After 20 years in Los Angeles, with its 362 days a year of sun-kissed monotony, I returned to Wisconsin in April 2013. Although it was 19 degrees, people rode in convertibles with the tops down, and wearing flip-flops and shorts,. I was at once reminded that we were tougher here—hardier than my Cali friends, who burrowed into electric underpants and earmuffs when the temps dipped below 78.
Everyone is tougher in the Midwest—dogs, people, deer, and especially children. I developed a thick skin at an early age. Many were the summer days when my mom sent me outside with a fudgsicle and the directive to play. I’d lie on the “postage stamp” front lawn of the West Allis duplex my immigrant Grandma owned, and from whom we rented the downstairs, and I’d watch the clouds drift by. Invariably, a shadow would fall across my face in the shape of Suzie Deedie, a neighborhood kid who ate caterpillars.
“There’s something missing from that child’s diet,” my mom would say, burning up a batch of previously frozen lima beans and ring bologna for dinner. Our street was lined with maple trees that formed a canopy over the road, the bark of which was apparently delectable to caterpillars, which in turn made them irresistible to Suzie Deedie. It takes a Wisconsinite to eat handfuls of furry green Lepidoptera just to round out a nutritional plan.
Although I’d usually gack up [?] my fudgsicle at that point, I was strong in a less obvious way. I became impervious to ridicule, like when my grandma made my first two-piece bathing suit—a bikini my parents tried fruitlessly to dissuade me from wearing, but that I insisted made me look longer, leaner…with less “shoonka” as grandma described my considerable “schpeck.” My parents told me “healthy” children, such as myself, should “cover up” with a nice big one-piece. I was having none of it.
I wore that white waffle weave with yellow applique daisies two-piece to a swim meet at the local pool. Who knew there was such a thing as swimsuit elastic? Every single person in southern California, that’s who. But not my grandma. I dove off the platform, and resurfaced half way across the pool to uproarious laughter. Instinctively I knew it had something to do with me, and I immediately felt a smooth cool jet stream of pool water rushing over by big bare butt.
As nonchalantly as possible I paddled to the jumbo white bottoms floating at the surface, and pulled them on, then I swam along the floor of the pool like a carp, hoping for a hidden portal to the locker room. Of course no such secret passage existed and I faced the dilemma of trying to hoist my body out of the pool and onto the deck, which was problematic on the best of days.
Water was my friend while I was swimming, providing buoyancy and leveling the playing field between the puny kids and me. But getting out of the pool was another story entirely. I had to hop, hop, and hop a third time to in order to gather enough momentum to sort of flop onto the deck. This method left no hands with which to hold up my sodden swimsuit bottoms, which gravity and fate pulled off my butt for a second time.
In that instant I made a conscious choice to laugh with everybody rather than slip beneath the water, and inhale deeply. “I’m tough,” I told myself. “Some day this will serve me well.” And pretty much, every day since then, it has.
Pam Ferderbar is the author of Feng Shui and Charlotte Nightingale.