My Namesake

From the time I was old enough to process and understand names, I have hated mine. There was something ominous is the way my parents used it to call me to attention. When I heard Teresa, I understood that I had committed some grievous wrong. When they tacked on my middle name, Louise, then severe physical punishment was coming.

There were other issues that I encountered once I entered school. First of all, no one knew how to spell it. In Ohio, Teresa was always spelled with an h. My mother’s limited education must have negatively impacted her academic skills as it wasn’t just my name she had difficulty with.  She struggled with grammar, sentence construction and subject-verb agreement as well. But Teresa instead of Theresa affected my perception of how others saw me.

Because my brother’s nickname was Billy, my parents called me Terry whenever I wasn’t in trouble. Which, by the way, I frequently found myself embroiled in one controversy after another. Terry is a boys’ name. Girls whose names are shortened spell it Teri. Because mine was the male version, I was ridiculed mercilessly.

In the Catholic Church at that time, when a child was confirmed a new middle name was added. My brother took on my father’s first name. When it was my turn the next year, I chose Marie, my beloved grandmother’s middle name. Forever on I would be Teresa Louise Marie.

I never knew that names could be legally changed. It never came up in a class and I never heard anyone mention it in casual conversation. If I had known such a thing was possible, today I would go by Marie, a beautiful name in honor of our Virgin Mary.

Another error my mother made was theoretically naming after St. Therese the Little Flower. She told me repeatedly that’s who she chose as my saint-name. Obviously it wasn’t, I discovered when as an elementary-school student I was assigned to research and write about my patron saint. Imagine my embarrassment when I found out the error!

All my little life I’d been the Little Flower. Now I was not.

So who am I really named after? St. Teresa of Avila. Last year when we traveled through Spain, one of our rest stops was at an overlook of Avila. Off in the distance was the city where she lived. Along the path leading to the city were a series of signs that spoke of the history of the city as well as that of St. Teresa. In fact, she was such a huge factor in the beliefs of the time that her burial spot and the church at which she worshipped are now part of a pilgrimage tour.

It’s ironic that my mother got things wrong. The Little Flower lived a cloistered life and died at the age of 24. Unlike many saints, she never left the cloister to go on a mission, she never founded a religious order but chose to live within hers, and she is not credited with performing any great works. There is a collection of prayers attributed to her, the only book that she was known to write. She grew up in a family of nine. Most of her sisters entered religious orders.

When Therese fell seriously ill, she prayed to Mary, not aloud, but in her mind. After that her goal was to be a saint and the way to accomplish that was to live in a cloister. While she was not a vocal participant, her quiet way of praying impressed those who knew her.

Those of you who know me, understand that I am, in no way, the Little Flower. I will admit that at the age of 13 I wanted to join a convent. Not due to religious fervor, but as an escape out of what I felt was a miserable life, one in which I was treated as inferior to my older brother and my younger sister. That was the only reason. I did not fully understand the dedication to prayer that life would entail, not did I care. I was only searching for a way out.

In actuality I am more like St. Teresa of Avila, who was a mystic, a writer who published several books, and extremely well-educated. She had earned a Doctorate in Theology and was a reformer who challenged her religious order who was incensed at religious laxity. Her books contribute an important understanding to mysticism and meditation. Her beliefs have inspired a variety of researchers, namely philosophers, theologians, historians, neurologists, fiction writers and artists.

When she was young, during a bout of severe illness, she came to believe in the power or prayer to overcome sin. This led her to split off from her cloister and to establish a new one with stricter rules. She then received dispensation from the church to travel about instituting new cloisters.

While I am not a leader in the church, I do pray daily, and have from childhood. I enjoyed attending Mass, and when we didn’t go due to inclement weather, I was despondent. To this day I am active in my church, choosing to sing in the choir and to be a lector, one who reads sections of the bible from the ambo at the front of the church.

Like my namesake, I love to write. Many of her works were published after death. I hope I don’t have to wait that long! She persevered in her writings, as so do I. She was the inspiration for changes within her order. I tried to inspire changes within how special education students were perceived and taught. Teresa was a leader in her time. In many ways, when I was still teaching, I was also seen to be a leader.

When I look at this image of her, I see myself in the shape of her chin, the wrinkles about her eyes, and the way she holds her pen.

Although my mother made a mistake in spelling, her choice more closely matches who I have become.

I still don’t like my name, but it has grown on me. If someone called me Marie now, I wouldn’t know who they wanted to speak with. I will always be Terry, the Little Flower.

 

Lessons I Have Learned

Academically I am a relatively fast learner, in most subjects. I excelled in anything math-related, struggled with science and English, but picked up languages as easily as ridding sidewalks of garbage.

I loved most PE exercises unless it involved swimsuits or leotards (primarily due to weight issues and fat-shaming). When computers came on the scene, wow, did I ever master that quickly!

Unfortunately due to poor awareness in social situations, it takes me a lot longer than most to process what’s happening and develop an appropriate response. This is the area where I have had to work very hard over the seventy years of my life. It’s something that I continue to struggle with today.

So what have I learned?

When entering a given social situation it’s best to find a spot off to the side of the room, close enough to what’s happening to hear words and register facial responses, but not in the midst of the crowd. Once I have analyzed the situation and calculated an appropriate strategy, I move in, with a pat comment prepared. This works almost all the time.

I seldom initiate an invitation to lunch as I afraid of rejection. This means that I rely on the kindness of others to include me, a strategy that often fails. Because of this I seek out loners. Say there’s a woman sitting by herself, I will approach and ask if I can join her. Since she’s also a loner, conversation can be awkward, but at least there are two of us!

When someone asks a question about an interest of mine, I assume that person is simply being polite. I have learned to give a short response then turn the conversation toward the asker. Since most people love talking about themselves, this strategy has paid off.

For example, if I’m walking with friends and one asks what I’d like to eat, I might say, “Oh, a lot of different things. What would you like?” Notice how easy that is? Of course now I have to hope that she chooses something I really do like to eat!

Because I belong to several groups, this strategy is incredibly effective. The few times when I have clearly stated a preference, if it’s not supported, I will acquiesce.

My husband’s family is quite large and they love to gather together. These are challenging for me. He grew up with a ton of cousins that all have a shared memory, even if they haven’t spent a lot of time together as adults. Within minutes of the greeting, they are deep in convivial conversations that I know nothing about. My strategy is to get something cold to drink and find a corner in which I can find solace in my own thoughts.

Hiding in plain sight is something I excel at due to years of invisibility, so I find it exceptionally easy to implement. Unfortunately it also means that I am isolated for the duration of the gathering.

The most challenging situation for me is when my writing is being critiqued. I want to hear the advice of colleagues, but I also want my turn to end as soon as possible in order to move the spotlight away. The thirty minutes or so that my submission is being discussed are the longest minutes of my life! I have learned to minimalize eye contact, take copious notes, and never ask clarifying questions. The problem with this strategy is that now that I am older, it is hard for me to write and listen. I am much better with eye contact than depending upon what I hear, so my pen can’t keep up with spoken ideas.

What I need to learn is to ask for written comments. Notes. Critique. But I don’t because that requires the strength to initiate the request, which I don’t have.

Not everyone who is socially awkward has the same issues that I have, but many do. I hope that by sharing strategies that work for me, others will find something that they can implement.

Or perhaps someone reading this will look about and find that loner and realize that she is sitting on that bench or at that table or leaning against that pillar not because she wants to be alone, but because she doesn’t know how to reach out. Then when realization hits, the outgoing individual will remember what I have shared and approach, smile ready, and invite the loner into the circle. And invite her over and over and over again.

Life’s lessons are sometimes challenging because often life dishes up issues that are never resolved. You just learn to deal with them. To make do.

That’s what I have learned.

 

A Glimpse of Fame

Many years ago Mike and I were in New York City prior to going overseas. It was cold, rainy and windy. We were miserable but determined to walk all over the city.

At one intersection we were handed a flyer and invited to attend a live filming of a television talk show. Neither of us had ever done anything like that, so to satisfy curiosity and to get out of the weather, we went.

After filling out several forms, we were ushered into a large, narrow hall where we were seated with thirty others. Food was in abundance. There were gourmet sandwiches and expensive pasties along with a variety of fruits, salads and drinks. Since it was near lunchtime, we enjoyed ourselves.

Eventually a spokesperson instructed us in proper behavior during filming: to sit quietly and try not to cough or sneeze. He also explained what we would see, from the studio to the cameras and crew. It was very informative and exciting.

After the explanation we lined up and were escorted inside. A sorting process took place in which some were sent to the front row, some to the back, most to the middle rows. We were buried in the middle.

Initially I didn’t understand what decisions controlled who sat where, but once the camera swooped over the crowd and we could see on several large screens what the camera saw, it became obvious.

At that time I was quite heavy. I was not the only overweight person in the audience, but in introspect, I was probably among the heaviest. All of us fatsos were buried in the middle rows, hidden behind those in front and flanked by those on our sides and backs. We were so well hidden that the camera only picked up our images from collarbones to the tops of our heads.

In other words, no one in TV land would be affronted by fat bodies. It hurt when this realization hit me, but there was nothing I could do about it, so I resolved myself to sit back and enjoy the show.

I did.

The host had a pleasant personality. She engaged with members of the audience, often asking questions and then expanding on comments. Behind her was a large window through which we could see crowds of passersby staring in.

I don’t recall who she was, who the guest was or even the topic of the show.

I do recall my humiliation and the amazement at how taping a live show worked.

The reason I am sharing this now is that I don’t believe the producers intended to insult me, but rather present a pleasing picture to watchers. If this was so, then shouldn’t they have been aware that many of the watchers would have also been overweight? And that the message they were sending was that the overweight needed to be hidden? Invisible in plain sight?

Granted this took place over ten years ago before all kinds of awareness movements came forward educating the populace about fat-shaming. Even so, someone, somewhere in the back offices should have spoken up. Someone who had a weight issue of their own. Someone who understood what it was like to exist in a world that catered to the skinny.

 

Coming Home

Grandma and Grandpa Williams’ house rested on the crest of a small hill overlooking the Ohio River near the Gallipolis dam.  From the porch, if I looked between the houses across the road, I saw numerous barges and freighters, some clearly full, riding low, just above water line.  Others bounced on the wake of passing ships, much like a bar of soap floating in a tub of hot water.

Sunday afternoons were spent with my brother and I chewing the gum my mother forbade, while Grandpa worked on accurately spitting tobacco juice into an old tin can.  When he missed, there was a disgusting splat, adding to a constantly growing pile of partially digested tobacco.  I pretended not to see or hear, preferring to watch the ships and speculate as to what the cargo might be and where the ships might be going.

Much of their house was a combination of put-together rooms, a rather ramshackle affair that, at one time or another, housed up to ten people.  Not one board on the outside had ever seen a drop of paint, and the roof was nothing more than tin sheets nailed together in an overlapping pattern.  It didn’t leak, which was all my grandparents cared about. I worried about how they kept warm during Ohio’s cold, snowy winters.

The house was so old that there was no electricity or running water inside.  Grandma Williams lit the house with candles and kerosene lanterns, long enough to do “piece-work,” as she called it, for a few hours after dark.  She had a pedal-operated sewing machine that she used for “fine” stitching, such as sewing on a lace collar or finishing off her quilts.  Spools of thread sorted by color, with white always on the top, were stacked on a rounded stick that Grandpa had lovingly whittled.

Grandma’s hand sewing was accurate and precise, each stitch neatly following the next, marching in a straight line of equal length and breadth.  It amazed me that she could create such perfection without benefit of modern machinery, and while I owned one of the best sewing machines available, my workmanship fell into the barely adequate, yet serviceable category.

A coal-burning stove sat majestically in the front room, providing the only heat for the house.  When the stove was “cookin’,” as Grandpa colorfully said, no one could stand within a few feet of it without feeling feverish.  Next to the stove sat a black tub filled with odd sized chunks of coal and next to that, a dusty black shovel.

When Grandpa opened the door in the front of the stove to dump in scoops of coal, the interior reminded me of the fires of hell. While I relished the warmth it created, I was terrified of being sucked into its cavernous interior. The fire called to me, hypnotizing me, saying, “Come closer, come closer.”  Only when the door was shut and firmly latched was I able to break free and step away.

There wasn’t much in the way of furniture.  A crate served as an end table, covered with a dishtowel hand embroidered in rose-colored flowers and meandering vines.  A kerosene lantern took center place, with odds and ends scattered about, ceramic and pewter “doodads” that folks had given Grandma over the years.  Crystal birds, miniature horses, and dolls’ heads stood with a grace befitting gold bracelets and diamond tiaras.  While Grandma encouraged me to touch her beloved treasures, I never did; I was too afraid of breaking both the item and her memory.

There was a loveseat big enough for two and a half grownups, but plenty of room for four kids.  The cushioned seat lifted up, disclosing storage room underneath, like a pirate’s chest holding gold doubloons.  This is where Grandma kept her quilts and pillows, always ready for company in case anyone stopped by looking for a place to sleep.  Every quilt was of a different folk pattern, all made by Grandma, all perfectly crafted in mesmerizing patterns of shape and color.  The fabrics Grandma used amazed me: pieces of Grandpa’s well-worn overalls, a sleeve from Uncle Dowie’s flannel shirt, a pocket from a gingham apron, and the collar from her old calico blouse.

Not one picture hung on the walls or sat on a flat surface.  My grandparents believed that a person’s soul was a tenuous thing, easily stolen, and so they forbade photographs either being displayed or being taken.

As they aged, my grandparents relaxed a bit in their beliefs, and so after much begging, allowed the taking of two well-cherished photos which now sit in my bookcase as reminders of two people who loved me unconditionally.

Grandma’s kitchen was so small that two people could manage to work in there at the same time, but only by carefully orchestrating the changing of places.  When we visited, my mother helped while I watched from the back porch.  Too little to help, too inexperienced in the art of cooking, all I was capable of doing was running for more wood or sweeping up spilled flour. What amazed me, however, was the magical dance the two most important women in my life performed as they, soundlessly, moved past each other, butts touching in a tender way.

Longing to share in their loving togetherness, I stayed close enough that one of them could reach out and brush my cheek.  Sometimes my grandma blessed me with a floury kiss or a sticky touch, and then my heart leapt like a stag through the forest.

Along one wall was a good-sized cast iron stove.  A box of cut wood sat nearby.  Off and on Grandma picked up a stick, opened the bottom door of the stove and threw in the wood.  She then wiped her hands on her well-worn gingham apron and went back to peeling and coring apples or rolling out a crust or boiling eggs.

She cooked with heavy cast iron skillets that she stored inside the oven, and cast iron pans that stayed stacked on the flat burners until she put them to use.  She did own a few cheap aluminum cookie sheets, pie tins, and measuring cups that were dented like pockmarked faces, but she didn’t like to use them, believing that food never came out tasting as good as when cooked in cast iron.

Along the opposite wall of the kitchen was a metal sink as dull as an unpolished car.  On the end nearest the window was a hand pump that intrigued me.  Lifting the handle up and down, up and down, again and again, brought the coldest, crispest water imaginable.

When, Grandma pumped her arm muscles bulged with effort.   For the longest time, nothing happened, and then a dribble showed up, followed by another and another. The dribbles turned into a gush, caught by the bucket that Grandma hung just under the faucet.  As the bucket filled, I often wondered why it didn’t slip, no matter how full it got. Grandma never explained the mystery to me, but when I was much older and touring an old Louisiana plantation, the docent pointed to a barely discernable niche in the spout, just deep enough to hold a bucket handle in place: and then I understood.

Grandma knew how much I yearned for her attention, without my saying so.  One of the first things she did whenever we arrived was to bring me into the kitchen, dip the cup into the bucket and give me a cool drink of water.  She smiled as I drank, and then patted my head as softly as she would a newborn babe.  Grandma didn’t have to do much to let me know that I was loved, even though she never said the words.

Off the kitchen was the porch: Grandma’s greenhouse.  Over the years Grandpa had enclosed the room, using pieces of discarded wood and scraps of screen.  The floor’s composition was equally mismatched: boards and bricks, tiles and dirt. Being a hodgepodge affair, the porch emitted an aura unlike anything else I knew.  It was homey and peculiar, safe and mysterious.  A place of growth and death.

There were no tables, just a collection of old boards balanced on homemade sawhorses, reminiscent of shacks built by hoboes in days gone by.  Every flat surface was covered with plants: mostly vegetable, some flower.  They grew in cans, ceramic pots, old buckets and cups, tubs, glassware, all of various sizes and shapes.

Knowing that my mother would not have tolerated such a mishmash made Grandma’s collection even more amazing.  As a child I thought plants required properly identified, single purpose pots, but Grandma’s green house proved me wrong.  Her touch was as golden as King Midas’ in the fairy tales, for greenery sprouted far and wide.

Grandma carefully pinched off dead leaves, repotted plants that had grown too large for their containers, watered each plant, one by one with a gentle spray of water.  She hummed as she worked, quiet tunes that were mostly hymnals that I recognized from records my mom listened to in the afternoons when my dad was at work.

Once I joined in the humming, thinking that my grandma might share her love of music with me, bonding us together as tightly as a snail and its shell, but that was a mistake.  Grandma, immersed in her labor of love, had forgotten that anyone else was around until she heard my child’s soft voice blending with hers. Her face registered surprise and then horror, almost as if I had caught her performing a criminal act.  From then on, Grandma never hummed when I was nearby.

There was only one bedroom.  A large feather bed took up most of the space. A few of Grandma’s quilts covered the bed and a pair of pillows stuffed with chicken feathers sat at the head.  One for Grandma.  One for Grandpa.  A lace doily, reminiscent of the ones Spanish dancers wore in storybooks, daintily covered each pillow. The bed was surprisingly soft, an amazing thing for a child whose mattress was as hard as the cement floor of a garage.  I loved to crawl up on the bed, stretch out full length, and sink into the comforting softness.

The only other piece of furniture was a chest of drawers.  It was of a dark wood, with four drawers and mismatched knobs. A large doily spread across the top, along with Grandma’s hairbrush and hand mirror, facial powder and lotion, barrettes and combs and even a ragged hairnet or two.

If I looked closely at the knobs, I saw indentations where Grandma’s fingernails cut into the soft wood and smudge marks where Grandpa’s farm-dirt hands pulled open his drawers.

Next to the bed was an oval rag rug.  Grandma made one for the living room as well.  Beginning with odd sized scraps of cloth, Grandma twisted each piece into a “rope” of color, then wound and wound the rope around its center until a large oval took shape.

Most of the colors were shades of blue, pieces from overalls Grandpa had worn through.  One of my favorite things to do was to sit on the rug and run my fingers along the track of the rope, inside out, outside in, sensing Grandma’s tender touch as surely as a baker senses the yeast working to raise the dough.

Because there was no running water, there was no indoor bathroom.  One of the sons had built an outhouse in the field behind the greenhouse; nothing more than a narrow building with a plank for a toilet seat.  High on one wall a narrow window provided the only light, and that was always kept open thanks to a couple of nails and a piece of twine.  No toilet paper.  Old store catalogues with missing pages sat next to the hole, giving indication as to how they disappeared.

Flies buzzed around and spider webs clung to the ceiling.  The stench was indescribable and unforgettable, the sight intolerable and sickening.

Not understanding the nature of outhouses, I wondered why it was in a different spot on every visit.  Years passed before I broached such a sensitive topic. My Uncle Joe roared with laughter, making a point of sharing my outlandish question with every member of the family within calling distance.  From then on, whenever I stepped foot on my grandparent’s gravel driveway, somoene hollered out the location of the outhouse, to my endless embarrassment.

Primitive though it was, my grandparent’s house was bursting with love.  Anyone who wandered up from down below found a warm meal, warm hearts, warm fire, accompanied by welcoming company.

To me, arriving at the small house at the crest of the hill was like coming home.

 

 

A Different Kind of Bravery

By nature I am not a brave person. Put me in a room with unfamiliar people and I cannot speak. I want to join in, but can’t find the strength to open my mouth and risk not fitting in.

On top of that I don’t embrace change and am incredibly happy living my life as is.

Yet despite how I am, when I think back over the years, a number of events arise in which I had to fight against my nature and step outside my box.

As a young child I preferred my own company, so going to school for the first time was a frightening experience. Because I was socially awkward my parents found the money to put me in private Kindergarten. I learned a lot of things that set me on the right path academically, but I did interact with others. I spent playground time in the sand box, constructing my imaginary worlds.

Age did not improve my ability to meet new friend, but I did learn how to function within the system. And I did it on my own. No teacher, no school counselor, no administrator helped me negotiate the ins and outs of school. I roamed the playground lost in my own world, circling around and around, spinning stories both fantastical and what would now be called magical realism as they had nothing to do with what was feasible. I knew I was weird, and when you’re weird, you don’t have friends.

I had the grades and a massive scholarship so I was able to go to college, but this required a tremendous amount of bravery as this would be a new experience in a foreign environment. I was terrified. The first months were painful as even my roommate ignored me. But as time passed thanks to people that spoke to me first, I made a few friends.

Finding a job scared me, because as before, it meant entering unfamiliar places, approaching unfamiliar and often cold people, and facing repeated rejection. Once I did get hired, there was the problem of new expectations and jobs that I knew nothing about, which meant asking for help. I asked only when tears filled my eyes, but each time I was successful, my confidence grew.

I would like to think that age has increased confidence, but it hasn’t. What it has given me is the understanding of myself and has given me the ability to move into new situations despite the terror that such things create.

I am blessed with a husband who encourages me to continually step outside my box and go out into the world. Because of him I travel, write, and sing. Because of him I join clubs, go to luncheons and meet up with friends.

Sometimes I wonder how different I might have been if there had been someone like him in my life from the first time I ever left the house as a child. Because of my husband I am learning to be brave.

And because of people I’ve met through conferences, book clubs and the senior center, I prefer the company of others. I am no longer isolated in my head.

That’s a wonderful way to live!

 

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.