Independence Day reminds me that I am the smart one.
Just over 21 years ago today, my parents relocated to Montana from our former home nearby Scottsdale, AZ. To say that it was culture shock is a bit of an understatement but not for any of the reasons one might expect. This was no Brenda Walsh from Beverly Hills 90210 fish-out-of-water experience where I was the cool cat now in a schoolyard of local yokels. Montana was the place where name brand clothes came from Sears and the closest Target was 400 miles away. If there was a divinely created opportunity for a chubby, socially-inept 12-year-old to fit in, Montana was it.
Mother was in a tizzy with the small-town down-homey community events. They had never allowed us younger ones to go to the state fair, the park, shopping center carnivals, talk to neighbors, or anything similar because they were afraid we’d be kidnapped, molested, or exposed to drugs. But with moving to Montana, that all changed. Suddenly, Mother was organizing walks after dinner time, visits to the neighbors, and coordinating our attendance at community events including the 4th of July festival at the local historic fort.
This was definitely a subset of society I hadn’t been exposed to before. Not only were there dozens of other families but vendors of elephant ears and cheese fries, and the local chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism featured jousts and demonstrations in the art of courtly dancing. Smokey the Bear and his ranger handler presented on the dangers of forest fires with the local smokejumpers. Games were planned for the children: three-legged and foot races, egg-and-spoon tosses. This was old-timey middle America but plopped in the northwest in the early 1990s.
I was decked out in my fashionable best: L.A. Gear high top sneakers, stone-washed denim jeans with rollover flaps accented with silver stud buttons, sleeveless top with over-sized buttons. Also, scraggly long hair that hadn’t seen trimming scissors in years, pink-framed glasses with blue-tinted lenses. A pretty girl a few years older than I was recruiting kids for the next event, the two hundred-yard dash. Winners in each age group received ribbons.
Mother nudged me over. “You’re one of the oldest kids there. I bet you’ll win. Go try it,” she suggested. I hesitated, not being the type to feel comfortable in groups of children. Or running. Or taking any of my mother’s suggestions.
The teenager, sensing a candidate, walked over to me. “Come on!” she encouraged. “You’ll have fun!” I flushed with pleasure at being sought out, particularly by someone older and prettier.
As all the kids lined up, I surveyed the competition, children as young as 5. I would’ve been one of the oldest. It wasn’t that surprising, I reasoned, that I was asked to participate. As the oldest still living at home (excepting my 29-year-old brother), I was often called upon to be a role model to the younger siblings. That’s probably why the teenager asked me to come over – to give the littler kids someone to look up to.
I joined the line-up. With a ready, set, go!, we were off on our dash. Within moments, there was a problem. I was feeling hot and my cheeks were flushed. My hair was getting caught on my lips. Ugh, and that pain…in my side. Now on my other side! I slowed down and watched the other kids pass me. I hit the distance mark and looped back, more kids passing me, running along. I twisted my ankle in a groundhog hole and tumbled, grass-staining my stone-washed denim clad knees. I hobbled back to the start line, panting, needing water, sides hurting. Years of eating bricks of cheese, reading endlessly, drinking sweet tea, and floating in a pool like beached sea life had ill-prepared me for even something so simple as a footrace.
With the passage of time, I have occasionally thought that my memory of this footrace is worse than it actually was. Then a few years ago, I dug out Dad’s home videos to transfer them to digital when I found his recording of this event. There I am. Panting, tired, pasty, irritated. I was last. Children who were 5 or 6 or 7 beat me. I remembered correctly.
I was angry and bitterly disappointed, in a foul mood when I hit the finish line. Dad saw my sour face and took his video camera off his shoulder.
“You made a good try out there, turkey,” he said, using a childhood nickname that referenced my easily-reddened face.
“I hate running.”
Dad nodded. “I hate it too.” He took a drag from his cigarette. Looking at the other children running through his dark Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses, he continued. “When I was in high school, my PE teacher made us do one-mile runs once a week. I loathed it. We had to wear short pants, too. I’ll work on a farm all day if you want me to but I hate running. It’s a pointless activity. I hate shorts, too. Never worn ‘em since.”
Mother comes over to us, hands in her pockets, black hair blowing around her face and glasses that look like mine only they’re blue rims with tan lenses. She put her arm around my shoulders. “Don’t worry, honey,” she consoled me. “You don’t need to be fast. You tried hard.”
I pull into myself a bit more and stiffen my shoulders, everywhere she touches. I hate it when she tries to be my friend, be my mother. “If I don’t exercise, how am I going to get thinner?”
Mother looks at me, a bit surprised. “Lizzie and Freddie are the thin ones, baby. You never have been. You’re my smart one. That’s good enough.”
On the drive home, I day-dreamed revenge fantasies where I would practice running every day and then astound the children at next year’s 4th of July festival when I blazed past them and took the blue ribbon for first place, rather than the red ribbon of shame that said “participant.” Dad and Mother at the end, astounded that I could do something they couldn’t, that I wasn’t just the smart one. For a little bit, I actually followed through. I ran through my parents’ fields with my dog, leaping over the purple knapweed and jumping over shale piles. Then I got tired of breathing heavy, side stitches, heat rash on my arms and legs, and hives on my chest and stomach. Perhaps needless to say, I didn’t even bother competing in the footraces on July 4th 1991.
Fast forward approximately 20 years and I’ve remedied my ways somewhat, spending eight or so hours at a gym weekly on the elliptical or in dance classes. I’m in good enough shape. Definitely not thin, but I don’t need a double seat in the airplane either. Then in March I told a friend I’d run a 15k ‘with her.’ It seemed like an easy concession to make since she outweighs me by almost 80 pounds. She later dropped out due to heart trouble but as I had no excuse (and believe me, I looked for one) I still had to do it. I hated every moment. I vaguely recall spitting foul words at each mile marker, sounding every bit like a person with a particular kind of Tourette’s Syndrome. At the end, I picked up my finisher’s medal while wondering when my knees had been replaced by gelatin. Since the longest run I’d completed previously was a fairly flat 5k, I was pretty pleased with myself for finishing (although simultaneously angry with myself for being pleased since it was not a huge accomplishment). On the way back to my car, my parents called to wish me a happy birthday.
“Hi, honey,” said Dad. “Happy birthday! How did you spend your day?”
“Thanks, Dad. Well, I ran a 15k this morning. That’s a bit over 9 miles. First one I’ve ever done.”
“Oh, honey. You’re not young anymore. You shouldn’t do things like that. You’re going to hurt yourself.”
Quietly I sighed. There’s Dad lying in bed with cancer-of-the-everything. Who knows why he got it, but he certainly didn’t get it because he ran too much.
“It’s okay, Dad. I work out all the time. You build up for things like this.”
“I just worry you’re going to hurt yourself, baby. You’re a pretty heavy girl. It can’t be good for you.”
Mother takes the phone from him. “Hi, honey. What are you doing?”
“I was just telling Dad that I did a 15k today.”
“Are you trying to be a runner like Freddie? You know she’s 5 years younger than you are and a lot thinner. Running could be dangerous at your age.”
Dad interrupts. “You know, I had a high school PE teacher who made us run every week. I hated it.”
“You’re not going to start doing marathons like your sisters have been, are you?” asks Mother.
“Well,” I hesitatingly offer, “I told a couple friends I’d do one with them this fall.”
“Oh, honey,” Mother sighs heavily. “And you’re the smart one, too. How can you do this to yourself? You’re going to get hurt.”
“It’s fine, Mother. Really. How are you?”
“I’m fine, honey. Happy birthday. What can we send you? Would you like a gift card to Olive Garden?”
The last time I happily ate at Olive Garden was when I was 17 and on a road trip with some college buddies. We were in Spokane which was ‘big city’ and we wanted big city food which, for us, was Olive Garden. Then I moved back to Arizona when I was 18 and I realized that I have choices that don’t involve over-dressed salad and MSG laden bread. Unfortunately, Mother still thinks Olive Garden is the cat’s meow. So twice a year my husband or I get a gift card to Olive Garden or some other establishment. It’s always for food.
“Sure,” I tell her. It’s rude to answer otherwise.
We chit-chat a bit more. Dad gets off the phone because he’s in pain. Mother gets off the phone because there’s some crisis to handle with the animals. I drive home in the dreary cold, sore, exhausted, and the wind entirely taken from my sails. They brag plenty about my smart moments, but I can’t ever get them to acknowledge my physical accomplishments, that I’ve worked so hard to not be the fat kid anymore.
But they surprised me. A few days later I received a gift card with a note. “Good luck with the running, honey. We hope it’ll keep you healthy. Happy birthday. Love Mother and Dad.” The gift card was for REI. It was the first non-food gift card I’ve ever received from them.
So I went to REI and used the gift card to buy a new pair of sneakers. Three bruised toes and a sprained ankle were my hint that my $20 Champion shoes purchased at Target on clearance weren’t going to cut it for marathon prep.
This Independence Day, 21 years after my first ever run, I celebrated the holiday by running 16 miles. I still don’t love running, but I do it. I’m not the beautiful one, or the cute one, or the vivacious one, or the lucky one, or the athletic one, or the artistic one. I’m still the smart one…but I’m also the stubborn one who’ll run the fuck out of these shoes.