MIRROR, MIRROR – ELLIN CURLEY

A lot has been written about dieting and body image. What interests me is how we develop our body image in childhood and how this image haunts us through life.

Here’s an innocuous example. I am short. Very short. I am less than 5’1” tall. So it would be reasonable to assume that “short” would be part of my innate body image. But it’s not. I am constantly surprised when I stand next to normal sized people and realize how much bigger they are than I am. I believe this is because I grew early and stopped growing early.

So, in my formative years, I was one of the taller kids in the class. When you lined up by size, I was near the back of the line in first grade next to a girl named Liz who grew to be about 5’8” tall. I barely noticed as the years went by and everyone else continued to grow and I didn’t. It didn’t hit me until one day in sixth grade that I was at the front of the line next to my peanut-sized friend, Cathy.

How did that happen? As a result, I have never thought of myself as small. I am still confused when people comment on how tiny I am.

My mother illustrates the more pernicious effects of childhood perceptions. She was adorable as a child but had a thick, black uni-brow. Insensitive parents and family members referred to her as “the ugly one”. At the age of 13, she blossomed into a true beauty. This is not just an adoring daughter talking. My mother was scheduled to go to Hollywood in the 1940’s for a screen test until she got a severe case of Rheumatic fever that permanently damaged her heart. No matter how many people in her adult life told her how beautiful she was, her image of herself was always as the ugly duckling. She always felt totally inadequate physically.

Photo: thefrontporch.org

Photo: thefrontporch.org

When I was growing up, my insecure mom overemphasized the importance of looks to me. This made me very self-conscious about my appearance. She often told me that she didn’t understand how women who were not thin and beautiful ever got husbands. It’s no wonder that it was only in my 50’s that I felt confident to go out of the house without makeup on – ever! Even to the supermarket. I always wore makeup at home, alone with my husband, until recently with husband number two. It is liberating to be able to finally feel acceptable without cosmetic enhancement.

I believe that the self-image that is imprinted on us early in life stays with us forever. Extended therapy can improve the situation and strengthen the ego. But I think that it’s crucial for parents to make sure that their kids leave home with a positive body image. Too much emphasis is placed on physical appearance early on. So too many children, including me, grow up thinking that being beautiful is synonymous with being accepted, valued and loved.

We all need to feel comfortable in our own skin, whether we’re good looking in a conventional way or not; whether we’re skinny or “big-boned” or whether we are male or female. Neither of my children have serious body issues but I’m not sure if that is because of me or in spite of me. For me, I wish I could “do-over” my childhood and deemphasize the physical. Maybe I wouldn’t have spent so much of my life as obsessed with looking “good” all the time.

NOTE: Ellin is “in the air” today coming back from Los Angeles. I will be fielding comments in her stead. She says she’s sorry, but they don’t give you WiFi in the air. I can vouch for that. We were in dead space while we were coming back from Arizona. It’s one of many “cost cutting” features that makes air travel so much fun these days.

COLD MEMORY

I grew up in a very old, cold house.

It was first built in the mid 1800s as a four-room bungalow with a crawl space attic. At some point, owners raised the roof and built a small apartment under the eaves. One little bedroom, a miniature living room, tiny kitchen, and a bath. In front, there was a balcony just big enough for a single adult to stand and look down at the countryside.

This would eventually morph into our upstairs bedrooms. Two “kids” rooms so small the drawers were recessed into the walls to make room for beds, plus a slightly bigger space for my parents.

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The lower main floor expanded in all directions. From the original four modest rooms, it became seven. Each room was added to a different side of the house without regard for architecture or logic. It was a classic of “country” design based on utility alone. Eventually, the dining room had no windows and the large “salon” had but one small opening that faced north.

The downstairs was dark as night all the time. And chilly.

Two stairways twisted around each other, but there were eighteen doorways. You could get lost in the twisting hallways of that house. Some hallways ended at a blank wall. Perhaps they had gone somewhere … once upon a time.

My parents loved it. From the day we moved in, they began a series of renovation projects that would never be completed. I can’t remember when it wasn’t being remodeled. I still have a horror of home renovation projects.

One year, a slow-moving contractor left us without a wall in the dining room through a long, freezing New York winter. We wore overcoats from November till April when finally, the walls for the new room were added.

With all this renovating going on, you’d think they’d have put in a modern heating system at some point, but they didn’t. They kept the converted coal burner that probably was original to the house. The radiators were surely antiques, ornate, cast-iron relics from the turn of the century — possibly earlier.

That old furnace was barely able to heat to the first floor. The second story was effectively unheated.

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I was cold in that house most of the time. I developed a love-hate relationship with bathing. I loved being in a tub of hot water. It was the only time I was entirely warm. Getting in or out of the tub was terrible. The bathroom was frigid and I was a tiny, skinny kid. The kind of kid that is always being urged to eat.

Even today, I have trouble convincing myself to get wet in anything but the warmest weather. I have a knee-jerk reaction that getting wet equals chilled-to-the-bone. Until I develop some momentum, it’s a battle.

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It’s odd how old, nearly forgotten memories live on in our bodies. Physical memory is sometimes more powerful that more normal mental images. Some of my physical memories elude my conscious brain completely. I react, but I have only a dim, shadowy memory fragment of why. A lot of things I can’t remember are probably best left on the trash pile of personal history.

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One thing has come back to me.

I had a cold childhood. Cold at night, cold by day. Cold relationships with cold people. It shaped me in all kinds of odd ways that still linger as I trudge forward into my “golden” years.

SIBLING REVELRY – ELLIN CURLEY

I was an only child and I loved it! I felt bad for all those poor kids with siblings who had to share rooms, toys and above all else, parental attention. The world of my parents and grandparents revolved around me and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. When I decided to have a second child, I was pretty much in the dark about what it meant to grow up with a sibling and how a parent was supposed to handle this, to me, alien situation.

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When I was pregnant with my second child I worried how I would handle sibling tensions. I wondered if I could avoid identifying with the older child who had been an only child for almost five years. I felt guilty about destroying his monopoly on adult love and attention and also about bringing a child into the world who would never experience being the sole center of the family’s universe.

In the early years, juggling the needs of the two children turned out to be easier than I had imagined because of the large age difference. For example, for several years I could give exclusive attention to my baby daughter when my son was at school. In fact, my kids got along amazingly well throughout their childhoods so I was spared a lot of the sibling rivalry and hostility I was so afraid I would mishandle.

Then they grew up and all Hell broke loose!

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They reversed the usual sibling process. Just when they should have stopped fighting and butting heads, they started doing it. I don’t know if it’s easier to be in the middle of this bickering and sniping with young adults than with young children. I know I obsessed about what I had done wrong that prevented the great sibling bond I had heard so much about from forming in my children.

It took years but the anger and tension seem to have ended. Lo and behold, my children have found that incredible adult sibling bond that surpasses parental approval and attention in importance. When one of them has a problem, the other is there in a flash with unquestioning loyalty.

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Sisters

They have very different interests and lives, but at 30 and 35, they have a connection I envy. For the first time I my life, I wish I had a sister or brother to share memories and family responsibilities.

I wish I had the special bond you can only get from growing up with someone, day in and day out, in the same house with the same family, sharing pets and friends, secrets and jokes. I don’t have that special person who shares my genes and childhood. The person who will always be there for me in a unique way no one else can.

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My long deceased parents and grandparents made me the center of their world, but now I have no one with whom to share those memories of my cherished only childhood.

TAKE ME BACK – CONEY ISLAND, AS REMEMBERED

Take me back to Coney Island, the Coney Island I remember from when I was a child.

Boardwalk at Coney Island - Marilyn Armstrong

I want to be on the Boardwalk. I want to sniff the air full of the aroma of spicy exotic food, pop corn and hotdogs. I want to smell the salt air blowing off the ocean and shade my eyes from the gleam of bright sun on white sand.

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I want to hear the endless screams of riders on the Cyclone, the squeal of kids discovering how far they can see from the top of the Wonder Wheel.

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I want to watch the people, all the different people of every color from everywhere in the world as thy gape at the strange wonders along the boardwalk, hear the rumble of the elevated trains passing.

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I want it to be exactly how it was the first time I rode the big roller coasters and screamed in delighted terror. I want to be that child again for a single day, the little girl discovering fear and wonder on a hot summer day when the world and I were both young.

MEMORIES OF CHRISTMAS – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Here we are again somewhere in what’s probably the most bittersweet or sweet bitter time of the year for most of us. It’s the jolly, holly almost Christmas time.

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It’s when we see everything filtered through childhood memories, wrapped in music, movies, and hectic preparations. Ready to greet folks we don’t often see.

We force ourselves to shift gears, putting aside worries about health, bills, and family drama. Put on a happy face for the most wonderful time of the year. 

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Emotions are curious things with which the holiday season plays fast and loose. For those of us who tend to internalize our feelings, it can be tricky. Smiling isn’t easy. Showing happiness is not instinctive.

It was easy for me to show emotions in my professional life. I can still produce a professional smile on cue. But now, we’re talking about real life. As time has marched on, I find it harder to get into the Christmas spirit. I miss childhood.

As a kid, Christmas was anticipation. I was Ralphie in A Christmas Story. The year I campaigned for the two-gun Roy Rogers set was very anxious. My hopes were almost dashed when I thought Santa had not heard me as we ripped though our presents that Christmas morning. But Dad, who always had a funny smile during Christmas and New Year’s Eve, motioned to one last present.

A Christmas Story - 1983

A Christmas Story – 1983

Yes!! It was the deluxe Roy Rogers two-gun set with 2 rolls of caps!! Even Mom smiled as I squealed in delight. I never thought we were poor, though Mom frequently reminded us. We nearly always got what we wanted for Christmas. We didn’t feel deprived.

My holiday memories include a whole tribe of relatives who are gone. Our Christmas card list was long. It included aunts, uncles, cousins, grandpa, grandma. I still see them clearly in my sense memory. I used to carefully print the card messages when I was young. As I grew older, I proudly displayed my penmanship, writing endearments to my relatives. I thought they would be in my life forever.

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These days, I am the only one in the family who sends real Christmas cards. I write messages to each person and get writer’s cramp for my efforts. But I see my Mother hovering behind me somewhere, nodding her approval. I have to nudge myself not to buy or write cards for Mom, Dad, Grandpa, Grandma … and all those aunts and uncles.

I chide myself, “Hey, you’re not a kid anymore.”

Photograph and card designed and created by Bob Mielke

Photograph and card designed and created by Bob Mielke

I’m Gramps, one of the old people, something our 19-year-old granddaughter likes reminding us. With that reminder comes a sense of loneliness that lingers. Movies are my fix, taking me back in time. Unlike the real world, the movies stay the same.

I grew up a child of the movies. I saw my first film, The Best Years Of Our Lives, during the holiday season of 1946. My Dad had just returned from the war. He was in uniform and seemed 10 feet tall as we went to the venerable radio City Music Hall to see the movie which is still a favorite with Marilyn and me. Movies and their fantasies have always been a part of my life, my personality. I am comfortable, charming, loquacious when talking about movies. I lose myself in movies, especially westerns and holiday movies.

I can laugh, smile, cry and sing along with favorite movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet Me In St. Louis, A Christmas Story, The Shop Around the Corner, and many other memorable films shared in our collective sense memory. But once the movie is over, it’s back to reality minus the celluloid good cheer.

It was the same way during my life as a TV news reporter. I did holiday stories ranging from heartbreak to feel-good. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people over the decades, watched those stories and associated me with festive times. The real me chuckles at TV reporter me — trying to separate fact from fiction. Print the legend, they say. Roll everything.

One of the nice things about this holiday season is catching up with long-lost friends who’ve found me on Facebook. One person, a former mentor, who I presumed dead chatted me up, clearly remembering the years when I was a young reporter full of myself.

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It’s nearly Christmas again. The big tree has been replaced  this year by a small, imitation tree. The gifts are waiting to be wrapped. This evening, we watched “A Christmas Story” and laughed. As we always do.

And as I write this, Bing is singing “White Christmas”. As he always does. Every year, just in time for Christmas.

UNLESS THE COWBOY THING WORKS OUT

My father drops me off and just leaves me there in front of the huge brick building. Little me, standing on the wide sidewalk, autumn leaves swirling around my ankles. I’ve arrived but I have no idea what I’m supposed to do next. I’m four and starting kindergarten.

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Some weird timing things made me the youngest kid in the class. And the smallest.

All the other kids are bigger, taller, bulkier. I will always be the shortest or second shortest until high school, which is a long way off.

I wait for help. Eventually someone collects me, asks me my name, herds me towards a group of other little kids. Some of them are crying and all of them look lost. If a parent stuck around to watch over us, I never saw them.

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1951 was not the year for coddling kids. When the time to leave the nest came, mama birds gave a push and out you fell, tiny wings flailing.

Kindergarten was in a huge room on the ground floor. They didn’t want the wee ones getting run down by the bigger ones. Or getting lost in hallways.

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The ceilings are miles overhead and the windows go to the ceiling. Miss O’Rourke has to use a hook on a long pole to open or close them. I wonder why they don’t have normal windows.

The teacher looks ancient. Blue eyes behind steel-framed glasses and frizzy grey hair. She’s tall, talks loud … and slow. Everyone in my family talks loud, but no one talks slow.

When nap time comes, we’re supposed to put our blankets on the floor and sleep. I’ve never taken a nap, at least not that I can remember. And I don’t have a blanket. My mother didn’t know I was supposed to bring one. I also don’t have a shoe box for my crayons. All the other kids have one. It won’t be the last time I’m the class oddball.

Worst of all, I don’t have crayons. My mother didn’t know I was supposed to bring crayons.

She’s busy. I got a new sister a few months ago. She cries all the time and mom didn’t have time to come to find out all the stuff all the other kids’ mothers know.

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I sit in a chair, very quietly, while everyone naps. Or pretends. I don’t think they’re asleep, but they all lay on the floor and pretend. Mrs. O’Rourke takes that time to write in her notebook.

It’s a long day. I have almost a mile to walk home. My mother doesn’t drive. She doesn’t worry about me. I’ll find my way. It’s just the walk home is long and uphill. I’m tired.

I don’t know why I had to do this. All we did was play with toys. I could have stayed home and played with my own toys.

By the time I know the answer, I’ll be 19, graduating from college. When I learn the answer, it won’t make sense. School will be where I sit around doing things slowly so other kids can catch up with me. Or math, where I have no idea what’s going on. I don’t even know what questions to ask. Who needs that stuff anyhow?

I’m going to be a writer. Unless the cowboy thing works out.