The Welcome

I’D rather face a herd of elephants than a roomful of women. Perhaps it is because as a child I never liked my face, yet if I went anywhere I had to take it with me. All my life I longed to be pretty. My mother always told me goodness was better than beauty, but I would rather have been pretty than good.

‘Here’s the house,’ I groaned, putting on the brake reluctantly. ‘I wish it hadn’t come so soon! ‘ I got slowly out of the car and went up the steps. I was glad my daughter didn’t worry about beauty and appearance and things like that. Girls were so sensible nowadays, I reminded myself. I could see Jen’s starry brown eyes sparkling with laughter. She never worried about her looks. I would do anything to keep that happiness on Jen’s face.

As I tapped on the front door I said to myself, ‘You just shouldn’t have come. You could have made some excuse.’ I could hear the girls all chatting and laughing at the top of their voices.

One high voice said, ‘You all know our Literary Club. Well, girls, they just wouldn’t stand for her.’

I didn’t recognize any of the voices, and I didn’t belong to any club either. They seemed so happy all together in there, I hoped no one had heard my knock, and that I could get away without being noticed. It was like the time we moved to another part of the town and I had to go to a new school. My mother took me. She looked so pretty with a hat with feathers. My pigtails stuck out on each side of my face, and I wore a black coat of my father’s cut down for me. The class was assembled, and they all sat and stared. If I could even think of something witty to say, something to make them laugh so that they would forget to look at my coat and my face!

It was mid-term and all the gangs were made up. I stayed on the outskirts of my schoolmates’ lives. There was an air about them of being liked, of belonging. Little curly-headed girls walked about at recess, arms entwined, and I shook my pigtails and ate alone, fiercely, the food choking me.

I would tap once more. I knew all the girls would lay down their forks and stare at me as they had done that first day at school. I wished I had worn my new dress instead of my suit and sweater.

Well, I was glad they didn’t hear. At least I could say I had knocked twice.

Nora swung open the door. Her face was beautiful in its welcome. She put her face forward to kiss me, and I had not expected her to kiss me, so that when I reached my face forward hers had retreated. We laughed then, and clapped our cheeks softly together, and she called out, ‘Oh, girls, here’s Joan! Now our party’s complete!’

Her welcome carried me into the room. I found I knew nearly all the girls. They were happy and beautiful and glad to see me, and I began to eat my lunch, and was one of them.

I remembered when I wanted to go home from school with Muriel. My mother said, ‘Why should Muriel want to see you? She was with you all morning in school.’ Then when I went to Ida’s home and we sat over the fire with nuts and arithmetic and cookies, my father, who always wanted us at home, said, ‘Why did you stay so long? They must have been sick and tired of you.’

Next morning when I saw Ida coming round the corner of the schoolyard I hid, for I knew she must be tired of me. But Ida was hurt, and thought I did not care for her any more. I cried that night for the complexity of the world.

Nora was handing me more coffee, and Agnes asked the room in general, ‘What do you think of the new book by Saroyan?' Not one of them had read it except me, and as I sipped my coffee I told them my opinion, and they listened as though I had something worth while to say. My father never let us have opinions.

Fern had read a review which I didn’t agree with, and we discussed it while the others listened.

Cora said, ‘You look so pretty.’ She must have been joking, for I needed a new wave and my hair looked fluffy and different from everybody else’s.

I went into the bedroom for a handkerchief, and in the mirror I saw a woman with a light in her face. I soared back to the living room.

The talk swung to needlepoint now. I knew a trick for keeping the background stitching even. Cora is marvelous at knitting and Agnes knows everything about cutwork, but they are not so smart at needlepoint. Their welcome was extending every way, I thought, over and around and through me.

I looked at my watch. Five o’clock. Nora said she was sorry when at last I had to go. I knew, because you somehow always know these things, that she meant what she said.

The afternoon sun painted a smile on the curved windshield of the car. I climbed in and touched the starter. My nose looked longer and thinner in the mirror, and I leant back till I touched the comfortable seat all the way up.

I swirled into our driveway. Jen met me at the door. ‘Joyce asked me over for a little while,’ she said. ‘We might do our homework together. Could I?’

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Jump in, and I’ll run you over. Stay as long as you want to.’

Jen settled herself in the seat beside me.

‘Mother,’ she said, ‘I wish I hadn’t freckles on my nose.’

I looked straight ahead. Surely the modern girl didn’t worry over little things like that!

Jen looked at me admiringly. ‘Do I have to wait till I’m grown up to be pretty?’ she asked wistfully. ‘Didn’t you always have that good-looking nose?’

‘I was always a pretty little girl,’ I said firmly. ‘And you are very like me.’