The quest to figure out what was wrong with me started before I can even remember. It seems to have been with me since I was born. I look back now for details about where it might have gained root or where it had taken off on a life of its own. I can’t recall a time when it was not there.
From my earliest recall, I thought that there was some secret I was not getting about how life worked and constantly monitored myself against others to see where I came up wanting. It felt like self sabotage, as if there was this part of me, deep inside me where a war pitted against my success. On the playground I would choke when the ball was thrown in my direction, being all fumbled fingers. I would never get all my answers right on a test, mixing the letters on my spelling, freezing when it came to math, fumbling the answer in the same sure-footed way I would fumble the ball. I honestly considered whether other kids got some special pencil in school that helped them ease the correct answer onto their papers. I froze when called on in class, getting all blank eyed, the edges of my vision going all swimmy, the teacher’s voice coming at me down a long tunnel. As the rest of the kids looked on, I would feel my cheeks flush, willing words to come to my lips, but none would.
In fourth grade, some girls in my class wanted me to try out for a spot on their relay team. There were no formal tryouts like they have now. In my tiny town, kids just signed themselves up for what they wanted to do each year. There needed to be four girls on a relay team and three of the girls in my class were looking for number four. I knew that I could run like the wind. I could anyway if I were not in a race, if it were not a test, if it were not something I had to win against someone else. If it were about winning, I would lose. I could not seem to stop it from happening as sure as I would fumble a ball, I would fumble a race.
The three girls on the team were looking at either me or my cousin Debbie as the last team member. This was familiar territory. I had been pitted against Debbie my whole life and had come up short. I am not sure how many times I heard my mother ask me, “Why can’t you be more like Debbie?” She would intermingle that with things like: “Debbie get A’s in school,” or “Debbie knows how to help out around the house without complaining,” or “I bet Debbie’s mother doesn’t have to drag her out of bed in the morning to get to school!”
After a time, it no longer became necessary for Mom to invoke Debbie’s name. Even though Debbie was my best friend from birth until we separated ways in 7th grade, I grew to resent her more and more each year, Debbie becoming my standard for normal while I became my standard for everything that was not. Just seeing her became a reminder of that.
I lived right next door to my Grandmother’s house and yet Debbie who lived almost two miles away was the favored Grandchild. Grandma kept a box of toys with the nicest dolls in it for Debbie that I was not allowed to touch when I was at her house. The box was kept upstairs in the bedroom that Debbie used when she stayed the night. There was no box of toys for me at Grandma’s house.
In addition to the special toy box Debbie had at Grandma’s house, she had a whole toy room to herself at her house. The toy room was in the attic with a window at one end overlooking the farmyard. The slanted beams in the ceiling made the place especially cozy with a soft light pouring in from that window. Debbie had ovens that made real cakes and a little table where you could have tea parties with all the tea dishes and even a place to set them in a dish drainer to make-believe they were drying after you make believed washed them. There were boxes or games stacked up against one wall.
No toy lasted in my house for very long. Games would get scattered around and there would be too many missing pieces to actually play any of them after the first week of Christmas had passed. My sister had cut the hair off all the few dolls I had while I was away at school in kindergarten. Things did not last at our house. I certainly did not have a whole playroom to myself.
I was six months older than Debbie but, due to our very different genetics, she always had at least three inches on me in height and it was me who got to wear all her last years clothes. I hated going to her house each August, just before school started, to go through all her hand-me-downs, sifting and sorting among the dresses that Debbie had picked out the year before, the dresses she liked for herself, the ones she wore new to school last year. Debbie got to go on a shopping trip to the city each year. I got to go to Debbie’s. I never wanted Debbie’s old dresses, all frilly with ruffles and lace. I was more of a tomboy to her curls. But I didn’t dare turn down a free wardrobe for school. I knew all too well that money did not grow on trees. Mom talked on and on about these hand-me-downs. On the way to Debbie’s house each year mom would want me to agree with her how lucky I was to get those clothes. I would always agree.
Each year as I tried on dress after dress that Debbie handed down to me, Debbie would tell me how glad she was to get rid of her old clothes and get new ones, feeling bad for me having to wear these old things. Each dress I would try on and have to go out to the kitchen to show my mom who was sitting over coffee with my aunt, how pretty the dress looked on me. They would say things like, “Oh now look how nice that one fits on you! Don’t you like that one?” I always said yes, and put on my brightest face. At least I did until one year Debbie pulled the cork on the whole scam, letting out of her mouth those fateful words, “No she doesn’t! Peggy does not like my old dresses!”
I don’t know if she thought she was trying to help me or if she was finally just stating some fact that needed to be known. But for me it was like a house made of cards crumbling around me. I felt the shame of it all coming in slashes of red across my face like big hard slaps. Maybe it was the shame of having to wear these dresses each year that really never fit me, were not me, the way I felt in those dresses bringing on the teasing from the other kids, the other kids smelling my shame. Maybe it was the shame of letting mom down that I felt just then, having played into this game each year for years about loving to come to Debbie’s for her hand-me-downs, it being our one time together each year, just the two of us, having heard myself just that same evening on the way over here, to Debbie’s house, tell my mother how happy I was to get these clothes, it being what she wanted to hear. Or maybe it was that I knew mom was just as embarrassed as I was, having to rely on hand-me-downs, convincing herself and my Aunt how much I liked these clothes, making it all less demoralizing.
Mom drove me home in the quiet car that year Debbie let on how I really felt, Mom’s words hanging in the air between us, “I always thought you liked those clothes.” We never went back to Debbie’s for hand-me-downs again.
At a party with all the relatives at grandma’s house, two of my older cousins put Debbie and me together and judged us for which one of us was cuter. They looked at our hair and our eyes and the shape of our faces and noted how much taller Debbie was than me. Debbie wore a lacy party dress and had her short blond hair done up in cute little ringlets around her square face. I had on my usual mismatched tomboy attire and my thin hair was left wild and stringy against my triangular face. Debbie was selected as hands down cuter. The thing was, I wanted to be found cuter. I wanted at least that.
We all went out on the big grassy playground the size of a football field, just a big stretch of green. Debbie and I squared off at one end of the playground and took our marks. I knew before going into it, that if I saw that I was winning against Debbie, my inner critic, that little devil that resided inside my head, that place where I was everything that was wrong and Debbie was everything that was right, would stop it all and I would just choke. I would choke. Whatever that thing inside of me was, it would take over and cause me to lose.
As we stood together that day, Debbie and I, me six months older than her and her three inches taller than me, on that starting line, I wanted nothing more than to beat her. I wanted so badly to be better at just one thing. I was small and lithe next to her tall and lanky. I knew in my heart that I could run faster than she could. I had seen her long lanky legs doing that loping run she had my whole life. My little legs could spin like the road runner cartoon if I really let them.
I needed to shut out that nasty part of me that just refused to let me succeed. I determined to do it. On the starting line, Debbie by my side, I shut my eyes tight and listened for the go to be called and when it did I took off running. I never dared to open my eyes, knowing that if I saw myself inching ahead of Debbie, my spinning legs would just go all rubbery. With my eyes open, I would only be able to see Debbie taking the lead. With my eyes shut, I could just focus on the pounding of my feet against the green grass field and the taking in of my breath. I ran my heart out until I heard someone shouting for me to stop.
I looked back to see my classmates at the other end of the field. I was way off kilter. I could not run a straight line with my eyes shut. The girls all saw that I was running blind. They never pressed me on it. Maybe it was because they were the nice girls in class, not the ones who would spite someone just for sport. Maybe it was that in Northern Wisconsin in that part of farming country, no one was without their problems, everyone did their strange things, it being in the days of spare the rod and spoil the child, the days when children are to be seen and not heard. We all had our harsh realities and no one was immune.
The thing is they told me I ran faster than Debbie but they needed me to run a straight line. “Just do it with your eyes open,” someone said. Debbie and I were set up to race a second time. The thing is I could not open my eyes this time either. It would have hurt too much to lose now, after I had managed to outrun her, even if it was in a crooked line. I tried to self correct by veering in the other direction but I still ran off kilter. In the end, they chose Debbie as the last relay partner. I was OK with that. I had my small victory. I could run faster than Debbie. I would not be able to run the relay with my eyes closed anyway.