One day, a classmate named Myoan Swilley (the name lived on forever in infamy with my mother) came up to her at lunch and loudly inquired in front of everyone there -- essentially the entire teenage population of Toronto, Kansas: "Don't you have any other dresses? Why do you wear the same dress every day?" Her words stung so deeply, that my mother flushed with anger more than 40 years later as she recounted her embarrassment and her mother's gentle consolation and quick alterations on a few hand-me-downs for her school wardrobe.
I'm sure that's one reason my mother was so determined to dress me up like an oversized doll when I was in kindergarten and to send me an endless variety of dresses when she worked as an industrial nurse for Robinson's department store in L.A. when I was in college. (The years in between kindergarten and college, I wore Catholic school uniforms -- which didn't discourage her from trying to get me to fix myself up on weekends and during the summer.) Looking back, I realize that she wasn't just putting a premium on good looks. She was also trying to spare me the pain she had experienced when a classmate ridiculed her for having only one dress to wear.
It's interesting what power that one remark had on her life --and, by extension, on mine.
What are the remarks that have stayed with you throughout life -- for better or for worse?
I remember, when I was in the 5th grade, I suddenly went from skinny child to curvy young woman way ahead of schedule. I was 5'5" and 112 pounds at the age of 10. I looked like I was in my late teens and was sometimes mistaken -- to my considerable chagrin -- for my baby sister Tai's mother. Although I was at an optimal weight for my height, I looked very different from my classmates. I felt awkward, clumsy and very self-conscious.
One morning at the beginning of a school day, after we had lined up on the playground in precise class rows and were marching, to military music, to our classrooms (this was a very strict parochial grade school), one of the 8th grade boys acting as a monitor snapped at me when I dawdled self-consciously under his even gaze. "Hey," he said roughly, giving me a shove. "Move it, fats!"
Fats! Tears trickled from the corners of my eyes and I wiped them furiously with the backs of my hands. Later, in the safety of home, I wept on my mother's shoulder as she reassured me over and over that I wasn't fat. But from that time on, I always felt that other people considered me fat and agonized about my weight and shape. I never starved or purged. But my body image was distorted as I hid my lithe young body under lose clothing whenever possible.
And in my forties, I did get fat -- very fat. But the strange thing was...until I got well into the territory of morbid obesity, I never felt any fatter than I did that day in 5th grade when some young adolescent boy in a thoughtless moment called me "Fats." He probably forgot all about it five minutes later, as my mother's old nemesis Myoan Swilley did. (Myoan, who stayed in their small town all her life, used to wonder aloud to my grandmother and aunts why my mother seemed distant with her at occasional class reunions.)
Many of my mother's echoes were negative. She could never please or impress her father. When, during her years as a highly publicized pioneer American Airlines flight attendant and representative for the airline, she sent him a picture of herself giving an award to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, his only comment to her was: "Well, they managed to get the two homeliest women in America together for a photo!" Other family members fretted that she had no social graces and could not carry on a good conversation. This was outrageously untrue but she believed it. I used to feel such sadness for this warm, gregarious woman who had so little confidence in her own beauty and ability to connect with others.
Despite the emotional, physical and economic hardships that Mike, Tai and I suffered in our family, I felt fortunate then and now that most of the comments and moments that lodged in my memory were positive and loving.
I remember my father giving me notebooks to write stories as soon as I learned to read -- and actively encouraging my early writing efforts. I remember him weeping and holding me tight, telling me how much he loved me the night I was diagnosed with polio at the age of six.
I remember my mother's loving arms and hopes for my future and her joyous encouragement at every new challenge.
I remember wonderful times with Aunt Molly, when I glimpsed my own future in her and felt so much hope for me and such love for her and pride in her many accomplishments.
I remember Sister Rita's remarks that I was very special and Sister Ramona saying she loved and valued me immensely.
I remember a boy in my class in 7th grade -- Roddy Boerger -- who slipped over to me one day as the boys were filing out of their side of the classroom for recess, just after our teacher had read one of my essays aloud to the class. Her reading was met with a series of sighs and rolled eyes from many of my classmates as I slid down in my desk, totally humiliated at being singled out. "I loved it!" Roddy whispered. "I love everything you write! You're going to be somebody, Kathy! Really!" He didn't live to see any of my successes as a writer -- dying in his early twenties of a genetic kidney disorder. But his kindness in the emotional wasteland that was 7th grade warms my heart to this day.
Knowing the power of words to wound or to warm -- especially in those tender childhood, adolescent and young adult years -- I wonder about my own remarks to classmates, friends and family.
And I hope that my own words over the years -- in the growing up years and beyond -- were kind more often than not. I hope that in some thoughtless moment or adolescent hormone-fueled snit, I didn't snap and say something hurtful to another. I hope I didn't inflict any wounding echoes that linger in another's heart all these years later. And if I did, I would love to make amends. But of course one can't.
The only thing we can do is to live mindfully, treating each other with care: speaking kindly and striving to make each encounter with another a comforting or joyous or loving one.