In the back of my mind

As a young girl, shame seemed to overshadow everything: Spilt Drinks, Wallpaper slit in corners, because they weren’t lying perfectly flat; scribbles and smiley faces on bricks and painted walls, piles of papers, coffee-stains missed on washed dishes, the inability to remember…my brother received a stretch Armstrong for Christmas, and after the doll’s newness wore off and it sat dormant, I couldn’t wait to slice it open to see what made him so pliable. I loved deconstructing almost anything to see what it was all about, how it worked, but soon my mind was taking me off to something else, and said items usually sat piled up for another day. I can’t explain it, but there was an overwhelming compulsion to do exasperating, senseless things. On top of that, I rocked most of the time, I couldn’t talk on the phone without pacing and I picked my cuticles incessantly until they bled.

My brother, sister and I enjoyed games together, but the matching game was dreadful. I could not remember where two cards alike were hiding. Meanwhile, my siblings racked up, blasé as they tossed their married cards into piles. I was determined to remember on my next turn- I carefully watched each one turned face-up and quickly flipped, but their memory faded before I had time to store them. For a while I had difficulty telling time, so my father took a flat cardboard box, and on it painted the face of a clock. He made two wooden hands, and secured them with a screw, nut and washer for realistic movement. After supper, he would get the clock out of the utility room, sit in his chair and quiz me each evening. Eventually it became comfortable.

Generally, Numbers have always been a foreign language to me: I would try to absorb them like the match game cards, but I couldn’t grasp them. My dad and I had many showdowns during his attempts to help me with homework. I’m sure many Parents get frustrated when they can’t find the exact words to use when trying to teach something, and after many attempts of explaining the same thing, over and over, exasperation took over. He would end up yelling, I would end up crying. So besides associating numbers with a mysterious dark void, they also seemed to be another means of separation.

My favorite pastime in class was reading the SRAs. They were cards with stories which you later tested yourself on key points. The spoken word was wooden for me, but the written word, was my first love. I relied on the page- while I could not find words to explain things, I found if I could write them down as I spoke, they came alive. The visual was my tool to connect with others, to share common knowledge.

As I ran toward puberty, the learning and social difficulties began to increase.  One day my mom told me my desk would be placed in front of the class, side by side with my teacher’s. “It will help you pay attention,” she said.  This took place casually and nothing was announced or said about it in class.

I never was a girl’s friend, those who immediately connect, share gossip, brush each other’s hair or whatnot.

I had friends, and many laughs, but they weren’t steady. I remember once scanning female classmates, and thinking of them as “otherworldly…” separate. I sensed their experience to be very different from my own. It wasn’t just my weight struggle or my bowl hair cuts, or even my difficulties in school, though I admired their femininity, their long straight hair and their propensity for good grades. It was the right to simply be that I admired, no questions asked.  My proudest moment was winning the class spelling B.

By grace I was passed to the 7th grade,  and my first year at junior high was one of my most difficult of all my school years, just it time for boys, a menstrual cycle, and a changing body.  It probably would have been better had I been held back a year.

I prepared all summer for my upcoming move to a new school. I had blossomed and became more delicate looking in my opinion. I was turning into a young lady as seen in my mom’s old joe weider exercise booklets from the 50s. My brother, sister and I always went for the introductory first volume for a laugh, which featured black and white photographs of the three breast types: Small, large and saggy. The last photograph created laughter like an unexpected punch line, and each time was like the first time. I spent that summer taking Joe’s advice. I practiced walking with a book on my head, doing scissor exercises and used the ornate, powder blue dumbbells included in the exercise kit for my budding breasts. I had learned the popular jingle sang by girls in small groups- with the pumping of elbows it was chanted-

“I must… I must… I must increase my bust-
the bigger the better the tighter the sweater
I must increase my bust!”

I was hopeful about having a social life, making girl friends and doing girl things- meeting boys, and was crazy about clothes. My mom took me clothes shopping on Friday nights, where I bought trendy blouses, slacks, and accessories. She and dad were always generous in buying for us. She took me into her room once to show me all the jewelry she had, including her first pair of gold earrings she bought when she was 17- tiny acorns to wear in her tiny earlobes. I enjoyed the passage into my teen years with enthusiasm, and appreciated all its beauty ritual and accoutrements.


Part 2 of early religious impressions- my teen years:

My brother married Joanie fresh out of High School.   She belonged to what we called an “old-fashioned” Church of God-or Pentecostal Church. Over the years, many in the Pentecostal movement slowly dropped  convictions against the evils of televisions and earrings and replaced them with modern representations of worldliness.

My sister-in-law’s Church leaned more toward conservative tradition. Interestingly, my maternal Grandmother had belonged to the same church when my mother was a girl.  My mom’s hair was so long she sat on it, tucked it along with her skirt when she took a seat.  As soon as she was of age, she cut it up to her shoulders,  an act of defiance my grandmother never quite recovered from.  I never understood- she herself always wore short bouffant hair popular of the day even when long-hair was a woman’s glory, her proper head covering, according to the church.

When my mom was young, she and her sisters would peer through the windows and entertain themselves with the activities of the worship service- the yelling and occasional dance.  As she grew older, the experience became personal- how “sister” so-and-so used to drag her or someone else up to the altar while the whole congregation wailed, cried, prayed…which she recalled with severe distaste. As far as I know, she never followed in any of her mother’s footsteps.

After several invitations, I finally agreed to visit the church. I wore a cute safari dress with a high slit in the front; my usual make-up and jewelry.  My brother told me how men in the congregation had no compunction for pointing out an improperly dressed brother- making an example out of them- in order to correct any potentially wayward sheep.  I guess he wasn’t surprised when he was called on the carpet for the purple streaks in his hair. I don’t know how well he was known by the congregation at that point, but regardless, they had claimed him as their own.

I enjoyed watching the people fill the choir loft while slapping the backs of their red-back Hymnals, keeping time with the music.  They sang of some way-off place that possessed everything we were lacking here on earth. One lady had her hair parted down the middle, and it was rolled to frame her face like someone had mashed a halo down on her head.  I saw her just the other day wearing the exact same hair style…only the color was worn away.

Off and on throughout the service, I scanned the crowd, wondering what was made of my high-cut skirt. No one seemed to mind except the man sitting parallel to me, whose eyes were fixated on my legs. I just knew he was thinking about the depths I had sunk wearing such a thing into the Lord’s house; all I felt was daring and privileged to have my freedom.

I may not have been bound to wear an ankle-length skirt, but I was bound by more powerful, intangible things.