I was going through my meagre collection of photos of my teen years the other day when I came across the one that is attached to this post today. My brother Keith is shirtless. He has his arm around me affectionately and I am wearing a blue bandana on my head and a blue gym suit. The suit is even uglier than it was originally before my temporary alterations. I have rolled its overly abundant cap sleeves and part of the tucked-in collar into elastic band-scrunched rolls which hardly minimize the suit’s bulkiness. It is still a laundry bag-like structure with five openings for appendages to stick out of—one head, two arms, two legs. I am only wearing it in the first place to ensure that I will get a bit of a sun tan while working in the fields, replanting tobacco.There was no way I was going to risk ruining my one and only swim suit, a snazzy two piece sailor suit of sorts—with a short white pleated skirt, a blue waist band, and an anchor-embossed red top. It was the polar opposite to this monstrosity, but working with the big
heavy hand planters which dispensed part of the water that they carried, and a new plant into the dirt wherever we needed to replace one that had died was heavy, dirty work— So much for keeping the white part white and the rest snag free if I had chosen to wear it to keep my tan lines in all the right places whenever I happened to don it at the beach. That would be just plain dumb, and a total waste of many weeks of saved allowance. Other more practical clothes were always provided for, but choosing a two piece over the plain old boring ones that were Mom’s picks had cost me.
Replacing it using my own money would have been just about as painful as it was to have to ask my parents for the money to buy that ugly blue gym suit at the beginning of grade nine. Money was very scarce in those years, and I resented the outlay of our family’s cash. I also resented having to put the time into embroidering my name on the back of it in the midst of our busy harvest season which coincided with the return to school. Just in case any of us girls might have been tempted to cheat, by falling back on our mothers to embroider our names on the back of them for us, in the large gold script requested in keeping with our school colours, our first classes in grade nine Home Economics were on embroidery — chain stitch, back stitch, satin stitch, cross stitch— enough to get the job done anyhow. Home Ec was compulsory for all girls at Strathroy District Collegiate Institute School then, and Miss Dunlop would be checking our handiwork. As soon as we gathered for our first Phys Ed classes in our newly emblazoned suits it was obvious that our Phys Ed teacher had either been sadistic in ordering them all several sizes too large, or she had been compassionate in her desire to avoid causing any further expense, as many of the girls, like me, had come from large farms families. They would certainly fit us until we graduated, regardless of whether we were in a four or a five year program, what with a gym class three time a week and junk food as yet not much of an issue in the 60’s .
Perhaps the fact that everyone’s suit was so huge, regardless of the size we ordered it in, was because it came with a generous excess of fabric built right into it. Maybe it was a ridiculous attempt on the part of school administrators in Ontario to ensure that teenaged girls remained absolutely devoid of feminine allure while exercising. Otherwise the teenaged boys being screamed at in the neighbouring field to “Get those knees up!” or “Give me twenty!” might be driven into hormonal overload at the sight of any of us kicking a soccer ball around, or running— even at a quarter-mile away. Perhaps that red-faced herd being driven around the cinder track by their masochistic retired army sergeant gym teacher wouldn’t be able to keep their eyes on the prize— a winning track team at WOSSA— the most prestigious of Ontario High School track meets.
If they passed a little too close to the soccer field when the girls were there it could be potentially disastrous otherwise! So it was for the sake of school pride that we girls were subjected to wardrobe humiliation by our mandatory apparel. Sure, the generously elasticized legs could definitely be pushed up if one desired, as indicated by the photo, but in doing so it gave the torso the appearance of a partially deflated weather balloon.
My brother Keith has always been an affectionate and funny guy. We five girls couldn’t have asked for a better brother growing up—he would have defended us or our reputations to the death. Sure, he may have pushed a few buttons in my late childhood years, being only seventeen months younger than I, and struggling through the turmoil of adolescent angst in the wake of my own emotional upheavals, but he loved me and all seven of his siblings too much to be anything but supportive.
In the picture, taken beside our family’s greenhouse, we appear to be enjoying the closeness and some sort of shared joke. Perhaps it was something he said. He is likely the only person who could have told me at the time that I looked like crap, and still left me smiling. That’s the way it is with this brother of mine. I probably sat right along side of him while he played in the sand box with a stinky pants-full more than a few times and so really, what could he tell me about myself that’s got one over on that? We’ll always be “even” Keith.
Love you Brother