I remember the first real dress I felt pretty in as a tween. I was 11 or 12 perhaps. It was red, my favorite color, with white polka dots and a pretty petite bow at the breast. It had one-inch straps that showed off my freckled shoulders. The same silky ribbon was sewn at the ruffled bottom gracing my calf. The sheaf was shapeless – which for me was a relief – for I was constantly looking to disguise my full figure. I was very tall and slightly rounded as many pubescent girls are at that age, but the clothes of the day were not made for a girl like me.
I was very tall and developed early. Once a lean specimen, I relished in the pretty things all girls embraced. But as my height increased and my body rounded, those clothes left me behind. I wore a substantial bra by then: boobs and legs with no real waist to celebrate.
Style for me mirrored the strict rules on television watching at our house. While other kids might be allowed to watch the racy Threes Company or Taxi we were more likely watching The Waltons or Happy Days reruns. My look was prim, proper, and covered: circa mid-century.
At least the straight and shapeless uniforms of my Catholic school days made me feel like all the other girls selling candy and flipping baseball cards in the schoolyard. I whitened my saddle shoes and even hiked my skirt — a bit grateful to move with the trend. But when the school day came to an end and the neighborhood kids mixed, parochial and public alike, I stood out in whatever we could find to fit me.
A lot of the girls wore summertime daisy dukes or terry shorts when we congregated at the corner of the street. It was actually the corner of four streets really -– a residential intersection where the lawns were bigger and the street wide enough to accommodate kick-the-can until dark. Their costumes were current and fitted in a way that made the boys glance over and wish to walk them home under darkened street lights.
As the seasons changed the slimmer tween girls flocked to the mall shops promising the fashion treasures of the new decade — jeans by Calvin Klein, Jordache and Gloria Vanderbilt. My mom and I were frantically looking for slimmer versions of Toughskins or Levi’s that would fit. Often, we resorted to the boy’s section.
The fabulous jean pockets gracing the very slim styles were an unattainable dream for me. With no rear to speak of, let alone sizes to accommodate my height and build, I was chained to whatever substitution available at Sears. Huskies were not an uncommon option. Later that decade I was grateful for painter’s pants.
It was only natural that I wish for something feminine. Draped in bows and polka dots and armed with my new sense of sex appeal, I strolled alone up the block anticipating the possibility that at dusk I’d have someone other than my little brothers to walk home with. Unfortunately, at the dawn of 80’s chic, baggy red sundresses didn’t fit the bill.
Spitballs and older brothers
I stopped going to sleep overs after the spitball attacks in the middle of the night. I knew I was an outsider of sorts and that I was the younger girl in the group. But when I got invited with the pack, I couldn’t help myself. I just wanted to belong. I suspect I was the chosen entertainment.
I was in 5thgrade and they were at least a year or two older. My best friend from 3 years old, the friend who was only five days younger and whose mom was like my own, had moved to a town several miles away. Most, if not all, of the kids that were in my classes at school were on the other side of the planet. Dad worked and Mom didn’t drive. She was busy with my brothers and my new baby sister. Any chance for classmates lived more than 1.5 miles away in row homes on the other side of the parish.
Our neighborhood was comprised of single homes with yards and fences — less kids packed per square block. Many of the neighborhood kids were also public-school kids, less restrained by their religion classes. I was a nun favorite.
Older brothers meant better music fluency; older sisters meant makeup and borrowed jeans. I shared a room with my new baby sister and had old pre-disco Bee Gees and Sonny and Cher records. Elvis posters (my grandmother turned me on to Elvis) graced my bedroom walls. No one was allowed to sleep at my house.
Looking back, I was disconnected and fairly innocent compared to the girls at the corner. Many were the second or youngest child with siblings in high school. They got to watch the racier TV shows like Saturday Night Live (I was long in bed by then). They somehow figured out how to view the rated R movies like Amityville Horror and 10 on the new Prism cable station. They seemed to possess the street smarts I painfully lacked. I was truly a sheep among wolves – and they bit.
Waxed floors and boardwalks
My family rarely vacationed. My dad worked a lot and there were four of us now to clothe and feed. There were Catholic school tuition bills and endless repairs on the house or the car. I always remember a project in motion – paneling or flooring or plumbing. Dad would be crawling on the roof or buried under a car for hours some weekends. We never saw a fix-it guy. Dad always seemed to be busy making things better and nicer for us.
Mom had mounds of laundry to regularly do (the washer and dryer were in separate rooms), meals to make, cleaning to finish. I remember her mopping and waxing the floors in the kitchen and linoleum tiled playrooms on her hands and knees. But we always had plenty to eat and homemade treats to enjoy. Mom cooked breakfast almost every morning: Cream of Wheat or scrambled eggs — and in the colder months hot chocolate made from real milk warmed on the electric stove.
We had radiant heat floors in our kitchen (green with darkened etched designs), a new style my Dad painstakingly installed on his own. We’d get up on frigid winter school mornings and sit on the newly waxed, heated floor to battle the shock of the cold morning air. Dad had always left by then, bundled in his one-piece winter work suit layered over long john underwear. I’d hear him get up around 5 am to work out. I dozed to the sound of his breathing in and out, rhythmically doing push-ups and sit-ups and lifting bar bells. When I’d awake later, it was to the shock of the morning radio news station reporting subfreezing temperatures he’d be battling at the shipyard.
We often came home from school to a fresh baked box cake or Jello pudding in glass cups cooling in the fridge (I loved the chocolate or butterscotch film that formed on every top). Dad would pick up pizza on Fridays (until Mom figured out how to save a few bucks by making her own). We had a fish tank and occasional rodent as pets and we always knew Santa would be good to us every year.
Christmastime we’d be blessed with new bikes (no hand me downs) or the latest toy. My favorite Barbie doll under the tree was Cher. I wasn’t exotic or thin – so Cher was a wonder to me. Dark and lean and perfect, she was able to wear shirts with her belly exposed. It was the most exciting TV at our house. I remember her Mackey designed outfits and her swaying and singing with Sonny and pretty little blonde Chastity. Oh how I’d love to fit her costumes, have straight hair, and tan. I always wanted to be Cher.
Hoops and Boom Boxes
Every summer my mom’s extended family would take their yearly two-week stint in the Wildwoods. We were beyond joyous to learn we were finally going away and staying on the same block!
Soon I found out SHE was going to be at the beach the same week we were going. I couldn’t wait to go to the boards by myself with my newfound girlfriend from the “other” parish. We met at the Skate Odyssey and became fast friends. SHE could skate and put on blue metallic eye makeup and mascara. SHE was an unlikely match for me, but we laughed and wrote notes to each other and shared secrets no one else every wanted to hear.
I was old enough by then, I explained to my parents, to go to the boards without them. And since SHE was going to be there. I’d surely be safe. SHE brought her boom box and we played Stairway to Heaven and Free Bird over and over. We followed cute boys in cut off jean shorts and tank tops with stripes. We put down quarters at the big wheel and hurled basketballs at too small hoops and threw darts at water filled balloons. We ate ice cream and cotton candy and reapplied lip-gloss afterward. Both blue-eyed, we burned.
SHE threatened anyone that looked at her funny and had no problem picking an argument for no reason. The boys seemed to like her. SHE had a laugh that was easy, but a temper even easier. SHE made me feel nervous and alive. No one would mess with me with her around. As we rushed to get in one more ride before curfew, I finally felt I belonged somewhere. I wanted to live with her at the beach forever. It was one of the best weeks of my young life.