The Crinoline.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite pastimes was dressing up in the treasures I found in the Costume Box.  The Costume Box was a large cardboard box, about half as tall as I was, stuffed with dress-up clothes and the remnants and makings of past years’ costumes. There was a little bit of everything in that box. 

Digging through the Costume Box was a lot like shopping at the thrift store; the clothing even had that same musty smell.  There were rips and stains, broken zippers, missing buttons, and worn-out elastic.  But that didn’t matter, because inside that box lay nearly infinite potential.  Inside that box were dancers and witches and hobos and ghosts and loggers and eccentric old aunties; monsters and princesses and soldiers and cowboys and even the Devil himself.  The only limit was our imagination.

One of my favorite finds in that box was an itchy crinoline slip with a torn seam.  In their younger years, my parents had been members of a square dancing club, and my brother and eldest sister also danced.  This was way before my time, but I’d seen photos of them in their finery, and I loved the look of the stand-out slips under the full skirts. I would shimmy into that crinoline and spin around until I was dizzy.  It made me feel like a princess.

When my middle school gym teacher announced that we would be learning to square dance, I begged Mother to make me a square dance skirt.  I pictured myself in a fancy skirt that swished as I swung through a do-si-do.  I just knew I would be the best dancer in the whole class, because I would have the best outfit. 

Mother made me a lovely circle skirt of blue gingham check.  When I tried it on with the crinoline I was so happy!  It was gorgeous, and I couldn’t wait to dance in it.  I would have slept in it, if Mother had let me.

The day we were to begin square dancing in gym class, I proudly donned the skirt and crinoline and a white, peasant-style blouse.  Mind you, I was probably eleven years old and not fully acquainted with what was ‘cool’ and what was not.  (I’m still like that.)  By the time I arrived at school, the kids on the bus had conveyed to me in no uncertain terms that my beautiful skirt and itchy slip were most definitely not cool.  I tried to ignore their laughter, but they weren’t the only ones; many other kids were happy to inform me, as well. 

I arrived in class with my spirit dampened and my enthusiasm trampled, but I still looked forward to dancing.  My teacher, bless her heart, complimented me on my outfit, encouraging me to stand and twirl to show it off.  She then had me demonstrate some of the moves we would be learning, which effectively silenced my critics and allowed me to salvage some tatters of my pride.

I never wore that skirt to school again.  The memory of the ridicule still stings a little.  Before long I outgrew it, and it was forgotten with the other clothes that were now too small for my awkward, adolescent body.  I like to think the skirt made its way to the Costume Box to join the crinoline, but I don’t know for sure. 

Perhaps it went to the Salvation Army so some other little girl could feel like a princess in an itchy crinoline and twirly skirt.  I can only hope.

Thanks, Mom.


photo credit Pink Sherbet Photography (D Sharon Pruitt)

Part I – Listen Up!

The phenomenal Helen Keller in 1948.

Blindness separates us from things, but deafness separates us from people.
Helen Keller

My life changed last week, in a big way.   I’ll tell you how, shortly.

First off, some background: as a child, I suffered from frequent ear infections.  It seemed that every cough, wheeze, or sneeze heralded a virus that ended up lodged deeply and aching in my middle ear, where my only relief was couch time with glycerin drops and a heating pad.  I spent a lot of time on that couch.  During that time, I realized that I always had a ringing or buzzing in my ears that nobody could hear but me.  My father had it, too, and he taught me the name for it: tinnitus.  When my elementary school administered hearing tests to the students, I was sent home with a note to my parents, encouraging them to take me to a doctor for further examination.

I remember having the hearing test with the booth and the headphones and the tones of varying range and volume.  When I came out, the doctor showed me what he called my ‘cookie-bite’ hearing loss: normal hearing at the low and high ends of the spectrum, but a deep U-shape curve in the middle, demonstrating mid-range hearing problems.  The mid-range is where conversation takes place.  He explained to me and my parents that I had ‘nerve damage’ hearing loss, and he said there was nothing that could be done about it.

Over time, I got used to not hearing what others heard, and I tried to become a better listener to compensate.  I would sit at the front of class in school and take copious notes.  I tried to focus closely on what people said, and it helped a lot if I could see their faces.  I often asked people to repeat what they had said, or I would ask a person beside me to relay the information.  Before long, it was second nature to me to compensate for my bad ears.

Fast forward to a little more than ten years ago.  I was sitting at my desk at home when suddenly it felt like someone had come up behind me and tipped my chair backward.  I called out to my husband and clung to my desk for dear life before realizing I wasn’t tipping over and there wasn’t anyone behind me. 

Mr. Stuck came to help me out of my chair, and I soon realized that my balance was gone, my vision was distorted, and the room felt like it had gone sideways.  Any movement of my head caused a swell of nausea; I told him to take me to the bathroom in case I had to throw up.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen, but I sat on the bathroom floor against the wall for half an hour, trying to figure out what had just happened to me.  Mr. Stuck put me to bed, where the vertigo eventually calmed down. 

I went to the doctor and after several different tests was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease (MD).  Meniere’s is a disorder of the inner ear, characterized by vertigo, ringing in the ears, a feeling of ‘fullness’ in the ear, and progressive, intermittent hearing loss.  It can be treatable, but is not curable.  I noticed that when I had a vertigo episode, it seemed as though my ears were stuffed with cotton.  I read everything about MD that I could get my hands on; all of it said the same thing: most sufferers will experience intermittent temporary hearing loss, but for some, the loss would be permanent.  Great — just great.

To be continued in Part II

photo credit uppityrib

Back to School? Better You Than Me.

School clothes, the bane of my existence.

I was thinking about how different this August is from last August.  In June, I celebrated Number Young Son’s graduation from high school; but what he probably didn’t know is that I also celebrated the end of school clothes shopping.  I hate clothes shopping.  I have always hated clothes shopping.  And I will hate clothes shopping as long as I live.

Yes, I said it.

Shopping and I have had a mutually antagonistic relationship from the start.  School clothes shopping was by far the worst.  For one thing, Mother was practical.  She had to be, with seven children on one income.  She tried very hard to be equitable for each child while maintaining her budget.  So there was an allowed amount that would be spent on each of us; we would get shoes, a winter coat, undies and socks, and maybe a new outfit.  Being the youngest, my wardrobe was supplemented with hand-me-downs, too, and Mother also sewed for us.

In grade school, my mother would take me to the local stores for clothes and would choose several things for me to try on.  I hated — no, loathed — trying on clothes.  I was a chubby girl, and it was hard to find clothes that fit me right.  She would come into the changing room with me, and after I dressed, I would have to stand before her, following her direction to turn, bend, squat, and raise my arms.  She would tug on zippers and snaps, check snug waistbands, adjust crooked seam lines, and button my blouses clean up to the top, with running commentary about my posture (“Stand up straight!”), the fit of the clothes (“Now, why would anyone put bust darts in a child’s blouse?”), and their construction (“That wouldn’t see three washings before falling apart!”).  Ugh.  By the end of the day, Mother and I would be angry and frustrated with one another, and I would try to distance myself as far from her as possible, which was hard to do in the car.  I grew up hating clothes shopping, and that has stayed with me all my life.

When I was a teenager, clothes shopping trips were a little better, only because Mother would load us up in the station wagon and drive 45 minutes to the only mall around.  Plus, Mother no longer had to come into the changing room with me.  It was one of the two times we would go there each year — once for school shopping and once for Christmas shopping.  My sister and I would be chatting about all of the new fashions of the fall that we had seen in  magazines and catalogs, and we were eager to make our pilgrimage to the department stores and mall shops.

I would follow my sister’s lead into the junior department, where she would find cute clothes at bargain prices.  Missy was a great shopper — she had style and an eye for quality.  She had extra cash from her babysitting jobs, so she often bought accessories to make her outfits more versatile.  She enjoyed shopping, and her enthusiasm kinda rubbed off on me during those trips.  Instead of getting frustrated with clothing that didn’t fit, like I did, she’d shrug it off and find something else.  We’d hit a few stores that were having big sales, and eventually, we’d be done.  Mother often put our items on layaway, which was more affordable, but that meant we couldn’t even bring our new treasures home yet.  All that work and nothing to show for it — what a letdown.

The only part of school shopping I actually liked, rather than tolerated, was when we would buy school supplies.  Now that was fun — new PeeChees, unchewed #2 pencils, hard pink erasers, and later, binders, compasses, and a TI-30 calculator.  I loved the stiffness of the new folders, the perfect point on the freshly-sharpened pencil, and the clean, white pages of the new spiral notebooks.  I would try to negotiate with Mother for the ‘cooler’ pens — Flair felt-tipped or a nice Bic 4-color retractable — and sometimes she gave in.  When I got my own babysitting money, I spent it on a fountain pen with different-colored ink cartridges, finely perforated notebooks that wouldn’t leave the ragged edge that spirals do, and mechanical pencils with fine lead.  In high school, I had pens of every color and style, stencils, stickers, fancy binders, and a better calculator.  I still made paper-sack book covers, though.  Didn’t everyone?

Now this is the cool stuff.

When my own children became school-aged, I had to step into my mother’s role and take my kids shopping.  I had to endure their frustration with the changing room routine as I found myself doing the same things Mother did: tugging at zippers and snaps, checking snug waistbands, and commenting on the quality of the clothing and my children’s posture.  It never failed that the size they wore at the beginning of summer was too small by fall.  I budgeted a set amount for each child and broke it down to shoes and coats and pants and shirts.  I hit all the sales in all the stores and tried to get it done before we were all tired and cranky from hunger.  Still, for me, the best part of school shopping was done not at the mall, but in the stationery section of the department store.  Binders. Composition books. Protractors. Crayons. Glue. Red pencils. Blue pencils. Index cards. Rulers. I was in heaven. My sons didn’t care at all about a certain type of pen, nor were they concerned about the lead thickness in their mechanical pencils, but I shopped my little heart out.  It sorta made up for the other stuff.  Sorta.

When my sons entered high school, clothes shopping got easier.  I’d follow them around to the stores as they tried on what they liked, and I’d whip out my credit card and sign on the dotted line.  That kind of shopping I can do.  We didn’t have to spend a lot of time browsing and pawing through racks of clothing for just the right color or style; we didn’t have to try on 10 different outfits at each store.  Get them some sneakers, some socks and underwear, some shorts and tee-shirts, and maybe a hoodie, and that was fine.  It was a necessary fall ritual, and although I didn’t hate it with them as much as I did when I was young, it still wasn’t on my list of fun things to do.  Sorry, guys.  I love you, but I hate shopping — that’s just how I am.

College — that’s the new mindset.  It’s a whole different ballgame, but at least they can do their own shopping.  Thank goodness.

photo credit (top) Jessie Pearl