February 2009

reunion-004_2Phyllis Mathis is a writer, psychotherapist, and life coach, living and working in Littleton, Colorado. She is one of the founders of Voca Femina. Her website can be found at phyllismathis.com


Salvation By Laura

tall-woman1“She’s big for her age,” my mother would recite, whenever a visitor happened to notice me. She seemed a little worried about this; I soon discovered why.

The first evidence of my defectiveness was the existence of a boy named Egon. Egon was the biggest kid in first grade, the standard bearer for the upper limit. By all accounts Egon was a big kid, and proud of it. He was a boy, after all, and big and boy go together like big and girl never will.

My own flesh mortified me, and Egon was my terrible mirror. From kindergarten through the 6th grade, for each of our years at Meadowbrook Elementary School, I stood next to Egon on the bleachers at all our performances. Every Christmas program, every choir concert: me and Egon, side by side in the back row. Me and Egon, same size.

Humiliations galore.

Phyllis and Egon, sittin’ in a tree. K-i-s-s-i-n-g.

Egon became the icon of my shame, so of course I was forced to despise him.

But just as I was learning to roll with the punches and compensate for the Egon factor, along came a girl named Jana, making her celebrity appearance in the 5th grade. With her long, straight, white-blond hair, her groovy fishnet stockings, her miniskirt and kickin’ go-go boots situated on her child-sized frame, Jana was the poster child for perfect. She was the perfect size, had the perfect hair, perfect clothes, perfect little bangs, and possessed the perfect little mild-mannered demeanor. She was everything I wasn’t, since by the 5th grade I was measuring 5 feet 5 inches, was in desperate need of a training bra, and tipped the scales at 115 pounds. I was a ten-year-old in an adult body, and a tomboy to boot. Sooo not like Jana.

If Egon was the icon of my shame, Jana was the icon of … well, my continued shame. I remember staring at her perfection one day, marveling at the injustice of the universe. That night as I went to bed, I prayed, “Dear God, let me wake up short. Please.” Short would fix it all, I thought. If I was pudgy, which I was a little, I could fix that. But tall was permanent. Tall needed divine intervention.

My prayers went unanswered.

The next two years are too painful to discuss, so I’ll leave you to speculate. Just imagine an early-developing, pimple-sporting, greasy-haired, sweaty, awkward and, don’t forget – very tall – girl in gym class, and you’ll have a taste of my torment. Adolescence is just too cruel, don’t you think?

But thank God for Laura. Laura arrived at West Junior High in the 9th grade, having spent her elementary years in Catholic school, poor thing. I’ll never forget the day she skulked into Mr. Putnam’s Honors English class. She was so tall. God she was tall. Taller than me even, scraping the underside of six feet. She was skittish as a young doe. Her eyes darting back and forth, she was ready to bolt at the slightest hint of rejection. I felt sorry for her, she looked so uncomfortable, but sadly, not sorry enough. That entire year I left her to fend for herself, lest she prove toxic in some way to my fragile social standing.

I don’t remember when Laura and I became friends, or how exactly. I just remember that something about the way she held herself changed after 9th grade. Laura’s parents were wise, supporting her avid interest in dance. When the other girls dropped out of dance school, Laura continued on, developing a grace and self-confidence that saved her soul when she wasn’t looking.

By 10th grade, she was a different girl. No longer waiting for permission to exist, she held her head high atop her long, slender neck. Her legs were magnificent, her mannerisms graceful. When Laura moved, she was like a giraffe in full gallop – elegant and musical, but earthy and wholesome. She could stop your heart.

The boys were scared out of their wits.

I was totally impressed.

Laura and I became great friends. She taught me to tap dance. And when platform shoes came into style, she wore them with pride, even though they added a good four inches to her towering stature.

Laura could dance, my, my. And she had guts. Our junior year she entered the local Miss Teen USA contest. When she leaped out on stage for her talent presentation, dancing a piece she’d choreographed herself, we all caught our breath in one collective gulp. Although she lost the competition to someone with a more conventional look, she gained the respect of many a teenage coward that day. God, I admired her.

I loved going places with Laura – I in my Earth Shoes, she in her 4-inch platforms. Next to her, my five-foot-nine-okay-ten felt average, normal even, hardly worthy of notice. She set me free from scrutiny because her presence commanded all the attention. Loosed from the noose of my own self-consciousness, I could breathe when I was with Laura. Every time I stood tall instead of hunched over, every time I held my head high with my shoulders back, I felt whole and fine, like I’d come home. For the first time in my life, I felt comfortable in my own skin.

I would always be tall. Laura taught me to wear it with style.

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To gain your own voice, forget about having it heard. Become a saint of your own province and your own consciousness. Allen Ginsberg

Creative nonfiction is…that little vignette about that one Christmas when you got a new bike, or that story about a difficult time in your life, which you managed to tell from a creative point of view. Creative nonfiction is a piece that tells a true story about a place or a person that actually exists – so it’s not fiction – but it’s told with a certain flair, or with a few fictional embellishments. Not quite an essay, not quite a short story, it could be a memoir-y tale or a wondering about the dreams of dogs.

Make it fun, make it soulful, make it sad, just tell a true story in a unique way, and we’ll call it creative nonfiction!