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Tag Archives: adolescence

Mr Popper & Myself

D and Mr PopperMy mother is perhaps 13 in this small photo. It’s the mid-1920s and she’s looking a little flapperish.

On the back of the photo is written, “To Dorothy From Margaret West.” Perhaps on this spring day in Milwaukee Margaret and Dorothy dressed up and went to a party, or the silent pictures. On the way home they encountered the local constabulary, Mr. Popper, and Dorothy asked Margaret to take her photo. The ever-accommodating Mr. Popper is mildly amused.

Dorothy is holding a newspaper, part hanging down and part flipped up across her chest. Maybe there’s something noteworthy in the paper — something about Dorothy herself, or her school, or her father.

Or perhaps there’s no story, just a record of a moment when a girl shows a new composure, a new self-awareness, when grooming is not simply a matter of complying with Mother’s instructions, but a tiny and newly discovered window into self-expression.

one summer…

jik at Grand CanyonEach summer, the three of us went somewhere on vacation. We usually visited national or state parks — driving to Yosemite or Big Bear, staying in a cabin, taking walks, seeing whatever there was to see: nature.

The summer that I was 11 and in the most awkward throes of my adolescence, we took a long trip through the West, from Los Angeles to Las Vegas (where it was 117 degrees and raining, the swimming pool crowded at our motel), visiting Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam, then on to Bryce, Zion and the north rim of the Grand Canyon.

My mother hated Bryce (who hates Bryce?), but at lunch there we laughed together at our slices of apple pie with thick crust the consistency of cardboard. It set the standard by which we would always measure pie crust. Somewhere outside of Zion, we ate “broasted” chicken and saw bats flitting over the swimming pool.

One evening as we ate dinner in the lodge dining room at the Grand Canyon, we watched an electrical storm make its way across the Canyon, lightning flashes of canyon color and trees punctuating the darkness.

My father and I took a horseback ride along the rim, leaving our cabin on a cloudless blue morning, getting drenched by rain and pelted by golf-ball size hail along the way and returning to find my mother sketching outside the cabin, where it had barely sprinkled.

Dorothy decided she wanted to see the sun rise over the Canyon and set off early one morning, unable to persuade us to join her. I had barely fallen back to sleep when she came crashing back into the cabin, raising an alarm: “Porcupine! Porcupine!” Of course, she insisted we get up and come see, but by the time we returned to the trail we had missed both the porcupine and the sunrise.

Though I hardly knew what I was from one moment to the next — child enough to travel comfortably with my parents, girl enough to develop searing crushes on boys I met along the way — the trip was one of our most memorable. At the cusp, at my cusp, it demarcates the line between child and young adult as clearly and colorfully as the Canyon itself.

discovering the girl…

Fox and Bruin theaters, Westwood VillageIn the trapped-ness of my non-driving early teenage years at home, the place I could walk to — get away to — was Westwood Village. It was different then, lively and un-corporate, with a grocery store, two movie theaters (still there!), bookstores and stationery stores, clothing and shoe shops, restaurants and coffee shops, and a department store, Bullock’s. Westwood was the place I’d go to the orthodontist, meet my friends, buy illicit cigarettes and wander like a tourist, looking and touching but seldom buying.

My route there and home frequently detoured to take me along UCLA’s Fraternity Row. The way was slightly longer, but promised, in my mind at least, the possibility of being noticed, discovered, rescued, invited in. I needed someone to confirm my suspicion that I was female, a girl like other girls, not the confused and neuter thing I’d felt like through my early adolescence. I was invisible to the boys I knew; only Steve, the 20-something son of family friends, recognized my desperate flirtations and fueled my hopes with his harmless flattery.

But on Fraternity Row, nothing like that ever happened. No one spoke to me as I mooned along, trying to understand the right way to inhabit the body of this new person I had become. The boys were there, going about their new lives as young college men, but for me it was just another kind of window-shopping, the goods beautiful, desirable and inaccessible.
. . . . .
Photo of the Fox and Bruin movie theaters (ca. 1938) from a wonderful collection of early UCLA and Westwood photos by Water and Power Associates

twelve twelve twelve

12Here’s what I remember. At 11, I was well behind my precocious friends, whose bodies had already bloomed with the first suggestions of womanhood. Stuck somewhere between girl and boy, abandoned by unsympathetic gods, I could neither retreat to childhood nor advance to the rounded mysteries of whatever would come next.

But eventually something did come next: 12. And while my body was slow to notice the changes, the line of demarcation was drawn in silver wire. Getting braces, with all of their welcome nuisance, allowed me to look ahead to some time when I might be something other than this. Suddenly, I had focus: instead of being snared in a confusing tangle of unfinished and unmatched parts, all I had to do now was to get my teeth through this process.

Naturally, while I was distracted by cleaning and appointments and trying not to smile, my random parts coalesced into something more identifiable: girl. Twelve was the cocoon, the tunnel, the escape route from the horrors of 11 — not particularly memorable in itself, but a time from which I would emerge, spotted, winged, never a butterfly but finally a moth.
. . . . .
More on 11 here and here, more on braces here.


patchwork quiltIn the throes of the physical and emotional awkwardness of age 11, my most direct route to transformation seemed to be sewing. I could spend hours poring over the pages of the McCall’s pattern books — not picturing myself in the flowing dresses, but imagining that by wrapping myself in these clothes I would become one of the shapely, straight-haired girls in the illustration. Then there were the fabrics and buttons and trim, a sensory bonanza, even under the watchful eye of the owner of F & S Fabrics.

My parents gave me a sewing machine and through junior high and high school I made many of my blouses and skirts. I was good at following patterns, a good cutter. I sewed neat seams and always pressed them open as I went along.

When I was 13 or 14, I picked a fabric that looked like raw silk for a sleeveless sheath for some very special occasion. I stitched carefully, put in an “invisible zipper” and watched the dress take shape. It seemed very sophisticated, grown up, and I was excited, thinking that finally I’d look like the willowy model on the pattern. But when I finally tried it on, it didn’t fit. Not even close. Not even so that I could let out a seam. I had grown. I was no longer the girl-size I had been, had left forever the hope of willowy, and had become round of hip and breast, and taller — a different body all together.

My dress sat abandoned in a heap for a long time, as if I might grow back into it. Finally it ended up in the give-away pile, half-finished. All that was left was a small square of the fabric stitched into my patchwork quilt, a scrap of memory.


I don’t know what it was that made me afraid, but at age eleven, caught in the most awkward moment of my childhood, unready for being the changeling I had become or whatever might come next, I became convinced that I was being poisoned and I would die.

The knowledge came over me like a blush, without reason, and made my breath raggedy in my chest. Who might poison me was beyond my pre-adolescent logic, but that death was creeping quickly upon me with sure inevitability informed every moment of what I knew would be my final days.

There was no one to entrust with my knowledge, no one to question or explain. I went to a baseball game with my cousin, unable to tell him that this would be our last visit. I waited for the signs, which I knew might be delayed by days, or even weeks. When I couldn’t breathe, I lay down on the couch until my mother told me to go to my room. My child’s-view world, already small, shrank to this one thing: that I was dying.

Then, without explanation, like a blush, the fear receded. If I had been poisoned — by my anxiety, by loneliness, by adolescence — the toxin released its hold on me, let me fill and empty my lungs, let me shrug back into the blurry, ill-fitting outline of the person I was becoming.


We were all jealous of Lorna because she had a movie star’s name. Actually, she had a cookie’s name, but it sounded glamorous and made us think of Loretta Young and was entirely unlike the plain names the rest of us had.

Her father was a famous actor whose story was shrouded in mystery. We – at least those of us who were shy – couldn’t bring ourselves to ask our questions: What was it like being the daughter of a famous actor? What did her bedroom look like? Had she ever been in a movie?

She smoked cigarettes and missed classes for weeks at a time and left as quickly as she had arrived, without answering our questions, without sprinkling us with stardust…