I Hope There Is A Heaven For That Pretty Pink Dress
(A narrative poem, and long, very long.)
When I was thirteen, I lived in a small village
With my parents and three younger sisters
On the outskirts of a university city in Canada -
Queen's, in Kingston, at the junction of Lake Ontario
And the gorgeous, island-strewn St. Lawrence River.
In our sheltered bay the shoreline was beautiful
And the woods, the fields, the sky and stars!
We swam in the bay all summer and skated in winter
On thick, clear ice, fish beneath our blades
Winding through the weeds.
I rejoiced in the natural world all around me.
The City was packed with people, shops, cars!
Good for movies , singing lessons, buying groceries
And the LIBRARY.
But not much else.
I loved my village, and the people there – mostly.
I was busy-busy-busy, and generally happy.
I had great friends of all ages.
There were some mean kids – really mean kids.
Bullies of anyone not like them
And I was a prime target.
Mostly because I was fat.
Not pleasingly chubby or pleasantly plump - FAT!
My lips were rosy and my dark hair a rat's nest
No matter how much I brushed it.
I popped out with raw, red pimples.
I began to show breasts before any other girl at school.
And I couldn't see that well, blackboards and eye charts!
So I wore glasses, huge, horn-rimmed spectacles
That made me look like a giant owl.
More material for jibes.
But I didn't care - I could read!
And read I did - books – and books – and books!
Every second Saturday Mum left me at the City Library-
Two hours to scour the different departments
Making four, diverse selections to take home.
'Widening my horizons!' was my motto.
I really was a nerd.
Village life was active.
I belonged to clubs: Forestry and Nutrition
Art, Cooking, Sewing, Knitting!
(One winter I suffered through an awful scarf –
But - I wore it!)
I joined Animal Husbandry, for Heaven's sake!
Just because I wanted to, and I could.
I was, after all, a farmer's granddaughter.
I learned the breeds of horses, cows, and chickens.
Sheep and pigs!
Their diverse origins, purposes, their care -
Their 'market value'.
I loved the farm where Mum grew up.
We visited her Mum and Dad often.
In my family
Boys' work and girls' work was non-existent.
It was just work – chores - responsibilities.
When visiting the farm
I helped Grandpa with the livestock,
Bringing the cows in from pasture,
Feeding and watering the animals.
The two Clydesdales were gigantic horses
Their huge slurps in the water trough
Sloshing waves over the top.
The cows slaked thirst with easy snuffling.
I loved pumping water into the tank
Watching the animals drink.
It made me feel good all over.
And the chickens – all those noisy chickens -
Constantly clucking, scratching and dropping!
Chickens were for eggs, daily food for farm folk
And some penny income for a lemon or humbugs.
You did not kill a chicken unless it was a non-layer.
Boiled not roasted, and tough even then
Because they were wiry little beggars
Squawking around the barnyard like they owned the place.
While I never beheaded a chicken
I bled them, plucked them and scorched their quills
With a burning, tightly rolled newspaper.
I couldn't remove their guts, I just couldn't.
Mum said I was entirely too squeamish
But I'm not sure I ever saw her do it either.
And I couldn't take a fresh egg from under a hen.
Those beady eyes and that sharp beak terrified me.
Grandma slipped her hand under the downy rump
And the hen actually shifted for her.
BUT ME! Always a nasty glare: 'I dare you!'
Grandma laughed and called me a 'scairdy cat!'
Which was true, but I lived with it.
I was not putting my fingers under a snarky hen!
So, I did 'stuff' my girlfriends had never heard of.
Probably boys too, but that didn't occur to me then.
But, worst of all, according to thirteen, I loved learning.
And I was horrified.
What boy would ever be interested in me?
A fat, brainy girl with unruly hair, and owl's eyes!
Who laughed a lot – loudly - at weird moments!
I tried to be more decorous, kind of 'girlie'.
But simpering was not my style.
Life was funny, and my laugh boomed.
In my final five Primary years
I attended a two-room country school
Grades One to Four and Five to Eight -
Taught by two patient, devoted ladies.
I used to help them a lot.
Grade Seven was my second last year of Primary.
Grade Eight would be graduation, and then-
Year Nine, - High School and 'THE BIG CITY'!
Kingston prided itself on Queens University
And its British heritage.
It was, perhaps, a bit intelligentsia oriented.
(That new word made me feel quite sophisticated.)
Villagers walked to school, to church, to the lake shore.
But they did not walk five miles into the city.
Country kids went to high school on school buses.
And no two ways about it – I WAS COUNTRY!
So, high school was a bit daunting.
I really needed a serious conversation with myself.
HA! More like – a SEVERE CONFRONTATION!
'Look!' I wagged my finger at the fat girl in the mirror.
'Next September you go to high school
In the city! On a school bus!
With a sandwich wrapped in bread paper!
You own two skirts, three blouses and one cardigan.
How many ways can they go together?
Even with scarves? Five days a week!
Too bad about the glasses but you have to see.
Sorry you're smart. It's not your fault!
There is no money for more clothes!
You don't have a car!
And you're too young to leave home.'
(Like - 'joining' a different family -
Not earning my own living!)
What to do? What to do!
I glared at my reflection in the tall mirror
And she fired back just as fiercely!
Really, swapping families was not an option!
I didn't know another family any better
And I quite liked the one I had.
So that settled that – precisely.
As with all the other arguments – precisely.
The only factor I could affect was my weight.
I had to face reality.
'So - I can - I will - change my weight!'
With my mother, I saw a doctor.
'I am going to lose weight!' - a statement, not a question.
Definitely not asking permission.
He and Mum agreed I was allowed to do it.
Well, they actually said 'try' it.
I don't think either of them thought that I could.
But never underestimate a growing girl
With pride, determination and good sense.
And noticing boys in a new kind of way.
I knew I was fat because of my eating habits.
Not my parents' food provided for the family.
Not my mother's cooking.
And not an innate health problem.
It was purely my own fault
And I HAD TO TAKE CHARGE OF MYSELF!
Yes! All in capital letters.
AND TAKE CHARGE I DID.
At breakfast I put tomato juice on my wheat biscuit
So I could drink a glass of whole milk
And savour every creamy drop.
I had to have that pure pleasure down my gullet
To start my busy day
Or my body would have gone on strike!
Even my brain. I just knew it would.
I cancelled out sugar, in everything.
Good-bye corn syrup and jam!
I never touched another slice of extra bread
Or a second helping of fried potato and onions
Or a cookie, a piece of pie or cake, not a single candy.
I was serious! And not silly.
I knew the Canada Food Rules!
I was 'knowledgeable' - all those 'clubs'!
So, I ate fruit and vegetables, lean meat and whole grains.
I drank quarts of water etc. etc. etc.
Besides knowing WHAT to do, I had to DO it!
On my bedroom floor
In the narrow space between bed and desk
I 'swam' on my belly 'stroking through the waves'
Stretching, lifting my arms and my legs
Longer and longer, higher and higher.
I was 'swimming the Atlantic Ocean
From Newfoundland to England'!
And home again, on my back,
Beating the water fiercely
In twenty minutes!
Imagination is a fine thing.
And standing with belly or bum against the wall
Reaching for clouds!
Bends and swivels, touching my toes.
'Duck walking' up and down the hallway
Flapping my elbows, quacking,
Feeling like an fool, but NOT CARING!
Because I could SEE in the mirror -
I could FEEL in my muscles and my lungs -
My body was beginning to change!
I was amazed, and proud of myself.
I lost twenty-four pounds.
I wasn't really slender, and certainly not svelte;
(Five foot two just doesn't 'cut it'.
And I was only thirteen!)
But everything looked better and
My whole body worked better.
My asthma eased off, and my skin improved.
And, Oh My God! was it possible -
I was – maybe - a teeny bit 'pretty'!
So, one Saturday, I tried a little, light lipstick
And Daddy said 'Oh! Oh! Oh!'
Which thrilled me to my toenails.
Then I went back to the bathroom
And wiped it all off.
'Oh! Oh! Oh!' indeed!
Now, I had some hard times.
I attended a church social with my mum.
Such community events excelled in 'baked goodies'
My foremost idea of Sheer Heaven.
As a member of the choir, I wanted to be there.
I wore a belt pulled so tightly I could hardly breathe.
Mum clucked a bit about that but she didn't interfere.
When I walked into the Church Hall
The pies and cakes and cookies
Made my teeth click!
But the belt was a severe master and I held my nerve.
I dreamed about that night for years.
So, at thirteen, I lost twenty-four pounds.
And I wore a 'special' summer dress to my Graduation Picnic.
This frock had hung in the back of my closet since I was ten.
Pink it was, swirly and pretty, very 'girlie'.
Someone in the village had passed it on
With interest, and maybe a bit of empathy.
I washed this dress, ironed it painstakingly
And wore it to my Graduation picnic!
On that wonderful afternoon in June
I ate sandwiches, ice cream, cake and fudge!
I swigged sweet lemonade by the tumblerful.
I ran races over the grass in my bare feet.
I played soft ball, smacking the ball into left field
Jamming around the bases, my pink skirt flying!
It was one of the happiest days of my whole life.
That night the dress was a mess!
I threw it straight into the trash
With a smile and a prayer:
'Thank you, Mum and Dad, for all your support.
Thank you, kind neighbour, for sharing this dress.
And thank you, too, God. The picnic was GREAT.
I'm ready for high school! YAHOO!
Ah – do you - by any chance -
Have a spot in heaven for pretty pink dresses?
A trunk? A bag? A big pocket in your heavenly robe?
Only joking, God. Only joking!
Cynthia Buell Thomas, June, 2019