Notable Birthdays: 1995

February 28, 1995

 Venue: 30 Griffing Circle, Asheville (and various)

The BA Society formed during Short Term at the Women’s College I attended Freshman Year. Short term, for those ignorant of the rightfully antiquated 4-1-4 semester system, was a month long “mini-term” in which students were (in theory) encouraged to devote their time to one intensive course, research project or internship. In practice, short term allowed the roughly 75 % of campus rich enough to do a fashion internship in Paris or study the efficacy of Hawaiian Tropic Sunscreen firsthand from Emily’s dad’s yacht in the Caymans or Mary Ellis’ Mom’s condo in Vail, while the rest of us took the sort of dozy, no-stakes classes common in day camps for summer nerds—Medieval Italics, Improv Theatre: Past Present and You, Feminism in “Star Trek.”  I took, “The Counterculture and Those Counter to It,” which was taught by a woman with Bernadette Peters’ hair, a serious Eileen Fisher habit and tendency to relate the upheavals of the late 1960s to her ex-husband’s myriad deficiencies as both husband and lover. We read Abbe Hoffman and Tom Wolfe and wrote journal entries about how the Woodstock documentary made us feel. One whole class was devoted to discussion of how much we admired Angela Davis’ earrings.

Suffice to say, I had plenty of time on my hands. And so did my other friends stuck on campus. These included C, who’d been the first friend I made on campus, L, who I’d met doing theatre, sort of, and M, who lived in the single at the end of the hall. We were an odd mix (even odder than my thirteenth birthday party) that in any other circumstance (and almost certainly in a larger college), would have maybe never hung out together. What we shared mostly consisted of the Womens College itself (about which we didn’t even agree internally), smoking and our ability to have a surprisingly good time at the Waffle House.  C & I had already been hanging out a lot off-campus downtown with the bunch of the music fans, local bands and artfully disaffected townies that more or less constituted “The Scene” as it existed in Roanoke, Virginia circa 1995. Our friend, Killer, a skateboarder (ironically dubbed for his baby face and small stature) somehow came into keys for an old Elks Lodge, where we wiled away the winter hours playing pool, posturing, and trying not to behave like nice young ladies from that nice women’s college. We weren’t supposed to be there, and we definitely weren’t supposed to be drinking the beer in the fridge with Killer and his friends. But what else were we going to do? We’d already exhausted the goodwill of our one friend with a Fake ID and we kept getting stymied by snowstorms in the Shenandoah whenever we tried to drive up to DC.

I don’t remember how or when we came up with the BA (stands for Bad Ass, with ample irony) Society, except that I’m pretty sure The Lodge was involved. Virginia has a long and storied history of collegiate secret societies. My father may have even tried to start one during his tenure at University of Virginia, back in the era Professor Eileen Fisher liked to compare to her ex-husband’s sexual prowess.  We appointed ourselves as member/officers, invented a completely ridiculous secret handshake and preceded to break the cardinal rule of any secret society worth its salt by telling everyone we knew about it  And it became yet another way to unite our otherwise disparate group, consisting of : opinionated Texan self-described “waver” with a weakness for poetry and Dr. Pepper, a theatrical Massachusetts hippie who professed to actually enjoying Phish concerts, a blonde Virginian who spoke German and dressed like Holly Golightly and an underachieving, over-literate, prep-school-educated wanna-be punk rocker, straight off the mean, leafy, scenic streets of Asheville, North Carolina. The BA Society was the banner we traveled under like a super group or a group of superheroes. And that would be a pretty good analogy if, say, the Avengers were four eighteen-year-old girls whose combined superpowers were impossible late-night caffeine intake and infinite snark. We may not have been able to save the world, but we could fill a Honda Civic with asphyxiation levels of cigarettes smoke in less than fifteen seconds while dancing in our seats up I-81 in a snowstorm.

I could think of no better way for the BA Society to solidify itself than with a group road-trip, and no occasion more wanting of such a voyage than my nineteenth birthday. I had a new (old) car—the afore-mentioned, smoke-drenched Honda Civic—a Mom willing to host three desperate characters and a notion that I might recreate the magic of my eighteenth birthday. [1] Specifically, we would all stay at the house, drink wine like grown-ups, talk all night and go up for the epic, Vegas-casino-with-ice-an-butter-sculptures brunch[2] at the giant resort hotel up the block from Mom’s house the next morning.

We took off on a Thursday afternoon and drove to a roots-music themed nightclub, roughly halfway home, in not-so-metropolitan Winston-Salem to watch a mysteriously popular ska band ride one of the mid-90s most regrettable trends into mass popularity. None of us were huge fans of the band, in fact, we probably disliked it equally, each for our own separate reasons. The club was gross, crowded with the kind of baggy cargo-shorted, tribal-tattooed baseball capped disaster that traditionally presaged bar fights, casual racism and someone named Jeremy spilling beer all over your shoe while trying to touch your boob. M wore a silk blouse and pearls and complained at the lack of espresso machine. L and I stood in the corner on the far side of the stage watching a huge amp teeter ominously over us from its implausible perch atop the stack. We emerged, sweaty, uncrushed by amp and vaguely euphoric in that particular galloping eighteen-year-old way. We drove west on I-40 and took a room at a motel on the western edge of the Piedmont. Next door was a truck stop, where we ordered breakfast at 3am and, for maybe two hours, pretended we were a touring rock band called Condiment Chaos (the A was an anarchy sign) that constantly struggled with inter-band personal dramas, exacerbated by our track-suited d-bag manager, who was always trying to get one of us to go solo as a pop sensation. We did our best to sound blasé and worldly which was totally belied by the fact that we were literally playing pretend. Eighteen feels well down the road to adulthood when you’re eighteen, but you can still catch childhood in the rearview, so close you don’t even have to turn your head.

The next day we drove into the mountains. I took my friends on a tour of my hometown, complete with high school roundabout and downtown walkaround. We met up with a few of my friends who had been at my eighteen birthday the year before (some of them were still in high school). My best hometown friend joined us that night, adding a Y-chromosome to the undertaking. We took him to the basement, inducted him into the BA Society and then agreed to forget we ever had, when we retroactively decided the BA should be a tits-only kind of deal.

My mother made the most decadent pasta dish (it involved so much cheese) she could envision for a mostly vegetarian table. We ate. We had cake. We woke the next morning and everyone agreed to look the other way as I lapsed out of vegetarianism and into pure hedonism with heaping plates of oysters.

Surprise: The BA Society lived on, long after my birthday, long after half of us transferred away from Women’s College at the end of Freshman Year. We had a BA Society reunion in winter of 1998, at which we got wildly drunk on airplane bottles of booze at L’s apartment. Two BAs ended up in Austin. One ended up moving in with me, almost eight years after we met. She would eventually move to Asheville, about exactly a decade after visiting for the first time on my 19th birthday.  At time of writing, it’s about twenty-three years later and I keep up, with varying degrees of regularity, with every single member of the BA Society. Three of us met up for coffee over the holidays, two of us shared a 40th birthday jaunt to the Riviera and a lazy long weekend of cocktails and chocolate just last week.  It’s tempting to credit this to social media and the vast nostalgia-industrial complex that binds us electronically to our pasts with humiliating Throwback Thursdays and Google-stalking high school crushes, but the BA had done a pretty solid job for more than a decade before Facebook. Which is pretty remarkable given that the BA Society only ever spent about four months with all of us in the same place. That four months seems more epic in memory, a product of the magical temporal distortion of youth,[3] but it really wasn’t such a long time to carve out the foundation of friendships spanning decades.

Best Gift: The Y-Chromosome-d member of the weekend’s festivities gifted me a mix tape, which like all of his mixtapes, was a good one. Though an obsessive mixtape maker, I rarely received them from others. Whether that was a function of most mixtape makers not liking me enough to make me a tape or a function of musically-minded people being afraid I’d hold their cloyingly juvenile and hopelessly pedestrian tastes against them, I cannot rightly say. I always admired the friends that went for it, because they were the ones who trusted me to listen, even to things I didn’t think I liked, and try to hear them the way they did.

Also, my mother bought me a black leather motorcycle jacket, which briefly made me feel like the coolest person in the world.

 

 

 

[1] My eighteenth birthday was really good, quite poignant and, when I considered writing about it, way more complicated to recount in retrospect. Maybe I’ll tell you about it one of these days.

 

[2] To my 18-year-old mind having a raw bar AND a fruit bar AND a Belgian Waffle Bar AND a guy in a lampshade toque doing custom omelets AND a waiter that would totally turn a blind eye if your Mom ordered you a mimosa was the very pinnacle of luxury.

[3] If I had one superpower, it would be time manipulation, so I could slow down, hasten, rewind or pause time as needed.  If I had two superpowers, they would be time manipulation and the ability to change the song to whatever I think of whenever I enter a room.

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Notable Birthdays: 1989

February 28, 1989

Venue(s): The Asheville Mall, Chickadees & Rye, 109 Westwood Rd, Asheville

Twelve was probably not the worst year of my life.  But I drifted into it on creeping dread, bolstered by two eloquent letters[1] I received from each of my parents the morning of my birthday. Each suggested, in subtle, spiraling, marvelous language that being twelve sucked for everyone, and I’d need to steel my resolve if I wanted to survive it without becoming a permanently sucky person. Oh, and by the way, adolescence would be exponentially better for me if I’d smile more, brush my hair, snack less, iron my clothes, get some exercise, improve my math scores and try, just try, not being a fat person.

Neither one of my parents were assholes. They knew from experience that actual Hell was likely inspired by a middle school lunchroom and Satan was a bored looking thirteen-year-old psychopath with good hair.  They tried to arm me with the tools I’d need to survive adolescence (encouragement, spiral perms, “Sassy” magazine, the Esprit book back everyone had until it was a Benetton backpack until it was a LL Bean backpack, diet soda) because they hoped, maybe, just maybe, things would be better for me

There solidly non-miserable moments in my twelfth year.  I went to England with my grandmother, for example. That was as close to magical as you could get without a talking dragon and actual evidence of wizardry. But the reprieves made the rest more unbearable. I’d feel a breath of something more and then have to slum  back into my day to day, absolutely sure that I’d not only been born into the wrong city, in the wrong state, in the wrong region of the US, but perhaps onto the wrong continent entirely. I lit off for eedy heart of Daydream City, where I doodled in the margins and designed my own curriculum and imagined my way out of the halls of Hill Street Middle School for as much of the academic day as I could muster. My grades fell. My teachers were dismissive. The popular mantle passed from the mean party girls with purple shimmer lipsticks and tale of libertinism  to triple threats:  the rich, smart, athletic people. They were nerds too, but hot nerds with that looked good in bikinis by the country club pool in between tennis camp and summer programs in Physics at Duke. I was the wrong kind of nerd. I didn’t have a scene or a clique or a crowd that I even enjoyed hanging out with. hadn’t yet pulled up anchor away from the scrap-edge of the lunchroom and just fucked off to become a pirate

I had three friends I called best friends, though I’m not sure any of them every thought of me that way. Only two were in my school. Of those, one was in my grade. None were in any of my classes. Irish name was my oldest friend. I’d known her since before memory. We’d done everything together despite having almost nothing in common. She’d been tracked differently than I in middle school and spent a lot of extracurricular time at youth group. She shared a best friends heart necklace with another girl (in fact, the girl who locked my out of her house during a slumber party), but we were like siblings in closeness (I still know her home phone number by heart, despite not having called it for something like twenty-five years). Ivy League was my smartest friend. She was talented and weird, a year younger than I was, but most likely among my friends to dance around the front yard, reciting Elizabethan poetry to the moon’s reflection in the lake, which was exactly the sort of thing I was into. I figured Sunshine  the most beautiful girl I knew in real life. She was a warm breezy afternoon of a person, gentle and funny and, to my mind, impossibly humble despite looking like she rode in on a seashell on the crest of a frothy green wave.  I’d known her since pre-school. She went to the private Saint school across town, but as with the other girls, we’d stayed friends, mysteriously, marvelously, especially then, in a year where I felt so suddenly abandoned by everyone else.

So when Mom  asked if I wanted a party for my thirteenth party,  I think I probably rolled my eyes. What are we celebrating? With what friends? What I wanted was to spend twenty-four hours with the only three people that didn’t seem to hate me, who didn’t even all know each other, who didn’t even all like each other, who had scarcely more than me and a zip code in a common. I wouldn’t have to pick a clique; I could just wallow in being all of myself in the space between them.

Best Gift: This is real dumb. I went to the mall on my thirteenth birthday with three twenty-dollar bills. It felt like tycoon-level money. I let my friends talk me out of blowing it all at the book store and bought myself an entire outfit at the then-new-to-me Gap. It was nothing special—a pair of stretchy orange pants and a long sleeved black t-shirt, both on clearance (and an enormous pair of orange and back teardrop earrings to match)—but it was the first time I’d ever picked out my own clothes and bought them without even a whisper of parental opinion or approval. I also bought “The Joshua Tree” on cassette.  I thought it was overrated.

Surprise(s): Irish Name and Sunshine sat quietly, without the giggles and scorn entirely deserved, when Ivy League and I capped off our fancy pasta dinner reciting stanzas of Eliot back and forth to each other over the bread basket. Irish name didn’t bring up youth group at all and let fly a “motherfucker” when she got her hair stuck in a zipper at The Limited. It turns that even the endless kindness, coolness and celestial charisma of Sunshine could not encourage me to learn to love the Grateful Dead.

Everyone got along, though no new friendships emerged. They all went home the next morning and we returned to our normal, gross, stupid teenaged lives. Sunshine and I would spend a week at Irish Name’s family at the beach a year and half later. It was a fun trip, but felt nostalgic in advance because we were already drifting apart. Ivy League, Sunshine and I would all end up as day students at the same boarding high school. Ivy League and I would graduate and stay reasonably close well into our twenties, even as she slid into a more accomplished, more secure sort of an adulthood and I confounded (and maybe disappointed) expectation by loitering indefinitely at the frayed and frantic edges of maybe one day having my shit together. [2] I went to her wedding about ten years ago. It was lovely. I haven’t seen or spoken to her since.

When I turned thirteen, I believed nothing could ever be as bad as twelve. The nasty kids, the terrible unmooring of adolescence, my failure to live up to my once-touted potential and the unshakeable sense that I was like Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly,”[3] slowly sloughing off my humanity with each extra pound, every new oozing zit, each stuttered word (and where and how did I get a stutter?), every failure to present like a normal person and would one day just become a grotesque monster, unlovable to everyone. And the only humane thing for them to do would be to just let me go, so I wouldn’t ruin their lives as well.

At twelve, I was well-fed, well-housed, well-loved (despite my misgivings) by still married (if unhappily so) parents. I was only naïve enough to believe that middle school was the worst thing that could happen to a person because none of the big foundation-cracking, paradigm-shifting stuff that could happen to a person had happened to me yet. Thirteen would mark the start of my unsolicited educated in some of those darker mysteries. I made it through, though, armed with (and sometimes only with) the idea that somewhere I had three friends in the world and somehow, against all odds, I’d fucking survived twelve.

After that, anything was goddamn possible.

 

 

[1] Both of my parents are marvelous writers.

[2] Still there.

[3] Which I was told explicitly not to watch, but as with every movie in that category, I did anyway.

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Notable Birthdays: 1986

February 28, 1986

 Venue: 109 Westwood, Asheville

I wanted a slumber party. Slumber parties were peak popular girl, peak 80s movie, peak teenager, all things I aspired to be. For several years, winter weather froze out my birthday parties—a regular occurrence when you’re born in the temperate part of the northern hemisphere during the month most associated with Freak Blizzard. Mom did her best to alleviate the fog of gloom. All I ever really wanted was a pool party, because I loved the water, so one year (my eighth), she rented out the pool at the downtown YMCA. We splashed around and endured the glowering impatience of elderly lap swimmers counting down the minutes until we were forced out of the pool.  It was only an hour, but a great weird hour. At the end, we were sopping and reeked of chlorine as we were ushered out to converge outside the locker room. I blew out the candles and unwrapped presents, while adults with workout bags breezed through, chased by snowflakes and arctic outside winds, on their way to the pickup basketball game in the gym. Immediately afterward, six of us came down with bronchitis. My mother blamed it on all of us having wet hair in the middle of winter.

Mom thought I wasn’t old enough for a slumber party. I reminded her that most of my friends were already having slumber parties. I’d been to a few including: 1) the one out in the middle of the country where the host’s father got into a screaming match with his wife upstairs hours after we went to sleep, and drunkenly staggered into a living room to pass out of the sofa mumbling about whores 2) the one where my nominal best friend’s best friend locked me out of the house in the dark, in the cold on the side of the mountain for about an hour during a game of truth or dare 3) the one where my bad influence friend’s bad-influence-with-therefore-limited-custody mom had us all over to her Adults Only apartment complex, made us hide when the landlord came by and then promptly went on an all-night date, leaving us to our Prince-themed dance contests, underwear drawer explorations and gas-stove related fire experiments. Mom reminded me that I’d not yet managed to stay the whole night at a slumber party (I basically faked a stomach virus every time, by locking myself in the bathroom, groaning and pouring Dixie cups of water down the toilet to sound-effect vomit until someone called my mother) and the girls having them were not my close friends. Both of those things were absolutely, true. But I made enough noise about Mom being boring and over-valuing the limp-bowed rich girls who, generally never set things on fire or called their biological father a “useless sleazebag jerk” or claimed to know what oral sex was[1] that she finally agreed. I went to Hallmark, bought a bunch of black and hot pink invitations and conspicuously passed them out among the girls in my class, carefully avoiding anyone I thought might be “boring,” which was to say nice, smart, reasonable and having anything in common with me. I was just shy of ten years old and it was my first (and really only) attempt at playing mean girl. I believed I would suddenly become popular and effortlessly adult, that I might just elide the awkwardness of adolescence and turn out Molly Ringwald overnight. I micromanaged the cake, the movies, the snacks and prepared for my apotheosis into ten-year-old cool girl.

Surprise: To say that it backfired spectacularly would be a massive understatement. For one thing, the few of my actual close friends I invited didn’t come because they were all on an entirely wholesome (if problematic in retrospect) YMCA Indian Princesses weekend with their definitely not-sleazebag dads. Also, they didn’t like the other girls I invited because the other girls I invited were mean.

 Said mean girls arrive at the house en masse—they were all best friends with each other—and immediately started sassing my mother, which I found disconcerting, because my mother was generally nice, fun and accommodating. They picked at the food. The quibbled at the movie. Half of them made fun of me for being comparatively rich. The other half made fun of me for being comparatively poor. They eviscerated my haircut (which was, admittedly, disastrous), my weight (chubby, and noted by every single person in my life at the time), my clothes (nerdy), my interests (super-nerdy) and my parents lack of available objects to be set on fire. All of those girls were wearing bras already. Two had started their periods. I remember feeling hopelessly, helplessly, impossibly behind. They sat around talking about underwear like old pros, as they shared bottles of brilliant purple glitter nail polish (traces of which still remain, to this day, on furniture in my mother’s house). I remember one of the girls, notably beautiful and the kind of early bloomer that looked like a tiny seventeen at eleven, was absolutely sure that girls who didn’t get their period by sixth grade would never grow boobs and would, thus, stay weird, ugly babies for the rest of their tragic lives. This didn’t sound entirely credible to me—my parents were comparatively forthright and scientific when it came to discussion of sex and human development—but it haunted me, because I was a late bloomer[2].

I think I finally fell asleep around 4am with my fingers stuffed in my ears so I wouldn’t hear my party guests talking about me. I remember waking up the next morning in cold white February light, completely relieved that it was over and sure I would never tell anyone how bad it was, lest an I told you so.

Best Gift: My dad bought me a bicycle. It was pink and minty green with streamers and a basket and the words Sea Princess printed on the side. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. My parents eagerly insisted I take it out for a test drive. I demurred. I’d literally, embarrassingly only learned to ride a bicycle without training wheels the week before. I was still wobbly, had never ridden anything as big as the Sea Princess. I was terrified those girls would see, would laugh, would report back to everyone else in school. They insisted though, joining the parental chorus. I was weak to peer pressure. I agreed and promptly fell twice. My father offered to hold on to the back, so I could get my balance and I could hear the cool girls snickering by the station wagon as I swayed in place, but when I finally a-righted, I felt like I took flight. I forgot they were there. I found my own peace. I thought up a thousand adventures I could (and did) take on my own, free of judgement, as I unknowingly embarked on the front edge of an adolescence I would mostly ride through alone.

Note: There were no pictures taken at birthday party 1986. The visual is from Christmas, a few months before, but should serve as a reasonably clear view of the protagonist at the time.

[1] They didn’t.

[2] Fifteen, to be precise.

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Notable Birthdays: 1981

 February 28, 1981 (or thereabouts), 12-2pm

Venue: 109 Westwood, Asheville, NC,

As a child, I was into dresses. I was into dresses in the way that other children are into sports or bullying or video games or salting slugs in the rose garden or all of the above (you know who you are). My mother tells me she spent hours with my aunts and grandmothers changing infant me into dress after dress after dress just because people kept showing up for more baby dresses and they were so cute, and you were so cute. It was as if whatever conversations my parents had in utero about my presumed boy-ness somehow steeled my resolve to come out woman and roaring about, like, sequins, feathers and tulle. My dresses were vindication, another emphatic Yea to the ever-strengthening familial matriarchy. I slept most soundly in the stroller, parked amid perfumed dress racks in department stores and boutiques while Mom and Nana tried on clothes. I looped out ball gowns as soon as I could hold a pencil. At two-ish, I told my mother the sunrise over the lake in front of our house looked like the sky was wearing twelve fancy dresses, which sounds apocryphal, but also absolutely like something I said yesterday. When I was about three years old, Nana told me that when Elizabeth I was queen, she never wore the same dress twice and I was like #goals.

My relative level of taste was an issue. This was to be expected from women for whom “tacky” was the very apogee of insults, the absolute nadir that a human being could be.  I didn’t care much for the smocked pinafores, French sailor collars, white (and only white unless it was ballet) tights and tidy leather (never patent) Mary Janes the various taste mavens in my family tried to force me into. I wanted  glitter, a universe of glitter, ideally with ruffles. I wanted a skirt that swooshed like the tide when I walked in it and I wanted to wear it with my favorite tights which I referred to as “hole tight” because they had holes in the knees.

Sometimes my mother and I would go to a children’s store in a shopping center just up the lake from my house. There she would buy my tights and sundresses while I gazed in earnest, covetous wonder at racks of garment bagged pageant dresses in a special section in the back, those sparking concoctions of frothy chiffon and crinolines and so much sparkle.  I had, even then, no interest in being a beauty queen (that would require giving a fuck about hair and make-up and pretty and smiling, which I didn’t), but God, I wanted one of those dresses. I cried about it. I sulked. I think I once prayed for one. I begged to even be allowed to try one on. No dice. Sometimes I would watch in awe as big-haired little girls came in with their bigger haired mothers. They would assume the circular stage in surrounded by bagged tulle and rhinestone tiaras. I would near-drool with envy. My mother pretended to be oblivious, while she asked the sales clerk about where to find a blouse with navy blue piping to match the navy-blue monogram on my totally not sparkly sweater. Later in the car she would say, those dresses are tacky, Alison, you don’t want to be tacky do you? And I was like, yes, God, yes. Of course I do. From the depths of my soul! But instead I was left with a broken rattan trunk of dress-up clothes—my mother’s castoff cocktail dresses, slips and the minimalist tutus favored by my hippie ballet teacher, paper dolls and the bountiful delights of both Vogue and Modern Bride(for the bridesmaid dresses) in the supermarket checkout line.

I think the fancy dress party was a kind of olive branch. Mom dreamed it up, after I complained about having another party in the off-season 19th Hole Bar and Grill at the local country club, where our membership dues allowed rental of a space with astro-turf colored carpet and sticky naugahyde chairs the color of oatmeal that permanently reeked of cigarette smoke and gin and white privilege. Mom agreed that five was a red letter year. She suggested we have my friends over to wear fancy dresses and eat at fancy tables like fancy ladies. Like a tea party, but with better cake. She stressed girl friends, which I found befuddling, and tried to explain again that boys didn’t like fancy dresses.

This was news to me. I  once begged my father to take in the bar next to the public library downtown because they had the most elaborate fancy dresses on mannequins in the windows. After a moment of hesitation, he kind of shrugged and obliged. That place was entirely full of men. Not another girl in sight. They were all very nice to me and delighted that I wanted to know more about the dresses. The bartender helped me climb up on a bar stool and made me a Shirley Temple and asked me if I’d ever seen “The Wizard of Oz.” I told him it was my favorite movie and he said it was his too and we sang a little of “Over the Rainbow” together. It was a marvelous afternoon, so marvelous that it took years for me to figure out why people were scandalized when I told them I’d been there. And of course, boys liked fancy dresses. How could anyone not like fancy dresses? It like mom was telling me there were a people in the world that didn’t like blueberries or cats or draping oneself in a feather boa and several of Nana’s  cast off chiffon scarves and dancing passionately along to the Soul Train opening credits. Impossible!

The boys didn’t come though. Instead, I had about eight girls I liked, another two my mother thought I should like. Among the former were my best friends at the time (including one I still drink with to this day). Among the latter were rich people with limp hair bows. I picked out paper cups and plates from a local gift shop printed with pink paper dolls. Mom covered the kid sized table with a linen table cloth and ordered a cake with a bustled lady in a portrait hat iced on top. My friends came. We posed for pictures. I remember it was the first party where I thought, the anticipation for this event absolutely exceeded the event itself.  I tried to get everyone to play Queen of England. No one  would even try to  follow protocol. I picked at my cake with white lace fingerless gloves. I turned five.

Surprise: None of my boy friends were disappointed that they weren’t invited.

Best Gift: Nana had a soft spot for me. She bought a cross-stitched pillow for my bed that said When Mother Says No, Ask Grandmother because she was a busy, professional woman and had no time for cross-stitching. I asked her for a pageant dress. Nana, with her Dior frames and wall of designer shoes, gave me a long, hard, sympathetic look before the honey, that’s tacky.  But as a child of the Depression, she understood the ache of wanting. She knew the intoxicating allure of the ridiculous and sublime. She hired her occasional seamstress, a woman called Marguerite [1]to make a dress-up dress to measure. It came, wrapped in brown paper, just days before my birthday. I unwrapped an organdy (polyester) gown with puffed sleeves and an ample neck ruff and billowy ruffled skirt. It wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind, but still a completely badass present that took center stage through the next few years of my youth.

Also, my mother was four months (or so) pregnant) at the time of my fancy dress party. I didn’t ask for a little sister (and was, at that point, quite sure I didn’t want one), but that situation turned out to be more than okay.  My fancy dress party would be the last birthday I spent as an only child.

 

 

[1] If you ask my mother or Aunt, they will recount hair-raising tales of Marguerite’ sartorial villainy during their teenaged years.

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Notable Birthdays: 1976

February 28, 1976, 6:55pm EST

Venue: Bristol Memorial Hospital, Bristol, TN.

I was supposed to be a boy. They had the name picked out—Thomas Butler Fields. They had a Peter Rabbit-themed nursery. They had, what I suspect given my parents’ interests and affinities, a notion of some floppy haired young son that would age into a sensitive preppy with a fondness for golf, tennis and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I was also late. Two weeks or so. I’d managed to shirk off the doom of being born on Valentine’s Day and barreled right on through the various Presidential birthdays to push the envelope on a leap year. My mother, understandably impatient with my delay (though chronic tardiness is a family trait for sure), had embraced various, non-peer-reviewed strategies to encourage me to leave the womb. The night before I was born, for example,  she and my father attended a cocktail party. Afterwards, they got a ride home from their friend Frank, who repeatedly drove the car back and forth over the railroad tracks in the center of town to try and jostle me out. This maybe(?) worked, as my mother went into labor several hours later.

At the time, my parents lived across the street from my recently divorced grandparents, in a duplex that would one-day house my alcoholic grandfather, his standard poodle, Barkus (pun probably intended– assume a non-rhotic Mississippi accent if you’re confused), a collection of Faulkner novels and a reasonable stock pile of both golf shirts and Tanqueray. When we’d visit Grandjay later, my mother would remind me this is where we lived when you were born. And I would think, no wonder I’m so comfortable around genteel poverty and disappointed literary ambitions.  And she would go to great lengths to tell me how different it was when we lived there.

In Bristol, the state line runs through the center of town. There’s a giant metal arch commemorating it that runs over some train tracks, possibly the same train tracks that catalyzed my birth.[1] My parents lived in Virginia, but the local hospital was in Tennessee, ensuring that I would spend the rest of my life wrestling with the mixed bag that is being a native of Tennessee.[2]

It was an unseasonably warm February and the hospital air conditioning was on the fritz. Mom sweated her way through hours of labor. I arrived at the tail end of Happy Hour, 6:55pm, as the obstetrician complained about how my delivery would force him to miss “The Lawrence Welk Show,” which aired at 7pm.

Surprise Factor I think I threw pretty much everyone for a loop when I turned up female. They’d kind of like, maybe, sort of  talked about girl names. Mom tells a story about hearing church bells on the breeze, whilst standing in the alps some years previous. They sounded like Al-is-on. And I thought I would name my daughter, if I had one. Judging from the name’s popularity, a lot of people must have heard Alison bells in the mid-seventies including the guy still recording demos as Declan MacManus at the time. Like my mother, he went with the traditional spelling, absent y’s, extra-Ls and all the other bells and whistles teachers, friends, employers and grandparents have since tried to add to my name. Years later, I’d sit over his record sniffling at how his aim was true and was all and you even spelled my name correctly *swoon.*  

Evidently, there was a rash of births at Bristol Memorial on February 28. The nursery squirmed with newborns by February 29. I was the only girl, a phenomenon that would be coincidentally replicated throughout my childhood. The nurses delighted in my female-ness, coaxing my baby hair into cartoon-style curls with Vaseline and horrifying my mother. My maternal grandparents doted. Dad’s parents, drunk on divorce and actual drink, scheduled visits so they wouldn’t risk running into the other.

Best Gift: 1976 was a weird year, the middle of the ugliest part of the 1970s that bottomed out the birthrates and gave rise to all sorts of terrible ideas like  brown shag carpet, bicentennial kitsch and the mass-popularity of The Eagles. On the other hand, I like that I emerged around the same time that popular culture started to step out of bell-bottomed denim and into either leather and ripped fishnets  or spangled chiffon and disco heels and let me sort of carve out my way with both at the same time and all in-between.  Oh, and I’m not always 100% sold on The Endless Joy of Living, but if I’d never been born, I probably would have never been introduced to, like, negronis in Italy or triple crème cheese or David Bowie (who played (possibly cheese-less) Cleveland, Ohio the night I was born).  So I guess that counts too.

[1] The celebration of the state line as an attraction was apocryphally  the brainchild of my great-great grandfather, during his brief tenure as Governor of Tennessee in the early part of the 20th century.  If I know members of my family, he was probably like “this is maybe the sort of thing that will encourage town unity and discourage the half of my family that act like assholes just because they live in Virginia from lording it over the  rest of us.” It didn’t.

[2] Pros: Stax Records. Hot Chicken. Alex Chilton. Dolly Parton. Weird Memphis. Graceland souvenir shops. Lambchop. Robert’s Western World. The Metal Dude I Saw once walking around the Parthenon in Nashville playing the  Electric Guitar. Are you from Tennessee? Do I like you? Then, pro.

Cons: Whatever I didn’t list in “pros”

 

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