I’ve had a few revelations in my lifetime, but none so vivid as the very first. It led to the creation of myself as the person I am today, and let’s just say I learned very early on that I was going to need some tweaking.
It all started with the gold lamé swim suit. I was 6 at the time and had just polished off first grade with a flourish. As a reward, my mother took me downtown on the city bus and let me pick out something new. I squealed when I spotted the shiny swimsuit glimmering in the store front window.
Mama flinched. Not a fan of water, she rarely let me near any. The bath tub was my only source of aquatic recreation, except for the rare occasion when I wore Mama down with incessant begging and was allowed to play under the water hose with Barbara Jean, my next door neighbor. It was 1954 and none of us had air conditioning, so we spent most of our daylight hours outside seeking shade and anything wet. Her dad didn’t mind squirting us silly in the sweltering Delta heat that enveloped Memphis in summer.
Reluctantly, Mama asked the sales clerk to remove the swimsuit from the window. I knew she was hoping it wouldn’t fit, but it did and I lived in that damned thing for the next three months.
At summer’s end, Mama saw a sign posted at the local drug store announcing a children’s beauty pageant in South Side Park where Little Miss South Side would be crowned. For reasons I’ll never understand, Mama was intrigued by the idea and thought I should enter.
When we told Daddy, he was all over it. My daddy was of the opinion that I could do anything and frequently told me so. According to him, I was the cutest, smartest little minnow ever to swim the birth canal. So I’m thinking this beauty pageant should be a piece of cake for a kid with my credentials and a gold lamé’ swimsuit. Besides, the idea of having my own crown was really starting to grow on me.
On the morning of the pageant, my mother rolled my unruly, straight-as-a-poker chestnut mane on tiny pink rubber curlers that tangled unmercifully when she tried to remove them. I hated it, but did grasp the concept that beauty often comes at a high price, even at a tender age. Keeping my screams to a minimum, I watched in the mirror as Mama perfected my curls and pronounced me ready to go. I jumped into my adorable swimsuit and scurried to the park, giddy with excitement and intoxicated at the thought of my impending coronation.
When we got there, the park was already swarming with little girls. I surveyed the competition, still feeling great about myself until my eyes fell on Mary Alice, a tiny 4-year-old cherub of a girl. The late afternoon sun seemed to revel in this kid, turning her silver-blond Shirley Temple curls into spun gold and her exquisite snowy white baby teeth into tiny pearls. A regular JonBenet Ramsey minus the spray tan and hair extensions; dimples so deep you could plant crops in them. I could go on, but you get the picture. To this day, I can still see her standing there rocking her cool turquoise swim suit, while mine went from lamé to lame in the twinkling of a big blue eye.
My goofy gap-toothed grin quickly faded. I could feel my elusive crown slipping away. Soon it would be perched in a nest of golden curls high atop Mary Alice’s smug little head, and you could just tell she knew it.
Of course you might be wondering… why was she any different from me? After all, I, too, had arrived at the park cloaked in delusions of grandeur. Well, the difference is that she was right and I wasn’t. He’d just failed to mention that the whole world wouldn’t be viewing me through his eyes.
It simply didn’t matter whose eyes you were seeing Mary Alice through, there was no denying her extreme physical beauty. Helen Keller could have picked up on it. How could any child be that beautiful? It simply wasn’t fair.
There was no win, place, and show back then… no runner-ups. Just one glorious winner in a sea of pathetic losers. When Mary Alice’s name was called, many of the other little girls started to cry. Not me. I’d seen it coming a mile away. I sucked it up and moped home with my loser tail tucked squarely between my spindly little stork-like legs. When I got there, I sulked to my room, ripped off that gold lamé swimsuit and threw it in the corner. It laid there shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight drifting through the bedroom window, mocking me from the floor. I never wore that thing again.
Mary Alice may have walked away with the crown that day, but I actually turned out to be the real winner. I had learned an invaluable lesson… I was NOT going to get by on my looks. Losing that pageant had taught me to look inward for my self worth before I even knew what self worth was. There had to be more to me than met the eye, and I’d spend many years making sure that happened.