The day I discovered I was ugly, my curly black hair brushed against my shoulders, tickling, warm as the sun burnishing my skin. My hair, no matter how many years between cuttings, would never get long, no matter how old I got, but once I could feel it touching my shoulders, I felt lovely. I still prefer it longer and am sad that cancer has taken that away from me. My sister had really beautiful hair, (still does) long, light, fine, straight and shiny. Her eyes, too, were a changeable hazel/green and she had light skin and a normal shaped body. On the contrary, I was dark, with frizzy, thick, black, curly hair - not only on my head but legs, with caterpillar eyebrows and a mustache. My eyes were muddy brown and I was skinny as a broomstick.
In the 1960s I still was not aware my appearance was a problem and the neighborhood kids didn't do much teasing back then, or at least, no more to me than anybody. I was called chicken legs and twiggy but everybody was called names. I knew my sister was prettier than I was, but I was older, it seemed to even out. I just knew we were different, and because I could tan and she burned, I felt like I got an okay deal.
As younger children, we wanted the same thing in regards to appearance - long hair. My sister and I would pin towels on our heads and pretend it was hair, brush it back and dance with our newly waist length hair, or we'd pretend to be mermaids, swimming in our sunken living room with our flowing towel hair. In real life, hers did get long and mine wouldn't grow. But, she had to sit there with her thin, easily tangled hair, my impatient Irish mother brushing it, trying to untangle it and pulling hard, tears in my sister's eyes spilling down her cheeks. I remember feeling sorry for my sister and so offered to take over the job. I knew to start at the bottom, holding handfuls of hair above where I brushed so she would not feel pain. Because of the texture of my hair, I escaped the regular torture that I didn't have an older sister to help with. I still needed my hair brushed, and earned a smack on the head with a brush if I moved, but because my hair was thick, I didn't endure it as as often as my poor sister. The only problem was that it brushed into a fuzz ball.
The day I knew, I was about ten, walking home from Raley's grocery store with a bag of sunflower seeds and a coke. Back in those days, you got your soda from a machine. You dropped your dime in, a cup came down, followed by crushed ice, then the syrup mixed with carbonated water flowed. Magically, the soda always filled exactly to the top of the cup and when it stopped, a plastic door would unlock, granting you privilege to your sweet drink. You pulled the paper cup out carefully because it was pinched between two prongs, and if you squeezed too hard, you'd lose some precious soda. Every once in a while, you lost your dime but got a show. The paper cup would come down sideways, and then the ice would come down like hail, bouncing off the cup like jiffy pop. Next the soda would splatter everywhere, creating an upside down fountain, brown drops sliding down the stainless steel container, stickying the plastic door, dripping through the open steel bars on the bottom that were made for such a contingency. You could not slide up the plastic door up at any time during the filling process to straighten your cup, so you had to helplessly watch your drink and your dime disappear. I wondered: what happened to that spilled soda? Did it get recycled back to wherever the new soda came from?
Most times though, the machine worked and you'd get your Coke. Being ten, you could walk home, alternating a sip of sweet soda mixed with the salty munch sunflower seeds. We kids became expert at spitting out the shell..
Sacramento in the summer was hot. Egg-frying hot we called it, and every year on the hottest days, one of us did steal an egg from our mother's refrigerator and crack it on the sidewalk. They never did fry but would get white around the edges. We'd get bored waiting for it to cook and leave to go ride bikes or play army, where the boys would be soldiers and the girls would be nurses, none of us complaining about gender inequality. The forgotten egg would stink for a while and then creatures would get them. Or, the weekend would come and our fathers would wash them away with hoses, we never knew. But we kids, who lived in the court on Grinnell Way in the '60s, we would go barefoot even in the egg-frying heat - even though it was over 100 outside. Our feet must have been made of leather, built up with calluses to withstand it. We did have flip-flops and Keds, which our moms would sometimes make us put on, "It's hot out, put your shoes on!" but barefoot was the style, a reflection of our freedom, and to this day, I rarely wear shoes unless I leave the house. We kids were allowed to run free back then, no play dates, no planned activities, no restrictions. Summer was for us. We would take our allowance or beg for 15 cents and go to the store almost every day, barefoot. To get to Raleys, we would stick to grass as long as we could, than when we got to main streets we'd hop on the asphalt from shady spot to shady spot and try to find painted lines to walk on. There were no bike lanes in those days, so the painted lines were in parking lots, where we'd walk zig-zag to get to the store in order to keep our feet cool enough to not burn. Once inside the store, the cool, air-conditioned tile on scorched feet was like balm and we would walk around until we felt healed. Then, we'd pay for our treat and hit the soda machine (which was outside the store) and walk back home; for me, knowing a book was waiting if somebody couldn't play.
On this summer day that I remember so clearly, it was hot as usual but slightly windy which made my hair blow in the breeze. I felt beautiful, exotic, tanned. I felt each tangled curl against my face; my shoulders. I imagined that everybody seeing me going down the street was wondering who that girl with the magical hair was and where was she going? I'd smile at cars that passed, figuring they noticed my lovely hair and my dark skin. Close to home, I walked down the center of our court, hot feet ignored, and I'd shake my head to move the hair. I was gorgeous and I knew it.
The rest of the day was vague, but probably like all the rest I had in the summer. I'd meet up with friends and we'd climb trees, or play "pretend" games or dress our Barbies. Summers were magical. Our moms mostly didn't work and didn't mother the way we mother now, or at least, mine didn't. We would get breakfast and then be kicked out of the house, told not to come home until the street lights came on. We were free to ride bikes, run in and out of each other's houses (Michelle's mom always had pickles, Patty's mom made cinnamon toast). Lynn was good for stealing her mom's cigarettes and her Dad was the first person who ever had remote control on the TV, the cord snaking from the TV to the handrest of his La-Z-Boy. Me, I had a pool in my backyard, but couldn't have friends over to swim too often as somebody had to watch. My mom was too busy and the filter was always full of frogs.
My favorite thing in the world was reading, and I would find a tree, sit under it with my treats, and read about girls who had fascinating lives: Scarlett O'Hara, Marjorie Morningstar, Mary Frances Nolan, and sometimes a boy such as Herbie Bookbinder. Books were my solace and my pleasure and I escaped into them daily. My friends liked to read too, and we would "read" together, sitting under the shade of a tree, grass tickling our tan legs. I thought back then that reading would be the one thing I would want to do, even on my deathbed. Now that I am close to that bed, four years into chemo, it's rare when I can concentrate on a story.
Whatever I did that day of the glorious hair, that night, I was in my room and heard my mother and father discussing me with concern: a serious, quiet conversation. It is my father's voice that stays with me. "Ann has to do something with that hair, she looks terrible. I can't have my daughter looking like that." The words struck me to my heart. I had gone from feeling beautiful to feeling ugly in an instant. My own father said so. In my memory, the conversation continued for quite a while, me hovering in front of the closed door: how hairy I was, how awful I looked, how difficult I was when it was time for a haircut, my bad teeth that would need expensive braces, how my mother didn't know what to do with me, how much prettier my sister was. Later, my father called me in and asked me what kind of haircut I wanted. I had liked my hair so I didn't even know how to answer that question. He had put the responsibility on me, which was something they often did. When I said I liked the way it was, I was considered disrespectful, and yelled at. I was somehow at fault for my appearance.
Alone in my room, I realized I had not been beautiful walking down the street that day, and my imagination switched - people who had seen me were probably laughing, not admiring.
That was the last time in my life I felt free and beautiful.
Like that coke machine, the cup had unexpectedly come down sideways and my self-esteem splattered.
Of course, in later years I found other things to be proud of about myself both physically and more importantly - mentally. I'm a loving mother, I'm a good cook, I was great at every job I had. But I have always felt unattractive, and I wonder what would have happened if my father had ever said, "Ann, you look beautiful." The closest he ever got was telling me at a Father/Daughter Dance that I'd given him a hard-on. Both of my parents were alcoholics - the serious kind, the kind who drink a liter or more a day. So, while that might have disturbed another girl, to me it was normal. I was a teenager and he was drunk, and he apologized the next day when he sobered up and I told him that it was okay, I even said it was normal. To me, it was. But it really wasn't, none of it was. But it did teach me what was of value when it came to beauty. I ended up the girl with the ugly face, but the big boobs, and that would have to do, and hey, that's what men want, including my own father. With a mastectomy, I had to let all that go.
In later years, he continued to find his progeny unattractive - he complained about his 10 year old granddaughter and her weight, although it was more of a complaint about her parents and how they allow her to eat. She is a lovely girl with the long hair I've always dreamed of, and back when she was allowed to spend time with me, I combed her long fine hair exactly the way I did my sister's. She was hardly fat by today's standards, although I don't know what she looks like now. The truth is, my father wasn't able to find the beauty in some of his family and really, much of his life, and so left us to struggle to find it in ourselves.
Our world today is so full of pressures on women to be beautiful - so much more than it was back when I was young. I'm not sure how young girls who are average looking, like I was, and who live in dysfunctional families, as I did, can find their own beauty when they do not have supportive people in their environment. The pressure of modern society is tremendous.
This story leads somewhere: I was recently asked by a professional photographer if she could take my photo, and this memory came back to me, along with all my insecurities. I wanted to say no, as I have never liked having my photo taken, and do not see physical beauty in myself. In video, when you can talk, you can explain, there is movement, and liveliness and more shows. When it is a still photo....you are bare, you are only your body. Or so I thought. When I saw Anastasia's photos I realized this was a woman who could find beauty in reality; she was an artist.
I'd long ago promised myself that if I was offered an experience because of this blog, and my health allowed, I would say yes. In health, I'd said no to many things in my life, because of fear, because of lack of confidence, because of family obligations or time or a job - and my chances at yes are dwindling.
So I said yes.
The scene is set and the pictures and experience with Anastasia will be in another post. And, I may continue to blog about some of my other memories occasionally, as there is more to me than just cancer, and some of what I've experienced has led to the way I have dealt with this disease.
Please don't forget to vote for me in Healthline's Best Blog Competition. You can vote once per day and the prize is $1,000.00. As always, it will go into my son's college fun.
My here and now
9 hours ago