"Prince Dustin and the Lady in Red"
an excerpt from my memoir, OPEN ROAD: A LIFE WORTH WAITING FOR
an excerpt from my memoir, OPEN ROAD: A LIFE WORTH WAITING FOR
It's a snowy Christmas Eve and I've just arrived at my parents' house. Earlier in the day we had lunch at Greta's. Then I drove home, quickly fed the cats, showered, dressed, and drove through the falling snow to Mom and Dad's where I was expected to arrive at five o'clock on the dot so we can take pictures before we go out to eat.
Of course, only my father is downstairs, calling for the dogs that are playing in the backyard. I can hear the rest of them upstairs in the bathroom, in their bedrooms, talking to one another: "Elise....get your tights." "Greta...can I borrow your hairspray?" "Josh....let Daddy help you with your tie." "Mom...do you know where I left my purse?"
Joe and Patricia have brought their two Terriers; Greta is spending the night along with her Golden Doodle as well. After Dad lets the dogs in, they sniff my shoes and pantyhose for the lingering scent of my cats, then flop on the floor by the fireplace in the family room, blissfully oblivious to the mayhem upstairs.
I stand in Mom's kitchen, the counter decorated with lively tins of cookies and candies she and Greta bake every holiday season. Christmas carols play on the stereo and the tree is lit in the corner of the living room creating a lovely background for our family photos. I glance at the clock. It's five-fifteen and they're still not ready.
Sighing, I walk to Mom's desk where I pull out the chair and sit down. Her small table is clean except for a photograph taken in the late 1950s. Four teenage girls beam for the camera, three of them wearing white, chiffon-like dresses. They look plain compared to the other one who is dressed in a stunning fire-engine red dress with a tight bodice and off-the-shoulder sleeves. All the girls are pretty, but the lady in red is absolutely gorgeous with her dark hair, smiling eyes, and bright lips shaded in the same crimson color as her dress.
I study the photograph for a while and wonder who they are. Mom and Dad have boxes of yearbooks and pictures from their high school days, but none of these girls look familiar. Shrugging, I put the photo back where I found it and wait.
A few minutes later, Mom walks in dressed in a woolen skirt and jacket. She looks nice and I tell her so. As she checks her purse to make sure she has all the essentials, I ask, "Hey...who are these girls in this picture?"
She beams as she replies, "I found that today and left it on my desk so you could see it."
"I don't recognize any of them," I tell her. "Are they high school friends?"
Mom nods. "That was taken at a school dance."
"Who's that gorgeous one in red?"
Stunned, I take a closer look. I've never seen a picture of Mom without her glasses, but now I can clearly see her lovely face smiling back at me. "You looked really hot, Mom!"
She laughs. "Well, I thought that looked just like you, Kate," she says. "Don't you think so?"
I'm startled by her comment. I've always been told how much I resemble my mother, but never in such a complimentary way. I've never been called gorgeous or stunning or beautiful by anyone.
"Seriously?" I ask her.
"Oh, yes," she says, picking up the picture. "I remember shopping for that dress with Mother. I had to have the red one."
"You look like Scarlett O'Hara!" I tell her.
She smiles and hands it to me. "Don't you think that looks like you?"
"I don't know," I reply, knowing I never would have worn something so daring in high school, or even now for that matter. I haven't felt attractive to anyone for so long I'm starting to get used to it.
That scares me a little.
Moments later, everyone thunders down the stairs and we have our pictures taken by the tree. I watch Mom pose first with my father, then my sister and her family, then, finally, I stand next to her while my brother-in-law snaps the camera. Even in her sixties, my mother is still beautiful with her olive skin and brown hair peppered with white. She beams for the camera and I wonder how it happened that that lovely lady in red soon transformed into a Midwestern housewife, a mother, and now a grandmother. I wonder what she had dreamed of all those years ago. What she wanted from her life, all the things she might have needed, yet never received.
I think I know who I am, what I want, where I want to be. But in light of all the things I'm discovering about myself in therapy, on my yoga mat, and on the massage table, I'm not sure who I am anymore. Still, it's a strange comfort to know that somewhere deep inside, deep in the quiet parts of my spirit, there lays in wait a lovely lady in red who is patient enough for her time to shine, for her turn to emerge and bloom as she vigilantly clears the pathway for her resurrection.
For the majority of my twenties, I lived in a fantasy world of television, movies, and music. Outside of teaching, I lived alone as the proverbial introvert, a reluctant hermit. In my head, I was the damsel, living in a tower of my own making, longing and waiting for Prince Charming to come and rescue me. In reality, I became what Bowsher's High School's class of 1984 had voted me to be: Second Most Likely to Become a Nun.
Some people called me Sister Catherine...and I'm not even Catholic.
Caught between who I thought I was and who I wanted to become, mirrors were the enemy. I knew who was the fairest of them all, and it certainly was not me. So I spent most of my time teaching. Working with children kept me busy from sunrise until sunset. In the evenings I often sat at my kitchen table grading papers or planning lessons late into the night. It was rare for me to go out with friends on the weekends, and when I did, I wore overalls, baggy turtlenecks and clothes that covered every inch of what I didn't want anyone to see.
Time wore on and my unflattering style of dress wore out. Through uncovering the secrets of my past, I was able to strip off the layers of fear and shame, and doing so, completely transformed my closet. Out went the turtlenecks, the drop-waisted jumpers, and any sweater that hung to my knees. I started wearing more fitted shirts, vests, pants and sometimes a nice skirt. Looking in the mirror, I began to see a reflection of the person I had always been beneath the layers and I liked it...a lot.
One of the reasons I enjoyed spending time with primary children was the unabashed way they would speak to each another. Compliments were doled out just as easily as insults, and while I did my best to intercede in the latter, I highly encouraged the former. There were many times I walked around the classroom and listened to my students’ unblemished conversations. How wonderful to hear them talk about their work, their parents, and their interests…free of judgment.
On a cool September morning in 1995, one of my first graders came into the room and peeled off his light jacket. Beneath it Dustin wore an adorable suit, complete with a collarless blue jacket and white shirt with matching accents.
He grinned at me when I bounced my eyebrows. "Nice suit," I told him. "You look awesome for picture day!"
One of the girls was standing next to me, sharpening her pencil. "Yeah, Dustin...you look like a prince!"
The name stuck. For the rest of the year, whenever my little friend with blonde hair and brown eyes wore a fancy outfit, we all called him "Prince Dustin," much to his delight. It was a joy to watch him soak in the compliments, especially when a lot of the boys shot him unsure glances. Dustin was a free and endearing spirit who brought his sister's Polly Pockets to school for Show and Tell. Who loved to draw pictures, and tell stories or entertain the class by reading the morning message in a variety of newscaster voices.
As long as they didn't hurt someone's feelings, I encouraged the kids to express themselves openly. Over my nine year tenure as a first grade teacher, I was blessed to be with hundreds of little ones who taught me how to be natural and playful, to see things from a more open-hearted perspective, and to be silly and spontaneous. Dustin, in particular, was a wonder to see each morning when he would enter the room with a bright and vivacious, "Hello, Miss Ingersoll!" as he gave me a big hug.
Even when I left the classroom, I followed Dustin's progress through school. Throughout junior and senior high school, he was an excellent student and was well liked by many.
And then he came out.
I didn't know until recently that he had been teased mercilessly, that the boys in particular were unusually brutal. Later, Dustin revealed to me his long journey of finding and accepting his identity, not as a choice, but as a freedom to be completely who he has been created to be. His unbridled courage and drive to engage the world from his vibrant center never ceases to amaze me. Not held back by fear or the judgments of others, Dustin walks on, ever mindful to bring his talents and gifts to the world. He soaks in what life has to offer and offers his light in return.
I told him I saw it all along. "From the moment you beamed when we called you 'Prince Dustin,' I knew there was something wonderfully unique about you."
"Did you know I was gay?" he asked.
"Yeah...I suspected it," I replied.
"When I was in your class, I always felt loved and accepted by you," he said, smiling.
I smiled back. "And you always will be."
It's taken a long, long time before I ever felt grown up, before I felt like a real woman. I went from being a little girl, to a pre-teen, a teenager, a college girl, and...then what? When I moved out of my parents' house I felt stuck. It seemed I would always be twenty-two, endlessly jammed in a place that didn't allow me to mature socially, emotionally, or otherwise.
My inner and outer worlds were completely incongruent. I used to be a pilot light, tiny and flickering, in the hopes that someone else would come along and ignite that which lay in wait. Then I became a bonfire, blasting my way through life, burning through my self-imposed barricades. Through it all, my head wanted to stay mired in fantasy while my heart longed for freedom. But I knew deep down that stepping outside the fairy-tale meant I had to discard my fantasy and embrace reality. Having been afraid of my feminine energy for most of my life, I'm certain that is one of the reasons I hesitated to disclose my true feelings and risk either rejection or the possibility of something else I wasn't yet ready to embrace.
In comparing me to her electrifying teenage self, my mother must have seen something in me that I had never recognized. Having the courage to wear red when everyone around her was in white showed Mom's energetic spirit, her boldness in deflecting what was expected. I imagine there were plenty of boys who asked her to dance that night and I'd like to think that she, unlike Cinderella, danced until well after midnight, no glass slippers necessary.
I'm incredibly thankful that I have reclaimed my own Lady in Red. I'm bolder in the way I dress, the way I speak, and what I want to share with the world. No longer a hopeful damsel waiting for my prince to come, I can now see the huge ransom I've paid for locking myself in a tower of my own making.
Besides, I have better things to do.
There is no happy ending. No magical moment or man that will make my dreams come true. Still, I find it curious that in the last few years, I've been noticed by men half my age, often when I'm wearing a ball cap and not a stitch of make-up. I wonder what they see in me now. I'm certainly no fairy-tale princess while riding my bike or hiking at the park. And yet, I'm cheerfully content with being who I am.
This Lady in Red doesn't need to apologize for being strong and independent, so perhaps my sheer presence reveals the fire within. No longer a pilot light or a raging bonfire, I hope to be a benevolent hearth for those with whom I resonate. I welcome them to gather in my warmth, feeding the fire of my enthusiasm with their joy and grace.