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.


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.


“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]”

Fear of Drowning

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Dena Riggs Hein

In my dream I am writing. I am working on a project at a familiar desk in a house near the ocean. The smells of the salty air mixed with sunscreen radiate from my skin. The sound of the waves lapping the sand works in rhythm with the glide of the wind through the trees. I can’t help but look up from my work to savor the postcard image before me of sun and surf. My husband and I bring our children to this place each year for one week of escapism to the beach. This small cottage, although dwarfed on either side by much larger and more modern homes, pays homage to the simpler life we seek while on vacation. In my dream I am here alone, motivated by the choreography of Mother Nature and my solitude. My attention returns to my writing. There is a pad of paper, but I cannot initially decipher the scribbling. Just as words come into focus and the writing reveals itself, I feel a pull on my arm, catapulting me from the calm of the sea and this mysterious project to my bedroom in a small town outside of Chicago.

My four year old daughter leans on my nightstand grasping a pink blanket in one hand while a black plush dog hangs by its ear in the other. She whispers, “Mommy is today the day we go to Hilton Head?” I lie still for a moment, changing gears from sleep to parenting. I turn my head to her and whisper back, “No, honey, we don’t leave until next week.” I am awake enough that I can now squint at the digital clock on my husband’s side. It is 2:23 a.m. “Go back to bed and we’ll go on vacation next week.” She sobs softly, choking out the words, “But, I want to go today. I want to leave right now.”

Each July we rent a house for our family on the beach and spend a week in our bathing suits—swimming from morning till night, grilling dinner on a little Hibachi grill, and counting stars from the edge of the boardwalk. We know it is a cliché when we tell our neighbors that our lives revolve around this one relaxing week, in this one small house, on this one strip of beach, but we brag about the redemptive qualities of our vacation anyway.

The countdown for the trip begins in mid February. But it is the final stretch of the last ten days before departure that the house becomes electric—buzzing with stories of years past, peppering them with predictions for this year. “I’m going to dive off the lion’s head at the deep end!” Andrew yells from his room early one morning. He is now six and a stronger swimmer than last year. Adrienne counters, “I am going to swim every night until midnight!” Adrienne won’t make it to midnight, but she will give her best try to keep up with the rest of us as we go from beach to pool and back again, and again, and again until someone admits defeat and surrenders to bed.

We have been doing this since Adrienne was 18 months old. She is the most excited because she is convinced she can finally “stay up the latest,” but if there were a prize for that I would get it. I am always the last one to bed because although we are on vacation I am still the mommy and have the mommy jobs of laundry and picking up. There are nights, that despite my own exhaustion or the work that should be done for the next day, I sit outside alone replaying the events of the day in an effort to mentally record the sweet melody of Adrienne’s giggles or to file away the details of Andrew’s first jump off the diving board. There was a time in my former life (my life before them) when I would have written things down then shaped the details into essays or stories. I was a writer. Although inspired by my children, the effort to write anything down continually escapes me. I know my memory cannot possibly hold all I want to record, but I am not sure being a writer will ever co-exist with my role as a parent. In the dark and quiet of the night I look to the stars to release the guilt I feel for not even trying.

The slide of the screen door startles me. It must be 10:00pm when Andrew finds me sitting on a wicker sofa I have pulled from the screened porch out to the open deck. After my date with the stars, I was meditating to the crashing waves and was near ready to call it a night. Leaning against the door in his swim shorts he looks gangly—bony. Last year he was still round and toddler-ish. A year later his jaw line has developed and his eyes clearly match the shape of mine. I want to quickly file away these details, but his voice interrupts. He says, “Mommy, will you swim with me in the spooky nighttime pool?” I had also noticed the irregular rippling across the deep end. I had deduced the patio lights were reflecting strangely off the water due to patchy cloud cover and the position of the moon. “Spooky is a good adjective,” I say.

The four bathing suits I brought on the trip are draped a few feet away from me on a matching wicker chair dripping water to the cedar plank flooring like a metronome. The idea of putting on one of those suits was not appealing, but Andrew’s eyes (my own eyes looking back at me) were pleading. He ups the ante on his proposition and says, “We can tell stories. Tonight the moon has a funny shape behind a scary cloud. I think that’s a really good beginning and don’t forget we have the spooky pool, too.”

This is part of the ritual of our vacation. When we swim at night we tell stories. Once we pick a main character then dream up a conflict, we take advantage of our own setting and describe the trees swaying in the wind or the birds that fly across the clouded sky. We talk about the sounds we hear or the smell of the ocean. Sometimes we tell true stories of me when I was a little girl. Sometimes Andrew wants to be the hero and sometimes he likes to give his younger sister a starring role. In last night’s story I was a superhero mom on a jet ski saving jellyfish from being left behind when the tide went out. Their favorite stories are the ones of the two of them when they were babies—things they don’t remember, but find hysterically funny now that they are older and wiser at six and four. Andrew knows I cannot resist the stories; his smirk betrays his confidence in me.

I begrudgingly shimmy into the least damp bathing suit then wade into the pool. Andrew climbs on my back as I dog paddle the two of us from the edge over to a set of steps where we can hold onto the rail and allow our bodies to freely float behind us. The water is warm and reminds me of the YMCA where I learned to swim. “Can I tell you a story before we begin?” I ask. “Sure,” he says.

“I have loved the water since I was a baby. I took lessons for the first time at the age two. I dangled my toes off the edge for just a moment then plunged into the deep. Mimi and Poppa said I had no fear. When I bobbed up to the surface and paddled to the side they clapped with pride.” Andrew smiles and says, “What else? Tell me more.” There is more to tell, but I am not sure my mom wants her grandson to know she never learned to swim. I am not sure she likes to admit that she enrolled me in swimming lessons at age two to ensure I would not live with the same embarrassing regret. Her cheeks turn pink and she shakes her head in remorse when she tells her history of sitting by the pool for years as a young girl pretending not to fear the water in favor of being unashamedly social when in fact, she was too scared to even wade in from the steps. I am not sure Andrew would understand why today she and my dad live on a lake with a boat in which she seldom enjoys because of the fear of drowning.

“Why don’t you tell me a story instead?” I ask. “Do you still like the moon or do you have another idea?” On cue the bugs in the trees and bushes surrounding us, in mass begin their nightly communication. Crickets, grasshoppers, and locusts simultaneously squeak, chirp and sing their messages to each other and use their musical bravado to vie for the attention of a mate. Andrew looks to the trees and into the bushes around the perimeter of the pool with narrowed eyes. “I think I will tell a story of these bugs,” he announces.

The creak of the screen door calls our attention to a sleep disheveled Adrienne standing in the shadow of a dim light. She rubs her eyes and yawns, then speaks emphatically, “You are nighttime swimming without me. I want to do it, too!! I want to tell stories of the bugga buggas!”

Within a few minutes the pool swims with small voices spouting big ideas. “These bugs must be having a meeting and everyone is arguing, which is why they are so loud!” Andrew says. “I think the bug mommy has lost her bug baby and all the bugs are worried,” Adrienne retorts. As they toss around their ideas they eventually get back to the bug meeting. Andrew begins, “Once a year, the bugs of the trees meet with the bugs of the beach to review their laws and to give awards for good citizenship.” We laugh at the incongruity of citizenship to bugs. Andrew continues, “When the moon is a funny shape and it hides behind a spooky cloud the sea creatures know that is their clue that they are allowed to join the bugs for a dance party.” Adrienne laughs very loud then interjects, “Since they haven’t seen each other in a year they are probably all talking at once like at Mimi’s house on Thanksgiving.” I laugh that she remembers the holiday chaos when family from all over town have the uncanny ability of year after year arriving at the same time. Then I smile at Andrew’s invention of a grasshopper and crab reunion.

The story stalls for several minutes as the kids debate new characters. Adrienne wants a fox to barge in on the meeting and send the bugs and sea creatures running, while Andrew (much more sensitive than his sister) suggests that a crab get the citizenship award for learning not to be “crabby.” We laugh at the double meaning. Our skin begins to show signs of water wrinkles just as the bugs rev up their buzzing and chirping again like a soundtrack to our story. Adrienne, nodding in agreement with the crabby ending proclaims loudly, “And the bugga buggas said, ‘Good night, everybody!'” We blow a kiss to the stars and bid good night to the sand and the surf, the trees, and the bugs, but especially to our award-winning crab.

Inside the house I help the kids wiggle from their wet suits then into pajamas. I give good night kisses then quietly slide into bed next to my slumbering husband. It only takes a few laps of the surf to carry me off to a dream.

I see myself sitting in a beach chair writing in a notebook. The tide is out, so I am surrounded by the dark, hard sand that is perfect for sand castles. I see Adrienne in the distance with a bucket digging a moat around her creation. Andrew is inspecting all the urchins the water left behind on its drag out to sea. With each swish of the waves the water moves closer as it performs its magnetic dance with the moon. Out and then in; out and then in. I look back to my notebook and begin writing something down as my mom enters the dream as herself in 1961 when she was a high school beauty queen. She is a petite girl with short dark hair that frames her face and highlights her eyes—brown with black lashes long and thick. She resembles a collectible doll with creamy skin and features that fit perfectly together, all in proportion. She is beautiful, but it is mostly for her smile. It radiates a friendly nature that makes you feel like she’s always been your friend even if you are meeting her for the first time. She is wearing a yellow and white polka dot bikini. I smile—maybe at the bizarre nature of this meeting or maybe because my mom truly is the epitome of the swimsuit competition. I want to write this down, but she touches my hand. I look up at her youthful face. She says to me, “You know honey, I never learned to swim. I have regretted that my entire life.”

For no reason I startle awake. I look around to place myself in time and space. I hear my husband’s rhythmic breathing and the subtle splash of the surf outside our room. The smells of the salty air mixed with the faint odor of chlorine and sunscreen radiate from my skin. I gently slip out of bed and tiptoe to my favorite desk in the main room of the house—the one with the large window that overlooks the pool and the ocean waves beyond. In the daylight, I can’t help but savor the postcard image of sun and surf. In the dead of the night, there are only shadows created by the pale moonlight. I cock my head to listen. It is very still, even the bugs are sleeping. I fumble through the desk for a pad of paper then blindly grasp the pen to keep our stories from drowning.


“When not in Hilton Head I spend my summer days playing Scooby Doo checkers, monitoring Webkinz computer time or patching the Slip and Slide. I have been known to occasionally set up a very challenging obstacle course if asked nicely and am always willing to ride any roller coaster. My kids’ favorite song is Beastie Boys, “Brass Monkey,” which can be heard blasting from our car on any given day. When the kids, the husband and the cats are all sleeping I work into the wee hours writing. I have one semester left to complete my Master’s Degree in English.” E-mail: d.hein[at]