I was a homely tomboy, tall for my age, skinny, awkward, painfully shy and afraid of everything from other kids to nuclear bombs. I was also scared of black widow spiders. I never saw a black widow spider in my life, but I was scared that I would see one, get bitten and die in writhing agony in the old tool shed in the back yard by the flower bed. Our dog Shep would find me after I’d been out there for a month or so. (Shep was too busy being the town’s alpha dog to be concerned about a dead family member in the shed.) I had heard that hair and fingernails would grow after a person died. I imagined my body with ten-inch fingernails and hair down to my feet. It was scary. Also gross.
Remember the story of the ugly duckling? Well, I never became a beautiful swan. The best I ever achieved was borderline pretty, and that was when I was made up for my yearbook picture. Most of the time I was in the “not ugly” class, one step above homely. My younger sister, on the other hand, was born cute and the older she got the prettier she became. To add to the lopsided equation, she was my Mom’s favorite. Parents aren’t supposed to have favorite children, but if a mother’s choice is between a potential Miss America and a potential Roseann Barr, who can blame her? My little brother was my father’s favorite, because he was the only boy in a half-Italian family. I was the extra kid.
To add injury to insult, I had bad teeth. If we had been rich, like all the people my family hated, that would have been corrected. Instead, my mother had to juggle the dental bills between all three of us kids and herself. I got plenty of fillings, but my teeth remained crooked and yellow. My father, on the other hand, had beautiful, white teeth with never a problem. He didn’t have the grace to pass that on to any of his kids. He did give me his great hair and a singing voice, though, so I can’t complain about not getting his teeth. Well, actually … yes, I can. And I do. Often. Especially when I have just had a couple of root canals that my dental insurance won’t cover.
I covered up my bad teeth by never smiling. That made me about as popular as a wolf at a sheepherder’s convention.
Having bad teeth didn’t stop me from eating 1950s junk food. I was especially fond of Cracker Jacks. They tasted good, they stuck all over your mouth and they had a little prize in every box in the form of a cheap plastic toy. We never knew what it would be until we found it. That was a pretty neat thrill for a kid.
Don’t knock those Cracker Jack prizes. They could make up a good part of the toy collection of a working class kid.
My image as an ugly duckling was not helped by the school uniform we had to wear through all eight years of Catholic elementary school. It consisted of a shapeless navy blue jumper over a white blouse, with white bobby socks and saddle Oxford shoes. We had to wear saddle Oxfords to save us from patent leather shoes. Everyone knew that patent leather shoes reflected upward and boys could see your underwear. No Catholic kid should ever have to end up in Hell over a pair of shiny black shoes, even that great pair in the store window that were to die for.
The boys had to wear gray corduroy pants, white shirts and bow ties. Those bow ties were probably as obnoxious to them as the ugly shoes were to the girls.
The worst part of being a homely kid was that I couldn’t charm my way out of trouble, like my sister could. When I tried to look charming, people got mad. I just didn’t have the face for it.
I counteracted this by developing an attitude and a smart mouth. If I couldn’t be a charmer, I could at least be snarky. I got frequent tongue-lashings from my parents for this. They didn’t appreciate that I was honing up my wit, which I would, someday in the distant future, put to use as a humor writer. At the time, I was just a smart-assed kid with no respect and bad teeth.
Thanks to modern dentistry, I don’t have bad teeth any more, but I’m still a smart ass. I’ll probably never change.