Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Stress of the Strapless Gown

A date for the Senior Prom – how utterly exciting! And especially unheard of, since I was only a lowly high school sophomore in 1963. It was a totally unexpected surprise because I had not started dating yet and had no prospects for a “boyfriend.”

At the end of the school day, all the kids hurried out of the school to their respective yellow buses. Back then, driving a car to school was a rare exception that required a written note from home and a special pass from the Principal, so virtually everyone rode the buses. I was a bit surprised when a boy named Denny paused by my seat and asked, “Is this seat taken?” My natural inclination was to reply with a smart-aleck “Does it look like it’s taken?” but fortunately I replied with a graciously mumbled “Gosh, no.”

So Denny sat down next to me. Being from a small town and attending the same church, we knew each other, of course, but I sensed that this trip was going to be a little out of the ordinary. It was unusual to think of a boy as anything other than a friend, so the concept of “boyfriend” had not been established in my personal vocabulary. My older sisters each had boyfriends, but no one in my circle of friends did.

We had an uninspired conversation about the weather and school events, followed by an awkwardly lengthy silence. I was unaccustomed to talking to boys as boys. As we approached the end of our ride, Denny suddenly blurted out “Wanna go to the Prom with me?” Trying to not take anything for granted, I quickly looked behind me, just to make sure that he wasn’t talking to someone else. Since there was no one else around, I naively replied “Who, me? Well, um, okay, I guess.” As he got up to get off the bus, he let out a sigh of relief and said “Okay. Good.” Such snappy repartee (or lack thereof) underscored our mutual inexperience and discomfort with the opposite sex.

As soon as the bus pulled up to stop at our farm house, I rushed out to find my mother and tell her the exciting news. “Hey, Mom, guess what? Somebody asked me to go to the Senior Prom!” I hollered excitedly. The Prom was only a week away, so we had to figure out in a hurry what to wear.

Mom grew up during the Depression, so she had become very resourceful and thrifty. Hand-me-down clothes were a fact of life in our family of seven children. However, a special occasion would merit something decidedly out of the ordinary. We generally had two options for clothes when money was tight: either sew something new from scratch or alter an existing piece. In the interest of time, we needed to do the latter.

One of my older sisters had been in a cousin’s wedding a few years before. She wore a long yellow gown of chiffon, satin and netting. It had already been remade several times for each of their Proms. By the third reincarnation (this time for me), it became a fashionable strapless vision of loveliness.

At the tender age of fifteen, I had not “blossomed” nearly as much as my well-endowed sisters. How on earth could I wear (and keep up) a strapless gown? Mom took me to one of the nicest dress shops in town, one that we typically did not frequent. She explained the situation to a snooty clerk that I needed to find a strapless bra that was small enough to fit my almost nonexistent bosom. The clerk practically snickered when I timidly stated my size as 30 AA, then she replied, “If she is old enough to go to Prom, then she is old enough to wear a real brassiere.” The smallest strapless bra they had was a 34 B (which of course was much too big), but we splurged and bought it anyway.

Now we had a real dilemma figuring out how to make the dress stay up properly. The answer was to sew the bodice of the dress directly to the strapless “long-line bra” with stiff stays on each side. I felt and probably looked like a real-live “Barbie Doll” with a small waist and hips, topped by a disproportionately larger-than-life-size bosom. I practiced walking and sitting gracefully in my stiff corset, but unfortunately I didn’t do it long enough.

By the time Denny arrived in his Sunday suit and necktie to pick me up, my younger brothers had teased me mercilessly. They undoubtedly were curious about my sudden transformation from tomboy to WOMAN, complete with the requisite enhanced bosom. Off I went to my very first Prom in my very first long gown on my very first date, feeling oh so grown up and sophisticated. In retrospect, I undoubtedly looked quite young and naïve, rather than mature and worldly.

The evening went quite well until we had been dancing for a while. The high school gymnasium had been transformed into a fairy wonderland with the aid of crepe paper streamers, tinsel and reflective balls. Music was supplied by a real, live band as opposed to the typical 45 RPM records. The band started out playing sedate, soothing waltzes for the first few numbers until more and more requests were made for a “fast” song to liven things up.

The 1960’s was the era of “outrageous” dances, such as the Twist, the Watusi and the Mashed Potato, but they were a staple at any social gathering. My date and I joined the festivities out on the dance floor, jumping and jiving to the pulsing beat of the music. Each dance number became progressively more and more frenetic and it was a relief when the band finally announced they were taking a break.

Returning to the sidelines, I looked down to discover that in the course of twisting and turning, my dress and bra were now positioned a full ninety degrees off center, with one breast behind my armpit.

“Oh, no!” I exclaimed softly. All of a sudden, I looked all too much like a Barbie Doll who had been contorted into an impossible position.

My only recourse was to take immediate action. As discretely as possible, I quickly grabbed the top of my dress with the bra attached and twisted it more or less back into place. It was lucky for me that I had inherited Mom’s pragmatic side and just dealt with the situation, instead of becoming mortified with embarrassment.

Fortunately, Denny didn’t seem to notice. Regardless, that first date turned out to be a real classic “three-in-one” event. It was the first, last and only date I ever had with that particular young man. And the only time in my life I ever dared to wear a strapless dress. No more Barbie disasters for me!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Growing in Confidence

Around 8th grade, I started to blossom. No, not physically, although the girls in gym class teased me so much that Mom finally bought me a real bra. In reality, my white t-shirts had probably done just as good of a job.

Where I did blossom was in developing confidence in myself. In school, I got into public speaking and participated in speech contests across the county. That’s when I discovered that being a bit of a ham was both fun for me and entertaining for others. My first entry was the story Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss. To this day, I can still recite most of it from memory, which is really only appreciated by my 5- and 6-year-old grandkids. Unfortunately, they are probably even outgrowing it as well. I guess it’s time to upgrade to Horton Hears a Who, huh?

During the previous year, my two oldest sisters both got married and moved out of the house. That caused a distinct shift in our family dynamics. For one thing, Mom delegated more of the cooking to me, especially fixing dinner and making cookies. Having a large family, my endeavors were always greatly appreciated, which of course made me more self-assured.

There was only one time that a batch of cookies was not completely devoured. As it happened, I was the one (unfortunately) who made them.

I was making gingersnaps, which are made with molasses, formed into a ball and then rolled into sugar before they are baked. The delicious aroma of the baking cookies spread throughout the house and brought several eager young taste testers on the run.

It wasn't until we sampled the warm, freshly baked cookies that we realized something was terribly wrong with them. They were horrible!

Apparently, Mom had been cleaning out the kitchen cupboard that day. In order to wash the salt shaker, she had poured the remaining salt into a bowl.

While she happened to be out of the room, I spied the bowl of salt on the countertop and assumed she had left it for my cookies. I promptly set about rolling the cookies toward their doom.

As I said, that was the only cookie failure I can recall that someone would not eat, sooner or later. In this case, not even the family dog ate them.

Around this same time, my 4-H sewing projects grew more complex. Before long, I was making almost all my own clothes. I’m so grateful my mother taught me how to sew well, in spite of having to patiently rip out seams that were not done quite right. As I went to show Mom my latest completion, I held my breath, hoping she would not say once again, “Do it over.” As frustrating as that was, I knew by the time I finished the garment that I’d have something to be proud of. And so was she.

With my mother as my biggest fan and strongest supporter, I quietly learned that I could do anything I set my mind to. Even though no one in my family had ever gone to college, I always seemed to know that I would go. The choice of direction could be anywhere. For me, that opened up a world of possibilities. Seemingly overnight, I realized that the amazing things I constantly read about in books were (and are now) within my grasp. What an awesome legacy for her to leave me!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Food from the Farm

As I've mentioned before, many of my early memories are associated with food. In retrospect, it seems that was especially the case once we moved to the farm.

Before starting sixth grade, our family moved to a 50-acre farm about 10 miles south of Kankakee near the small town of Chebanse. The name is from the Iroquois Indians for Little Duck. My folks thought a farm was the perfect place to raise our growing family of seven kids. Most of that first year on the farm was spent making improvements to the house and farm buildings.

The next spring, we really got into life on the farm. In addition to a cow for milk and cream, we raised some chickens, pigs, sheep and a horse or two. A De Laval cream separator simplified the process of separating the cream from the milk; when some of the extra cream soured, we hand churned our own butter, using an old square glass churn that had wooden paddles and a crank handle. Before long, we decided the electric Mixmaster worked much better.

Living on the farm, we had the freshest possible fruits and vegetables to savor. I remember what a treat it was to be out in the garden on a beautiful summer day, pick a ripe juicy tomato, wipe off a little dirt and enjoy it while it was still warm from the sun. A favorite for dinner was a salad Mom made with thick slices of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions sliced into rings. It was all blended with a simple and delicious dressing made from Miracle Whip, sweet pickle juice, salt and pepper. The huge bowl was almost always scraped clean during the meal.

We always had several rows of sweet corn growing at the edge of the crop field. In anticipation of our family’s hearty appetites, Mom cooked two dozen huge ears of corn in her largest pot. It is impossible to describe the intense flavor of sweet corn that is gently simmered mere minutes after it was picked from the field. Add some real butter to that fresh corn and you have a meal fit for a king. Although we canned and froze sweet corn to enjoy later in the year, it was never as scrumptious as that fresh-picked corn during the summer.

We had our own strawberry patch that was prolific in early summer. In addition to strawberry shortcake with real cream, my favorite was a delicious but rather unusual concoction for breakfast. It consisted of a thick slice of fresh homemade bread, covered with sweet cream the consistency of warm butter, then covered with fresh strawberries and sprinkled with powdered sugar. It was truly decadent, but delicious.

Each summer my next older sister and I prepared food to compete at the 4-H county fair, which required practicing a particular recipe until we got it just right. One year I gave a demonstration on how to make gingerbread. Fortunately, I did quite well in the competition and moved up to higher levels. Unfortunately, for each exhibition I had to show three stages of gingerbread: how to mix the ingredients, how to start decorating and finally how the finished product looked. That meant that each demonstration required making three large pans of gingerbread. Although my family had previously been quite fond of fresh gingerbread, by the end of that summer the general consensus was that I should not make any more for a very long, long time.