Drawing from the Facebook Exchange in last week's post:
If you’re on the outside of the door, does that make you an outsider? I’ve learned through the years that most people feel like an outsider at some time in his or her life. It begins early, this feeling of alienation. It’s rare that a person can point to a single incident that closed the door to a place of desire or belonging. Some people block—whether practiced or unconsciously—disturbing or hurtful experiences. Not me. Although I have difficulty remembering what happened yesterday, I can remember events from the past with vivid detail.
I’m standing in a circle of girls. Denise Messenger (not her real name) is holding court during lunch break at De Anza Junior High. Denise is tall and shapely, with none of the awkward angles and stuttered gestures so prevalent among girls of this age. She has long, straight hair; smooth, creamy skin, and perfect teeth. Beside me is Rena Floyd, my best friend and savior from obscurity. Even though Rena is one of the most popular girls of the seventh grade, we wouldn’t be standing in this circle of perfection if she were not going out with Denise’s brother, Dickie.
The conversation is about clothes and what looks good on whom. Typical feline gossip. These were the early 1970s, when girls were required to wear dresses to school. Those who remember the 1970s will also recall the era of the micro-mini skirt. Even though we were required to wear dresses or skirts, there was no skirt length measurement in the policy.
Rena’s wearing one of the adorable dresses she made herself. Her mother works in the fabric department at White Front department store and gets cut-rate prices on all of the hip patterns and cool fabrics. She has a terrific eye for color and texture harmony and her creations could pass for designer knock-offs. Her peasant dress with its cinched waist and blousy top accentuates her budding figure in all the right places.
Denise is wearing a body-hugging knit top that enhances her shapely bosom, along with a hip-hugging mini-skirt cut half-way between her knee and hip. Both Rena and Denise, in fact all of the other girls in the circle, are wearing panty hose in the color “cinnamon,” and nearly identical Thom McAnn shoes with high, flared heels.
Everyone except for me. I am a 4'9" gnome next to willowy Denise Messenger. I’m wearing one of my sister’s old hand-me-downs, which was a hand-me-down from my cousin Pam. It’s been washed so many times the color resembles nothing red, run with everything gray. I call the color “dreg.” It hangs just over my knee in what my stepfather calls a “respectable” length. My shoes are black, low-heeled slip-ons from the children’s department at Kmart, not Thom McAnn at the Montclair Plaza. Even though I could wear a size four in women’s, my mother wouldn’t buy me higher heels because she said I was too small for them. And in these shoes are not legs frosted with cinnamon pantyhose, but cable knit knee-high socks. My mother’s rule was no pantyhose until the age of 14.
Back to the circle of girls. Denise is pontificating about what she calls “feminine” and points to Rena as an example of seventh grade fashion divinity. “Like her.” Then her eyes narrow on me. “Not her.” My cheeks begin burning and I drop my gaze to the ground. “Where did you get those glasses, anyway?” she asks, pointing to my cat’s eye glasses that went out of style about five years ago.
A door closed, but another door began to open that day. Denise was right in the exterior assessment of my physical appearance. I was bumbley, bland and blind. The heels wouldn’t have anointed me with grace, the cinnamon pantyhose wouldn’t have spiced up my personality, and a sparkling pair of wire-framed glasses wouldn’t have improved my vision. The door that began creaking open that day took several years to widen enough for me to walk through.
The first thing I glimpsed in the crack of that door was freedom to develop my own style despite the trends and fads. In high school I was making some babysitting money and could buy my own clothes. I sewed dozens of cute little tops and wore them with Levi 501s, flip-flops, moccasins, or “earth shoes.” By college, I was back into dresses, mostly sundresses I made with bright, light-weight fabrics and platform sandals. Career days found me back in high heels, stilettos paired with skirts and blazers. Eventually I understood and was able to share with my daughter that it’s not what you wear that defines you, it’s what you project from the inside. I tried to teach my daughter to stand up to queen bees like Denise, and applauded when she did. These days I lounge around in my PJs while I write each morning, then transition into comfy clothes that serve the task at hand.
It wasn’t until I’d walked completely through that door and looked back that I realized the most important truth from that day. No one is dealt a perfect hand in the game of life. Not Denise Messenger, not Rena Floyd. Some people may begin with better hands leading to more choices, while others begin with a great hand and make disastrous choices. I was dealt a crappy hand, but I had all five cards and the freedom to play them well. I’ve won a few and lost a few, but it’s my game. I have no idea how Denise Messenger played her cards, but I know Rena Floyd Hutchins has a lively hand. She’s still stitching lovely designs in her own embroidery business, has been married for 29 years to the same man, has four grown and married (or nearly so) kids and several grandchildren.
A final glimpse back to that awkward moment in junior high shows me how some people become who they are because of where they’ve been, while others, like me, become who they are in spite of where they’ve been.
What events or experiences have opened or closed doors in your life and how did they contribute to who you are today?