I’d awoken with a sore throat and a fever, so mother made me stay home. Daddy went to work and my sister left without me to walk the short distance to school with the kids from the block. I spent the morning on the couch bundled up in blankets, engrossed in one of the “Little House on the Prairie” books and sipping ginger ale through a straw from a nearby TV tray. Mother went about her daily housewife routine of making beds, starting a load of laundry, arranging the front window drape pleats, and raking the shag carpet.
After clearing my lunch of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup and Saltine’s, mother told me that it was her turn to host the monthly book club and the ladies would arrive at 1 pm. I was to take a nap in my room and behave myself. I had no idea she read books, let alone was a member of a book club. Being in sixth grade and self-absorbed, I never took notice of what my parents did outside of what involved me.
I sneaked a quick peek on a trip to the bathroom. Crystal ashtrays sparkled on doilies on the coffee and end tables. A vase of fresh flowers was the centerpiece on the dining table, flanked by platters of little sandwich triangles with the crusts cut off. The ladies had arrived bearing deviled eggs, a Jello fruit cocktail salad, and Ritz topped with swirls of Easy Cheese, pimentos and olives.
I could smell the faint scent of menthol-flavored cigarette smoke and hear chatter from my bedroom, but wasn’t really paying attention until I heard my name mentioned.
“And how are your children, Hilary? I heard that Heidi was chosen to represent Lincoln in the Spelling Bee?”
Mother answered, “Yes, she was. She beat out kids two grades older. She always has her nose in a book. Just like her mother.”
All the ladies laughed. Which I thought was odd, seeing as this was a book club.
“We are proud of her, of course. But I worry because all she wants to do is read and spend time on the boat with John. She says she’s going to sail around the world and write about it. I’m just glad she’s smart, being that she’s not pretty like our Jacqueline.”
Another woman commented, “Jacqueline IS a beauty. Have you thought about entering her in pageants or modeling?”
I didn’t listen to any more of the conversation.
I quietly shut my bedroom door and stared at myself in my dresser mirror.
Daddy had skin that tanned a deep brown in the summer, jet-black, wavy hair and intense emerald eyes with flecks of gold that sparkled with his wide grins. Mother had movie-star looks: porcelain skin, perfectly coifed blonde hair, bright blue eyes and pink rosebud lips. My sister was a miniature of our mother. I had my father’s features but a mixture of my parent’s coloring. Nothing remarkable.
Being sick didn’t help, because all my 11-year-old self saw was a plain, pale face with stringy dirty-blonde hair and boring, grey-blue eyes.
It was true. I was ugly.
Now that I was thinking about it, I remembered the ooh’s and aah’s when my sister was born, and how proud mother was to stroll her about the neighborhood in her pram, pushing back the bonnet to show off the darling baby girl. As soon as Jacqueline’s hair was long enough, mother styled it into white-blonde pig-tail ringlets like Cindy Brady, while I was given bangs and a pixie-cut. Not that I minded; I never liked to be fussed with and didn’t want to be forced to wear pink sponge-curlers to bed like my sister.
I had never given much thought to my looks. I wasn’t into boys quite yet and until this moment I couldn’t recall anyone remarking on my being ugly OR pretty. Being a straight-A student, I was often told I was smart. But now I wondered if people talked about me behind my back.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk. Poor child. She’ll never find a husband with that face.”
“Make sure she does her homework. She’ll need to be smart to make it in the world looking like that.”
“Well, at least you have one pretty child.”
These were conversations I had in my mind for the next few years. I never held it against my sister; it wasn’t her fault she had been born beautiful. And she wasn’t one of those Nellie Oleson girls, using her looks to taunt plain-Janes like Laura Ingalls. Jacqueline was as sweet on the inside as the outside and we adored each other.
It wasn’t until my first heart-break during the summer between middle and high school that I realized that beauty is more than skin deep.
Daddy and I were sanding Belfast Baby, my El Toro sailing dinghy, prepping her for a new coat of bottom paint before an upcoming regatta. Usually a chatty teen, I was quiet that day and he casually asked what was wrong.
“Nothing. I just wish I was pretty like Jac’s.”
“What are you talking about? You are beautiful, Heidi.”
“No, I’m not. I’m ugly. Boys don’t like me and mother even said that it’s a good thing that I’m smart because I’m not pretty.” Tears slowly ran down my cheeks.
Daddy took my hand and lead me to the bench, where I sat, staring at the ground.
“Look at me, Heidi. I don’t know where this nonsense is coming from. I’m sure your mother didn’t mean that, and it’s hard to understand right now, but boys will come and go. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
I rolled my eyes at my father. “Really, Daddy? That’s cheesy. I KNOW what pretty and ugly is, and so does the rest of the world. Some people are just born ugly and I’m one of them.”
A touch of anger sparked his next words. “Now you’re being ridiculous. You’re smarter than to believe that.”
“See, I’m the smart one. Jacqueline is the pretty one. It is what it is.”
“Well, if you are so smart, then tell me why I love you.”
“You love me because you are my Daddy. You have to.”
“I do love you because you’re my daughter. But I also love and admire you because you are beautiful in so many ways. You are kind. You volunteer as a Candy-Striper, organize our summer block parties and love to bake and garden with your Nana. You let your sister hang out with you and your friends, even though you wish she wouldn’t.”
I shrugged. “That’s what ugly people do.”
“Will you let me finish? I love your poems and how you share your heart in your writing. I love that you sing when I play guitar. I love how your cute little button nose crinkles when one of your mother’s dinners doesn’t taste so good. I love the way your eyes light up when you laugh. I love your smile when you’re at the helm in a stiff breeze. I love you because there is no one else just like my Heidi.”
I leaned into Daddy and he put his arms around me.
“I think you are beautiful and someday, the right boy will think you are beautiful for the right reasons, too. Now, let’s get to sanding so you can kick some ass on the estuary, my beautiful sailor girl.”
My sister is still beautiful, on the inside as well as the outside. Today, October 17, is her birthday and I wish her more joy than her heart can hold. Love you, Sis!
Written April 2019 for To Live & Write in Alameda’s monthly “Alameda Shorts” challenge with the theme of “Cheese or Crackers.” We were allowed to use one or the other … Cheese … OR … Crackers. You’ll note that I chose to go with “Cheese” but my usual rebel self was able to incorporate “Crackers” without mentioning the word directly. 🙂 This is the unedited version; our group leader wasn’t amused and made me edit, so I removed references to cheese for the reading.
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