Noelle SterneMy father was a difficult man. A talented violinist, a natural leader, he was unfulfilled in music and little appreciated in his managerial administrative job. As so often happens, he vented his terrible frustrations and longings on those closest—his family.
He constantly belittled my younger brother for his unfortunately protruding ears and teeth and ineptitude in all things mechanical, an ability, according to my father, every man should have.
Me? He ignored me.
In my preteen years, I excelled at almost everything they supplied. The piano lessons yielded offers of scholarships to a local music conservatory. My report cards bore unrelenting As and assured a good, even top, college. I mastered the kitchen by my mother’s side, proudly serving a Sunday stew or tomato sauce of my own making. At single-digit ages, I produced rhyming poems and became known in the family and with my parents’ friends for my creativity and sense of humor, which often showed up in poetic puns. I learned everything quickly—drawing from my mother, typing from a class, knitting from a book, checkbook balancing from an uncle. From my parents’ library, I devoured classics and best sellers and could hold my own with the adults’ critiques.
The relatives and neighbors, even our pediatrician, beheld me as a golden child. In our living room, after one of my impromptu piano recitals or poetry readings, they whispered to my mother that they wished their children would be as smart and talented.
Despite all this stardom, as adolescence crept up, I became your basic awkward, insecure thirteen-year-old. The glasses didn’t help, the acne didn’t help, the excess flesh at crucial spots, and not enough at crucial others, didn’t help, the dull brown hair didn’t help, the intellectual bent didn’t help.
I had a few friends but never the best ones, according to the cruel peers who placed clear skin, slim waists, flowing shiny hair, and mid-Western cuteness above all else.
As I blossomed into more unsightliness, my father continued to ignore me. His inattention, no matter how much I accomplished or my mother nagged him, increased my feelings of isolation, ugliness, and worthlessness.
In junior high school, the girls all took “Home Ec” (accent on the “Ecch”). It was almost a welcome respite from the college preparatory courses of English, math, history, civics, and science. You learned how to boil an egg (I still can’t get it right), bake simple cakes from scratch (and eat them, no help to my non-perfect-girlfriend girth), create Christmas decorations from rags (my Santa’s faces always looked hung over), and near the end of the school year, sew or knit your choice of a piece of clothing. This assignment was cooked up by the principal and Home Ec teacher to culminate in a bang-up year-end fashion show in the school gym, with parents invited.
There was no escape. Mrs. Monegan, the Home Ec teacher, instructed the class in our projects and made a list of everyone’s choices. She said she wanted balance on what would be the improvised runway and took us to see it, presumably to visualize our glories. The runway was a long, wide rubber mat, meant to protect the school corridors in heavy rains and appropriated for the big show from the maintenance department.
From one of my mother’s supermarket magazines, I chose a batwing sweater, figuring I could actually wear it later (I excelled too at practicality). Having recently taught to myself to knit, I wanted more of a challenge than a six-foot scarf in the colors of the Ivy League college my mother was gunning for. The sweater in the picture had fat horizontal blue and white stripes, roomy enough to hide my chubbiness but sporty too.
I worked diligently on the sweater for two months, thrilled to see it take shape.
My mother gave me a big orange tote to take my production to school, and I didn’t show it to anyone except Mrs. Monegan. She inspected it as I progressed, sometimes ripping out several rows and showing me how to do it better. I didn’t mind.
As the date of the fashion show grew close, after school Mrs. Monegan had the class rehearse our entrances into the gym from “backstage,” a side door off the supply room. We rehearsed diligently with a temporary runway of cardboard floor protectors the janitors used for repairs. Mrs. Monegan, fancying herself a fashion commentator, wrote an introduction for each girl and her creation. She stood at one end of the gym parallel to the supply room door and told us the janitor would build a platform and hook up a real microphone.
Then, pretend mike in her hand, she projected. “And here’s Laura Grossman on her way to the beach in her sunny perky sundress. Felicia Hoffworth isn’t afraid of winter in her snuggly wool cap and perky cozy matching mittens. In her perky flowered flouncy skirt, Gretchen Durant will be the belle of the ball.”
Mrs. Monegan modeled how we should walk to show off our wares, one hand on waist, small steps, shoulders back, slight (virginal) swish of hips, head high, eyes straight ahead.
“Think of the real runway models, girls. They’re proud! Gretchen, don’t slouch. Swing your hips a little to show off your skirt. Felicia, smile! You love winter in your wool cap. Laura, shoulders back—you love the sun. Smile, girls!”
When it was my turn, I thought I sashayed down the cardboard runway pretty well. Mrs. M. read with forced enthusiasm, “And here in her perky, sporty tennis outfit is Noelle, ready to take on the competition. Dear, don’t wiggle so much.”
As spring approached, the invitations went out to all the parents for a Saturday afternoon in late May. Mrs. Monegan, also fancying herself a graphic artist, designed an elaborate fourfold brochure announcing the event. The elegantly drawn gold and black letters looked themselves like drawings of fashion models, and the invitations promised refreshments afterwards, with an RSVP. She had the art department teacher run off the invitations, probably promising her a week of lunches anywhere but at the school cafeteria, and the school secretary sent the invitations out.
My mother promptly marked the big calendar on the kitchen wall with the event, and my father grunted. She whispered to me, “I’ll get him to come.”
Please understand. She was rashly promising a major feat. Not only was the event on a Saturday afternoon, when he normally disappeared into the garage, dragging my brother, with the hammering and buzz-sawing and reprimands echoing constantly through all three half-floors of our split level. Worse, the fashion show was semi-social. Except for an occasional barbecue with our next-door neighbors, he never agreed to these.
And more—ever since he’d once gone with my mother to a piano recital of mine at the music conservatory, he had refused all outings involving me. I had disastrously forgotten my Mozart sonata smack in the adagio and sat suffused in agony for a whole minute before resuming five bars later. He’d left his seat, my mother later told me, his face pale and hands shaking, and waited for us in the hallway outside. And didn’t talk to me, or even look at me, for many days afterwards.
The appointed Saturday arrived. My sweater was finally finished, courtesy of Mrs. Monegan’s last-minute instructions, and packed carefully into my orange tote. My mother took me to school early and promised that she and my father would see me later that afternoon.
Backstage in the supply room, the girls fluttered around in their outfits and safety pins and hairspray, excited and outdone only by Mrs. Monegan. In a fitted black dress with black-trimmed widely-frilled white collar, she fancied herself the impresario. Probably had visions of a fashion talent scout in the audience who would offer her a glamorous career and escape from these annoying prepubescents.
I pulled on the white shorts and white sneakers I’d brought to go with my sweater. And tried to ignore the hole in my stomach. Just wanted it to be over and home watching Saturday night TV shows. From the doorway, I could hear the audience buzzing. A lot of parents had come!
Mrs. Monegan stepped out to the makeshift platform and tapped the microphone the janitor had set up.
“Hello, everyone, and welcome,” she said, her voice booming unnaturally too close to the mike. She introduced the show, emphasizing that her girls had each chosen and made their creations. Then she turned to the side door of the gym where we all waited like jostling butterflies, and extended her hand for the first model.
One after another, the girls walked out, accompanied by Mrs. Monegan’s over-miked one-liners that echoed off the gym’s high ceiling. At each entrance, I heard applause, for Laura, Felicia, Gretchen, Jacinda, Babette, Maria, Estella, Elizabeth, Rachel, and Shirley. Each girl circled back to the supply room, hands forgetfully off hips but grinning and red-faced with victory.
Something pushed me from behind and I heard Mrs. Monegan’s voice in my ear. “Your turn.”
Then, as in practice, she blared out her customized one-liner. “And here’s Noelle in her perky, sporty tennis outfit!”
The door opened, and I stepped out, but not with the graceful perky walk we’d rehearsed. What possessed me I’ll never know, but I hurtled out, flailing my arms with an imaginary racquet—a spastic tennis player, Jerry Lewis in his heyday, rubber legs, falling all over myself, making distorted faces. My fat blue-and- white striped batwing sweater must have looked like the Greek flag in a high wind.
Then I heard it—the only sound in the gym. First and above all that followed.
Four loud staccato blasts, echoing off the gym walls.
My father laughed.
Following him, the rest of the audience emitted scattered titters, then guffaws, and then thin applause.
When I circled back to the supply room, the other girls surrounded me with hugs and exclamations. I don’t remember what Mrs. Monegan said, if anything, or if she was mad that I upstaged her.
Even after so many decades, I see myself springing out of the supply room door, whipping the air with my invisible racquet, legs doing silly vaults. For that barely thirty seconds out on the gym floor, as I bounded out in my ridiculous sweater, I heard him laugh. And cherish it to this day. He died too young, and I wish I’d had more occasions to make him laugh.
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