Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Echoes of the Past

My mother used to tell a story about being a senior in high school in a tiny Kansas farming community at the height of the Great Depression. Just before school started, her mother gave her a choice: she could have one store-bought dress for school or several made-over frocks handed down from her mother.  Of course, my fashion-conscious mother chose the store-bought option and happily washed the dress out after school every day and hung it to dry in the kitchen.

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.


  1. Oh, I love this post. It was so incredibly moving and powerful. The words we say are just as potent to our mind and emotions as bullets are to our bodies. Life is too short to live with negativity, and it costs nothing to season our words with kindness and joy.

  2. Oh, there is so much here to cull, to treasure, to return to, echoes of your mother, yourself, the agony of childhood remarks given up so thoughtlessly. These are threads of wisdom, indeed.

    You mentioned you had polio. Did I misread? How did that change you?

    You asked if anything said to us changed how we felt about ourselves. That's a loaded question, too rich to answer with just one line. I believe it's an invitation for a companion post.

  3. Shelly, thanks so much! The post was inspired, in part, by your story about Jay and his desire to change someone else's life. I started remembering how remarks and actions affected me in my childhood and also remembered my mother's stories. So thanks for the inspiration!

    Rosaria, thanks for your kind and insightful comments. Yes, indeed, I did have polio when I was six. It was bulbar polio, affecting my breathing and paralyzing the right side of my face and my right arm. I was in the hospital for nearly a year and then had several years of physical therapy and special treatment at Mayo Clinic to recover. I still have a few lingering side effects -- poor motor control in my right hand which means horrible handwriting, though my father always thought that was a lame excuse for my chicken-scratchings. I think the polio experience made me more introspective, got me started writing and also made me more compassionate as a child and beyond toward those who were different. I knew what it was like. (I had a grade school teacher who actually made fun of my partially paralyzed face.)

    Yes, it is an invitation for a companion post! I know you'd do it beautifully, Rosaria!

  4. A lovely, perceptive and thought-provoking post, Kathy. The old rhyme about "sticks and stone may break my bones, but words can never hurt me" is just so wrong! Hurtful words can lodge in our hearts and minds for a very long time and do a lot of damage, especially when we're young and only starting to form our own self-image. Kindness is often dismissed as a wishy-washy virtue, but to me it's one of the most important.

  5. Wonderful post and very thought provoking. I too once had a comment made about my clothing in grammer school similar to your mother that has followed me all my life. I never really feel properly dressed even today. That "sticks and stones" chant is all wet. Words can hurt.
    Arkansas Patti

  6. Oddly enough, I don't recall any negative comments from childhood that have stayed with me. I'm sure they happened, but they must not have had much of an impact on me. I was a very shy, introverted child except with my closest friends, so people generally left me alone.

    What I do distinctly recall is the bewilderment and confusion at 15 when my newly developed body made males objectify me.

    I was a late bloomer, and developed a lot the summer between 8th and 9th grades. I also got a new, stylish haircut and started wearing make-up. the boys in my class noticed. Their whispered comments and snickers as I walked by made me uncomfortable. I knew they were talking about my body and making sexually suggestive remarks. If only someone had told me back then that I didn't have to just ignore their comments and keep walking. I wish I had the nerve then that I do now to put them in their place.

    Now, with a young teenage daughter of my own, I try to talk to her about her changing body and how young boys, and even some men, will react differently to her now. I want her to be self-confident and proud, and even proud of her sexuality when she's older. However, I don't want her to think she has to silently take being demeaned and objectified.

    Interesting, thought-provoking post. Thank you.
    O-Town Ramblings

  7. This is a powerful post and one that does deserve a "companion" post as Rosaria suggested. My mother used to say, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," as a sort of mantra to me when my brother or others said mean things. I disagreed with her then, and I still do today. I still carry many negative messages in my brain.

    I just saw that Perpetua said the same thing as I did. (I never read comments before I write my own."

  8. Thanks, Perpetua, Patti, Keicha and Sally!

    I never did agree with the old "sticks and stones" saying either. Words can hurt tremendously. I'm thinking about a companion piece of sorts about dealing with those long-ago words, challenging them in the present time.

    Keicha, I'm so glad you're paying such attention to your daughter's self-image at this stage in her life. It's such a critical age and kids can be so terribly vulnerable and so incredibly cruel.

    Inspired by your comments, I'm thinking of two more pieces: one on dealing emotionally today with the echoes of the past and one, somewhat related, on pariahs. There was one in our high school class, whom I befriended, but whom some treated terribly, even at our 30th reunion. And there is one here in the neighborhood who is lonely and eccentric, but when treated nicely, responds in kind. The danger and increased vulnerability to hurt when one is a little different can be overwhelming. It's very interesting and very sad to see games and cruelties of childhood replayed at reunions or in a retirement community.

  9. Words carry such a impact on us all that I have tried my best to always encourage my children and now grandchildren with nothing but positive kind loving words.
    I too still feel the hurt of words used while I was growing up so this post brought back some memories.
    What makes one cruel to others like the young girl with your mom is still a question I ask even at my old age.
    This post is one every parent should share with their children.
    As always I love coming by here for my lessons in life. I sure was blessed when you came into my life
    Thanks for being you

  10. I found your blog - thru another blog I found recommended by a friend.

    Your story could have been written by me.

    I never really thought why my mom wanted me dressed up in dresses and ruffles - maybe she had a similar experience. It was in the depression too.

    Great post. sandie

  11. I learned early on, that regardless of the intention, what people say can be misconstrued. They can say something so innocent as 'You look good in that dress' to interpreting the meaning to be 'You look good in only one dress.'

    So, like the saying goes 'sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me' say what you want to me. I believe in myself. I know what I look like. I know where I'm from and I know where I am going. From my earliest memories, I rarely pay attention to what anyone had to say. That included parents, guidance counselors, friends and relatives.

    Was I called fat? Of course, but Marilyn Monroe was a size 14. So was I. Was I called stupid? You betcha. One time, a whole class laughed at me because I got a zero on a calculus test. So, I dropped out of class, took it over the summer and landed a 98. It wasn't MY fault. Turned out, it was the original teacher who was stupid. Not me.

    My first husband actually said to me that when he looked at my face, he thought my mouth was an a$$hole and any minute he was waiting for the sh** to come out of it. Can words get any more horrible than that one? What did I do? Hired the meanest, MF lawyer this side of the Mississippi and sued the bastard for everything he ever had. Oh, and I got a new husband who told me on our 2nd date that I was beautiful.

    Nope. Words don't hurt me.

  12. A beautiful post, and you've said so well what I believe about the importance of kindness. In my opinion, kindness outranks any other attribute a person can have.

  13. Kathy, dear, you have said everything I have felt for years. Sadly, most of the remarks I had as a child and young girl were negative, so I am now unable to believe that people mean it when they praise me.

    The power of words to hurt or warm . . we should all remember to be more thoughtful when we make a throwaway remark. Too many people carry the scars for a lifetime.

  14. This post has found a resonance in my soul, because, whether I like it or not, I remember many phrases that I've been told throughout my life, regardless of whether they were positive or negative. I haven't decided whether I ought to repeat them over and over in my mind. Doesn't it stop me from developing?

  15. I still remember cruel things said to me - in particularly, a comment made by my mother when I was 13, and one made by a classmate when I was 16. I'm not one to replay the past much, but those words are embedded in my psyche.

  16. Beautiful and timely. Our state has been dealing with a bullying law -- the one that will probably go through is better than nothing, but leaves much to be desired. I suppose what used to be name-calling (equally damaging) is now bullying. If it helps us all be more tolerant and more cautious of our words, then at least it does something.