Chicago Tribune In Katie, Berg has created a narrator true to adolescent form.
True to Formby Elizabeth Berg
Katie Nash the beloved heroine of Elizabeth Berg's previous novels Durable Goods and Joy School is thirteen years old in 1961, and she's facing a summer full of conflict. Her father has enlisted her in two care-taking jobs baby-sitting for the rambunctious Wexler boys and, equally challenging, looking after Mrs. Randolph, her/i>/i>… See more details below
Katie Nash the beloved heroine of Elizabeth Berg's previous novels Durable Goods and Joy School is thirteen years old in 1961, and she's facing a summer full of conflict. Her father has enlisted her in two care-taking jobs baby-sitting for the rambunctious Wexler boys and, equally challenging, looking after Mrs. Randolph, her elderly, bedridden neighbor. To make matters worse, Katie has been forcibly inducted into the "loser" Girl Scout troop, compliments of her only new friend Cynthia's controlling mother. Her only saving grace is a trip to her childhood hometown in Texas, to visit her best friend Cherylanne. But people and places change and Cherylanne is no exception. When an act of betrayal leaves Katie wondering just what friends are really for, she learns to rely on the only one left she can trust: herself.
Full of the joys, anguish, and innocence of American adolescence, True to Form is a story sure to make readers remember and reflect on their own moments of discovery and self-definition.
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It is the first Sunday evening of the summer, the sky an ash rose color and losing its light to night. I am sitting on the floor in my room with a mirror propped up against a stack of magazines, setting my hair according to the directions in Modern Style. If I do it right, I will get a perfect flip. I just need to sleep in such a way that the rollers do not become pushed out of place, as they usually do. Either they get pushed out of place or I take them all out in the middle of the night. I don't know why. I don't even remember doing it, I just wake up and there the rollers are, thrown down on the floor. I guess my sleep self and my awake self don't agree about beauty.
The radio is turned on low to "Moody River," and my question is, Why did she kill herself if the guy was just a friend? And also, how can Pat Boone be singing so smoothly if his heart is broken? He sounds like Perry Como singing "Magic Moments" when he should be sounding like Brenda Lee sobbing, "I'm sorry, sooo sorry."
I am thinking about how tomorrow I will lie out on a towel in the yard, slicked up with baby oil to get going on my tan. I like it when you lie there for a long time and feel the sun's heat like a red thing behind your lids. You see a map of your own veins, and then when you open your eyes the view is bleached a bit of its colors. When I was nine years old someone told me you must never look at the sun straight on because it could make you blind. This made me go right outside and stare up at it, and when my eyes protested and shut automatically, I held my lids open until my eyes burned and watered so much I had to stop. I did not go blind. I do have to wear glasses, but I was wearing them before I stared at the sun. I am this way, sometimes, that I just have to find things out for myself.
I have a feeling percolating under my skin that says this will be a really important summer. Just a feeling that doesn't go away. I think sometimes I am a little psychic, like my grandmother who could read tea leaves. She would sit at the kitchen table with her beautiful white hair up in a bun, and she would be wearing an apron that sagged over her bosom like another bosom. She would stare into the cup for a long time, and nobody talked; even the air seemed to hold still. Then she would look up, and her blue eyes would seem clearer and not quite her own. She would settle her shoulders, and, in a low and intimate voice, tell people things about their lives. I thought for a long time she was a gypsy queen, but my mind just made that up; she was really just a woman from England who married my grandfather from Ireland. She was a housewife who made good gravy and kept a parakeet in her kitchen.
Once, when I was in third grade, my grandmother read tea leaves for me. My mother was there, and her sisters, my aunts Rose and Betty, were there, too. I remember I was so nervous I sat under the kitchen table, and my grandmother had to tell me things without looking at me. She said I had a boyfriend, which was true, Billy Harris was his name, and I got all embarrassed even though no one could see me. Then she told me he liked me too, which was not so true, since if you asked him, "Do you like Katie Nash?" he would have said, "Who?"
I miss my aunts a lot. Since my mother died a couple of years ago, I never see them anymore. We used to go and visit for a week or so every summer. Rose was very prim and proper, but full of a warm love. When I used to stay there, my cousins and I washed up for bed at night in a dishpan at the kitchen sink, and Aunt Rose made sure we got our ears good. Ivory soap, she used, those floating cakes bigger than a kid's whole hand. She made plain dinners but they were the kind of food a person always enjoys. Like just meat loaf from the recipe on the back of the oatmeal box, served with mashed potatoes, butter filling the little well in the middle, and some green beans from the can, all served on an embroidered tablecloth. Her sheets smelled like outside, and everybody used to say you could eat from her kitchen floor. I used to think, Why would you want to do that? and I would imagine my uncle Harry sitting there cross-legged with his napkin tucked into his shirt, leaning over awkwardly to lift his scrambled eggs from the linoleum.
Aunt Betty was a wild woman, that's what she called herself. She told me she was engaged to another man when my uncle Jim proposed to her. She wore a lot of makeup and smoked constantly and painted her fingernails and toenails blood red. She and my uncle were very social, and I never saw anyone look as glamorous as she did when they went out. She would wake up her children for a meteor shower or a good sunrise, and she was always asking them to tell her things they learned in school; she thought her children were wonderful. Every Sunday morning, she would make Monkey Bread, and there was always enough for everyone.
My dad doesn't want to visit my aunts anymore. I guess he has a new life now with my stepmother, Ginger, and the aunts just don't figure in. Sometimes I get mail from them: a joke card from Betty; a card with Jesus on it from Rose. They both call me Honey, which makes for an inside curl of pleasure. I thought I would always go and see them, every summer.
Well, you never know what life will turn out to be. Sometimes when I lie in bed at night, I think of bad things that can happen and how much we can never know, and it's so scary. It's like taking the lid off a box that's in front of you all the time, but usually you leave it alone. But every now and then, you take the lid off and you look in and the box is so dark and deep and full of writhing possibilities it gives you the shivers.
I lean back against my bed, let out a big breath, and look around my bedroom. I am used to it now, which probably means it's about time to move. Every time I get used to something, it's time to leave it. "We have orders," my father will say, and that's that, we're on the way to wherever the army tells us to go.
I like this room. It feels more private than any place I've ever had, situated the way it is at the end of the hall. If my sister, Diane, were still living with us, she would have gotten this room; she always got the best room. But she lives by herself in California now, because she ran away when she was eighteen. We talk about twice a month, and once in a while she comes to visit, but mostly it is just no good between her and my father; it never was. My father was always fierce, but after my mother died it seemed like he got a lot worse. And Diane finally just left. He never talks about it, but I know he is sorry. One thing my stepmother has done is to make my father a little softer, not so mean. It's odd; I think he loved my mother more, but he treats Ginger better. And I think I know why. It is because she is not as nice to him as my mother was. She pushes back, sometimes. She draws a line and says don't you cross this. Now you tell me why someone is nicer to the person who treats him worse.
My favorite place in my room is my desk drawer. In it is a little figure of a bird all covered with jewels. I don't think they're real jewels, but maybe they are. It was given to me by a boy I did not know, for no reason. It was a while ago, just after my mother had died, and I was sitting out by myself in the middle of a field on a summer day, and the boy appeared out of nowhere. He was younger than I, I thought smaller, at least, and so I wasn't afraid. I said, "Hey," and he said nothing back. "What are you doing?" I asked, and again he said nothing. I asked him if he spoke English, and he just smiled and shrugged. I stared at him for a while, and then I patted the ground. He sat next to me, his knees drawn up under his chin, and together we watched the movement of the breeze through the tall weeds, the lazy shifting of the gigantic cumulus clouds that filled the sky that day, and, once, the magical hovering of a dragonfly, colored metallic blue. We only pointed at things, but it was a good conversation. We sat for a good fifteen or twenty minutes, and then the boy got up to leave. But first he took the bird out of his pocket and gave it to me. I was amazed by his generosity, but I am ashamed to say that I made no move at all to refuse that gift. It is the main thing in my drawer, because it was a miracle and it came without asking. Sometimes when I think of that boy, I think, Wait, was he mute? And sometimes I think the thought very small and private Was he an angel? And sometimes I think, in a way that makes me feel like bawling, Was he my mother? That thought is the smallest and most private of all, and it lives in my heart, and it will never be told to anyone.
Also in my drawer is a photo of baby pigs. I remember them vaguely from a time we lived on a farm in Indiana. I think I was three. I remember being barefoot, standing on the wooden rail of a fence, looking down at those pigs. I wanted them to be my dollies; I wanted to wheel them in a carriage, put bonnets on their heads, feed them from bottles, and cover them when they slept. But they were not babies, they were pigs. So I only watched them lie by their mother in their neat, pink row; and I watched them take their grunty little steps around the sty.
I have some rocks I cracked open and kept for their gorgeous insides. I have some acorns, because look what comes from them. I have a pressed flower, a rose I would still call pink, even though its edges have turned tea-colored. I have pictures of beautiful things cut out of magazines: a willow tree next to a river, a kitchen lit up by morning sun, a monarch on a red poppy, a herd of sheep on a hill in Ireland, a wooden, straight-back chair positioned by a window with a blowing white curtain. I have a lot of pictures of dogs, too. I would like to have seven dogs.
I have something that I drew, a woman's face that is full of sorrow. And it looks like a real picture that an artist did. It looks that way to me. And the thing is, I don't know how to draw. I was sitting at my desk one day, my head in my hands, and I had that middle ache that is just the pain that comes with being alive sometimes, that kind of personal despair. I don't know why it comes, but I know it used to get my mother too. Every once in a while, she would sit so still, her hands in her lap, and she would have a little smile on her face that was not really a smile. What's wrong? I once asked, and she looked up quickly and she saw that I saw. After that, she would usually close herself in her bedroom until it was over it never took that long, really. She didn't like for anyone to see her that way. She didn't want anyone to know.
But I had that same kind of feeling one day, that veil of sadness between me and the world, and I had a piece of paper in front of me and I drew that woman's face like I was in a dream, like someone else was borrowing my hand. And I have never shown it to anyone, and I have never drawn anything good since then, either.
Lately, I have begun writing a lot more poems, and I have been saving them in my drawer. And it's funny, the same thing happens, about someone else borrowing my hand. I get a feeling; I step off into space; and a thing makes up itself.
I have red lipstick in my drawer that was my mother's, with the mark of her mouth on it. I have a rhinestone button I found outside, feathers from birds, pennies that mean good luck. I have a box of crayons that I intend never to use, I just like to look at them all perfect and read the names of the colors out loud, and I like to smell them deep, like I smell the test papers at school that have just come off the mimeograph machine. I have some torn-out hairdos that I would like to get, if my hair will ever grow really long instead of acting paralyzed.
Sometimes I think, What if I died and someone looked in my drawer? I wonder what they would understand about me. Probably not so much for one thing, they would get the crayons wrong. I think, actually, that none of us understands anyone else very well, because we're all too shy to show what matters the most. If you ask me, it's a major design flaw. We ought to be able to say, Here, look what I am. I think it would be quite a relief.
Copyright © 2002 by Elizabeth Berg
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