Recently I went to a dinner to meet some of the women I attended a private high school with 40 years ago. We met to share our stories of “AB” or “after Burke’s”, which is the name of the school. This dinner was a precursor to the official Burke’s School alumnae luncheon, which was today at some posh place for $45 a head. I didn’t attend, having reservations for massage at a spa with a friend in order to de-stress. I’m happy to say that is exactly what me and my friend did.
This was the first time since I graduated from high school that I had seen any of them. I had ignored the endless invitations, fundraisers, alumnae newsletters and so on because I have been such a loser in life, never coming close to achieving anything stable or noteworthy. I couldn’t imagine being able to talk about my real life, or meeting them without their indifference and perhaps contempt showing. I had managed, over time, to turn my shame into a kind of counter contempt for them so I didn’t have to feel bad about not being connected or part of anything worth revisiting. But I felt the call to come this time because it was only our class and not the whole slew of upper class women who are active in the Burke’s Alumnae Association.
I tend to suck at dressing up because I don’t own a lot of clothing, rarely put on makeup, attend or give a damn about dressy occasions, so I had to decide how I was going to handle this. I ended up putting on my most radical bellydancing top, a long sleeved number which minimizes the sagging upper arm fat by encasing it in black rose stretch lace, along with the back, which is all lace and distracts the eye from fat folds back there. The front, somewhat low cut, has a flattering circular line and is a kind of opaque, almost filmy black. Over that I had one of the few tasteful cloth jackets I own, which had a black, read and blue design and wooden buttons. I borrowed a black straight line skirt with a slit and wore my usual shoes. I did in fact wash, blow dry my hair, put on makeup and use “root lifter” and gel to shape my hair to look good. I looked and felt good to myself, and was comfortable at the dinner. I was received with good humor and grace, a miracle and I’m thankful.
I was delayed by a plumber arriving to fix a broken gas line to the water heater, got one digit mixed up on the street address, arrived about an hour late but was welcomed, served food and invited to join the circle of women.
The life stories began: where people went, what they did after high school, colleges they attended, marriages, love affairs, divorce, children, work, travel, etc. Interwoven in all this was discussions about dealing with aging, declining, dying and altzheimer ridden parents. I was easily able to hold my own on that account, which gave me strength. There were 14 present, 2 of whom I was not acquainted with but who as fascinating as any of the ones I had known. There were 11 of our whole class not there, which was probably a good thing because of size and time limits and personalities. I’ve just begun to remembering their names and faces.
I’ve realized many things after that dinner. First of all, they were all quite accomplished in many ways. Most had marriages and 1-3 children, work careers which clearly worked out financially and otherwise. Second, our education at the private school was top notch and personal connections between these women had been useful, significant, and lasted over many years through many life changes and challenges. I did not have the esteem to trust either them or myself after I graduated, assuming that my class and geographic distance meant I was an outsider.
My parents gave me two great gifts: private high school and college, all paid for. Tragically for me, I have no idea why they did it and I did not utilize the tremendous advantage that education gave me because I was blind to the fact they didn’t care about me or have any real interest in my future. I was unable to protect myself in relation to a situation that I had no way of comprehending and still do not today.
Part of me is still in reaction to my family because there were many dark family currents, lies and secrets which, never acknowledged or brought out into the open have handicapped me and left me in a passive victim mode I am still struggling with today.
Mostly what I remember was that my sisters were gone to college and my parents were chronically unhappy and going to private school was an escape. I was afraid at first of going to private school, but I was more afraid to go to the local high school. I did not have local friends, and I think the long hours I spent in isolation commuting kept me in limbo between the two worlds and I did not develop emotionally and socially.
When I was at the dinner, I was surprised to hear a couple of people comment on the one time some of them came down to the coast to see my mother’s horses, the beach and our place- that had been an utter disaster and failure for me. I had mustered up the courage to finally invite the whole class, had food and activities planned. Most of the people I liked didn’t come, and the others of the class who did behaved like vandals and not guests, treating it like a cheap tourist attraction they could tramp through and leave when they pleased after they had satisfied their curiosity.
My mother ruined it all for me by referring to me and them as “little girls” and not taking seriously my need to host my peers, have them see that I too, had a pretty cool home. I’d been to some of their Pacific Heights homes and it had been a few years. I was too vulnerable on both ends, and I never tried to use our home again for bringing friends.
Somehow my mother, father, and sisters never took me seriously, never talked about or discussed with me anything about my future or my happiness, though there they were paying all that money for my education, buying my books and uniforms and sending me to assemblies( private school prom). No freaking wonder I was confused. To this day, I don’t know what world my family was operating in regarding me.
Somewhere along the line I failed to earn their basic respect, and that has continued and festered in the shadows, so much so that I don’t believe I feel as though I don’t have a family and I don’t know how to find out why and what the real truth is.
Somehow this translated, not only into more abuse and neglect, but justification for it. I was apparently considered a weakling, a “n’er do well”, which was one of my mother’s quaint little names for losers, and that was never just brought out and stated. My father, who told me some of the family secrets on the side, did not stand up to this idea that I was deficient officially, and became more collapsed into his alcoholism, alternating between criticizing my mother to me and defending her. He told me a few times that he was going to leave my mother and take me with him, and once he left me standing outside while he went inside with her and never came out again after they had fought.
I just kept assuming I would just get out there and find my life, do college, get a job or career or whatever and be done with the family and their baffling lack of interest in the real me. I never dreamed, even when I was hurting from things done and said by my siblings and parents how much harm all their indifference and contempt was going to cause me all my life. I’m haunted by fear and mistrust, unable to trust myself and being in the world. All I know is that something needs to be done. I wish knew exactly what at the moment.