In high school I was a homely girl, not ugly, only plain and shy. Most people, including some in my family, just ignored me, so I didn’t have many friends. It would have been alright if people had just ignored me, but some decided it was okay to pick on me, to make a public spectacle of my shyness and plainness. “Kids will be kids,” you say, but the worst bully of all was an adult, the mother of one of the more popular girls in my school. She also happened to be my Aunt Elaine and the popular girl was my cousin, Margaret.
Margaret was a princess. At least that’s how everyone at school treated her. Margaret wore the most fashionable clothes and had her hair styled the way that movie stars wore their hair. Margaret was from California.
In the fifties, California meant glamour, at least to those of us who weren’t from California. In our minds, anyone from California was rich, beautiful, and famous, at least by association and should be treated accordingly.
I was nearly seventeen when Aunt Elaine and her two children, Margaret and Benjie, moved to Foxville. Their father, Benjamin Covington Sr. was an international spy, at least to hear Margaret tell it. He had to stay in California to do his spy work, and his family had to move to Foxville for protection. The D word wasn’t spoken in our home, but we all knew that our cousins only saw their father for a month in the summer when they all visited their other grandparents in Oregon.
The atmosphere in Foxville changed the day the Covington family arrived. On the first day of March, our father had driven all the way to El Segundo, California, to move Aunt Elaine’s family to Foxville. They arrived three days later in the middle of the night and my sister and I had to double up in our bed to make room for Margaret, while our brothers did the same to make room for Benjie. Aunt Elaine stayed at Granny’s, where she kept her mother up all night wailing about her dilemma. I overheard some of the adult conversation and concluded that living in California was glamorous, but also very dangerous. To hear my aunt tell it, they were lucky to be alive.
Granny and Grampa rented a house for Aunt Elaine and her children. Aunt Elaine got a job at the high school and for the rest of the school year I became known as Margaret’s cousin. Mind you, there were some there who thought I had moved to town with Margaret, when, in fact, I had been there for nearly ten years.
Aunt Elaine had two children, compared to my parents’ six (going on seven) children and she had money to spare. Her children’s father sent a generous child support check every month and Aunt Elaine had a job. Our father was a struggling lawyer and our mother was a stay at home mother. Margaret expected and usually got nice clothes, including a stylish and girly training bra. I had to make do with hand me downs and Mama’s hastily altered “hand me over” bras.
Although Margaret was older, she was a year behind me and we shared one class, Physical Education. We started class by dressing in our uniforms, long gym shorts and plain white shirts with long socks and black and white saddle shoes. Coach Brown insisted that we wear our socks up to just below the knee. Margaret didn’t have her uniform yet and had to make do. She wore a pleated tennis dress with a ruffled white blouse, a style made famous by the Hollywood starlets who played tennis. Her socks were rolled down bobby sox style and she wore all white tennis shoes. On any given day at the start of class, you could see Margaret holding court at one end of the gym while the misfits gathered at the other end to wait for instructions.
Gym class was held indoors until after the spring thaw. We spent 10 minutes doing sit ups and jumping jacks, then divided up into teams to play dodge ball or volleyball. Most of us actually tried to play while Margaret and her ladies in waiting practiced for cheerleader tryouts, which were coming up the first week in July. Most days, Coach Brown, who had been a cheerleader in her day, supported this and allowed any girls who wanted to try out to skip the organized game so they could practice cheers. She didn’t allow the same privilege to girls who preferred reading to any kind of physical activity, so I was forced to play. It was in the choosing of teams that the other girls fought over me, not who got to put me on their team, but who had to put me on their team. I was always the last one chosen and if it was uneven, a coin was tossed to see who had to take me.
When we played outside in the spring and summer, Coach Brown ran a daily softball practice. She believed everyone should play, even if there were more than nine players on the field at a time. To accommodate extra players, she made up extra positions, first and a half base, second and a half base, center right field, backup catcher and long stop. Anyone left over (usually me) became the umpire. Occasionally, she rotated positions and those of us who were extra got to play real positions.
The trouble came when I had to take a turn as catcher. It was well known that I couldn’t catch anything but a cold, so the other team gloried in their sure victory. With me in that position, struggling to lay hands on the ball, players were free to steal home. Once in a while, by sheer luck, I was able to catch the ball. When this happened, I had to tag the player who was trying to steal home. If I couldn’t run fast enough to touch her with the ball, then I had to throw to someone who could tag her out. What everyone had failed to notice, because I seldom got to show them, was that I was deadly accurate at throwing the ball, just not at distances more than about four feet. At that distance, the ball went exactly where I wanted it to go.
We were in the last inning of the game and I was the catcher. The bases were loaded and the player at bat hit a grounder and headed for first base, forcing the player on third base to run home. The shortstop retrieved the ball and threw it to me. Wonder of all wonders, I caught the ball and had to make an instant decision. I knew I couldn’t reach home plate before her, so I had to think fast, and I am famous for not thinking clearly under pressure. I threw the ball and hit her on the ankle before she reached home. That was an illegal throw, so her team got the run anyway and my team was mad at me. But the other team was mad at me too. I had injured their favorite player, my cousin Margaret. Coach Brown was mad at me, because, given the many times I had been an umpire, I should have known it was an illegal play. Worst of all, Margaret and Aunt Elaine were mad at me, because I had probably broken her ankle and cost Margaret her shot at becoming a cheerleader.
I could have accepted getting scolded and grounded for my behavior. I could have lived with getting an F in PE because that wasn’t perceptibly lower than the D I usually got. What I had a hard time with was Aunt Elaine’s form of retribution.
Every August, just before school started, Foxville held a cotillion, a fancy dance, or at least the Foxville version of a fancy dance, for all young ladies over the age of 16. Whoever had started this tradition intended it as a sort of coming out party for the girls in our town who were now old enough to date. Mothers would go all out on gowns for their daughters who were to be Cotillion Debs (I don’t think the mother who originally dreamed this up knew how to spell debutante). Since the boys in Foxville had known most of the girls in town all their lives, there was really nobody to “come out” for, so the Foxville Cotillion Committee invited eligible older boys from nearby towns to serve as escorts for the Debs. Foxville boys and unattached girls who had already come out in past years were invited, but the spotlight was to be on the Debs, dressed to the nines and ready to date. Cotillion always opened with the presentation of the Debs. Each girl would be announced, along with the names of her parents and her escort, dressed in a rented tuxedo courtesy of the Cotillion Committee, who would join her at the door to parade her around the dance hall. The whole thing usually took an hour or more. Then the Debs and escorts would dance the first dance. After that, they were free to dance with anyone.
There were always stories about a couple who claimed to have fallen in love at some Cotillion sometime in the past, so girls could get their hopes up, but for the most part it was all a choreographed show of rivalry between parents, eager to prove their daughters to be better and more desirable than others.
Cotillion that year had a Hollywood Glamor theme, I assume in honor of our newest Deb, who had come to us directly from a town in California that everyone assumed was right next door to Hollywood. Aunt Elaine went all out to get Margaret the most glamorous Hollywoodesque gown she could find, right down to the fur stole patterned after the one a glamorous starlet had worn to the Oscars that year.
On the morning girls were to register for Cotillion, It was announced at Summer softball practice that any girl over the age of 16 who had not come out in past years was eligible and should sign up in the library. Ignorantly I lined up to register. I knew my parents couldn’t afford to dress me in style, but I wanted to go anyway. I did have one nice dress, the one I had worn as a junior bridesmaid in my Aunt Ellen’s wedding the year before. With a massive petticoat underneath and flowers, I might look almost glamorous.
When I got to the registration table, Aunt Elaine was there and looked over her reading glasses at me. “Are you here to register for Cotillion?” I told her that I was. “Really? I don’t think you have a dress nice enough for Cotillion,” she said, just loudly enough for everyone else to hear. “But I suppose we have to let you do it. They did say that everyone was invited.”
I registered and went home to tell my mother. She wasn’t happy about it, but she really wasn’t happy about much of anything those days since she was six months pregnant and felt quite unglamorous at the moment. She told me to get my dress out of the closet and she would see what we could do.
I dug into my piggy bank and came up with $2.68, enough to buy three yards of tulle to make the petticoat. Mama sewed it and found a silk flower in her treasure drawer. Then she borrowed a rabbit fur stole from Granny to make me ready for Cotillion.
The day before Cotillion, all the girls received a postcard with the name of their escort. That is, all the girls except me. I went to the school and Aunt Elaine looked through the papers on her desk. “I’m sorry, I don’t seem to have a card for you. Are you sure you registered?” Again, it was loud enough for everyone to hear. “Well, never mind. We’ll find someone for you.”
I felt like I probably shouldn’t go to Cotillion, but I remembered that my mother had put a lot of effort into helping me with my dress, effort that she didn’t have to give. I knew she would be disappointed in me if I didn’t go, so that night, I got ready and asked Daddy to drive me to the dance.
The music was already playing when I arrived, and all the girls were lined up in the hallway outside the dance hall. I took my place at the end of the line and waited for my announcement. I could hear the other names being called, one at a time. “Margaret Covington, daughter of Elaine Covington, escorted by Doug Masterson; Annabelle Silverton, daughter of Jane and Arthur Silverton, escorted by Frank Matthews…” finally, the girl before me heard her name and joined her escort in the dance hall. Then the music began for the first dance. My name hadn’t been called and there was no escort for me.
I heard laughter at the doorway, and I turned to see my Aunt Elaine, Margaret and two of Margaret’s ladies in waiting laughing, pointing fingers at me and mocking my defeated expression. I turned toward the door to walk home, realizing that I had been the butt of a horrible joke by the other girls and a cruel adult.
I held my head high and reached to open the door when I heard a voice. “Ann Marie Allen? I’m David Ray Bennett, your escort.” He was tall with dark curly hair, blue eyes and an easy smile. “I’m sorry to be late, but my car broke down. Shall we go in?” He put his arm around me and led me into the dance hall.
We danced the first dance and five or six more after that. He smiled and laughed as he asked me about myself and told me that he was new in Foxville so he didn’t know many people, but was pleased to meet me. After a few dances, he took me to get punch, then we sat to talk some more. Finally, just before the dance ended, he said, “Let’s get out of here.” He put his arm around me and led me out into the evening. “I’m sorry. Like I said, my car broke down, so we’ll have to walk. I hope you don’t mind.”
We walked home through the park and sat in the rose garden to talk. “I know you were disappointed when you didn’t receive an escort card and when there didn’t seem to be anyone for you at the dance. Your aunt and cousin were cruel to play such a nasty trick on you.”
“How did you know about that? Were you in on the trick?” I wanted to run home and go to my bedroom to die.
“No. I hope you can believe me when I tell you I had nothing to do with it. I overheard them talking in the soda shoppe. They were planning to embarrass you in front of everyone at the dance and I thought it was mean, so I listened long enough to find out who you were and where the dance was being held.”
“Thank you,” I stammered, fighting back tears. “But you didn’t have to do that. I’ll be okay.”
“No, I didn’t have to do it. I wanted to. I didn’t care who you were or what you looked like. I just thought it was really mean and that nobody deserved to be treated that way.”
“It’s not the first time Margaret’s been mean to me and I’m sure it won’t be the last.” I could hear voices coming toward us and I recognized Elaine and Margaret’s trademark nervous laugh. “I have to go. Thank you for getting me out of there.” I stood up to go, but he stopped me and cocked his head to listen.
When the voices got closer and he was fairly sure that they could see us, he cupped my face in his hands and gently kissed me, then took me by the hand and walked toward my house. “That ought to give them something to talk about for a while,” he laughed. When we reached my front door, he put his arms around me and told me, “You are a beautiful girl and shouldn’t have to put up with anyone who doesn’t appreciate you.” Then he kissed me in earnest. “This is to give us something to remember. I’m leaving tomorrow to go into the Army and I’ll probably never see you again, but next year, you’ll have boys lined up around the block to take you out and you won’t even know me.” Then he disappeared into the night.
That fall, I went off to college, where I went out on lots of dates before meeting and marrying the love of my life. I never saw David Ray Bennett again, but I have never forgotten Cotillion and the look on Margaret’s face when she saw the kiss.