Being Queen

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Dena Riggs Hein


The summer I turned seven, my grandfather finally gave me permission to explore the storage room attached to his garage.

An odd menagerie of things found their way into this space where one thing piled on top of the other. Bookshelves lined the walls to hold early sets of Encyclopedia Britannica. But in front of most volumes, Avon cologne bottles sat three rows deep. Trinkets and souvenirs from Japan, Hawaii, the Canary Islands, and lots of other places, occupied nooks and crannies—obviously tossed without thought into any open spot. A Barbie-sized doll in a hula outfit stood on her head next to a Statue of Liberty clock on its side—cracked down the middle, stopping time.

The sofa held a mountain of clothing while the chairs bowed at the weight of car parts. An antique dental chair sat in the far east corner. My imagination convinced me such disorganization must house treasures in the same way the cluttered Ante Chamber of King Tut’s tomb revealed gold statues and amulets of vibrant colors. On every visit I crept inside hoping to unearth something my grandfather would let me take home.

I discovered the dusty wooden frame on a shelf high above a rack of silk dresses. I teetered on the edge of a marble coffee table in order to reach. With photo in hand, I wiped away a film of dust from the glass and immediately felt captivated by the girls in the dresses, especially the pretty one with the thin fingers covering her mouth.

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I tucked the frame into my shorts to climb out of the room, then ran up the sidewalk.

“Who is this girl?” I asked my grandfather.

He took the frame from my hand, cradling it while he smiled. In a near-whisper he said, “What a beauty that girl of mine.” He lingered on the image then shifted his eyes to meet mine. “You don’t know?” He seemed surprised.

I shook my head, feeling as if I’d let him down by not knowing.

“She never told you?”

I shook my head again.

“Is she too pro-choice, too women’s lib to tell you she was pretty and popular?”

I shrugged. I had no idea what he meant.

“Take this home,” he said. “Show it to your mother because it’s her story to tell.”

*

Bounding through the front door I smelled garlic, but I was too excited about the picture to care about spaghetti for dinner. “Recognize this?” I asked. I held up the dusty frame and waited for her reaction as she turned from a boiling pot of red sauce.

She screamed in delight, “Give me that!” She snagged the picture from my hands to hold it close to her own body. “I haven’t seen this picture in years. Where did you find it?”

“The boys’ room at Grandma and Grandpa’s, but up high on a shelf. Grandpa says you’re too women’s lib to admit you were pretty and popular.”

My mother rolled her eyes. “Grandpa wouldn’t know women’s lib if it hit him in the face.”

My mother leaned toward the sink. She grabbed a clean towel and carefully wiped away the dust. I watched her long thin fingers work at the corners of the glass then move across it—gently rubbing at each girl.

“Look at Patsy Brown,” she said softly. “The last time I saw her was at Tex Johnson’s graduation party. How many years has that been now?”

She looked up to the ceiling as if to count, but quickly looked back down at the photo. “Patsy was a sweet girl, but that Suzie Bixler was meaner than a snake and oh so jealous.”

Lost in memories, girlish again, she bantered, “Suzie hated it when I won the queen title. She was a cheerleader and back in those days there was an unwritten rule that the cheerleaders won the queen contests. I wasn’t a cheerleader, but I certainly wasn’t the underdog!” She laughed at herself. “I think that hateful Suzie told Ronnie Mitford I was pregnant. I will never forget that because everything rested on a good reputation.”

She was silent for a second then erupted, “Typical!! Suzie’s got a hold of my arm as if she’s happy or something!”

As she talked, I stared. I examined her with a critical eye—starting with her hair neatly knotted at the base of her neck, moving to the profile of her face and then on down her body—wondering how I failed to notice. Her cropped, coiffed hair had grown out, but there under the veil of my mother was the queen in the photo.

Despite her hippie long hair or her Dr. Scholl’s wooden sandals she wore with jeans and a peace T-shirt, despite her liberal politics and her grassroots activism, despite her efforts to shed the queen personae, by 1971 she was still the prettiest one carrying the ERA sign. She didn’t want to be the beauty, but everything about her betrayed her efforts to blend into the crowd. Something about her dark eyes and long lashes always set her apart from other women. She turned heads in the grocery store. The manager of the bank always left his office to greet her. Construction workers whistled.

My mother let out a sigh—a complicated exhalation where I imagined good memories mixed with things better left in storage.

“You can have this if you want it.” She extended the frame to me then turned back to the sauce.

*

I set the photo on the desk in my room. At seven years old, a teddy bear held it in its lap. At nine years old I used it as a bookend for my Nancy Drew collection and by twelve years old I had started to accumulate pictures of my own friends.

The summer I turned fifteen I found her yearbooks and an envelope full of newspaper clippings.

Her name and photo appeared in the society section almost weekly. One clipping read, “Students of the class of 1961 at Warren Central High School cast their votes for Senior Class Queen just three days ago. Looking for the girl that most personifies their school, Student Council President Bob Smith said, “We want our class queen to be a girl that is carefree, pretty, friendly, and popular.” Janice Croucher took the crown. Runners-up included Patsy Brown, Suzie Bixler, and Sue Ellen Smith.” And then the photo—my photo—my mother captured hiding behind her hands; surrounded by girls who forced a look of support for the only non-cheerleader on the court. The photo felt more captivating than ever before.

Upon entering my room with a stack of swimsuits and a pile of clean laundry, she caught me holding the picture.

“You still have that old thing?” my mother teased.

“I bet being queen was the best thing in the whole world,” I speculated with a wide smile.

“I have to admit, it made me happy. Being queen was fun, but at the end of the summer when the class of 61 went separate ways the moment ended. Being queen is not real life.”

“But you could have been an actress or a model. Why didn’t you?”

“Well, there was Vietnam and Bobby Kennedy,” she paused in serious reflection. “After Bobby Kennedy died I felt the world needed leaders more than it needed queens and actresses. Nobody with a brain or an inkling for politics wanted to be beautiful in 1968, besides I’d just had you and you made me happier than being queen.”

She smiled at me. She moved closer to look over my shoulder then took the frame from my hand. She stared at the girls one by one. Patsy Brown at the far right, Sue Ellen Smith in the middle, then Suzie Bixler, the jealous cheerleader with a hand on her arm and her eyes closed. I watched her eyes move to her own image.

“Being popular in high school doesn’t last forever.” She sat the photo on the desk and started to walk away.

“Tell me about it anyway,” I called to her.

She perched tentatively on the edge of my bed, but as she revealed details she became more comfortable and eventually we both huddled together amidst pillows. Our tanned legs sat side by side. As the June breeze blew through the room, we giggled like friends at a slumber party. Bit by bit she spilled about high school, acting class, and Patricia Stevens.

*

The Patricia Stevens Finishing School was located downtown on the third floor of an office building just three storefronts from the L.S. Ayres department store. Mrs. Stevens trained her girls in proper posture—“Roll shoulders back! Extend chin slightly forward, now walk, placing one foot in front of the other.”

Sometimes the girls sat at desks with phones that didn’t plug into anything—positioned only for practice. She observed, then snapped, “Sit up!” “Cross at the ankle!” “Knees together!”

She emphasized the importance of coiffed hair and arched eyebrows; talked of fitted clothing and appropriate smiles, “never show too many teeth or squint your eyes too tight.” From her carpeted space above the main street below, Patricia Stevens readied some girls for the workforce, but mostly specialized in beauty pageants and dabbled in the up and coming field of fashion modeling. In 1957, my mother paid twenty cents every Saturday for a round-trip bus fare.

It had been my grandmother’s idea. She learned about Patricia Stevens in an advertisement posted at the beauty supply store. Every Monday her shop was closed, so every Monday my grandfather drove her to pick up her color and permanent solutions for the week. My grandmother made a mental note that finishing school for her daughter might be good for her business—the beauty shop she ran out of her basement. But putting her fourteen-year-old girl on the public bus might not pass her husband’s idea of what women (and especially girls) should and should not do. Her own business put pressure on my grandfather’s patriarchal views, but Shirl’s Curls made quite a profit, so his disdain for her entrepreneurial efforts remained under his breath. With that in mind, my grandmother felt confident my grandfather would embrace opportunity for his daughter. She felt confident he would understand Patricia Stevens might land my mother a decent-paying phone job in a law office after high school or maybe even a sales position at L.S. Ayres.

Somehow it all came to be. My mother was excited about everything but the bus.

“Why can’t you drop me off like all the other girls?” she asked.

But Saturdays, the basement bustled from morning till night and my grandfather took the responsibility of watching over my young uncles—nearly school-age boys with a propensity to find trouble without a watchful eye on them.

The bus was the only way. My mother knew this, but she hated that bus none the less. The decrepit odor of exhaust as the bus accelerated after each stop made her stomach lurch. The plastic seats stuck to her no matter what the temperature outside, usually wrinkling her skirt, which made Mrs. Stevens frown. Then there was the matter of sitting alone that made her nervous. She avoided eye contact with fellow travelers by keeping her head turned and eyes focused on the passing landscape outside the window—from neighborhood after neighborhood to rows of shops and finally to the taller buildings of the city.

Despite the occasional wrinkled skirt, graduation from Patricia Stevens landed my mother a scholarship at the Civic Theatre.

“Acting classes!” she yelled one afternoon. “I’m going to be a Hollywood actress! I’ve been awarded free acting classes!”

At thirty-five cents a week my mother took a transfer at the downtown station, rode the North Michigan line to 38th Street then walked the six blocks to Cold Spring Road. On stage, with shoulders back and chin slightly forward, she impressed the staff enough to extend her scholarship through the spring. By summer my grandparents agreed to pay her tuition. Hollywood actresses made much more money than downtown phone girls, so my grandfather looked at my mother’s independence as a good investment.

Besides, he adored her. He couldn’t get over the perfect symmetry of her face; the pure white of her teeth that like piano keys set perfectly aligned. Although not tall (only an inch or two over five feet) her proportions—from slender shoulders to dainty feet—also sat exactly right.

“The next Elizabeth Taylor, I tell you!” my grandfather swore to his friends.

*

Pleased with Patricia Stevens and my mother’s success with acting, my grandmother squirreled tips in a coffee can. On Mondays when my grandfather took her to the beauty supply store she used her secret cash to buy astringent and moisturizer—products the other girls at Warren Central High School couldn’t buy at the local drugstore. My grandmother purchased powders and tinted creams used by the theatre artists.

My mother blushed her cheekbones with a pale pink powder—a matte finish that didn’t look like make-up—rather a natural flush. While the other girls only wore Bonne Bell clear gloss on their lips, my mother added her own concoction of apricot cream underneath. Her lips immediately plumped. She lined her eyes with a black pencil, but the tip was so fine the color blended into her lashes just like a magazine girl. She walked the halls one foot in front of the other, shoulders back, chin slightly forward. She didn’t need to be a cheerleader to catch attention.

In the beginning, she drank it in and courted the popularity. I’ve seen notes from boys with names like Teddy Crouch, William Albright, Graham Bateman, or Jimmy Campbell. “Wanna get a coke?” “You probably already have a date, but…?” “Do I have a chance?” “Our country club has this dinner…?”

But as notes passed in the halls she noticed a growing coldness from her girlfriends. Painfully, she learned the two faces of friendship—how envy started rumors. Patricia Stevens made a point of maintaining reputation, so when Bill Wallace asked my mother to go steady she accepted. He gave her his class ring which she wrapped with angora yarn to keep it from sliding off her slender finger. The ring saved her from gossip until the Spring Fling Dance when the court for queen was announced.

That night she wore a taffeta dress that tiered in all the right places in pure yellow that matched the daffodil theme and the crate paper decorations strewn across the gymnasium walls. Rumors bounced from the ceiling as some speculated the dress was planned—that she expected to win—that her popularity had gone to her head.

No one knew the dress was purely coincidental. No one knew my grandmother had run out of secret cash. No one knew my mother, in tears, took her only choice: she rode the bus to the civic theatre earlier that afternoon. With special permission, she borrowed from the costume closet. The yellow dress was the only one that fit without alterations.

When her named was called, she pulled her hands to her face. She expressed genuine surprise and gratefulness behind those fingers. She hugged her court—the girls she would leave at the wall—then walked to the center of the gym where Bill took her arm and held her steady as last year’s queen Marlene Settles crowned her and kissed her pink cheek.

*

My grandfather was right—the story of the picture was not his to tell. Nor is it mine. But the temptation to take her place—to climb over the borders of time, through the frame of the photo, in order to pretend I am her—the petite girl with the creamy complexion and the perfectly arched eyebrows—is irresistible. To imagine the adrenaline that must have pumped through her veins when her name boomed from the public address system excites me. To pretend I possess the beauty or that I acquired the popularity of a school queen fulfills something in me my own complexion and eyebrows never seemed to secure.

I’ve pored over the pages of the yearbooks, studied the photos, memorized names, and read all her messages. I know her story better than she knows it herself. I look at the snapshot of my mother in 1961 with those delicate fingers over her mouth and my mind clicks to a small paragraph of curly handwriting on the back page of her senior yearbook—the upper left corner: “You’re one of the girls I guess everyone remembers for everything. You have the looks, personality, and friendly nature that no one will forget. Love Ya, Karen ’61.”

Maybe that’s the obsession of being queen. Who wouldn’t want to be the one whom no one will forget? And what if that not forgetting part meant you were pretty and everyone in the whole school liked you so much they voted you to be their queen? What if?

So, it’s not my story, but just in case my name ever booms from a loudspeaker or a crown is ever placed on my head, I hope her story reminds me to properly cover my mouth in humble acceptance.

Author’s note: I have changed the names of my mother’s classmates.

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“By day I play kickball, paint rocks, and take long bike rides alongside my kids. By night I do dishes alongside my husband then bang the keyboard while two cats purr at my feet. I’m a wife, a mother, a writer and an idea machine. And thanks to my beauty queen mom, I can also add princess to my list. I can be reached at d.hein[at]comcast.net”

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