Thursday, May 8, 2014

Sisterhood of the bell-bottom pants

 Back in the early 1970s, I attended a college that had a student body of about 1,200 men and fewer than 100 women. We women were all beauties because we were not men. We were all smart because our thoughts represented the “female point of view.” But there was one among us who was smarter and more beautiful than all the others. When she graduated in 1971 along with six other women and 300 men, she was valedictorian and Phi Beta Kappa.

Her name was Joan, and she was the queen, worshipped and feared. I can still see her—slim and tall, sauntering across campus, her thick black waves pulled loosely back like a pre-Raphaelite maiden's. I can hear her too—her voice a husky melodious rumble. 

Her combination of competence and confidence offended chauvinists, of whom there were many on campus, but endeared her to the rest of her peers. 

For some reason, she chose me as a protegee. She arranged for me to inherit her wonderfully appointed lodging, which had once been the library in a professorial manse. It had a working fireplace, oak paneling and a little toilet-and-sink closet, as well as a "Lay Lady Lay" brass bed she had purchased. She negotiated for me to be the first female member of the college honor society, which acquired members by nomination, not grades. And she gave me insightful but largely unusable academic and personal advice—unusable because I wasn't her and shared few of her attributes. And finally, she bequeathed to me her trademark bellbottoms—lovely, flowing, russet—that she wore virtually every day. I had admired and coveted them. One day she handed them over and said, "You wear them."

I tried. And actually, I think I looked beautiful in them. I too had long curly waves, though mine were blond, and like her I was tall. But the bellbottoms were so closely identified with her that when I wore them I became a wannabe, a pathetic fangirl. This was made clear to me when one of the young men who was in her thrall came up and said, "Why are you trying to look like Joan? You're not anything like her." So I gave them back. Because that's what I really wanted—to be like her. I wish I had kept them though. Ever since then, lo these 40 years, I have been trying to replace them. I know I look silly, a 64-year-old woman with severe gray hair tripping over wide hems. But it's to recapture an image from my youth of a truly splendid woman who embodied all I admired.

A couple of months ago, I read an obituary for Joan in the alumni magazine. All that googling could unearth was that she died in October of a brain disease and was living in an assisted-living facility. What happened to my beautiful, brilliant friend in the fabulous pants?

Sunday, May 4, 2014