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Those Awkward Years...

August 9, 2017


The date August 9, 1974 is permanently etched in my mind. It was just the beginning of "those awkward" intermediate school years...


From the Introduction to my book, Mockingbird Moments:




"I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I’ve eaten; even so, they have made me." —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Some days are just extra noteworthy. Days you know you will always remember not only because of something good but also because of something so embarrassing or traumatic that the memory is permanently burned in your mind—days that will forever live in infamy. The day my mom took me to Fleming’s Young Years before my sixth-grade school year was such a day. Normally, I would jump at the chance to go shopping; however, this wasn’t an ordinary excursion for school clothes but rather an outing filled with dread. As we entered the store, the lovely saleslady greeted us and asked in a manner that was far too perky for me, “What can I help you with today?"


 In her whispering voice, the one she uses when something needs to be discreet or is too awful or tragic to verbalize using a regular tone, my mom answered, “Yes. We need to look at bras. I’m not really sure she needs one just yet, but she will be in the sixth grade and has some tops that are sort of sheer, so it would be best if she had something to wear underneath those types of blouses.”


 My mother said all of this as if I were nowhere near the conversation. It was like I had become invisible. I was thoroughly and completely humiliated. Wasn’t it bad enough that most of my knowledge about the issues young girls experience was given to me secondhand by Judy Blume in her book Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, the coming-of-age handbook for young girls and by far the most widely circulated book in the Raguet Elementary School library. And now, in front of God and everybody, my mother just told a complete stranger the most personal thing about me. It was as if Margaret and I were one. I knew exactly how she felt when she said, “I just told my mother I want a bra. Please help me grow, God. You know where.”


The saleslady gave me a disheartening once-over and said, “I’ll see what we have that may be in her size,” and scampered off in search of appropriate undergarments for an underdeveloped eleven-year-old. She returned with several boxes, and I was ordered to the dressing room to see if any of the brassieres fit. As I opened the first box, I tried not to be offended by the name that was displayed across the top in large, taunting letters: TEENFORM TRAINING BRA. As blunt as the name was, it seemed far less degrading than the others branded as LITTLEST ANGEL and TEEN CHARM. Seriously, will someone please enlighten me as to what is so charming about a training bra? While you’re at it, please explain exactly how one might train a part of one’s anatomy? I thought that these points to ponder must be added to my ever-increasing list of queries about growing up, becoming a teen, and entering intermediate school. Where are you now, Judy Blume?


After becoming a mortified member of the training bra crowd, my summer got even better. (Sarcasm was something I had just discovered, and I had no idea at the time what a delicious and fulfilling relationship we would share over the years.) It seems the Watergate scandal and hearings had come to an end, and “our long national nightmare was over.” Unfortunately, my personal nightmare was only beginning on August 9, 1974, the very day President Nixon officially left office. It was on that historic day that I got braces and joined the ranks of others who were simply referred to as Tinsel Teeth, Brace Face, or Metal Mouth. Fortunately, my appointment with the orthodontist was at the crack of dawn, so we were able to rush back home and sit in the living room as a family to watch Nixon face his “fellow Americans.” It would not be an overstatement to say that as I watched him board the plane, waving good-bye with his infamous peace sign, I cried—not because his departure moved me to tears but because I was writhing in pain from the extensive amount of hardware that had just been forced onto every tooth in my mouth. This was old-school orthodontia, long before “the kinder, gentler” method of gluing the pieces of metal to your teeth. Regardless of my discomfort and fragile state, I couldn’t miss this pivotal moment in history.


As you can see, things were falling right into place in preparation for my sixth-grade year. I couldn’t wait to see what other blows to my self-esteem were in the works. With any luck, the onset of teen acne was right around the corner. My hair was still growing out from an unintentional Paul McCartney–esque haircut and now looked like a 1970s shag that Carol Brady would sport, and no preteen girl wants to look anything in the world like Carol Brady.


 That summer, my mom gave me a Flicker razor she bought for me at TG&Y, and I started shaving my legs. I wasn’t allowed to wear makeup yet, but I could use Bonne Bell Lip Smackers in the strawberry flavor. So, there you have it. I had all the supplies necessary for a great school year: a training bra, braces, a razor, lip gloss, and a state-of-theart Trapper-Keeper. What more could a girl ask for? I was ready to conquer the world, or at least Emeline Carpenter Intermediate School.        


In both an innocent and gullible way, I was completely oblivious to the world I was about to be thrown into. I had no idea I was standing on the threshold between childhood and adolescence. Soon, I would start changing. My thoughts, my beliefs, everything I knew would be challenged, and the person I was would be left behind as I morphed into an unrecognizable creature, filled with the enigmatic teen angst that becomes the bane of all parents’ existence. I was comfortable where I was and deep down in my heart realized it wasn’t intermediate school I was afraid of but rather the fear of leaving myself behind, the me I had known for over a decade. It was like preparing to say good-bye to a dear friend.


 At this age, major influences on my thoughts and views came from my parents, teachers, friends, and Sunday school, but it was also at this juncture in my life that I began to see the relationship between music and literature, and the power of words in shaping opinions, feelings, and attitudes on the human condition. I grew up immersed in books while in the laps of my mom and dad, and throughout my life, the love of reading has taken me to faraway locales and places where only the of reading has taken me to faraway locales and places where only the imagination can go. Books taught me about history and friendship, empathy and regret. I also learned that there aren’t always fairy-tale endings, and more times than I wanted to acknowledge, life isn’t fair. I was often filled with sadness at the end of a book, something I still endure as an adult when I finish the last page, put the book down, and try to walk away from the people with whom I had become friends. How many times did I insert myself into life on the prairie with the Ingalls family and imagine what it was like during those long, hard winters? And what child, when reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, didn’t secretly envy Augustus Gloop’s fall into a river of chocolate? I’m a grown woman, and I think this would be delightful, except instead of falling into the chocolate, I would probably perform the most dramatic swan dive ever. Death by chocolate doesn’t sound so bad. The awkwardness of adolescence wasn’t limited to physical dilemmas.


As I soon discovered, finding books that were both interesting and age appropriate proved to be a difficult task. I had previously read all the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series, and I thought myself far too mature for Encyclopedia Brown. It was during this stage of limbo that I started sifting through my parents’ bookshelves. I didn’t feel intellectually ready to tackle the writings of Sir Winston Churchill, and having suffered through the Watergate era, I wasn’t especially interested in reliving the scandal through All the President’s Men. I did, however, find my mom’s paperback copy of Rich Man, Poor Man, which piqued my curiosity. Over six hundred pages later, I was both horrified and ashamed of what I had read and feared that I would have to go to some sort of Baptist confessional or even have an exorcism to rid my mind of the adventurous antics and sinful lifestyle of Rudy Jordache. By the time my mom discovered the book secretly stashed under my bed, it was too late. I had unwittingly been sucked into their drama, heartache, and devastation and was tainted by the entire experience. In the words of Lady Macbeth, “What’s done cannot be undone.” Because of the adult content, I was not allowed to watch the miniseries when it came on TV. Although the decree was a little late due to my sneaky reading habits, it was fine by me. I only wished there were such a thing as a mind eraser.


Some lessons aren’t learned with ease, and I would again become entangled in a book that was a bit too naughty for an unsuspecting girl from East Texas. On a family trip across the country to Washington, DC, we stopped at a Stuckey’s to fill up the tank and have a restroom break. As a fan of Designing Women, I can’t think of a Stuckey’s without hearing Mary Jo Shively’s spot-on description: “Stuckey’s. Where else can you pull in, check your tires, buy some birth control in the bathroom, and have some turkey and dressin’ on your way out?” And she wasn’t kidding. Stuckey’s was a smorgasbord of all sorts of trinkets and touristy-type paraphernalia. I was immediately drawn to the cute plastic license plates and madly began to muddle through the plethora of names, hoping and praying there was one with Sharon on it. My search proved fruitless, and so I moved on to another area of the store. A paperback book with a flashy cover on the rack by the magazines caught my eye, and I simply had to have it. The title of the book was Ode to Billy Joe. Who hadn’t heard Bobbie Gentry sing the haunting song about what happened up on Choctaw Ridge? On the back cover, it stated that the reader would finally discover why Billy Joe killed himself. This was incredible because each time it was played, the song always left me and the rest of America wondering what awful thing happened to make Billy Joe McAlister end his life. Thanks to a small dose of whining, my parents agreed to buy the book, thinking it might cut down on the amount of fussing and fighting they would have to endure from the back of the car. I eagerly dove into the book while stretched across the middle seat of the station wagon. It was a train wreck of a story with no redeeming literary value, filled with cuss words and smut. And I couldn’t put it down. Because I’m no quitter, I trudged onward to the last page, only to find I was even more confused about life and the choices people make, and I longed for the time of innocence when I didn’t know the truth as to why Billy Joe McAlister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.


During the many crossroads of my life, literature and music have been constant sources of inspiration and motivation, providing keen insights and perspectives that reflect and imitate events in my personal story. Books have always been a mirror into my soul and have connected me to people I’ve never met and places I’ve never seen. Although there are many common themes in literature, readers interpret words and situations in a multitude of ways, usually applying the circumstances and decisions to fit their unique points of view. Books affect individuals differently, but great literature, like music, serves as a book-marker in our lives and instantly jettisons us back in time, taking us to specific places and events, reminding us of those who have vanished from our world, as well as those who have stuck around and become a part of our story—a part of our beautiful mess.


Through the written word, we are enriched and empowered, discovering the gifts of discomfort and joy as literary works can move us, challenge us, and sustain us, molding our thoughts and creating within us a desire to be free from the restraints and limits we, along with society, place on ourselves. During the most turbulent moments of my life, words from the Bible, philosophers, literary characters, and songs have lifted me from my despair and provided me with the energy and fortitude to move forward, never erasing my heartache but always enabling me to learn from it.


As individuals, we are the authors of our lives, and each of us has our own story to tell. My story is no more special or interesting than the next person’s, but it is uniquely mine. Just as an athlete gives his all in a game, leaving everything on the field, a writer leaves it all on the page—thoughts and fears, successes and failures, hopes and dreams, sadness and joy. Writing is the exhausting and cathartic act of completely giving oneself to the world.


 My story doesn’t start at the beginning with my birth but rather begins with an ending: the fall of 1992 when I lost my father. This devastating and noteworthy day marks a turning point—a time when my innocence was lost and my once happy normalcy disappeared in the blink of an eye. Just as the stringy-haired, brace-faced eleven-year-old in a training bra crossed from childhood to adolescence, the twenty-nine-year-old version of that young girl was forced to cross into the unchartered territory created by death. The road to healing was long and winding, filled with detours, potholes, and many wrong turns. With the passage of time, it has become easier to look back and see things more clearly, but it should be noted that hindsight is a heartless and inexact way to scrutinize death. It is a false positive because it minimizes the lessons learned and makes the ability to gain perspective seem effortless.


 Throughout my life, I’ve grieved deeply, and in so doing, I have lost and found myself again. Grief changes people. It destroys our idyllic existences and the flawless lives we all long for; it tears down the ideas and facades we hide behind; it reveals our hearts, souls, and spirits; it forces us to become strong and move forward or, in our weakness, give up and give in. Grief is a thief, as it not only takes away our loved ones but also steals our joy. There is nothing fake about grief. It is overwhelming, ugly, and real.        


After many years of being consumed with anguish and feeling cheated by life, I firmly believe and attest to the fact that great grief comes from great love; it is the alpha and omega—the beginning and the end. It is my story and is one filled with love and loss and learning to love again. It is the story of the greatest man I’ve ever known--the story of my father, the story of my hero.

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© 2017 by Sharon Brown Keith 

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