Like most young women, I began journalling with diaries, which I kept for years - even decades. An example of such remembrances is shown below for the year 1953.
I first started going steady on December 4th 1953 - at least that's what my diary says. I remember the boy, John Williams - a big blond football player that was sweet and squishy in personality with slight freckles and huge hands. I was thirteen at the time. John was my first "steady" and presented me with a sterling St. Christopher medal to wear around my neck on a long silver chain. The engraving was Gothic Slant "To Nancy - Love Always, John".
When I returned to Dallas thirty years later, for a class reunion, I discovered that my first love was a practicing dentist, a career wish from his early teens, still living in Highland Park, as did most of my former school friends. We must have had a memorable night because the next day my diary notes that I was awarded John's I.D. bracelet. Boys wore large chain identification bracelets in the early fifties and the first sign that a girl was "going steady" was when you saw her in the school halls trying to keep that chunky piece of metal on her pubescent arms while simultaneously keeping books from five different classes balanced against her chest.
According to my Ephemeris, December 4th fell on a Friday. My parents certainly would not let me go out with John alone in the evening, but they had no specific qualifications as to how I should spend a Saturday Matinee. All of our gang would head off to the local cinema where we curled our growing bodies into every back row seat - arms, legs, heads, torsos impassioned in embraces that would be as impossible to reproduce today as they are to remember. The preliminary sneak previews, of upcoming westerns in addition to a medley of Hit Parade Songs, introduced the films as I received a passionate and slurpy kiss in accompaniment to Jo Stafford's "Why Don't You Believe Me?" - rated # 1 that week.
The first actual entry in my '53 diary is on January 30th when I reported that I spent the night with my friend Carolyn Taylor where we had a "charge time" writing that I "just adored 8th grade but am so sorry Buzz (the darling) had failed." We attended split grades at Highland Park Junior High; I was elevated a half grade when my family moved to Texas from Bethesda, Maryland. Although this was more a venue of competed courses than a mark in brilliance, I easily adjusted to the "older" group. I had not yet met John and was content to enter my teenage years in a state of virtuous inexperience. My mother was almost as naïve as I - when we finally found a house that met the majority of her infinite requirements, her disappointment was totally genuine as she turned on the kitchen tap and "Texas Oil" did not run freely through the faucet.
My next entry is on February 1st - the day of my piano recital. According to my notes "I had to go to Miss Cochran's house for a recital. (Obviously, Miss. C. was my piano teacher; a generously spread spinsterly matron whose name was long forgotten until I chanced upon this diary in preparation for yet, another move, decades later.) I drew eighth place in the performance line but changed with a frightened adolescent who had pulled #1 from the glass fishbowl (containing each of our names on a separate folded sliver of paper). The girl of the unlucky draw wanted never to perform - I wanted nothing more than to get it over with. I missed about four notes." End of notation.
Piano was obviously not as important in my life as socializing, but my lessons in some way made a difference in the quality of my life. One of the more pleasant events of a summer some 45 years later was to be asked, by the owners of a large sloop, if I would care for their portable keyboard during hurricane season while they returned to their home in the states. Completely digital and with every known combination of sounds to my untrained ear, both percussion and keyboard, I spent unhurried hours playing through eared sheet music - headphones securely in place enabling that only I hear mistakes - songs with chords. I was much too lazy to learn such complicated notations way back in '53.
The following Monday "we had a math test on which I made 81 - Ugh!
I walked home with my girlfriends Meredith and Nancy and had an 'ace time'. Later that night I noted that Johnny Florer had broken up with Carol. I now know this statement to be true as I was Carol's houseguest in '82 when we celebrated our 25th class reunion; she was most definitely married to Mike, not Johnny.
I remember vividly the only night my father ever slapped me. I was speaking, in sequential order, to "Jeanie, Carol, Meredith, Mary, Carolyn and Judy" on the telephone. He told me to get off - at least ten times - and I continued conversing for the next forty-five minutes. Although we didn't have cell phones, portables or even long phone cords in those days I had somehow managed to squeeze both the phone and my body into the hall cloak closet. I figured that Daddy couldn't possibly hear me whispering entwined in all of the outer garments stored there.
Obviously, I missed the point. He couldn't hear me at all but instinctively knew that I was on the phone, therefore disobeying a direct request, which rarely occurred in my case - either the order or the disobedience. Jerking the phone out of my hand he landed a right palm on my left cheek. Talk about a sting! I recall the shock of it all, much more than the pain. I adored my father but would not have cried, or let him realize my horror at what he had done, had he drawn blood. My stubbornness, as well as my pride, kept me seated on the third step in the stairwell, leading up to my room, with my hands gently holding the tender area. Three decades later I was to strike my older son for much the same reason "defiance " and again, only once in his life. Four decades later I remember I was wearing a blue sweater and skirt, which greatly defined my mood at the time.
Talking on the phone wasn't my only problem. On February 5th I noted that "Today is one of those dull days. We weighed in at gym and I weighed 105 (underlined three times with four exclamation marks) Tomorrow I am starting on a diet with Martha Jean." My face is lined in wrinkles of merriment as I read this. I am considered an attractive middle-aged woman with a "comely" figure at just thirty pounds and five inches more than in '53 but still consider that I am a bit overweight.
The following weekend I spent the night with Mary and we were "having gobs of fun". Mary is rolling up my hair and I am going to roll up hers." This is the first clue I have now as to how I have actually changed over the years. My hair is absolutely the last item on any list of personal concerns. I have worn it long for decades, either in a ponytail combed through a colorful band or in an exotic twist on the top of my head - held by unusual combs and long pins. When I first moved onto my sloop, ANTARES, I discovered that my hair must either be very short or very long as any personal item that requires attention greatly gets in the way of hauling sails, storing fenders and coiling lines. As hair is power, in the Biblical sense, I always keep mine long.
It will be two years before my oldest granddaughter is thirteen - the age I was when I wrote this diary. I wonder if she will receive the same "charge" from the cinema that I did on February 7th of that year when Robert Wagner appeared in "Stars and Stripes Forever" played at the Saturday matinee. Although I was later an activist against the war in Vietnam, I considered, then and now, myself as a patriot. Did I really write, "Boy! Oh, Boy! What a doll! What a man! What a babe! WOW!" Wasn't this the era of Joseph McCarthy, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the Korean War? Obviously, my parents never discussed what was actually happening in the world with either my younger brother or me.
Although I have never enjoyed shopping I certainly seemed enamored when my mother bought me an "adorable black taffeta quilted skirt with rhinestones on it, a brown and white checked tight skirt, a red jersey pull over and a precious white jersey blouse." I don't remember the tops at all and the brown and white checked skirt only vaguely but the black taffeta - now there was a real number. I had long forgotten the good times I enjoyed in that swirl of taffeta and remember crediting the beauty of the skirt as the reason for my youthful adventures. Each of my friends saved the cover of the family copy of LIFE Magazine - picturing the young Queen Elizabeth in her coronation dress, a floating cloud of gossamer - hiding it in our diaries as a memory as to the special importance of clothing.
Another notation gives even further insight. "Jeanie is coming over to spend Friday nite. Francha, Judy, Jeanine and I decided not to go horseback riding but bowling instead. I think Maury is mad at me. I sure hope not. I don't like to have anyone mad at me - not even boys!" After one marriage, several lovers and a current "Significant Other" of a decade, I wonder about this long ago statement. Confrontation still upsets me and I have yet to learn how to deal with the anger of others but now I am old enough to logically conclude a peaceful way to end the dilemma.
On March 12th I wrote "Dear Diary, Today I found out that I am going to take tennis lessons. I am so thrilled. Bob White gave his bracelet to Susan Baker. I wish he hadn't. We got our report cards. I made straight A's. I am so thrilled cause I am now on the honor roll for the first time. I played tennis against the garage today. Sue Anne wasn't in our room - she was moved for bad behavior and I can't say that I miss her." Sue Anne always gossiped and even in '53 unfavorable talk about others made me feel uncomfortable. Sixteen years later, as my father lay dying of cancer, he gave me some good advise concerning the subject, "Nancy - be kind to everyone. You never know who you are going to meet coming down that ladder that you met going up."
Do we each try to climb to our individual "top"? Growing older teaches me a great deal concerning this subject. Age doesn't particularly matter to sailors in the Caribbean and, quite frankly, neither does "being at the top." By the time I evolved to my present lifestyle I had learned a lesson or two. The top is filled by "shoulds" that are put into our lives by others and not ourselves. The top is also filled with fear - of the inevitable plunge. I saw, even at thirteen, that the top was certain death - to the spirit, to the relationships that you share with others and to true inner peace - the "isness" of being. Therefore, for me, being at the top, bottom or anywhere in between is complete nonsense it just doesnt exist.
The March 14th entry of that year causes contemplation. It was my brother's 9th birthday, "Today at 7 a little boy next door woke us up by screaming. We went back to sleep until 9:30. Mrs. Long picked us up at 10 but we weren't ready so she got everybody else who was taking tennis. Tennis lessons are so much fun. Mary, Judy, Carol, Jeanie, Francha, Anne and I take. We came home and played with the little boy next door because we felt sorry for him. Then I went to Jim's birthday party. He got so many gifts. Later I vacuumed the upstairs, skated and played tennis against the garage. Mom is over at Clement's house for dinner. Jim had a skating party but I didn't skate."
When Jim was dying of AIDS in '89 he confided to me that he never felt loved - that he always felt that the family was too busy for him and that I, his older sister by four years, was not even aware of his existence. I naturally told him that he was crazy - of course I loved him and we all cared, although both of our parents had long been dead and did seem to value property over relationships. He persisted in this thought of being unloved.
When I read this section of my diary I stop cold. Why was mother at someone else's house the day of Jim's birthday? Why didn't I skate? Did I even attend the party? As I study these pages a lack of emotion is as evident as a concern for anything deeper than a shallow adolescent viewpoint. I don't remember any of my brother's birthdays with the exception of the year in which he died. He was terribly ill by then and looked decades older than his forty-four years. Nevertheless, he had a black stretch limo pick us up at the Dakota, where both he and I had lived during his illness, and take us, with a handful of close friends, to Café Luxembourg - his favorite West Side jaunt. He loved the presents and the attention - a child again after cerebral dementia. And I loved him far more then than I had at thirteen.
Three days later I wrote that I "got up at 6:30 to see the Atomic Bomb Test." Directly following this sentence reads "We are having a picnic after the slumber party that only Jeanie, Carol, Francha and I are supposed to go to but now 12 kids are going. I'm glad too because then they would feel left out." Now I know that my concern for the uninvited underdogs is genuine, having been troubled by others' alienation, as well as my own, since youth.
On March 23rd "Our teacher, Miss Wicks, told us about the air raid. She kept saying 'bums' instead of 'bombs'. We were laughing so hard our heads kept hitting the tops of our desks. I went shopping for my Easter dress. It is precious." Reality hits as I sit at my computer and think of the final Solar Eclipse of the 20th century - only recently. A terrible earthquake occurred in Turkey while the Grand Cross of the eclipse was still in affect; it is still not certain how many people were killed. Sure I donated to Doctors Without Borders, but I also bought a new sarong. Mother always said that as much as things change, they always remained the same.
Humor never remained lost on me. On March 27th I spent the night with Clement. "We went to see the 'Quiet Man'. John Wayne drags Maureen O'Hara around by her hair. He was really a 'tool'. Afterwards we sat around and "chewed the rag" wondering if she really did have hair that red or did she dye it? We wrote in our "slambooks". Mother helped me starch two half slips to use as a crinoline for my Easter dress. Now it looks even better. I finally get to wear high heels and am so excited." Now that is a momentous occasion. Atom bombs are being tested in the desert of New Mexico but never mind - I get to wear heels. The irony of life - I haven't had on a pair of heels in two decades. They do tend to scar the topsides of a vessel. Now my fear is nuclear bombs in the hands of nations that are illiterate and violently aggressive - not to mention our own president!
My first reference to my mother's not understanding me - other than the Saturdays she made me do yard work rather than meet my friends at the cinema - was when I was invited to my first formal dance. In Dallas, in those days, girls would get together and host large formal dances, usually inviting grades 8 thu 10. As none of us could drive, young women would all attend together - elaborately dressed in complete formal attire. One of the fathers would take us and then another would pick us up at the end of the evening. In the meantime we would dance with boys, each other and in groups showing our love for the popular music, jitterbug, the Lindy and the Bop of the day. These invitations were coveted by all of the girls in the eighth grade as the lists were usually prearranged by girls older than we were.
On April 20th I received my first engraved invitation. A first class trip to heaven could not have been more important; however in my mother's eyes I was still a little girl and nothing would do but that I wear my plaid taffeta church dress to the dance. I cried and pleaded, pleaded and cried, talked to my Daddy, begged my mother -- I just had to wear a proper formal dress.
Finally Mother relented, taking me shopping, and I chose the most beautiful dress - finely stitched white net and tulle with ruffles with red roses on the skirt and a duo of the same swathed over the left breast, close to my heart. It cost $18.00. I also bought some matching shantung shoes thus completing the ensemble. I was so impressed with this outfit that I sketched it in the front of my diary. Looking back, I don't think Mom wanted for me to be left out - a fear more that the girls would look down on her than the actuality of giving in to my pleadings by allowing me to wear a formal. There is real peer pressure at work here - much like the teens of today with their gangs, tattoos and body piercings.
I attended the dance with Clement and Jeanie on May 1st - a May Day Dance. We were all just standing around - "about the first two hours of the dance I didn't dance one time. Then I was standing with Mary and Francha when the Football Captain, John Williams, asked me to dance. I danced every dance - he is in the high 9s (this was obviously the second semester of the ninth grade). I had so much fun." This entry was followed by eight months of puppy love romance. John walked me to classes, visited me at home, attended church with me and took me to the football banquet. I was later to receive his St. Christopher, ID bracelet and finally his football ring, which I wore on a velvet ring around my neck.
I close my diary - full of the expectation of the life lived then, now well spent. Recollections are amazing, shading the reality of decades with their hues of uncertain memory. The words of my adolescent self hit home as never before - somewhere, deep beneath the pain and authenticity of the ensuing decades, a thirteen year old still lives - longing for the experiences of hopeful decades ahead.
Below - My 12th Birthday Party at our house on Hanover
My first formal dance with John Rumley - Mother looks over us.
Mother, Jim and me in 1952 below
Our home on Hanover Street, University Park, Dallas, TX