As bad birthday presents go, the squishy gift-wrapped entity that turned out to be several packages of pantyhose absconds with the cake, candles and all.
How old was I? Still pretty young. The phrase “fourth grade” accompanies visitations of this memory, but I can’t swear to it. The colour was American Tan, though being American we didn’t call it that. Nude or beige would have been our terms.
My mother explained that she hadn’t known what to get me because she found me dull. Stinging words. I took them to heart. You do when your mother’s disapproval feels like annihilation. Since then I’ve made friends with a lot of inspiring, energising people, and realise that a saner response would have been: “Maybe you found yourself too dull, but you were the grown-up in that room and if you’d wanted sparky you should have lit a fuse.”
Insert your favourite aphorism about the clarity of hindsight here. I may have come up with the perfect riposte; I may now feel angry at Mom rather than myself when the memory bumps to the surface, but part of me still winces. Part of me always will.
She tried softening her statement, tried the intellectual approach, saying that all children pass through a tedious phase and that she found my brother and me more interesting the older we got. Children are often a yawn, I’ll give her that, but surely I was more interesting than flesh-toned hosiery. She could have bought me a book. (She probably did. That wasn’t my only present, merely the most memorable.)
Perhaps my mother was feeling her own mediocrity, and the sensation deactivated her normal inventiveness. This is the woman who bought a set of musical spoons for a friend in hospital when the prognosis was dire, prompting giggles when they were badly needed.
I put this forward as a hypothesis because it’s a pretty regular occurrence in my life, and much as I long to deny it, I am my parents’ child. (Actually, Mom famously denied it, leading to the gypsy princess yarn, which became another notorious school essay of mine….)
Everyone wants to be special but there comes a time (or there recur times) when you have to, as Elvis Costello sings, stare into the deep, dark truthful mirror. When that happens, if I’m in a bad way, I can see the word “mediocre” spelled out across my forehead.
A pragmatic soul, I quickly sussed that my brand of special couldn’t possibly be linked to good looks or a smashing figure. What, then? I’m smart but no genius. I’m clever but others are more so. I am funny but not reliably hilarious. I’ve been told I’m an intellectual, but not by anyone I’d classify as such. I’m a bit of a lone wolf, but enjoy running with the pack. I’m no pariah, but nor am I Miss Popularity.
My vanity tells me I’m above average, but am I really? I did not publish a bestselling work of literary fiction while still in high school. I have not invented anything, solved a burning mathematical theorem, or saved a life. (Though I’m an organ donor, so there’s still time.) I cannot perform Herculean feats of strength, or play a sport to expert level. (As my brother pointed out, “There are only two things wrong with your Frisbee playing: your throwing and your catching.” See, someone funnier than me, right here in my own blog.)
By now all my friends reading this are screeching.
Darlings, of course I’m special to you, or occasionally special, at any rate. Isn’t the definition of friendship being fond of someone despite their manifest faults and whatever they do to annoy the hell out of you? Or maybe I’m special because I love you, which is no small thing. It’s one of the reasons you’re special to me, though in fact, many of you are actually bona fide magical.
Hang on; I’ve gone to the dictionary. Mediocre, according to my OED (new, shorter) is something “of middling quality, neither bad nor good, average, indifferent, of poor quality, second-rate.” Well yes, that’s how I feel sometimes but not relentlessly. Time to lighten up and not be so hard on myself.
Average, says the same reference work – well here’s a surprise. The first definition applies to draught animals, the second to maritime freight. Embedded therein is the notion of a mathematical mean. And then we move to arable land (which figures – those draught animals need somewhere to graze). Finally, we arrive at “medium; of the ordinary standard or kind; typical.”
It’s worth remembering that putting one foot in front of the other day after day after day – and only falling some times – is quite an achievement. That there will always be someone more accomplished, but it’s no excuse for losing sight of my aspirations. That perfection can be boring. That cultivated eccentricity isn’t eccentricity at all, merely affectation.
That average is okay, because average is most of the billions of us in this human stew and average has its peaks and troughs. So make the most of it.
To quote Walt Whitman:
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…”
“…My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and
their parents the same….”
“…And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”
ON A RELATED NOTE:
Apologies for the length of this post but thinking about hosiery of the 1960s reminded me of my mother’s expeditions to buy stockings. It was early days for us in Stony Brook, and the shop had been there long before our move to the suburbs. The stockings were kept in a wall of wooden drawers behind the counter and my mother had to ask for them by size and colour.
The ones she favoured (or were they the only brand on offer?) came in stiff boxes with latticed covers, like Moroccan filigree, that allowed a glimpse of tissue paper, beneath which lay the stockings, gossamer thin and the imagined colour of flesh.
Something like this:
The saleslady eased off the lid and pulled aside the paper. A ghostly leg was lifted, examined, contemplated, sometimes bought, sometimes rejected. I remember sensing that they were an expense, but also a requirement.
When pantyhose came along they were fragile. Mom bought us each a pair of white gloves to wear when putting them on so as not to tear them to shreds. She showed me how to work them into place, starting at the reinforced toe, carefully positioned, and then gently twisting them up. Up over ankles, up over knees, up around thighs already too fleshy, on up to settle around the waist – biting a little – where you prayed they would remain. The reality was they quickly succumbed to the laws of gravity, leaving you with a dropped crotch that hung in mid air (you prayed the gusset never dipped lower than your mini skirt), and little ripples around your ankles. “Your pantyhose are laughing at you,” was Mom’s way of reminding me to hoik them up.
These days you won’t catch me in anything but 100 dernier tights in a dark hue. Black. Grey. Purple. Navy. They are rufty-tufty things, survivors of endless spins around the washing machine and non-stop yanking. Because the products may have changed, but gravity endures.