Memories 13: Book Learning

My mother and her friends grew up in the fifties. They went to college, married young and had two kids each. Of the eight of us, my sister was the oldest. Then came D, the only boy. There were four of us who were approximately the same age, K, D’s sister, T, L and me. J brought up the rear. I like all of these people, but somehow we just never became close. Several times, however, I made a stab at a closer friendship with T and K.

One weekend I stayed at T’s house. Their house was what is called a Cape Cod style, a free-standing suburban house with a fairly compact layout. The second story was under the eaves with a sloping ceiling and dormer windows. It was long and narrow and ran the length of the house. T’s bedroom was at one end her younger sister’s bedroom was at the other with a bathroom they shared in between. The two bedrooms were reached by a staircase that was tucked away behind a door, so the second floor felt like a children’s hideaway. Their mother gave them a slightly freer hand in decorating their rooms that most suburban mothers did and each room reflected its occupant’s taste.

T’s room had ruffled curtains and walls painted a soft pink. On the carpet, lying in the middle of the room as if she had just finished reading it earlier that day, was a book. I looked at the title, My Darling, My Hamburger. That had to be one of the stupidest titles I’d seen in a long time and I didn’t hesitate to say so.

“Yeah, but it’s actually a really good book. Do you want to borrow it?”

I picked up and flipped it open. “Yeah, okay. If you say it’s good.”

T excused herself for a moment and headed to the door. On the side of the door facing into the room was a full length mirror. As T approached it, she paused for a second and regarded her reflection. Suddenly she stuck out her tongue and made an angry face.

“Why did you do that?”

“I hate the way I look,” she said matter-of-factly and sauntered out of the room.

After the door clicked shut, I approached the mirror and looked at my own reflection. I made a similar ugly face to see what it felt like. It felt silly. Then I looked at myself again. It hadn’t occurred to me to have an opinion about my face one way or another. Until then, I just accepted it for what it was neither thinking it was pretty nor ugly. My eyes were brown and my hair was brown. I knew enough about the culture’s standards of beauty to know that these were not the preferred colors, but I didn’t dislike them on other people and didn’t attach much meaning to it. I turned away from the mirror, sat down on the rug and opened the book.

In those days, I could inhale a young adult book and there was no need to borrow it since I managed to finish it before leaving. It was, at least in my memory, a dreadful book. It was, very palpably, intended for teenage girls a few years older than I was at that time. Of course, no one reads the books intended for their age group. They read the books meant for kids a few years older. By the time you’re twelve, and adults idea of appropriate entertainment for you seems juvenile. At least, that’s how it was in those days. Kids seem to stay kids longer these days.

In the book, there was a good girl and a bad girl. The good girl is insecure. The bad girl is attractive and has boyfriends. The bad girl gets pregnant and has an abortion, which of course has complications. Sexuality needs to punished. I wasn’t very old, yet I could see through the lesson I was supposed to learn from the book. These were the roles offered to young women, but I didn’t want to be either girl. Nor did I want to be like T, sticking my tongue out at my reflection in the mirror.

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