Tender Years Spent Badly Dressed

John Cafferty from the Beaver Brown Band, whose song Tender Years was chosen as our prom theme. Yes. I said Prom Theme.


Junior Prom for Triton’s Class of 2016 is in the books. “How was it,”  I asked my daughter when I saw her the next morning. “Fun,” she said. “But it wasn’t what I expected.” Well, I thought, there’s one thing her prom and mine had in common. But that might have been the only thing.

First of all, she got asked. Not a promposal, that modern day upping the anxiety ante that makes me glad I don’t have a son, (So far, there is no gender equity in this area so the pressure is off girls.) but a perfectly nice young man asked her the old fashioned way: face to face, no hooplah. For my prom, I had to do the asking. For days, weeks, even, I came home and said, “This will be MUCH easier to do on the telephone.” Then, I retreated to my bedroom and stared at the extension until I declared: “You know what? In person will be MUCH easier than calling.” Then I’d pass him in the hallway and think: “Uh-uh. Phone.”

My daughter and I shopped for her dress in December because I had heard horror stories about people waiting three or four hours in warehouses full of other mothers and daughters later on in the season. Too Who-Concert, I said. She looked at me the way she does sometimes and carted a few dozen dresses behind the curtain in the almost empty store.

I had my gown made by my mother’s friend Shirley, picked out the Gunny Sax pattern and the calico myself.

Beatrice chose a blue, bejeweled number that was exactly twice the amount I had intended to pay (which was still more than my wedding dress cost). I don’t remember how much my gown cost. Beatrice looked red carpet ready; I looked like Laura Ingalls Wilder.

The week before prom, Beatrice had her nails done; I chewed mine to bloody stumps in anticipation of the big day. Beatrice did her own hair into an up-do that prompted many to ask where she’d had it done. I, thankfully and just this once, did not blow dry mine into my usual Barry Gibb lookalike style.

We had no no meeting for pictures in two scenic places with other couples. First my date and I had an incredibly awkward staging in our kitchen where I forgot to introduce my dad who came in from the barn — a rare break in the workday. We took a few pictures with the sink in the background, just me with my bouquet and my date with his hands folded in front of him. He wore a navy blue tux. Only when we got in the car to head to Donna’s house (where we have another photo op beneath the clothesline) did I notice he was wearing white socks. We also did not instantaneously upload any of these photos to the internet (thank Christ). In fact, only a year or so ago, did Donna share her pictures with me. I wish I could say I looked better in retrospect, but, no — still the beaming homesteader.

After the interminable Grand March, Beatrice and her classmates boarded busses in the high school’s parking lot, off for a safe and sober evening. After I made my date change into a pair of Donna’s stepfather’s socks, her date drove us to Providence. I’m pretty sure we didn’t wear seatbelts (ddi cars even have them in the back seat in 1981?). Before we got out of Westerly, Donna had spilled Riunite Lambrusco down the front her own WHITE Gunny Sax. (Just to be clear: the drinking age was 18 just a mile and a half away from where we went to high school and if there was an open container law, we hadn’t heard of it). Our chaperones might have smelled the wine on us, or, in Donna’s case, have seen the blatant evidence, but perhaps they were distracted by the cloud of pot smoke and Patchouli that hung over the ballroom.

I remember little about the prom itself. Live music to which we girls danced, afterwards, a party during which time I mostly could not find my date. We watched the sunrise on the beach which, in any other person’s prom night memory, might have been romantic. In mine, my date ignored me and I was left to ponder how amazing it is that such a big star starts out over the horizon as such a tiny orange ball.

When I walked into my house at 5 AM, the bathroom door had just clicked shut: my father waking for his day. My mother sat with her coffee cup at the table: “You better get yourself into bed before your father sees you,” she said. If she had asked how my night had gone, I would have parroted my daughter who neither of us could have imagined that day.

After her prom ended, Beatrice camped out with friends in a closely chaperoned gathering where the parents turned the heat up in their pool. After everyone swam, they gathered around a campfire or played cards in their tents. Soberly. The kind of night that doesn’t inspire anyone’s date to call a year later, as mine did, and apologize for his behavior.

This week, we might put her dress on Craigslist, try to recoup some of the money we spent in our attempt to get the hell out of that store before the trampling began. I don’t know whatever happened to my dress though the image of me in it floats by me somedays, and then I say: Oh, that’s right! I was never in the musical Oklahoma! I never busted sod in Nebraska Territory! That was just what I choose to wear to my first formal occasion.

For ____

Your father died. I read his obituary in my regular trolling through that section of our hometown’s newspaper. Neither of us lives there anymore. Your father’s face was the same: a mug, really, the grin like a caricature of a grin. One summer, he fired up the charcoal grill. Your mother mixed breadcrumbs into the hamburger to stretch it for all of you kids. He got all meat. He had worked all day. It was hot and he was home, grilling hamburgers. You were going to eat at the picnic table. These were the kinds of things — stretching food, eating outside, using a charcoal grill, — that seemed impossibly exotic to me. This was a life I peered into. I, I’m almost certain, walked back home through the woods to supper at my own house. But his face. I knew it instantly despite the white hair, the years. I remembered how he liked to dance.

In class I asked my students what about A Prayer for Owen Meany could be considered Dickensian. So many characters to keep track of, they said, also subplots, tangents, the needless journeys Irving takes his readers on after he writes: You shall see. (Dickens, they remember, had an excuse to drag things out. The man needed a paycheck. But Irving?) They said: Oh! and the overabundance of coincidence.

I didn’t expect you to have a Facebook page and, it turns out, you don’t use it much. But there you are. Speaking of familiar faces. I have no idea what you’ve done with your life. Have only heard bits and pieces from my family who see you every few years. Their happiness at reuniting with you silences me. What should I tell them? That I don’t want to know what you said? That it doesn’t help me to know? That the life I lead now is the life that happened after/because-of/in response to you? I was fifteen years old. We were friends and then we weren’t.

You decided (and I don’t blame you for this, even all these years later) that we wouldn’t be friends anymore, that you had chosen another friendship, instead, that I had left you no choice. Could you have had any idea what the reverberations of your decision would be? Whatever ideas I had of friendship were flawed and I had no idea how to fix them. For a long time, my own guilt consumed me. I had a best friend and then I didn’t. It had been my responsibility to protect that friendship, but I hadn’t.You were not like me. In all the best ways, you were not, and so, you went.

My daughter comes in to my bedroom to say good-night. I’m reading without my contacts on which means I hold the book up to my nose and can’t see past my knees, but I put my glasses on when she doesn’t move from the mantle to sit on my bed. “Have you been crying?” I ask. She never cries, but she has been. She starts again. I can’t imagine her, a teenager very unlike the one I was: confident, athletic, connected, this upset. She has been on the phone for hours, caught in a web that is one part her doing, one part the betrayal of two people she loves and who she feels have betrayed her. Two friends she has know since nursery school. “All this time you have been talking to them?” I ask. She says her hands are  shaking, that at least one of them won’t take her call, another won’t listen, a third, a stranger, really, is texting her things so overblown, she thinks the best thing to do is to ignore them all finally. “And you’ve been crying. All this time.”

What a quiet house I thought it had been. Me with my book. The other girls doing homework. Dennis reading the newspaper by the woodstove downstairs. No one answers a phone that never rings, no one drags the cord around a corner until it threatens to snap, slides down the wall to sit against the baseboard so she can have some privacy.

In my mother’s house, the phone didn’t ring, either. For a different reason, of course. She asked about you. She hadn’t trusted me to be a good friend. I have never asked why. The dissolution of our friendship did not surprise her, but she was disappointed in me, angry even. Once I said, “I miss her,” and my mother said, harshly, without looking at me, “I miss her, too.”

A Prayer for Owen Meany, is a story about friendship. Owen kills John’s mother accidentally and that night, John gives him his most prized possession, a stuffed armadillo. He wants Owen to understand: no hard feelings. This is one thing that happened to us, his gesture said, but there will be others.

My daughter worries about who she will have lunch with the next day. Outside, a March wind gusts. January air three days before spring. I say she doesn’t have to go to school the next day. “And then what?” she says. “Then the day after that is the worst day of my life?” Dennis says, “Don’t imagine what you went through and what she is going through are the same.” I’ve prepped her, have prepped all my daughters, for this. Keep your circle of friends wide, I tell them. Instead of this friend – these friends; Instead of this group – these groups. My own mother hoards canned goods. She remembers what it’s like to go hungry.

Know this: Sometimes, even now, I can’t believe them – Cindy, Lauren, Teresa, Jon. Jeanne K, Jeanne B, Melissa. Rob. Robin. Cathy Lange. Kathy D. Rebecca, Brenda, Sarah. Anne, Holly, Colleen. Karyn and Sue, Dennis’s friends who have become mine too, college friends, knit night women, and book club members, colleagues, former students, old friends from fair days, new friends from my writing life, from the sidelines where I watch my daughters be the kind of women I wish I had been. The names of these people are always a prayer for me, full of disbelief, full of thanks.

The practice essay for the AP exam this week asked students to consider the theme of sacrifice. They chose Sydney Carton, the Mirabal sisters, Owen Meany. What about Owen’s friend, John? one of them asked. Didn’t he sacrifice, too? His whole life after Owen died was filled with tirades. He never even had a relationship. Yes, some agreed. Whenever I got to John’s parts, I skimmed as fast as I could.