Dinner at I Baldi in Beverly Hills was typical for a Thursday night. Shining starlets and socialites with their dashing dates strode confidently through the front door. Donning Dolce and Gabbana, Gucci and Prada, the Italian parade of champions sashayed past our table. They were gorgeous, of course, no surprise there. After all, this was Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive was only two blocks away.
My sister and I were enjoying the show. Lisa happens to be the most stylish woman I know. Her taste in clothes and jewelry is beyond swell. That’s why it surprised me when she asked my advice on what to wear to a luncheon she planned to attend the following week. ‘I don’t want to be overdressed’, said she of the most understated elegance. I was floored. She is never at a loss; not for words, not for opinions but especially not for chic.
Her self-assurance wasn’t always so obvious.
The 1970’s were a cruel time for a pre-teen girl. At least, they were for my sister and me. Braces were shiny (no cool, colored wires or Invisalign back then), and headgears were the equivalent of death by humiliation. Unlike nowadays, you couldn’t pick up a flat iron at the local Walgreens to tame your frizzy (read: bushy) hair.
My sister and I were raised by adoring yet strict Armenian parents. My father, a Lebanese born OB/GYN, was the disciplinarian and set severe limits on our social lives. No sleepovers, no boy girl parties, and naturally, no dating until after we were married, preferably with children.
Our American born mother, whose own father was a tyrant, subsequently taught us the art of cajoling. We would have to wait for the right moment (when he wasn’t on first call), then with our biggest smile and kindest demeanor beg, ‘Please, Daddy; please can we go to the high school dance, junior prom, football game?’ When if by some stroke of good fortune permission was granted, it was invariably accompanied by the admonition, ‘don’t make a habit of it.’
My sister, the eldest, had it much worse than I.
I remember the time she wanted to try out for cheerleading. In my father’s culture, her request was akin to asking to serve on the welcoming committee of a bordello. “Cheerleader? My daughter will not be a cheerleader. Too many of my patients are cheerleaders,” declared my father, followed by a stern lecture on STDs and birth control.
That put an end to that.
When my sister was in junior high, she plotted for weeks how to ask permission to attend a boy girl party, which was, in Daddy’s opinion, the breeding ground for trouble. When she finally got up the courage to ask, he said no. Once, twice, three times…no. Finally, thanks to my mother’s gentle wifely persuasion, Daddy agreed. Lisa was ecstatic.
Our mother accompanied her to Sugar and Spice, the local teen fashion boutique, where she bought a lime green pant suit and Sbicca pumps. Lisa recalled how she could hardly contain her excitement as she rang her friend Liz’s door bell. She made her way down to the rec room in the basement, her heart beating with anticipation. To her surprise, she entered a dimly lit room, occupied by paired off classmates, swigging Boone’s Farm wine and making out, with a game of spin the bottle about to begin.
She was horrified.
Of course, she had no boy friend, and she felt sure that no one would want to kiss her. She felt ashamed and guilty; this is what her father had warned her about. To make matters worse, amidst her jeans and tee shirt clad peers, Lisa’s beautiful new outfit stood out like a sore green thumb. Lisa quickly made her way upstairs and busied herself with the hostess’ mom, arranging cokes and brownies on a tray. My sister did everything she could to avoid further embarrassment and when our mother picked her up, Lisa feigned having had a wonderful time.
When recounting that incident that took place well over 40 years ago, tears rolled down her cheeks. She was once again that 13-year old braced faced good girl, who voted herself most uncool and least likely to have fun.
“To this day”, she whispered, “I feel so ashamed and humiliated”. And then she started to cry, embarrassed by the fact that this memory evoked such strong emotion.
Across the table, I took her hand and told her how very well I understood. Sisters share the gift of perhaps not always agreeing with, but comprehending one another’s feelings.
I took a deep breath, for a brief moment I became the big sister.
‘I listened to your story, and while I understand how you might have felt defeated back then, as an adult I see it only as a victory. You felt awkward and unwanted, but did not succumb to taking part in activities that weren’t you. You stayed true not only to your upbringing, but true to yourself, as well. Look at it with your adult eyes and feel it with your 60-year old heart. In retrospect, that night might have at the time felt like a social failure, but in the bigger scheme of life, it was a moral triumph’.
She listened and nodded, I could see that she was digesting what I had said.
Then, when her tears subsided, her eyes suddenly brightened with a look of clarity.
“That luncheon next Monday?” she asked as a smile unfolded on her lips.
“I’ve got the perfect lime green dress that I’m going to wear.”