The Day I Become A Women
Some people learn by following good advice, or by profiting from other people’s experiences, or even by studying books. Then there are people like me, who do everything the hard way. Even grow up. Or maybe I should say, especially grow up.
I had to lose my best friend to do it.
I’ve never been one of those girls who can get along without other girls. I like having girl friends. There are things I could never say to a fellow that I can talk about to a girl friend.
I’ve always liked being friends with a lot of girls, and being especially close to one or two. Evenings when I’m not out on a date I usually spend a lot of time on the phone with my friends, talking about all kinds of things.
Once, after one of those evenings on the phone, my mother said to me, “Annette, do you mind if I give you a bit of advice?”
“Of course not,” I said, since I knew she would anyway.
“Well, honey, I think you’re a little indiscreet sometimes. You tell your friends things about people—but you’d be very embarrassed to have those things get back to those people.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Oh, like the fact that Don, who thinks he’s such a good dancer, stepped all over your feet at the party last Saturday night—”
“But it’s true,” I exclaimed.
“I’m sure it is,” Mom said. “But Don’s a nice boy, even if he does think too much of his dancing, and it would humiliate him to hear what you said about him.”
“Well, he won’t hear it,” I said. “My goodness, don’t you think my friends can keep a secret?”
“I don’t know,” Mom said in a thoughtful voice. “You can’t.”
Well, I put it down to parental advice that no one ever pays much attention to, and went on with my life as usual.
And then one night my best friend called me up in a terrific rage. “Annette,” she blazed, “did you tell Ellen that I thought she was conceited?”
For a minute I was absolutely overwhelmed. I couldn’t even remember if I had actually told Ellen, or just told one of her friends what my best friend had said. Then it hit me that it didn’t matter who I had told—the point was, I had told someone, and it had gotten back to my best friend.
“You did say it—” I began miserably.
“Yes,” she said. “But I didn’t say it to her —who am I to tell her off? It’s none of my business what she thinks of herself—I only said that to you because you’re supposed to be my best friend—”
“I am—” I interrupted.
“Oh, no, you’re not,” she said. “You don’t care half as much about being a friend as about having some juicy little tidbit to pass on to someone. Now Ellen’s not speaking to me just because you couldn’t keep a secret. I don’t call that being a friend.”
It struck me even as she slammed down the phone that that sounded exactly like something my mother might have said.
As I say, I do everything the hard way. I finally learned to keep a secret—my own and other people’s—but it was too late for my girl friend. Of course, I apologized and we’re back on speaking terms—but she doesn’t trust me any more, and I don’t sup- pose she ever will. That’s another thing I learned from that incident—you can’t go through life stepping on people’s feelings and then expect that saying “I’m sorry” will make everything all right again.
The big thing about growing up, I think, is to know in advance which mistakes you can’t afford to make even once. And violating someone’s confidence, as far as I’m concerned, comes right at the top of the list.
When I was 16 I considered myself a fully adult woman. If anyone had asked me just when I’d grown up, I’d probably have giggled and answered, “Oh, years ago!” As far as I was concerned, at 16 I’d already been everywhere and done everything— and what’s more, I was determined to look the part. There wasn’t an outfit in my closet that wouldn’t have shocked a 35-year-old divorcee. I had dresses so tight I literally couldn’t walk in them. I hobbled. Every morning I climbed into a sheath skirt, a tight sweater, and spike heels four inches high. Then I piled my hair on top of my head, and began my hour of making-up—the whole works, from pancake through eye shadow, mascara, and four layers of lipstick. Then I went to school.
Now, my mother was not blind. I seem to remember that every time she glanced my way, she’d shudder slightly. And from time to time, she tried to talk to me about it.
“Molly, don’t you think you’re a little—well, overdressed for school? Most of the girls I see are wearing bobby socks and pleated skirts.”
“They go to regular high school,” I said with scorn. “I go to professional school. All the girls at my school dress this way.”
Mom tried again. “Maybe. But some of them look older than you do. You have such a baby face, Molly—you look ridiculous all tricked out like this. Like—like a little girl in her mother’s things!”
“I will have you know,” I said frigidly, “that I look at least twenty-one, and I certainly am that mature. Everyone thinks so.”
It is easy for me to look back now and think that if I were in Mom’s position, I’d have smacked me down, burned the contents of my closet, and made me get a whole new wardrobe. But Mom was—and is—a pretty smart cookie. She knew that my stubborn streak would really blossom if she actually forbade me to go out dressed that way. So she just sighed, shuddered, and waited. She knew something would happen to make me see the light.
And it did. It happened one spring evening, as I was tottering home in my usual regalia after a rehearsal. It was just beginning to get dark, it was supper time, and the streets were deserted. A couple of blocks from my house I turned a corner—and a man stepped out of a shadow and said, “Hi, girlie!”
Naturally, I ignored him. But he fell into step beside me.
“How’s about you and me having a little drink together?”
I said, “Mister, beat it or I’ll holler for a policeman.”
To my astonishment, he just laughed. “Sure, sure,” he said. “Come on, honey, I know a little place we can go to and—” He started hauling me off.
For a moment I was just plain furious. He had taken me for some kind of tramp! I opened my mouth to tell him off, and then all of a sudden, panic hit me. The streets were so empty and it was getting darker—in my spikes and strangle-skirt, I couldn’t have run if my life depended on it—which it very well might. For a moment I just stared at him, and then I heard my own voice, quavering and tiny, whisper, “But—but you don’t understand. I’m only sixteen—”
The man pulled me around in front of him so hard I thought he’d break my arm. His eyes narrowed and his whole face grew dark. “Well, I’ll be—” he said at last. “You are a kid. Well, I’ll be—” Suddenly he was shaking me with both hands. “Listen, you’re a lucky kid. I’m going to let you go. But any kid who dolls herself up like that and walks around alone deserves to get her face bashed in. And the next guy may decide to do it. Now, get on home!”
I got home and up to my room without being seen. In ten seconds I was out of my clothes. From the back of my closet I dug out an old full skirt and a pair of flats and got into them. Then I went into the bathroom and, bawling like a baby, I scrubbed my face. The next day I gave away practically every stitch of clothing I owned. My mother watched the whole business without comment, but a few days later, when I set out for school in a full skirt and white blouse, she kissed me at the door and said, “Molly, how lovely you look.”
That was all there was to it. But sometimes I wonder if I’m the only girl in the world who ever grew up by realizing that. after all, she was still only a kid!
I grew up all at once in one split second, because I had to. There was something that had to be done, that only a grownup could do—and there was nobody to do it but me. It was as simple as that.
It’s funny, though, how many crises I’d gone through before then without growing up. I remember the time when my family and I were in Mexico City during an earth- quake. The hotel we were in began to shake. I looked up and saw a monstrous chandelier hanging from the ceiling begin to tremble and then swing. I was frightened ali right, but the thing was, my parents were there and I knew with a child’s faith that my mom and dad would take care of everything. They did get us out to safety—and without any help from me.
And then there was the day a forest fire started in our canyon. It was New Year’s Eve and I was giving a big party that night. I’d planned it for months. That afternoon from my upstairs bedroom window I could see the flames spreading. The wind would scatter a cloud of sparks and all of a sudden another house would burst into flames. Everyone in the canyon was working to protect homes and property, and I was old enough to be among them, but all I could think of was my ruined party. While the grownups were rushing around, hosing down the houses with water, I was frantically asking everyone if the police would let my friends into the canyon that night. Finally the fire got close to our house. The heat was awful. My parents said that we should get ready to evacuate, and that we must try to save our most precious things. I supposed that they would gather up Mom’s furs and her jewel case and things like that, but they went right to work taking the paintings down from the walls to send to safety first. I remember Mom saying, “You can replace almost anything, but when a work of art is gone, it’s gone forever.” Then she gave me a suitcase and told me to fill it with whatever I wanted most to save.
Scared out of my wits, I took the suitcase up to my room. There I stuffed it full of toy animals and a formal gown. Later on, when the fire had been put out and our home saved, I laughed at myself. It must be marvelous, I thought, to be really mature and never get so frightened that you lose your head.
But then came the night when there was trouble and no one but rac to handle it—no one at all but me.
My parents had gone off on a trip to Europe, leaving my brother and me in the care of our German housekeeper. The woman didn’t speak English, but I spoke some German.
One night I went to her room to say good night and found her doubled up on her bed, weeping with pain. In German, she sobbed that she’d been there for an hour, unable to call a doctor because she didn’t speak English. She hadn’t called me because she didn’t want to frighten me! At first, all I felt was pure panic, but I managed to ask her where it hurt. When she pointed to the right side of her lower abdomen, I really got scared. Wishing with all my heart that my folks were home, I ran to the telephone and called our doctor. “Send an ambulance right away,” I begged.
“Susan,” he said, “it sounds like acute appendicitis. There is no time for an ambulance to make the trip way out to your house and back again. You’ve got to bring her in yourself.”
“Me?” I gasped. “But—but I can’t. I’m shaking all over. What if something goes wrong on the way? I’m scared—”
“l’m sorry,” the doctor said, “but there’s no time to be scared, Susan. Wrap her in a blanket, put her in the car, and drive to the hospital as quickly and smoothly as you can.”
“You must, Susan,” he said. Then he hung up.
And I knew he was right, there wasn’t anyone else to take över for me this time. In that one split second, I became an adult.
Of course, I didn’t know it then. I just knew that I had to keep myself from shaking and crying while I got that poor woman bundled up into the car. Then I started down the canyon road, driving fast but watching for bumps every minute. All the while I was talking to her, both in English and German, telling her we’d be there very shortly, that everything would be all right.
We made it to the hospital. The doctor rushed her into the operating room. Half an hour later he came out and told me that if I had gotten her to the hospital five minutes later—if I had delayed just that much—her appendix would have burst and she might have died. Instead, the operation had been a success and she would be all right.
I drove home slowly. When I got there, I just cracked up. I shook and cried—I was a total wreck. All the tension and fright I’d suppressed came bursting out all at once, leaving me weak for hours. But it didn’t matter. I’d learned that night that it didn’t make any difference how frightened you were—you didn’t have to be fearless to be grown-up: you only had to go ahead and do what had to be done in spite of being afraid. That’s what makes ali the difference.
Until our housekeeper was well again, I was in full charge of our house, and my brother and myself. I was completely on my own. And do you know? Somehow that didn’t worry me—I was a bit afraid, but I knew I could handle it anyway.
When I was a kid in Texas, everybody had to know how to drive. There wasn’t any other way to get from here to there and back again. I learned to drive when I was 9, and when I was 14 and old enough for a “permissory license,” my dad announced that he was going to buy me a car.
Well, I nearly flipped. A couple of the kids in school had snazzy little convertibles, and I was longing for one, too. Mine would be even showier than theirs—I’d have it painted white!
The day we went downtown to get the car, I had my eyes shut with bliss when we drew up to the curb and Dad said, “Here we are! This is the car.” I opened my eyes and saw him pointing to a plain big heavy hardtop. I howled and raged and finally sank into a kind of bleary-eyed stupor as my father bought the big grey sedan. A car for a housewife to drive to the supermarket in. A car for a married couple to lug the baby to the doctor in. A car to go to a funeral in!
I wanted a snazzy little white convertible!
“You’ll take this one or none,” my father said. with admirable control. “A car is not a toy, it’s a means of locomotion. If it weren’t a necessity around here, you wouldn’t be getting one at all. Since you’ve got to have one, I want to know you’ll get where you’re going safely, in a good heavy car that will stand up in an emergency.”
“What emergency?” I muttered.
“I don’t know what emergency!” my father snapped. “But with anyone who carries on like such a baby, there’s bound to be one!”
Little did either of us guess that the emergency was going to soon be on us—and it would be my father’s doing!
It happened when the car was still brand-new, and I was just beginning to feel a little proud of it, on the grounds that at least it cost more than any of my friends’ cars. Dad and I were out for a drive in it one evening, and we headed toward the outskirts of Amarillo, where Dad had some property that was planted in wheat. It was harvest time and as we drove we talked about the migrant workers who were harvesting the wheat this year, admired the sunset across the fields, waved to some of the men we knew. I was driving: Dad had a heart condition and was afraid to take the wheel for fear of getting an attack at 60 miles an hour.
So there we were, tooling down the road, when all of a sudden my father let out a holler like a wounded bull. I slammed my foot down on the brake and looked out to the right, and sure enough, I saw what he saw. There’s a way to cut a field of wheat so that, to the unpracticed eye, it looks like it’s completely harvested—when really, about eight bushels have been left standing. Then, at night, the man who cut it like that goes back to the field and harvests the left-over in secret and sells it himself. When a man has a lot of property in wheat, the way Dad did, this kind of stealing can cost him plenty. And there was just such a field of Dad’s, with a man still working in it, right before our eyes.
While I was still staring, my father howled once more, and then threw open the car door on his side. He ran around the car, opened the door on my side, motioned me to move over and got behind the wheel. “Dad—” I began, and then my mouth flew open and away we went!
My father put his foot down on the gas, pointed the car across the road, and took off. We hit the ditch at the side at 30 mph and the field at 40. My head hit the top of the car and my arms went half out the window—and then I grabbed hold of the back of the seat and just hung on for dear life. We rattled and banged and flew and bounced and shook our way into the middle of that field. Finally Dad slammed on the brakes and flung himself out of the car to confront the guy who was doing the harvesting.
While Dad was chewing him out, 1 collected myself and got out of the car. I went round front—and I was aghast. All four tires were a mess. The grill was smashed to smithereens. The axle was wrecked. The paint job was thoroughly scratched. The windshield looked like it had been in a hail storm. The car was ruined forever, I moaned to myself. I got back into the front seat and burst into tears.
After a while Dad got done firing the guy, and came back to the car. I waited for him to get behind the wheel again, but he just gestured to me. “Come on,” he said, “you know I’m too sick to drive!”
So I got behind the wheel and with tears still pouring down my face, coaxed the poor car back across the field, through that awful ditch, and on to the road again. Every now and then as the car limped home, coughing and groaning and threatening to fail apart any second, I’d steal a glance at Dad. He didn’t seem to notice a thing.
All that night I tossed and turned. The garage mechanic had stared with real horror when he saw the wreck. I was sure it was beyond repair. I’d have to learn to get along without a car now.
The next morning the mechanic called. “Talk to him,” Dad said, handing me the phone. “After all, it’s your car.”
I picked up the receiver. “Hi, Jack,” I said. “You think you can sell it for scrap?”
“Scrap?” Jack said. “Good grief, Carolyn— what would you want to do that for? Why, when I get done with it, that car’s going to be as good as new. It’ll need a paint job, Couple of repairs, maybe a new windshield. But you take a good heavy car like that—why, it’s awful hard to wreck it. Though I must say your dad gave it the old college try. Will two weeks be too long for you to hitch rides to school?”
Well, I went back to the breakfast table 10 years older and wiser than I had been a few minutes before. I had just found out the importance of quality, and I guess that’s the biggest thing any girl can learn. It helps you pick a car and a house and a career and a husband—it tells you the difference between what’s for show and what’s for blow. And the funny thing is, once you’re old enough to know that, you’re also old enough to get your own way some of the time.
Dad never said a word when I told him I wanted the nevv paint job white!
Annette Funicello stars next in Walt Disney’s Horsemasters. Susan Kohner’s next movie is U A’s By Lowe Possessed.
It is a quote. MOTION PICTURE MAGAZINE JUNE 1961