of mountain as if they were meant to be there. When the sun shines on them they are a wonderfully deep green.  They sing with life! And when you get up close enough you can take in their rich aroma, like sticking your head in a cedar chest from long ago.

When they are covered with snow it is a picture straight from Christmas cards. I imagine myself riding on a horse-drawn sleigh under their boughs and having dollops of snow fall on my head as I lean back laughing. I have never done this, but I can place myself in the scene.

When I was young I did not wear glasses. Trees were nothing to me then. They leaned over me, frightening me. I thought each and every one would fall on my head, killing me. In fourth grade my teachers demanded that I get glasses. I remember the bus ride home, looking out the window and seeing that the leaning trees no longer leaned! It was a miracle.

These are the reasons that I love trees. Not only do they defy the passing of time, but they stand tall as a reminder of all that they offer us. Beautiful colors and tasty food. I hope that I will never lose my ability to appreciate the wonderful gift that each tree is.

 

Dreams

I wish that I could say that my mother had loved me.  If she had, I’d tell you about the times she held me in her lap and hugged, so tight, all while crooning soothing words.  I would share the story about when she ran behind my two-wheel bike, holding on to the seat, while I peddled, trying to stay upright.  There’d be stories about long walks in the woods behind our house and working together in the garden.

In the winter, after a good snowstorm, she would have thrown snowballs, built an igloo, and gone sledding down Mrs. Brademeyer’s hill.  In the summer, she would have  taken the hose and squirted water all over me, until my hair drooped like seaweed.  And then she’d give me a towel and a root beer Popsicle.

Maybe when I brought home my report cards she’d checked them over carefully, and then congratulated me on good effort.  And when I was promoted to the next grade, she would have given me a little gift to show how proud she was.

Or there would have been fun-filled shopping trips in which we squeezed into the same dressing room and tried on clothes, laughing hysterically.  Afterwards we would go out to lunch at a restaurant and eat way too much food.  If there was time, we’d go to the movie theater, buy popcorn, and cry all through the love story happening on the screen.

When I played on my high school basketball team, my mother would have attended every game.  When I played well, she would have clapped, demurely, of course.  And when I didn’t get to play in a huge tournament, my mother would have walked right up to the coach and chewed her out.  I can picture her doing that.

She would have followed my bowling team when I played for the junior college, and gone to my badminton matches as well.  She would have carried my gym bag and handed me a towel when sweat dripped into my eyes.  I bet she watched with her fingers crossed, hoping for a strike whenever I released the ball sending it skidding down the alley.

And when I was severely trounced in my first college badminton tournament, my mother would have pulled a crumpled tissue out of her purse and then would have had the good grace to look away in my moment of humiliation.  When I was done feeling sorry for myself, my mother would have offered words of encouragement and then sent me back into the gym to face my next opponent.

Maybe I’d tell about her coming to my high school graduation, and how she got there early enough to sit right up front.  Close enough that I saw her smile with pride as I crossed the stage.  When the principal announced that I had won a state scholarship, she would have stood and applauded louder and longer than anyone.  When we got back home, there would have been a beautifully wrapped present waiting on the dining room table.  Something she thought I’d need for college.

For my college graduation?  She would have flown down to Los Angeles a week early and helped me pick out a new dress to wear.  We would have seen a movie to take off my nervous edge.  And on the day of the ceremony, she would have taken me to a beauty shop for a special treatment.  When I entered wearing my cap and gown, tears would have poured down her face, soaking her cotton dress.

When I moved back home, I’m sure that she would have invited over all the relatives to share in my accomplishments.  What a party that would have been!  Laughter, games, gifts, congratulations.

There would be stories about trying to teach me how to cook.  We could laugh about my “raw” pancakes and the meatloaf that fell into crumbs when sliced.  I’m sure she would have laughed when my first cake didn’t rise as well as over the biscuits that were charred on the bottom.  On the other hand, her face would have lit up when I mastered the infamous green bean casserole and when that green Jell-O mold jiggled, like it was supposed to, when dumped on the serving tray.

I can imagine her smiling when I brought my husband-to-be home for introductions.  She would have immediately fallen in love with him and been happy for me.  She would have shared in my joy, knowing that, at last, I was stepping into adulthood.  That should have made her proud.

It would be nice to speak of the times we shared recipes or of the Tupperware parties that we went to and bought way too many of those wonderful plastic containers.  There would have been birthday parties and anniversaries to celebrate with good food, friends, and lots of laughter.

Yes, I can visualize all of these things.  It’s too bad that absolutely none of them ever happened.

Making Do

When I was a kid, I was aware of the fact that money seemed to be a constant concern of my dad’s. He kept a budget that went out several weeks into the future that accounted for every payment, every bit of income, every spare dollar. He used the budget to make decisions that affected our welfare.

For example, we never went on big vacations. Too costly. However, we did visit relatives in Kentucky, Wisconsin, Indiana and Nebraska. Wherever we could find a floor to sleep on, there we went.

While I never felt truly poor, I did understand that there were things I didn’t have, couldn’t have, that other kids did.

Until seventh grade I attended a Catholic elementary school. We wore dark blue jumpers and white blouses. Before school began parents held a sale in which used uniforms could be purchased. Because I was overweight, my choices were limited to those outfits that some other, older fat kid had worn.

My blouses were never truly white and my jumpers were never dark blue. I stood out from the neatly dressed kids with their crisp new clothes.

I survived.

I remember when Barbie dolls hit the market. The girl across the street, my only friend, got a doll. I thought it was beautiful with its svelte body and long ponytail, neither of which I had. The dolls arms and legs moved and the head could turn from side to side.

I wanted on so badly that it hurt. But, according to my dad’s budget, there was no money.

I earned twenty-five cents a week allowance for doing assigned chores around the house. I argued that, if I did more work, all unassigned jobs outside my normal duties, I should be paid more. Guess what? No money in the budget.

I wanted a Barbie so badly that for weeks I saved every penny from my allowance. Thinking I had enough, I stuffed the quarters in my pocket when we went to the store. I beamed with pride and excitement. I was going to have a Barbie!

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered the true cost of a Barbie. My coins wouldn’t even make a dent in the cost. I would have to save for months just to get close to having one, and buy then it would be winter when we seldom went outside.

I was incredibly disappointed. In the aisle where they sold cheap plastic toys, I found a look-alike doll. Yes, the plastic was thin, almost opaque, but she resembled the real thing so closely that I thought the neighbor girl wouldn’t notice.

With resignation, I used my saved money to buy the imitation. At home I was given fabric scraps to fashion outfits for her. I spent hours in the shade of a tree in our backyard cutting and sewing. Eventually my doll had a variety of things to wear.

I took my treasures across the street.   The girl noticed immediately that my doll was not the real thing. She laughed, a cruel, heartless laugh of superiority. I went home with my face burning from shame.

I continued to play with the doll, but only at home. I made her more clothes, my stitiches getting better with each mew thing I crafted.

I learned an important lesson. While it’s nice to have the real thing, the actual Barbie and uniforms that no one had worn before me, it’s also possible to make do with what you can afford to have.

What I learned as a young girl I took with me into adulthood. When I could get to a markdown store, I bought groceries there for a fraction of the cost in a chain store. The items were just as good, albeit sometimes odd-shaped.

I shopped at thrift stores for clothes for me and for my family. Because of this we were always dressed nicely, even though sometimes the fashions were a bit out of style.

My dad taught me to only spend money that you had; an important lesson that continues to influence my decision-making today.

There is nothing wrong with making do. It’s something that people around the world do every day.

I can be one of those people who spend only what they can afford. But because my husband and I lived with our future in mind, we can also go on vacation to places that we’ve dreamt of seeing.

Making do was the foundation of my upbringing. It taught me to appreciate what I had even when there were things that I dearly wanted. I learned that fashions come and go, items lose popularity and are replaced with new things that everyone simply must have, but financial solvency is more important than going into debt. It has served me well.

 

 

An Embarrassing Moment

In high school I studied Latin and then switched to Spanish when we moved to California. It was an easy change, probably due to the similarities in phonics.

When I enrolled at a community college, I again took Spanish. I started in one level, but the professor had me change to the highest level the college offered. It was still easy.

Next I transferred to the University of Southern California as a math major. For some reason, I had it in my brain that I would need to know Russian in order to read the latest in mathematical thinking.

During my sophomore year, thinking I had a good grasp of Russian after one semester, wanted to go to San Francisco to visit a Russian bookstore. Unfortunately my dad wouldn’t let me go on my own.

In the back of my mind I hoped that he would stay in the car. Nope. He insisted on going in with me. I roamed the aisles looking for something that I could read with little or no help from a dictionary.

While I was doing this, my dad stood by the register keeping an eye on the owners. He didn’t talk to them. Not one word. Instead he gave them the evil eye if they so much as took one step toward me.

Once I realized what was happening, I grabbed a newspaper and bought it. The owners tried to engage me in conversation. I understood what they were saying, I knew the proper response, but I couldn’t get my mouth to form the words. Instead I looked at them with tears forming in my eyes, paid the bill and scurried out.

My dad smirked as we walked to the car. He told me that the trip was a waste of his time and his gas. He said that I couldn’t speak or read Russian. That I had demonstrated that in the store.

I couldn’t blame him because I had behaved like an idiot. It made me mad, however, to hear the tone in his voice and to understand the underlying message beneath his words. It wasn’t just that I had behaved like an idiot, it was that I was an idiot.

When I got home I went to the room I shared with my sister and opened the paper, expecting to be dumbfounded by the words. I wasn’t. Sure, there were some I didn’t know, but for the most part, I could read every article and get the jist of what was being reported.

I flew home with the paper in my lap. Normally my row mates would try to engage me in conversation. Unwanted attention that both humiliated me and threatened me. I didn’t know the purpose of the conversation. Was it to lure me into an unsavory relationship?

The man next to me leaned over, brushing his shoulder against mine, and made some comment that didn’t deserve a response.

I opened my Russian paper, making sure he could see the print, and read. He left me alone.

The next time I flew home, I brought that paper with me and repeated my performance. It worked. In fact, as long as that paper lasted, it freed me from unwanted advances.

Even though I was proud of that paper and the power it held, I never forgot standing in the store, my dad’s smirk and the hurtful words he said on the way home.

While I had many embarrassing moments, this one ranked up there among the highest.

My Place in History

Today I visited a historical museum with my family. It was an interesting experience.

in almost every room I found something from my past.

For example, in the school room was a reader that I had used and desks with inkwells like I once sat in.

In the military room was a WWII Army uniform like my mom wore, which became my Halloween costume in ninth grade.

The tech room was full of memories. An old Brownie box camera, the first camera my family owned. A Kodak camera with a silver flash. Manual typewriters in metal carriages that you had to move in order to stop from typing off the end of the page.

A plastic-bodied beige dial phone and the first wall phone we got when we moved to California.

Down in the clothing room were dresses that I remember my Grandma Reiske wearing when she got dressed up and another dress similar to the one my mother wore on her wedding day.

The most shocking clothes, however, were the ones from my twenties. What were we thinking? Bold geometric designs, mini skirts, long tunics over matching wide leg pants. Loose, flowing tops that were really dresses.

my favorite hallway featured Native American artifacts similar to what I have at home.

The museum took me on a welcome journey back to the past. The best part was sharing those memories with my grandkids.