Saturday, September 1, 2012

Promptings

     With the exception of a few friends, it’s safe to say that I detested nearly everything about junior high and high school. In the summer of 1974, my family relocated from Osawatomie, Kansas to Columbus, Georgia, uprooting me not only from a progressive, medically-oriented neighborhood where I had friends from all over the globe, but plunking me smack dab into the middle of The Land of Cotton, a sweltering netherworld of grits and overgrown kudzu where I was sure I’d never see snow or hash browns again, forever haunted by the specters of Uncle Remus, Scarlett O’Hara, and Piggly Wiggly. This isn’t surprising, considering Osawatomie was settled by abolitionists and free state guerillas in the 1850s, the most notable of whom was John Brown.
     My first day of seventh grade was semi-disastrous. In comparison to the much smaller school I would have attended in Osawatomie, Arnold Junior High School (AJHS) was chaotic and crowded, teeming with the smells of cigarettes, Love’s Baby Soft cologne, and over-ripened pubescence. Worst of all, I didn’t know a single soul there. For a shy, somewhat introverted, moderately chunky, reasonably bright and introspective eleven year old girl, these weren’t just dire circumstances: it was hell on earth. At lunch that first day, I made the mistake of purposely sitting at a table full of black kids, forever sealing my fate as a weirdo. Although my intentions were good, demonstrating my lack of racial prejudice in this way didn’t win me friends or even enemies, just strange open-jawed looks and rolled eyeballs. Hell, the kids at that table didn’t even want to talk to me! My preconceived notions about the South, though not entirely rooted in misperception, got the best of me that day, eventually leading me to what I know now: that racism comes in a variety of flavors--subtle, overt, brutal, insidious--and that it isn’t just a Southern “thang”, it’s pandemic.
     The first friends I made at AJHS were a couple of girls in my math class. Gwynnie and Paulette both smoked and were astonishingly well-developed for their age, and whenever phlegm-spewing old Colonel Andrews would step outside the classroom for his twice-hourly smoke break, Gwynnie took it as her cue to regale us with sordid stories of her stepfather’s not-necessarily-unwanted sexual advances. Theirs was a world so foreign and disturbing to me that I never invited either girl home. In time, I befriended two other girls, Anne and Bonnie: normal girls with normal parents, both of whom lived in my neighborhood. Finally, I had some real friends. I remember the latter part of seventh grade and most of eighth grade as being a time of sleepovers, of band practices and birthdays spent together, of passing myriad intricately folded notes written in secret code, but perhaps most of all, a time of firsts: first pubes, first periods, first loves, and first heartbreaks.      
     Transitioning to high school was difficult for me in a more profound and substantial way. In a cruel twist of fate, Anne and Bonnie blossomed into physically mature, attractive adolescents the summer between eighth and ninth grades, while I remained flat as a pancake without carnal knowledge of even a lousy tampon, seemingly passed over by the goddess of boobs and menstruation. As an awkward incoming freshman, I’ll never forget being mistaken for a boy by a popular stoner kid named William. It was utterly mortifying. Desperately, I clung to Anne and Bonnie, but they were exploring new friendships, navigating those turbulent waters of teenage angst and insecurity far more confidently and elegantly than I could ever dream of doing.
     I spent the first few weeks of ninth grade in a deep funk, even suggesting to my parents that I should see a psychiatrist. Things weren’t panning out for me the way they did in “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” I felt like such a freak. Between the guys at school thinking I was one of them, my tragically retarded fashion sense, and my glaringly absent “cool” gene, I didn’t stand much of a chance at popularity. Oddly enough, what saved me from guaranteed obscurity was the fact that my family was Catholic. To explain this, I’ll have to backtrack a little.
     In the spring before I started eighth grade, my father recruited a psychiatrist from Topeka, Kansas, who also happened to be Catholic, to join his hospital staff. Within a few weeks, this doctor, his wife, and their brood of seven children moved into our neighborhood. That’s when I first met my lifelong friend and muse, Elaine. She was a year older than me, and she had striking features: natural platinum blonde hair, eyes as green and mysterious as the sea on a cloudy day, and unusually large, powerful gymnast’s calves, from which she could hurl herself into a standing back flip, landing squarely on her feet. I could barely turn a cartwheel, and was awed by her grace and agility. Because Elaine and I were both artists and romantics, we hit it off immediately, spending the rest of that summer hanging out at each other’s houses, drawing, sketching, and jumping on our neighbor’s trampoline. In the fall, Elaine would be starting high school, while I still had another year left in junior high, which unfortunately meant we’d be attending different schools. We actually tried to see if she could repeat eighth grade, just so we could go to the same school, but our parents wouldn’t go for it. For the next ten months, Elaine and I saw each other mainly on weekends, during sleepovers as well as at Mass and Sunday school. I was really freaked out after starting high school. The fact that Elaine and I were close friends wasn’t able to offset the sudden distance I felt from Anne and Bonnie, or the sense of loneliness and isolation I felt, most of which came from within, not from without.
     Despite living in the heart of the deep South, Elaine and I went to school with a surprising number of other Catholic kids. Not long after I started ninth grade, a Catholic family from Ohio moved into our neighborhood, just a few doors down from Bonnie’s house; this family had four girls. Peggy was my age, and her fraternal twin sisters, Susie and Sandy, were the same age as Elaine. I became very close to Peggy, but she and her family ended up moving to Texas the summer before our junior year. When Peggy and I were in tenth grade, she, her sisters, Elaine, and I went with our church youth group on a largely unsupervised weekend hiking retreat in the mountains of North Georgia. It was an absolute blast, a real taste of freedom, especially after our groups accidentally got separated, and ours didn’t include a single adult. The day we returned from that trip, I became violently ill, presumably as a result of drinking from a contaminated mountain stream after we ran out of water. Even so, we all learned that we could survive on our own for a few days without our parents, not through prayer, but through sheer determination and cooperative effort.
     Elaine and Peggy both became cheerleaders. Although they were extroverted and pretty, they were popular because they were genuinely wholesome and friendly, proudly and devoutly Catholic amidst the scores and scorn of fundamentalist Bible-beaters who didn’t consider us Christians, so steadfast in their friendships and faith that I came to view them as incorruptible, even holy. Our priest, Father Shinnick, might have disagreed. Knowing that Elaine and I were aspiring artists, he approached us one Sunday after Mass, asking if we’d be interested in restoring the statue of the Virgin Mary, which stood in a little grotto in front of our church. We happily agreed; what fun! On a crisp spring Saturday afternoon, Mary underwent quite the transformation, from virginal to va-va-voom, replete with painted eyelashes, arched eyebrows, and cherry-red lips. She looked refreshed and fabulous, but when Father Shinnick laid eyes upon her, he immediately averted his gaze. Clearly horrified by Mary’s newly acquired garishness, he  said calmly, “I don’t like the lipstick,” trying hard to conceal his regret over having commissioned us for this project. Elaine and I were disappointed by his prudishness, but we acquiesced unapologetically, returning Mary to her original state of chaste beauty. We knew Mary would have wanted crimson lips, had she been given the choice.
     It’s funny; so many of my memories from childhood and adolescence contain similar elements of this naïve brand of mysticism. I jokingly refer to myself now as a “recovering Catholic,” but deep down inside, I still cherish those days of Irish hippie priests and humorless nuns, of the mysteries of celibacy and trans-substantiation, of biting my lip to keep from snickering while waiting in line for Holy Communion with my friends, of innocence that had no idea it would soon be lost. Although I was never a religious kid, I was happily Catholic, mainly because of the friendships and the notoriety it afforded me. It was a way to stand out, here in Dixieland, to be recognized as someone unique who wasn’t afraid to go against the grain. It's no wonder my favorite quote comes from Hermann Hesse: "I wanted to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?" Despite everything that's happened to me in life, I've always followed those promptings, and I haven't yet become cynical or jaded. It's odd, but at the age of 49, I feel more innocent than ever. Hmmm. Maybe what they say is true, that maturity is one's innocence regained.*
A little painting I made of Elaine when I was 18.  


*Inspired by my friend, Marty Rubin's aphorism: "Maturity is the moment one regains one's innocence."
Marty's "Out of Context: My Anthology of Aphorisms"
Marty's blog "Aphorism of the Day"

Last Tango With the Virgin Mary: A related post

21 comments:

  1. I love how much you share, and your insight into those fun and emotional years. I agree with the maturity quote, but I also think that viewing portions of our lives in hindsight is so much less dramatic than being in the throws of what, in our teenage years, are daily crises.

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    1. Karen, you're so correct about the hindsight! Although it was a painful to go back and try to remember exactly how I felt as a budding adolescent, it paled in comparison to actually being there.

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  2. HF, you certainly had such an artistic talent! the painting you made is gorgeous!
    i have to go back to read the rest of post later (my physical condition doesn't seem to support long reading).

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  3. thanks for sharing. very interesting experience. i agree, the true maturity is when innocence regained. however, i think the adventure after innocence and before innocence regained is also worthwhile.

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    1. YunYi, I really like your point about the adventure between innocence and maturity; that's what seems to make it all worthwhile.

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  4. You write so well! What a great journey through your memories. I really enjoyed it and loved hearing an honest account of an American teenage life since I live in the UK all I get is the TV hyped up version of America that I'm sure isn't how ordinary people live :)
    Thank you for sharing and your painting is wonderful.

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    1. Thank you, Jade! I can only imagine how American teens are portrayed in the media overseas. The 70s were an interesting time to be a teenager--no cell phones, no computers, no cable. Times have really changed; it seems like that was a more innocent era in many ways. I made this painting in one night, and I remember exactly where I was sitting and what I was doing for those few hours. What's so wonderful is that Elaine and I are still very close friends!

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  5. It's been a privilege to read this, and I loved your conclusion. It would be such a shame if you had become jaded.

    And I agree: I think Mary might have a liked a little lipstick, and her son would not have disagreed.

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    1. Thanks so much, Robert...I've waited and waited for the cynicism to set in, but it never has. And, I agree, Jesus would have heartily approved of Mary's makeover! :-)

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  6. It's just occurred to me that you might have subliminally inspired a bit of flash fiction I wrote a few days back over at helium (http://www.helium.com/items/2368105-i-lost-my-sunday-shoes).

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  7. Your post reminded me of some memories of my own childhood. We moved from a very small community in southern Wyoming (about 600 people) to a much larger community just north of Tampa, Florida. I was 13 and culture shock was an understatement. I can relate to your childhood. Oh, and thanks for reminding about Loves Baby Soft. lol!

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    1. Hee hee, Kristina, Love's Baby Soft is one of the signature smells of adolescence! :-)

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  8. Whenever I ready your posts you have a way of bringing me back to some of the good or bad days in my life. A way to get me thinking and questioning. Today your post reminded me of the catholic church days. It was hilarious and the priest was a laughing stock. He loved the females and we would regularly see him with a bottle of wine which always ended up behind his back as he said hello to us. Those were the days.


    I can just imagine how you must have felt with all those girls blossoming before your eyes whilst your chest was taking 'time out' so to speak. ha ha ha. When you are young you want to be a big woman, and when you become a big woman, you want to be young again AND I'm sure them same boys will have no trouble seeing you as a woman today.

    What I love about the old days - the fact you had to make the most out of very little. I came from a poor family so on the very rare occasions when I was allowed to play out, we had to be creative with game playing, etc. No nintendo etc, if you know what I mean. Lovely post, now I'm gonna think about those school days. :)

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    1. RPD, those memories are among the best things about having grown up Catholic...it's as if the priests and nuns of our youth were cut from the same cloth! The same priest in this story was an alcoholic, who ended up running away with one of the nuns. I wonder if they are still together?

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  9. Whenever I ready your posts you have a way of bringing me back to some of the good or bad days in my life. A way to get me thinking and questioning. Today your post reminded me of the catholic church days. It was hilarious and the priest was a laughing stock. He loved the females and we would regularly see him with a bottle of wine which always ended up behind his back as he said hello to us. Those were the days.


    I can just imagine how you must have felt with all those girls blossoming before your eyes whilst your chest was taking 'time out' so to speak. ha ha ha. When you are young you want to be a big woman, and when you become a big woman, you want to be young again AND I'm sure them same boys will have no trouble seeing you as a woman today.

    What I love about the old days - the fact you had to make the most out of very little. I came from a poor family so on the very rare occasions when I was allowed to play out, we had to be creative with game playing, etc. No nintendo etc, if you know what I mean. Lovely post, now I'm gonna think about those school days. :)

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  10. I'm so glad you figured out how to make your posts known! They're wonderful, and certainly deserve to be read.
    Sweltering netherlands...love it.
    Love's Baby Soft...what memories.
    Thank you for sharing such an interesting part of your life. I really enjoyed it.

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    1. Thanks, June...I feel like such an idiot! I'd always assumed that posts were automatically broadcast from the post grabber thingy. Glad you enjoyed it! :-)

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  11. A wonderful post, Kris! I know what it’s like to be uprooted in jr and high school (although my case was different I think the feelings kids have about moving at that age are basically the same...we hate it!). What a change you had moving from Kansas to Georgia, at least I got to stay in the same state NJ! I understand the difficulty of making friends in a new place. I hate to admit it but I was one of those early-developing girls...Italian genes helped that along LOL!...and that got me all the wrong attention and didn’t help me to gain the girlfriends I wanted. Back then I wanted to be one of the other less-developed girls because I didn’t want to stand out, I wanted to fit in, especially since I was new and nobody knew me. Reading your story, I can easily see how physical development can adversely affect us in our youth, pro or con, and this is especially true for girls at that age. So now I am understanding how the other girls felt back then! Oh, I had no fashion sense in high school either LOL! (I’m about a decade ahead of you, teased hair and way too light lipstick...lol!)

    Very interesting how being Catholic (I was raised Catholic too) actually helped you back then. I can relate because even though I had a tough time with strict, humorless nuns, what I learned in those early years gave my life much needed discipline and direction. Love what you did with the Virgin Mary!! I think Mary would have loved those crimson lips and painted eyelashes. Good Hermann Hesse quote. Wonderful painting you did of Elaine, what a pretty smile! You are a good artist. Marty’s aphorism about maturity was a perfect choice. Kris, you went through a lot and you turned out spectacularly! :)

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    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective on physical development...I guess we all think the grass is greener on the other side, especially when we're in the throes of adolescence. I think Mary would have solidly approved of her makeover :-D

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