When my brother Pete taunted me with cruel comments about being fat, he was, of course, totally in the wrong. Then again, in all honesty, he wasn’t totally wrong. That’s why such taunts work; they hit a tender target. Upon our arrival in Rice Lake, I had neighborhood friends for the first time. We’d hop on our bikes and head anywhere we pleased. The whole town was within reach.

There was a shoe repair shop halfway to downtown that had some mynah birds in a cage out back. Stacy and I would go talk to them, trying to get them to talk back. There were also a couple of candy shops, one next door to Jefferson Elementary. We’d take our meager allowance and fill up an old cigar box with one of everything they had. Somehow I packed on a few pounds around my middle.

Looking back now at the pictures of me as a kid, there were some years in middle school when I was downright unattractive. My eyesight had been bad since second grade and the lenses had gotten thicker every year. I picked my frames myself, and probably wouldn’t have let my mother help if she had tried. Yes, styles have changed, yet across the board they were not a good look.

To this day, my mother feels badly she hadn’t realized I was blind as a bat. A classmate in second grade had gotten glasses and I told her I thought I needed the same. I’d made it that far because teachers often talk out loud as they write on the board. If not, I would turn around and copy from my neighbor’s paper.

I still remember sitting in the eye doctor’s chair and having him ask me to read the letters on the wall in front of me. What letters? What wall? I couldn’t even see the big E. I still have my first pair of glasses, featured in more than one school picture after that. They took a hit one day when I was walking behind the basketball hoop on the playground and a basketball beaned me in the face. Miraculously it didn’t break the frame but took a weird divot from the edge of one of the lenses. I wouldn’t have thought that was even physically possible.

So, yeah, in those middle years, I was a bit chunky. In middle school, I saw Melinda drinking a Fresca and learned, for the first time, you could make different choices that would affect how your body looked. Cue the dragons. For the ensuing decade, I would drink lots of Tab and Fresca and go on lots of diets, gaining and losing the same five pounds, over and over. My junior year, I cranked down my control nobs and lost a more significant amount of weight. But 110 pounds was not sustainable, and the subsequent struggle got even harder after squeezing under that unrealistically low bar.

While in high school, Melinda and I would split an order fries from the cafeteria for lunch, or maybe share a Drumstick ice cream cone. (Why our bodies don’t shrivel up and die from lack of nutrition is beyond me.) Later, in college, I would write a paper on anorexia while at the same time surviving on air-popped popcorn for dinner, which helped me fit into both my meager budget and my smallest jeans.

Growing up, my go-to afterschool snack was sugar and butter on white toast, enjoyed while watching reruns of shows like Gilligan’s Island, Petticoat Junction and The Flying Nun. My mother simply didn’t buy snack foods. Though for a short time she owned an H&R Block in a city an hour and twenty minutes away, leaving Dad to feed us through the winter while she worked and slept at her brother’s house. Like many alcoholics, my dad has always had a sweet tooth and desserts were plentiful in those months. Otherwise, a typical dessert consisted of canned peaches and a spoonful of cottage cheese.

As many women can attest, if it’s not our hips, it’s our hair. It has taken me the better part of this lifetime to sort out just what kind of hand I have been dealt. My hair has always been blonde, although there have been years when I experimented—somewhat unfortunately—with red. The thing is, I have a lot of hair, which has been confirmed by more than one hairdresser who has had to wind it around perm rods. The other thing is: it’s ridiculously fine.

Toni perms hit the scene about the time I hit high school, meaning I now had both an obligation and a means to have curly hair. But perms are a nightmare for fine hair, delivering big benefits along with brutal damage. I struggled my way through the late 1970s and into the big hair decade of the 1980s. But didn’t we all? Even my brothers and my dad fell victim to the craze. My mom and I gave each other home perms, and we both gave more than one perm to my dad and the boys. Ah, the good old days.

Our mom gives one of my brothers a home perm.

Looking back now at pictures of me, I look normal, sometimes even pretty. But I seldom had that perspective about myself then. I often felt fat and I never felt pretty. Or if on a particular occasion I did believe I looked nice, there was also such a lack of self-worth underpinning it all that I couldn’t enjoy it. My issue wasn’t so much low esteem as a complete lack of sense of self.

Our high school class was characterized by a large central clique and I mostly danced around its edges. Once again, I was out of the loop. I was friendly with most of the people in the clique, but never inside of it myself. Given my involvement in things like theater and the pom-pom squad, I may have been known by a fair number of kids, but I was never popular. I wasn’t elected to be on the Homecoming or Prom court, although happily my friend Melinda was.

I’d get a carnation or two from secret admirers on Valentine’s Day, but I never had a boyfriend in high school. I did, however, go to prom twice. Once was with my history teacher’s son, Steve—like that wasn’t weird at all—and once with a foreign exchange student from Sweden, Jonas, who couldn’t drive in the States so I picked him up in my mother’s VW Rabbit.

For one of those proms, I sewed my own dress, creating a flowing wave of light yellow flowers using a pattern that required many yards of fabric. I edged the large panels of layered material with a row of ribbon and lace, which due to the sheer length needed, added up to a tidy sum of money. Altogether, the materials cost something like $85.

As we shopped together, my mother, who was now divorced and no doubt overly concerned about her finances, but who had offered to buy materials for my prom dress, became more and more tense, more and more furious. Finally, she spat at me, in tears in the store, “This costs more than my own wedding dress!” And here I’d thought this one was about me.

For the prom I attended with Jonas, I got myself tasked with the duty of creating the backdrop for the prom pictures (how that one landed in my lap, I don’t recall). I had the brilliant idea of using a huge piece of black velour, like you might find hanging in the wings backstage at the campus, for the back of the backdrop. What could possibly happen to it, just hanging there in the background?

God bless my brother Jeff, who was then a student at the Rice Lake campus, for busting one of those out of there for me, for a couple days. But as happens, something could and did go wrong. A drunk student lost his balance and fell into the lovely door frame I had created—borrowed from the set shop, most likely—and slashed a good sized tear in the curtain. Doh! Fortunately, I was talented with a needle and thread, and with Jeff as my accomplice, we returned it quietly to its place backstage and no one was ever the wiser.

I served on Student Council, having been elected as a freshman along with four others from my class, including my friend Janet. In the picture that appeared in the school paper, we look like quite a happy group. Twenty-seven years later, I’d be sitting on a plane bound for Europe, reading in USAToday about eight deer hunters in Northern Wisconsin who were shot by a Hmong man who had also been deer hunting. One of those killed was Bob Crotteau, who was also elected to Student Council his freshman year in high school and who can be seen kneeling in front of me in the picture.

But my service on Student Council petered out, so I never got tasked with organizing a class reunion. I have in fact only attended one, our twentieth, held in the rebuilt lodge of the now-defunct Hardscrabble ski hill. Just one month later, my ten-year marriage would come to an end. It’s fair to say I was not at the top of my game just then.

I did manage to reconnect with a few old friends, including Joanne. We had hung out together in middle school, her father attending the same recovery meetings as my dad, and both of them slipping and sliding every step of the way. Her dad was involved in coaching Little League and so somehow the two of us ended up on a team. My brothers came to a game and, realizing how far out of our depth we were, attempted to teach me how to swing at a ball in our backyard. Bless their hearts.

Joanne and I went up to the cabin together one winter to go sliding on the steep, curvy path that led down to the lake. Having mastered the twists and turns on our own path, we hopped over to the neighbor’s property to give theirs a try. I was in the front on our red plastic sled, so ostensibly in charge of steering, although leaning was the only thing we had to work with. Apparently I didn’t do such a hot job on one wicked turn and ran us headlong into a half-fallen tree.

Joanne flew over my head, landing in the crotch of the split tree and crying out. I was laughing until I realized she’d hurt her back. Years later, Joanne would walk through the halls of high school in a full body cast after going through several rounds of extensive back surgery. At the reunion, I had the chance to clear the air with her, telling her I’d always felt guilty that our sledding “accident” had probably contributed to her back situation. “No,” she laughed. She was certain that hadn’t had anything to do with it. I felt greatly relieved.

[Addendum of Sorts, from my mom about “And here I’d thought this one was about me.”: I don’t doubt I was plenty concerned about the $85 cost, but furious and spatting at her in the store? If I did, that was definitely uncalled for. The materials for my wedding dress, which I sewed myself, were actually much less expensive. (It’s hard to believe now how much $85 was, for me, in that day and age.)]

Walker: A Spiritual Memoir by Jill Loree

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