In past blogs, I've mentioned that the words "I love you" weren't used much by my parents. Seriously, I could probably count on less than two hands the number of times our mom or dad said those words to me.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not all boo-hoo, woe is me about it. Not for one single minute did I ever feel unloved. With the innocence, aka self-absorbedness (is that a word?), of a child, I just assumed I was. Because hey, that's what parents were supposed to do - give their kids unconditional love, even when they may not deserve it. And there were times I'm sure I didn't.
When I look back now, through the prism of an adult with her own children, there were times when, without knowing it, I was seeking that unconditional love, that moment of feeling uniquely special in a sea of siblings.
Assuming they ever read this, my brothers will grumble, roll their eyes, and shake their heads. I'm sure they've always thought I was treated special merely due to the inescapable fact that I was the only girl among six siblings. As I often remind them; it wasn't my fault that I had my own room!
Anyway, as I remember them, those few moments were subtle, less obvious than one would think. With one exception ... that time I did the most unbelievable thing, all with the hope of securing my spot at the top of my dad's Favorite Kid list. Which wasn't really a thing ... I don't think ...
First, I need to set the stage ...
We had just moved all the way from south Florida to a very small town in western Washington State. Literally, opposite corners of the country. It all happened so fast and with very little warning. I found out years later why that was, and I'm sure I'll either include that in a book or write a blog about it in the future.
In all of our previous moves, I adjusted quickly. Not this time. I missed my friends and activities "back home", and the kids in my new school were "weird, "different". On top of all that, I had to take a forty-five-minute bus ride to and from my new school, where I spent the entire day looking at the clock. I was miserable, sad, and lonely. Three things I was completely unfamiliar with.
I eventually recognized that the kids weren't any weirder or different than other high school kids, and the school wasn't even that bad. I was just so angry at my parents that I refused to find anything to be happy about. Because if I did, that meant I was okay with being uprooted smack in the middle of what, at the time, I thought was one of the most important years of my life.
Now, for the unbelievable moment ...
One afternoon, I was sitting on my bed doing my homework, probably having just polished off a box of Entenmann's chocolate-covered donut holes. Did I mention I was having problems adjusting? There was a tap on my door before it swung open and my dad strolled in. He wanted to have a little chat with me. My guard instantly went up because the only time that ever happened was when I was in trouble for something.
He proceeded to utter the following words, which I will never forget. "You know what you could do that would make me really happy?"
Okay, so how does anyone, especially a junior in high school, respond to that? In my case, I responded by not responding.
He set a clipping from our local newspaper on top of the open textbook in front of me.
I gave him a suspicious side-eye, picked it up, and read it. My eyeballs almost popped right outta my head!
It was a registration form for a local ... wait for it ... BEAUTY PAGEANT! Seriously, I kid you not. My dad expected me, his daughter who spent her youngest years making mud pies and building forts with empty cardboard appliance boxes, to be in a beauty pageant!
"Ha. Ha. Very funny, dad." I laughed and laughed at my dad's display of his quick wit. Then I balled up the paper and tossed it back where it bounced off his chest.
He picked it up and smoothed it out on my bedspread. "I'm not joking." The now-crinkled paper was once again set before me. "I think this would be good for you."
Oh. My. God. He was serious. And, hold the phone! What the hell did he mean by 'good for me'?! How could that possibly be good for me?! But I didn't say any of those things because, in our family, you didn't speak your mind. You just ... didn't.
As long as I live, the following scene will forever be branded in my memory ...
"Okay, that's fine." My dad picked up the form, looked down at me with sad eyes, and went in for the kill. "But I'll admit, I'm disappointed you can't do this one thing for me." Shoulders drooping, he started shuffling out of my room like a kid who was told he couldn't have that cute puppy he saw in the mall pet store.
Ugh ... Yeah, he went there. He used the "D" word knowing exactly the reaction it would garner. Ya see, my dad was a master at manipulating people and circumstances to get what he wanted. Another little tidbit I figured out as an adult.
I let loose with an aggrieved teenager sigh and asked, "What would I have to do?" What the hell? Where did that come from?
He whipped around with a triumphant smile on his face, suddenly all sunshine-and-rainbows-happy. "There's an evening gown competition, a talent portion, a question and answer session, and one other one."
"What's the other one?" I asked, having seen enough pageants on TV to already know and dread the answer.
As he looked over the form unnecessarily, avoiding eye contact, he said, "Oh, yeah, there's a swimsuit competition." He tossed it back to me and, over his shoulder, he said, "Thanks, honey," and disappeared from sight before the piece of paper ever landed on the bed.
It was the word 'honey' that hooked me. My dad never called me anything like that, before or after. Man, I couldn't fill that form out fast enough. I even hand-carried the friggin thing to the Chamber of Commerce office to make sure they received it. I just knew I was shooting straight to the top of his list!
Before I knew what hit me, I was at the local Elks Lodge for pageant rehearsals prancing around in high heels (my first real pair) and learning "how to walk". Apparently, I'd been doing it wrong for years.
There were other girls in the competition, too. Though, I'm pretty confident I was the only one who'd been manipulated into being there. Let me tell you, those other girls were all about it, and holy-moly were they cut-throat. You'd think winning would get them into the college of their choice or a new Corvette or something. In reality, I think the winner got a $250 "scholarship" from the Lady Elks, an inexpensive rhinestone tiara, and the dubious honor of riding on the festival float in parades all over the northwest for the duration of their one year reign.
Through the course of rehearsals, I found out that the festival was a very big deal to this little waterfront town. They take the pageant, parade, and all the other related activities very seriously.
I will freely admit that I actually laughed a lot during the rehearsals, mostly at my own expense. And, by the time the pageant arrived, I had managed to befriend all of the girls. Probably because they figured out pretty quickly that I wasn't a threat to their dream of winning that sparkly, little rhinestone crown.
Okay, so the big night arrives. It's BEAUTY PAGEANT TIME, folks!
The music coming from the cassette deck swells, as much as it can, considering it's an overused mixtape being played through the Elks Lodge's crappy speakers, and they begin to announce the contestants' names. Alphabetically, of course, to avoid the inevitable accusations of favoritism.
One by one, our names are called and we step out from backstage (a curtain...backstage was a curtain draped over a makeshift stand of some sort) and walked down the aisle created between rows of now-occupied folding chairs.
My eyes scanned the crowd of people and land first, on the exalted panel of judges sitting at a table in the front with the oh-so-important festival committee directly behind them, their official badges proudly pinned to their chests. I give them a subtle nod and move along. I recognized the parents, grandparents, and siblings of some of the other contestants. But mostly it seems to be a bunch of old guys holding cocktails while taking advantage of an opportunity to ogle young women without fear of reprisal.
Eventually, I spot my mom and, if memory serves, my two younger brothers were there, too. My three older brothers had already escaped to college or the military by this time. I scan the rest of the row, and I'll give you one guess who I didn't see. That's right, good old dad wasn't there. The man responsible for me having to traipse around in front of a roomful of strangers while wearing a bathing suit and teetering on a pair of high heels didn't bother to show up.
But, as they say in the biz, the show must go on...
Evening gown was first and, I'll admit, mine was friggin' awesome. It was this deep copper-colored number made out of Quiana. For those who were born after the '80s, Quiana was a smooth, soft, stretchy fabric made from 95% polyester and 5% spandex. I'm pretty sure it was flame-retardant as well. It gathered at the waist, had spaghetti straps that tied at the back of my neck, and a little bolero jacket in the same amazing fabric. I felt much older than seventeen in that dress, and it hung in my closet for years.
Evening gown side note: one of the contestants wore a full hoop skirt with knee-length bloomers underneath. She even wore lace gloves and carried a parasol with a big crook at the end of the handle. If you didn't know better, you would've thought she was transported through time from the porch of her plantation, or from the middle of a flock of sheep. Let's just say, "backstage" was pretty damn crowded with her, that huge dress and the parasol back there.
The talent portion came next. I remember a couple of people sang, including hoop-skirt-girl who performed a song from some musical. I'm guessing it was from one that had a hoop skirt in it. Another girl danced or twirled a baton or something. I can't remember exactly what everyone else did, because I was too freaked out about having to do my own talent.
What was it, you ask? Stand-up comedy. That's right, yours truly did a stand-up comedy routine at a local, small-town pageant.
My original plan was to play the clarinet, but I chickened out a few days before and decided to wing it. I remember how upset the pageant committee was that they had already sent the program to the printer.
"Then think of how surprised everyone will be!" I said gleefully, hoping to convince myself as much as them that I hadn't just made a grievous mistake.
Fortunately, I killed it! At least I thought I did. Everyone laughed as I fumbled my way through a routine based on my observations about people and situations. Including the one I was currently enduring. Hell, I even included accents! That said, I was so glad when my time was up.
Next came the dreaded swimsuit competition. As required, we all wore one-piece suits with the afore-mentioned high heels. As I began my walk down the aisle, time seemed to stop and, with the exception of a slight buzzing in my ears, all other sounds disappeared. My two goals were; don't fall and to walk in a certain way that would keep my suit from creeping between my butt cheeks. Oh, and to keep smiling. Those two words were uttered/shouted thousands of times during rehearsals. Before I knew it, I was in the bathroom changing back into my gown. Thank you, Jesus, I had survived!
We each answered a few randomly chosen questions and then stood side-by-side on the platform, holding hands, nervously waiting while the judges tallied their totals.
Suffice to say, I didn't win, but I was awarded first runner-up, so that was kinda cool. But what meant the most to me was when they announced I was voted Miss Congeniality by my fellow contestants. It was my very own Sally Fields moment; "You like me! You really like me!"
And my dad missed it all. He told me he wasn't at the pageant because he had to leave town for work. He was in sales, so that happened a lot. He was "so sorry" and "would make it up to me". It wasn't until years later after my parents were divorced, that I found out the truth from my mom. My dad wasn't at the pageant (the one he guilted me into doing) because he was on a hot winning streak in a marathon card game and didn't want to leave. Oh, and he "made it up to me" by giving me a couple of bucks from his winnings. By the way, it was A LOT less than the Lady Elks would've given me had I won.
Anyway, for the next several days after the pageant, under the ever-watchful eyes of our chaperones, the queen, second runner-up, and I, shopped for dresses we could wear on the float and at all of the official festival events. They were Gunnysacks dresses. Google it, you'll thank me. We rode down the main street atop the float in the parade. Fortunately, we were behind the Shriners with their fez-topped heads, driving their miniature cars and weaving back and forth across the street and not the 4H Horse or Cattle clubs! My cheeks hurt from smiling and I waved until I thought my arm would fall off.
The festival weekend came to a close and I thought that was the end of it. Until our phone rang and I was told the Queen had gotten herself knocked up and had to step down. Appearances were everything, after all. I guess those chaperones weren't paying close enough attention.
"Congratulations!" they exclaimed. "You're the new Fathoms of Fun Queen!"
Yep, that's right ... Fathoms of Fun. I paraded around in front of a bunch of strangers in next to nothing, just so I could ride on a float wearing a sash with the words Fathoms of Fun Queen stitched on it.
I wish I had a dollar for every time some skeevy dude asked me, "Hey, what did you have to do to earn that title?"
My response was usually something along the lines of, "I'm seventeen! What the hell do you think I had to do, perv?!"
As a result of my new-found ... fame, I mastered the art of the snarky come-back while becoming the world's foremost eye-roller.
To this day, I have no idea what my dad's true intentions were for getting me to be in the pageant. Maybe he thought I'd make friends, get more involved at school, or become more popular. Maybe he thought his sales would increase if I won. Don't laugh. After all, being Queen around there was a pretty big deal. I never knew for sure because I didn't ask him and, as I mentioned earlier, we didn't talk about ... things anyway.
What I did learn was that my life wasn't as awful as my dramatic teenage mind had made it out to be. I also found out that I was a lot braver than I realized and that I could make people laugh. It gave me a new kind of confidence that helped me to find my place among my new peers. But, most importantly, I learned how to walk in heels without my swimsuit ending up wedged in my butt crack. So, for that ... I say, Thanks, dad!"
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