Steady as She Goes

Submitted by Virginia Watts on Tue, 03/10/2015 - 17:10

This picture breaks my heart. Young girl with doll, washing hanging on clothesline

I was eleven when it was taken, and had just started junior high. I was wearing what they called a "tight skirt," and had kicked out the back pleat several times because I still walked and ran like a kid. I was still a kid. But the popular girls in my new school wore matching sweater sets, tight skirts, and flats. Little did I know that the cheap skirt my mother could afford would constrict my hopping, skipping and jumping. And because I was already about 5 feet 6 inches tall, the blouse was always coming untucked. These clothes were not comfortable. In fact, I can't remember any clothes that worked for me until I was sixteen, working, and could buy or make my own. And look at the hair! My mother had decided that at eleven I should be able to fashion pin curls and style it on my own. Looks pretty much like a kid did it, right? Right. And those sensible oxfords with socks are a sight. Most girls were wearing flats with no socks. Not me. If I tried that I wound up with stinky feet. In the background you can see clothes on the clothesline.

Here is another picture, taken when I was fourteen and hanging up the laundry. Teenager hanging clothes on clothesline  It also breaks my heart. Why my dad thought it a good idea to take a picture then and there, I do not know. It was right about the time that he decided when I grew up I would look like Audrey Hepburn, and he would try to catch me with the camera at odd moments to prove his point. This was truly one of the oddest moments. I had just finished hanging up about thirty diapers. My parents had adopted a baby, and that task often fell to me. I doted on my new brother, but this job was not a favorite. You can see I am still trying to do my own hair, including trying to trim my own bangs. I am wearing a silver chain around my neck that holds a big clunky silver ring that my boyfriend gave me. We were going steady. He was seventeen, and I was now 5 feet 10 inches to his 5 feet 10 inches if he stood up straight. Which he rarely did. He was a wonderful friend, though, and a really good kisser. We went steady until the end of my senior year. He loved fixing up cars. He used bleach on his hands to try to get rid of the grease. I can still remember the smell of his leather jacket combined with the chlorine. I wore that jacket often; it was another sign that you were someone's "steady."  

The years before these two pictures were taken are sketchy. I don't have the kind of memory that recalls details from that time, but maybe I have suppressed much of what was painful, confusing, and frightening. My dad joined the Navy when I was two (1944), and was gone for a year. When he came home, I didn't know what to make of him. He took up his place in my mother's bed, where I had been sleeping, and I was sent to my own bed in my own room. We moved to a new house just before he came home, and my mother took in borders to help make the mortgage payment. A string of strangers were moving through my life. Rollercoaster feelings from that time. Things were either very good or very frightening. Once I got used to my dad being home, things were steadier, calmer.

When I was four, I started school. I hated going, cried every morning when I had to leave home. Separation from my mother was painful, scary. She took some pleasure in a story she told about how the kindergarten teacher had to scratch her hand and make it bleed so I would let go. Does that sound like a true story? I do remember my teacher, and she was a kind, sweet lady. That story never rang true for me, even as a kid. Gives me another pit in my stomach when I think about it. 

A baby brother came along when I was eight. Mother, daughter, baby His birth was a difficult one. He was premature, and my mother came home before he did. He had to stay in the hospital until he weighed five pounds. The machine she used to pump her breasts was scary, noisy. But when he finally came home, she was able to nurse him. Things changed for me, of course. Now I was expected to be another adult in the family. Was that an up, or a down? Both, I think.

Back to that little girl playing with dolls, and struggling with how to look, what to wear. Nothing ever did fit quite right, until I could take charge of my own life. Even then, the attachments I formed and people I latched onto didn't fit. My mother's borderline, bipolor behaviors tore at the fabric of our lives. She was never quite comfortable in her own mind, never quite able to grab a big chunk of reality and hang onto it. Family drama, over the top and all-consuming, filled my life. She could not cope. Yet somehow, when she was good, she was very very charming and quite rational in her behavior. She was desperate for another child, but was unable to have one herself. And so, just months after her hysterectomy, my parents adopted an infant. I was thirteen. More responsibility. At fourteen, my mother got me a part-time job. I couldn't even get a work permit yet.  I looked like an adult, was an adult physically, but emotionally I was still just a kid. That job felt way too big for me. I waited on customers, did short-order cooking, washed dishes, worked the cash register, anything they needed. Eventually I grew into it, but not before I was scared to obsession about making the right change, getting the order right, poisoning someone, breaking a glass and bleeding into the tuna salad or worse getting glass into the tuna salad and serving it. Would I faint with the sheer responsibility? Scared to obsession about taking care of those little brothers. Would I suddenly forget my sanity and do something to hurt them? Rocky times. Up and down.  If I was going to survive, I had to figure out how to ride the rollercoaster and not fall off.

In the 1950's, girls had limited choices about who they would be as adults. But I had been moving through school with a select group on an accelerated track, and did very well. We were all college-bound, no question. Then sometime in high school, when my family's needs required me to alter my school schedule, I fell out of that group. By the time I was ready to graduate, my studies were the last thing on my mind. My greatest priority was finding somewhere to settle where the air wasn't so full of drama, and where the choice of tasks would be up to me.

It occurs to me now, that all I really ever wanted in those days was to go steady. Go steady with myself, go steady with good people of sound mind and intention, and be steady when confronted with instability, chaos, and change. It's a big thing to want, really. Especially if you hope to have clothes that fit along the way.