Class Act


Do you remember those "special days" at school? Sometimes it was somebody's birthday and we got to eat cupcakes at the end of the day; sometimes it was Thursdays and we got to order chocolate milk instead of white; sometimes, if it was Catholic Schools Week, we got to wear funny clothes. One of those days was school picture day. For the rest of the school year, we dressed in our casual clothes, but one day we got to wear our Sunday best, so we would look our best in our class pictures.

My mom wanted me to look my prettiest on picture day. So, she conned my Aunt Ethel into giving me a smelly old Toni perm. It came in a box with little cut-out paper dolls. I loved those cut-outs, but hated the perm. For a couple of weeks my poker-straight hair was actually curly. Some of my class pictures show me with curly hair and some with straight. Unfortunately, most have that "in-between" look.

My mom also took me down to Robert Hall in East St. Louis to get me a new outfit. I loved the Robert Hall store - racks and racks of dresses. Back in the fifties, the girls always wore dresses to school. By the time picture day came, the school clothes that mom bought at the beginning of the school year looked a tad shabby. Time to go visit Robert Hall!

The day of the pictures, mom would primp and prim. I looked pretty good walking out of the house...but a long bus ride and one recess later put a stop to that. By the time they took my picture, I looked like something the dog drug in.

But, no matter, when those pictures came in that big envelope, our class could hardly wait. There was a window on the envelope that had a larger 3x5 picture on it. When we saw each others pictures, there were always loud snickers and guffaws.

We took the package home our parents, and they decided, if they wanted the "deal" or not. My parents always bought the whole enchilada. Then, we got some scissors and cut the pictures to give to family. I always got my own stash that I traded with some of my friends.

But, my dad always took one of those pictures for himself. This was odd, because I never saw the pictures after that. My dad was not one to carry pictures of his kids in his wallet to show off. I always wondered what he did with my class pictures.

In order to understand about those pictures I have to tell you a little about my dad. My father was a typical fifties dad. He worked hard to provide for his family. He took his responsibilities for his family, his home, his job, and his faith very seriously.

He was intelligent. Although he never got to go college, he worked his way up to a foreman at Monsanto Chemical Company in Sauget, Illinois. He could work a crossword puzzle in a matter of ink! He loved to read non-fiction - three newspapers a day!

He was a handyman. My grandfather built the house we lived in back at the turn of century and there were always things to do - painting, unclogging pipes, stoking the coal furnace, the list goes on. Dad used his Saturdays to fix them all. Then, he would go to Gasoline Alley to gas up the car for the week.

He kept his emotions close to the vest. He was not demonstrative in lavishing affections. Not that I for one minute doubted that he loved me...he just did not throw his arms around me and sweep me off my feet. My mom made me give him a kiss every night before I went to bed. I hated it, because the kiss was, well, perfunctory, at best. I'd lean over, and he'd kiss me so fast, you didn't know what hit you. No hug, no loving words...and then he'd go back to reading his newspaper. When I got married, I had a plan worked out years in advance. My father walked me down the aisle. He reached over to pull back the veil. That's when he didn't know what hit him. I kissed him...on the lips and whispered, "I love you daddy." He gasped and let me go. It was the first and only time I heard my father cry.

He had varied interests. When my brothers were in their teens, he became active in Junior Achievement - an organization to help teens understand the economy. He was an avid bowler and won a few trophies along the way. But, his biggest interest was bridge. He could talk "bridge" until the proverbial cows came home - not only the hand they played that day...but a hand of bridge they played years before. I can still see him sitting around the card table, leaning back on a folding chair, getting ready to "make a bid" with a Cheshire cat grin on his face. Since I was enlisted when a fourth was missing, I always became the dummy hand. At the end of a particularly good play, he'd throw down the cards and exclaim, "Damn fine hand!" And, my dad was not given to cussing, so it always startled me.

I tell you these things to show you how different my father and I were. Where dad was intelligent - I was an average student and a reluctant reader. Where my dad was handy - I was pretty much a klutz. If my dad kept his emotions to himself, I was the original drama queen. And interests? We shared very few interests - especially bridge. Why I couldn't tell you a card after it was thrown down, much less five years later.

It was sort of as if we were two parts of a whole brain. Where my dad was a left-brained, analytical, methodical, precise, by-the-clock, techie type...I was a right-brained, dramatic, willy-nilly procrastinator, fly-by-my-pants, creative type. I dreaded having to ask dad for help with my homework. Now, I realize that his way of explaining things was from a different planet than I was from.

Even so, my dad and I had special moments that I will always hold dear.

I remember as a small child that he would carry me up to bed. Our bedroom was on the second floor, but I often fell asleep before bedtime. Dad would swoop me up and take me to bed. But, if was awake, I had to trudge up the stairs on my own. That's why I feigned sleep...a lot. Just so he'd carry me to bed.

My father also took me to see my first live performance at the Munie in St. Louis. His bosses often had extra tickets - which meant box seats. My first experience spoiled me forever. We sat in the first section, dead center. I had no idea what the Munie or musicals were about. They were presenting "The King and I." I couldn't take my eyes off the stage as Yul Brynner and Betty White came onto stage. It was so powerful that is hard to put into words. The cast wore brilliant red, sequined outfits and the staging was magnificent. I was smitten. It was all I could talk about all the way home. I have to credit my dad for my love of live theatre.

When I was in eighth grade, he took me on my first date. The Junior Achievement was having their annual Christmas party and Mom and Dad usually went. But that year, he asked me to go. It was held in St. Louis at the Chase Park Plaza's beautiful Khorassan Room.

My Mom bought me a beautiful satin dress and Dad gave me my first corsage made of white chrysanthemums . I felt like a princess as I walked into the Khorassan   Room. It was decorated for the holidays and a live jazz band was playing. I danced my first dance with my father. Surprisingly, he was light on his feet while I stumbled along stepping on his toes. Every time I catch a whiff of chrysanthemums, I first date.

And, then there was the annual date that I went on with my dad. It always happened the Saturday before Christmas. Purportedly, he needed me to go shopping with him to get a gift for Mom. The only thing was...he already knew exactly what he wanted, where it was located, and how much he wanted to spend. I guess I was sort of his shield, when having to face the sales people. After we bought her gifts, came the real treat. He took me over to the Cheshire Inn in St. Louis for lunch. It was and still is a classy restaurant. It always made my Christmas...sitting there in that faux Swiss Chalet with the huge Christmas tree lit in the corner.

As I said, dad worked at Monsanto. He loved his job and the people he worked with. He was a "company man" and loyal to his job. That's way it hurt so bad, when dad realized that with retirement looming, that the company decided to "downsize". His pension and all he worked for was in jeopardy. He had to hold on. So, for the last years at that plant, he did whatever job they gave him. As he cynically noted, "Basically, I'm pushing a broom."

He asked me to go down his office when he had to clear his cubicle out. I took a cardboard box and helped him take his desk items. When I walked in, I was surprised to see something stuck in the little office windows that separated the class pictures! All 8 of them, from first grade to eighth were proudly displayed. He went over and plucked them off the window and handed them to me. "These are yours now." I took those pictures home and put them in a shoebox.

Every once in a while I pick up those eight pictures and hold them like a hand of cards. I see myself as that little girl who's daddy carried her bed and tucked her in; I see that 10 year old who fell in love with theatre sitting at her father's side; I see that young lady that sat across from her dad at the Cheshire Inn at Christmas and danced her first dance in the Khorassan Room at the Chase Park Plaza. And, I think, "You know, I guess I  was always the dummy, hand when it comes to bridge, but, at least in the game of life...I was dealt...a 'damn fine hand!'"

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