Pearls

Self-esteem is such a fragile thing. I had very little as a young girl. I’m not sure if you ever get over your childhood insecurities, I think you merely find ways to hide it well. Perhaps the focus changes a little –instead of us worrying about how others see us, maybe we start searching for ways to fulfill our life’s purpose. And finally accept ourselves for who we are, what we look like and what we can accomplish. 

We should remember to build that self-esteem in the young ones in our care too. Maybe we can help them see themselves as perfect in their differences, and maybe we can spare them the heartache.

Pearls was written for the younger me and those sweethearts I’ve met along the way who grappled with their different, often unfounded, insecurities. 

As I stand at the doorway to the large ornate room, decorated and fragranced with a multitude of blooms – velvet petals of the deepest claret and crispest whites, I am acutely aware of the sea of faces that have turned toward me in anticipation. I am enormously nervous and I falter. But my eyes find and fall on the woman who has had such a profound influence in my life. Perfectly dressed, a queen among women, I watch in dismay as the harsh creases in her face contort into a scowl.

I should not be surprised as I know this face well. It is the face that has always been, especially, reserved for me alone.  It is true – my grandmother has many faces:  for my older sister the harsh lines soften into a face of approval; her blue eyes brighten with pride.  But her face completely transforms when in the presence of my little brother. The lines soften completely and she bestows him with a beatific smile – it is a face of pure love. I have never had the privilege of those faces. And it has been a gnawing ache I have attempted to ignore for most of my life. But there have been moments when it was hard to ignore her disapproval or lack of love. I have never known the reason for her manner toward me, but it has always been there, a dark gaping vacuum I have always desperately tried to avoid. With nervous fingers, I touch the pearls that adorn my neck.

 

A wisp of a painful memory floats around in my mind. My conscious self automatically reaches for it. And the memory unfolds to a time in the past I had hoped I had forgotten…

I was standing in front of a room of people on the landing of the staircase. Having very little self-confidence, I pretended to be fascinated with the state of my bare feet. People had been arriving at my grandmother’s house all day. It was to be my Aunt Gwen’s wedding the following day and everyone had come to begin the celebrations. I was aware that my grandmother was glaring at me, once again disapproval etched on her old face. I remember I had convinced myself that on that night I would put on my invisible shield of protection. No scowls would penetrate my protective layer or my growing excitement. Not that anyone would ever tell or could read my emotions. I had schooled myself into never revealing them. It had taken me years to perfect, but it had been my most successful form of defence.

When my aunt walked toward me with a large flat silver box in her outstretched arms, I swallowed hard to contain the bubble of pleasure that threatened to displace my shield. I knew what was in that box. I had patiently awaited it all day. I could not stop myself from returning the warm smile that spread across my aunt’s face. Self-consciously I became aware that the whole room turned toward us, watching the exchange.

“Are you sure about this, Gwen?” I heard my grandmother say.

I tried not to meet my grandmother’s gaze for I knew I would regret it. Of course, I knew perfectly well what she meant. It had come as a surprise to all, mostly me, that Aunt Gwen had chosen me to be her bridesmaid. I would have expected her to have chosen my beautiful and very graceful older sister. But she did not. And to my twelve-year-old self, it meant that the most magical thing that could happen was going to happen.  I was about to become beautiful.

“I am sure, mum,” Aunt Gwen said.

I thought I heard irritation in her voice.

She then confidently turned toward me and said, “Go on, honey. Take it.”

I hesitated, taking a little time to study the beautifully packaged box. It contained the miraculous ingredients that would transform me into a beautiful princess. I had persuaded myself into believing just that. When Aunt Gwen nudged it toward me, I tentatively gripped it, enjoying the weight of it. For a moment I felt dizzy with expectation. Was it really happening? To me!?

And then I had not been able to wait a moment longer. I bounded up the stairs, my feet slapping against the warm wooden slabs, barely hearing my grandmother’s shrieks of admonition or Aunt Gwen’s request for me to present myself when I had put it on.

I gently placed the package on my bed. My pudgy fingers had struggled at first with the elaborate silver bow but I eventually got it undone. Carefully I lifted the lid off the box and became slightly vexed by the layers of delicate tissue paper that obscured my view of what lay beneath. With the precision of a surgeon I cautiously peeled away each layer until I had seen the most exquisite dress I ever laid eyes on and gasped at its profound beauty.

Not even Tia, my stylish sister, had ever worn something like that.  Before I allowed myself to touch the intricate pearl and silver masterpiece, I wiped my sweaty hands on the bedspread. Eyes closed, I traced the silver threaded swirls around the neckline, imagining myself being transformed into a belle.  Splendid pearl buttons secured the perfectly shaped bodice. I skimmed my fingers along the line of them, and I remembered thinking that it had been the most striking part of the dress.

Unable to wait any longer, I  practically tore my clothes off. Naked, I reached for the dress and unintentionally caught a glimpse of my body in the mirror. Ordinarily I hated looking at myself in the mirror. And I especially did not want to until I had fitted on the dress, as I  convinced myself that once I had it on I would instantly transform from the ugly duckling into a beautiful princess.  But like watching a gory scene in a horror movie, I had not been able to tear my eyes away from the gruesome reflection. I had always been ‘plump’. And though my father had constantly assured me that it was puppy fat and that I would soon grow out of it, it had seemed that with the passage of time, my rolls of fat had grown their own rolls of fat. My eyes slowly moved from my fleshy thighs to the pasty blob that was my tummy. I remembered deliberately trying to avoid looking at the reflection of my face, especially that of my eyes. I had not wanted to see the truth that lay within them. I had turned away determined that that image would definitely change the moment I slipped on the dress.

My heavy feet echoed my descent to the roomful of aunts, uncles and cousins. I hoped I would not have to present myself but after numerous calls from my Aunt Gwen, who seemed impatient to see me, I had to obey. The room hushed, and my betraying eyes fell on my grandmother’s face whose sneer was as loud as the alarm-sirens at school.

“Gwen, you should have listened to me!” She said with the sternness of a woman who was always right. I heard a sad sigh from my aunt and it resounded in my heavy heart.

I stood there with my head low on the landing, not being able to meet the eye of a single person in the room. My grandmother had come forward, pulling at the ill-fitting dress in an attempt to fix it. Each prod of her not-so-gentle fingers had a clear message: you are too fat; you are too ugly; you are not good enough. My shield had been battered but I was resolute that it would withstand the onslaught. I had not imagined that there would be more.

“You can see she is a big girl, could you not get her a bigger size,” one of the uncles commented.

I was mortified especially when my grandmother replied, “That was the biggest size!”

Red hot with humiliation, my embarrassment was a jagged knife ripping through every layer imagined or real until it punctured the very core of my being. It was such an intense feeling; I could taste its metallic bitterness. The sharp pain of my shame had caused me to release the breath I had held (in an effort to appear slimmer) with the force of a whistling pressure cooker. Pearl buttons flew across the room in different directions. One of them hit my grandmother on the nose and she yelped with the sting of the errant weapon. Another found its way to the back of the throat of my vociferous uncle. I had not waited to see where the rest of them landed but ran up the stairs, willing my tears to hide behind my eyes until I was away from pitying glances and within the sanctuary of my room again.

My father had always been a quiet presence in my life. So I was not surprised that he would be the one to comfort me – especially since I had glimpsed his arrival during the assault of the pearl buttons. He entered my room silently; the only indication of his presence was the slight dip in the bed under his weight. Patiently he waited for me to cry myself out. And when I did, he placed a gentle hand on my head, stroking away the wet strands from my swollen face.

He whispered sweetly – that had always been my father’s way – “Are you ready to talk, sweetheart.”

I did not want to ever speak of my humiliation, but I needed my father desperately in that moment.

“Grandmother thinks I’m ugly!” I blurted out petulantly.

“Now sweetheart, did she actually say that?”

His tone seemed skeptical. He always tried to believe the best in people. I had often wondered how it was possible that my father was actually the son of my grandmother.

“Dad, she didn’t have to!”

I have never been terse with my father before. Why could he not see what my grandmother did to me? Most times he had allowed grandmother to have her way. And just like Aunt Gwen, he had seemed dominated by my grandmother’s drive for perfection. Could he not see how that was hurting me?

“Sweetheart,” he said as he pulled me up and propped me against him. “I want tell you something.”

He had looked down at me while he held my face gently with his hands.

“You are beautiful. I have thought that from the moment I first held you in my arms. And with each passing year, you have grown more and more beautiful.”

His words had been a tender stroke to my battered self-worth. But my pain had been deeper and my paranoia surfaced.

“All fathers think their daughters are beautiful.” I replied sulkily.

A great big smile changed his serious face and tugged at my heart.

“You’re absolutely right sweetheart. But will you tell me who the most important man in your life is?”

“You are!” I said without hesitation.

“And so my opinion counts. You are beautiful! And I say that as the most important man in your life.”

He then picked up the photo of my mum that always stood on my bedside table.

“You remind me so much of your mum, do you know that? – Your eyes and that heart-splitting smile…”

I had stared at that photo of my mother for years. It was the only way I could remember what she had looked like. I missed her. But in that moment, I was glad I had my father.

“There are going to be lots of people who will see you the way I do. Beautiful – inside and out. And one day, you’ll choose one of them and I will have to give up my position of being the most important man in your life.”

The memory fades and I am once again poised at the entrance of the large room. I look up at my father, an impossibly tall but comforting presence beside me.

He pats my hand reassuringly and whispers, “Are you ready, sweetheart?”

I nod my assent and I gaze down the aisle, ignoring the expectant faces on either side, to the altar. He is there at the end. When he catches my eye, he is smiling. That saintly smile. It is a smile of pure love.

Without wavering, I walk down the carpeted passageway. Before my father hands me over, I notice the tears framing his brown eyes. He leans forward and whispers, “Be happy, sweetheart.”

It is a bitter-sweet moment. I am guided forwarded by one of my mentors, Sister Theresa. I glance, just once more, at my grandmother. I smile tentatively and I notice a softness in her eyes. I know I have already forgiven her.

And with the confidence of a woman who is loved, I take the veil.

 

 

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