Because I'm too lazy to blog today, I'm giving you another story. My mother is always after me to write down more stories from my childhood, so... here's an old one, although -- as of yet -- unpublished.
Preemptive Editor's Note: To my grandparents, should they ever read this -- I love you both and have long gotten over the "Monopoly Jr." disappointment. Your gift, after all, sparked a story.
Lauren had long stopped expecting a birthday present from her grandparents when it arrived. She came home from school to find a box sitting in the middle of the living room as if it were occupying a space of honor. It was a deliciously large box, going up past her knees almost, with the address written in black ink over an old label. Lauren peered at the scratch-out markings, pleased that she could discern her grandparents’ names under the ink. If there were ever a crime that needed to be solved concerning this box, she would have noted an important detail.
Her father took his keys – “honey, use the scissors!” – and tore through the packing tape. There was a layer of marshmallow padding, and then Lauren pulled out a wrapped package; small, flat, and undoubtedly the first of many.
Stubby nails served to tear the paper; it was a flat white box labeled “Nordstroms” – eew, but no matter; Grandma always re-used boxes – and then inside, wrapped in tissue paper, was a dress. A storebought dress, with four rows of tulle under the skirt. Shiny-shiny red polyester that felt like silk, with ruffles on the sleeves and a rose sewn to the waistband.
Lauren could not believe her luck. Imagine the stories one could play while wearing this dress. Imagine how the tulle would fly when she twirled. It was a movie princess dress, an Annie-finds-Mr.-Warbucks dress, the skirt as wide as Cartoon Alice. Lauren wondered if, when she jumped off of the porch or out of a swing, the dress would snap into a taut balloon.
“Lauren?” Her mother was holding a letter. “Lauren, Grandma and Grandpa sent our Christmas presents along with your birthday gift. Honey, that dress is supposed to be a Christmas gift for Jane.”
“This one’s the birthday present,” her father said, holding out a longer, flatter package. Monopoly Jr. – the same gift they had sent for her birthday last year.
And Lauren cried.
But Lauren did get to wear the dress; nearly two years later, after the calf-length hair of the Tropical Skipper she had bought with the store credit from the Monopoly game (a doll with hair that long could be Rapunzel, could be Melisande, could be herself in a few years) had long tangled past combing. It was the second annual “Celebration of Women” dinner at the Methodist church. At the first annual dinner, the good ladies of Kirkland had rustled up as many impromptu and make-haste “national costumes” as they could find, and did a parade of “women around the world.” There had been a kimono in Lauren’s size, and she had managed to disgrace herself during the Japanese portion of the presentation by stepping forward to describe the costume she was wearing and announcing to the entire Fellowship Hall that her obi was called a “boa.” To be fair, the makeshift obi was in fact a boa, and most of the people in the audience were unaware of the mistake, but Lauren flamed red for the rest of the evening.
For the second annual Celebration, the women were a bit more ambitious. They wanted performances, something to smile over; could anyone do a good Carol Burnett? This year’s theme was “women in entertainment.”
And thus Lauren, topping out at three-foot-seven and with seven months of tap under her belt, was asked to play Shirley Temple.
Lauren didn’t know who Shirley was, but by the end of the next week she had seen the two films available at the public library (Curly Top and The Little Colonel) and read Ms. Temple’s biography. She was more than envious that Shirley had gotten to play not only Sara in A Little Princess, but also Heidi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm; Lauren could care less about the rest of the filmography. The song she had to learn was ridiculously silly, but she got to do a few shuffle-ball-change steps inbetween the verses, which meant that she got to wear her shiny black patent-leather tap shoes. (The only time patent leather ever touched Lauren’s feet was with those tap shoes, and it was only because they didn’t come in regular, more durable leather.) It also meant that she got to wear the red polyester dress.
The dress, by now, was too small for Lauren; it was almost too small for Janey. But the waistband crossed Lauren’s chest at the same place it crossed Shirley Temple’s, and the little skirt rode high on her plump, dimpled legs. The four rows of tulle helped the skirt stand out, though Lauren’s mother could not be convinced to add a fifth or sixth row and Lauren was extremely aware that the ruffles drooped a bit compared to Shirley’s. As did, unfortunately, Lauren’s hair, which was straight as sandpaper and couldn’t even hold a rag curl. Her mother’s answer was to braid Lauren’s hair and pin the braids across the top of Lauren’s head, which would look not necessarily like Ms. Temple, but was cute enough for anyone’s purposes – but Lauren had another idea.
“Can I wear Grandma’s wig?” she asked.
Grandma’s wig was one of the better presents Lauren and Janey had ever received; it was secondhand, like the dress and most of Grandma’s other presents (the Monopoly Jrs were odd exceptions), and their mother had screamed, accidentally, when the present was opened and a handful of hair removed from the box. But two little girls needed a wig for their dress-up games, and so the cheap, brown, nylon thing, styled in a 1950s-era permanent wave, held court in the playroom and adorned the head of Snow White, Lucy Pevensie, and, of course, Jo March, after she cut her hair.
It was nowhere near Shirley’s ringlets, but it was unmistakably curly. It was also, in Lauren’s mother’s opinion, unmistakably ugly; but in the end she relented and thus Lauren was allowed to assume the role of Shirley Temple in a dress two sizes too small and a wig three decades too old for her.
“C – O – W,” whispered Lauren into her friend Rachael’s ear at lunch.
“What?” Rachael asked.
“C – O – W,” Lauren said, trying to invoke a secret bond between herself and her pretty friend. They both went to the same church, and Rachael, who had jet-black hair and thick bangs and got to eat hot lunch at school, was performing in the Celebration as the young Elizabeth Taylor, wearing stretch pants under a starched white shirt and talking about National Velvet. Rachael was uninterested in the performance and would read her lines from a notecard, which made Lauren unashamedly happy. Perhaps with her curly wig and her dress she would be prettier than Rachael. Right now she wanted Rachael to be in her club, in her little club of two with their secret password, and perhaps in time they would become friends and solve a mystery like the secret clubs always do in books.
But Rachael failed to understand.
“Lauren, why do you keep whispering cow?”
The day of the Celebration came, and Lauren could hardly keep still. She wanted to wear her wig and tap shoes and dress all afternoon long, to “feel like Shirley;” but her mother put her foot down. Her father made chili for dinner, and Lauren refused to eat it, and was almost sent to her room because she could not explain to her parents (it was too embarrassing) that she was afraid to eat chili before she had to sing and dance, for what to her seemed like obvious reasons. At last she ate enough bites to satisfy her mother, and was freed from the table.
The wig was donned, the shining shoes carried in hand as they walked to the church (the humiliation of wearing scuffed sneakers with a glowing red party dress was barely felt, because Lauren knew her feet would soon be gleaming), and at last the Celebration began.
In the picture that exists, of Lauren’s performance, one sees a tiny girl (tinier than Lauren even realizes), wearing a dress that is, admittedly, too small, and a strange dark bunch of curls with a red bow attached to one side. She does not look very much like Shirley Temple except around her eyes, and a bit of her smile. Her face, the only part that Lauren didn’t think to alter, is the part that looks like Shirley – her eyes glow happiness, and her grin entices the audience to sing and clap along.
After everyone has performed; after the tight band around Lauren’s chest has begun to hurt, a little; there is a trivia contest. Women from the Social Circle hand out roses to anyone who can raise their hand to answer a question about one of the famous female entertainers they’ve just seen. Lauren has been watching carefully, and knows many of the answers, but her hand is slower or smaller than the others and it never catches anyone’s attention.
The wig has begun to slip down over her forehead; it’s making her sweat and she doesn’t like it, but Lauren is listening attentively, eagerly, to all the questions. She knows if she can put her hand up fast enough, she’ll be called upon and she can prove to everyone that she is just as clever as any of them, as any of these grown-up women. Rachael sits nearby, swinging her legs aimlessly in her seat. Janey has fallen asleep against her mother’s arm. But Lauren is eager, her hand tensed in her lap.
And then: “In what Shirley Temple film does she sing the song Good Ship Lollipop?”
Lauren’s hand ricochets towards the ceiling. The announcer finally turns towards her.
“I think we forgot to mention a rule. You can’t answer a question for the person you’ve played.”
There is a bit of gentle laughter, but Lauren’s hand drops, humiliated. It wasn’t fair. She had raised her hand for every question and no one had noticed; it wasn’t as if she was only trying to answer the one about her. And there were so many other hands up – if the announcer thought it would be unfair to call on Lauren, why didn’t she just call on someone else? Why did she have to single her out and make up a special rule?
And as Lauren sat and stared at the floor, she suddenly saw a hand reach into her lap and leave behind a rose. A stupid rose. They didn’t understand at all. She had never wanted the rose; she had wanted to answer a question. She had wanted to play the game. When Janey woke up, Lauren gave the rose to her, which Janey shredded on the way home, leaving behind petals at every step.
After the second annual “Celebration of Women” dinner, it stopped being annual. No one had the strength to create a third, although Lauren dreamed for months of the women she could play. Laura Ingalls Wilder, with her long, straight braids, or young Marie Curie, bravely protecting her Polish classmates by speaking to the school board in Russian. Eventually she played the stories out by herself, with her dolls. And eventually she turned to new stories.
The red dress was never worn, by either sister, ever again.