“You keep meeting the same person in different bodies until you learn the lesson.” ~Brandon Tarot
Like most girls in junior high school, I tried out for all the cheerleading squads every time tryouts came around—basketball, football, even wrestling. And like 95 percent of the girls, I never made the squad.
My kicks weren’t high enough, my splits weren’t split enough, my arms weren’t board-straight enough, I couldn’t jump high enough—and, let’s be real here: I wasn’t pretty enough and I wasn’t popular enough. After all, we are talking about junior high school.
But eventually, the one tryout came around that I had half a chance at: the pom-pom squad. Even at thirteen years old, I knew I could dance. Pom pom was the group of ten to twelve girls that performed choreographed routines to music at half-time during basketball games, and rarely during the period breaks at hockey games, on ice (I grew up in North Dakota, where hockey was a big deal).
To try out for pom pom, you usually got together with two or three of your best girlfriends who also wanted to make the team, picked a song you all liked, and tried to choreograph a dance routine to that song.
Picking the right song was crucial: it had to be a popular song that everyone would immediately recognize (Top 40, currently getting radio play time was best!), and it had to have the right rock-and-roll beat that was not too slow so that it would be boring to dance to, yet not too fast so that we would have a hard time making spins, kicks, or coordinated moves in time with the beat.
So it came to pass: Eighth grade, tryout date was announced, and teams signed up to compete. It turned out to be myself and my friends Diane and Becky who agreed we were going to go for it that year.
We had no experience whatsoever in coming up with a dance routine; all we had ever done was watch the previous year’s dance team do their thing, and we figured we might be able to copy a few moves from them. This was 1970, and I believe we chose an Elton John song that was getting a lot of airtime that year.
We pulled my bright orange record player out to my back concrete patio and set it up, where we played that song over and over as we practiced sequences of turns, kicks, fancy footwork, arm movements, and hip action.
This patio was right off the back door leading from our kitchen, and in retrospect I’m sure hearing that song play endlessly must have driven my mother insane, because even after my friends left for the day, I continued to practice, practice, practice.
Finally, the day of tryouts arrived! It was long and nerve-wracking, as we had to watch everyone else’s performance until our turn came around.
We watched as their nerves got the better of them—as the plastered smiles froze and then faded completely, their eyes widening like deer in the headlights. We saw them forget their steps; turn in opposite directions; one girl ran off before her routine was even over. A few routines went smoothly, and you could hear the collective sigh of relief from those of us still waiting, but the disastrous ones unnerved us completely.
I actually have no memory whatsoever of how our routine went. I remember our names being called, scampering up onto the gym floor, hearing the scratching of the needle on the record, and shaking like a leaf until the music started. Then I remember sitting down and the polite applause afterward. That’s it.
We watched as the final teams competed, and waited for the judges to make their picks. This was the worst part of all. The gym was full of girls who all wanted a shot, and they would hear in front of everyone whether they would get that shot or not.
It was already getting late and the judges seemed to be taking a long time. This event had taken place on a school night, so by now it was past 9:30 p.m.
One by one, they started to call the girls’ names who had made it onto the dance team. When they eventually said “Gail …” and hesitated on the last name, I knew it was me they were referring to! (I had a Polish last name that always seemed to get massacred.)
I leapt to my feet and ran out onto the gym floor in complete shock—OH MY GOD OH MY GOD!! My girlfriends pounded me on the back on my way out to the floor and shrieked and clapped for me. Finally, the ONE thing I knew I was good at, and I got my chance to be a part of this group. I was over-the-top euphoric!
I lived a little more than a mile from my junior high school and had to walk back home that night. Well, I practically ran all the way home; I was so excited and couldn’t wait to tell my mom that I had made the pom pom team! I burst into the back door about 10:30 p.m.
I yelled out, “Mom!”
She stormed through the living room and into the kitchen, furious and screaming at me, “Where the HELL have you been??”
Taken aback, I said, “You know I was at pom pom tryouts. I made it!”
She said, “I don’t give a damn. You know your curfew is 10 o’clock. What the hell have you been doing this whole time?”
Dumbfounded, I tried again. “Ma, you know where I was. It went late. It wasn’t my fault. Ma, didn’t you hear me? I made the squad.”
“I don’t care about that. Next time you call if you’re going to be late.” Then she turned around and went to bed.
I was stunned. If she had slapped me in the face, it wouldn’t have hurt worse. Literally the only thing I’d ever competed for, and they had said “Yes, Gail, you have talent, and we want you on our team,” and my own mother didn’t give a damn.
If I ever needed a message that in her mind, my accomplishments meant nothing, she delivered it loud and clear that night. Unfortunately, it left a scar so deep that it remained with me for rest of my life, as the same message continued to be delivered, over and over.
That night I could not get to sleep. Waves of excitement kept washing over me as I couldn’t believe my good fortune in being picked for this elite team. I remember literal chills going through my body; I simply could not relax. Then I would remember my mom’s reaction and a feeling of incredulity would take over.
How could someone do that to their own daughter? How could someone do that to anyone who had such great news to tell—be such a horrible wet blanket?
I never forgave her for how she treated me that night. At the end of that school year, the teacher/advisor who was the head of the pom pom squad thought it would be nice to host a mother-daughter night. The girls would choreograph a special routine, showing the mothers what they had learned all year long, and the teachers would prepare a special buffet for the mothers. This would take place after school one night. I didn’t even tell my mom about it.
The day arrived, and I just told my mom I had a performance after school and would be home late. When I got home several hours later, she tore into me, furious. One of the other mothers had called her up, offering her a ride to the mother-daughter night. Of course this caught my mom off-guard because she didn’t know anything about it, and it embarrassed her as well. She declined the ride, seeing as she wasn’t ready to go out.
Obviously, I got yelled at again because of the embarrassing phone call. But this time I didn’t care. I just tossed my head and said, “I didn’t tell you about it because I knew you wouldn’t want to go anyway.” And I walked away.
The following year, as I was transitioning into high school, I tried out again for the high school pom pom squad. That year, I was the only one from my entire junior high school who made the team. For all three years of high school, I continued to try out and make the team. My senior year, I was the only senior on the squad.
All this is to say that I was good at what I did. And for the four years I was performing with these girls, my mother never came once to watch me dance.
I think her ugly dismissal of my winning a spot on the team, and my response by keeping her away from the mother-daughter night, created a gulf between us that never got repaired. The battle lines between us were already drawn, but that incident firmly entrenched them for many decades to come.
When the most important people in my life essentially told me that I didn’t matter, that my accomplishments didn’t matter, two things resulted: I stopped “putting my pearls before swine,” and I started to seek validation from the wrong people and in the wrong places.
By pearls before swine, I mean this: I protected my heart by not including her in the big celebratory events of my life. I felt that because of her lack of support, she didn’t deserve to be there and wouldn’t really appreciate what I’d accomplished anyway.
We started to live a tit-for-tat existence. One day I came home from high school to find out that she’d given away my dog—she left a note for me on the kitchen table. The explosive fight we had when she came home that evening was epic, as was the silent treatment around the house that lasted for weeks afterward.
She tried to prevent me from attending college, telling me I’d only be wasting money and was only going there to “chase boys” anyway. Four years later when I earned my B.S. degree, I purposely didn’t walk the graduation ceremony to spite her, thus robbing her of her day in the sun. “Why should she get any credit for that,” I thought? Several years later when I earned my M.S. degree, I didn’t invite her to that ceremony either, which I did participate in.
The most far-reaching decision I made, as early as high school, was that I would never have children. I was the youngest of seven in my family and the only one who never had kids. I was so afraid I would turn out to be a mother just like her, and I didn’t want to inflict that kind of misery on any child.
Where was my father in all of this? When I was in junior high school, my father had an operation for a brain tumor and its removal was successful. But a few days later he had a stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak. He remained in this state, wheelchair-bound, for the rest of his life.
This was our alcoholic father who was unfaithful to my mother and physically abusive to her and to his seven children. Our mother, being the righteous Catholic martyr that she was, insisted it was her duty to now care for him at home. I am convinced it was this intensive caregiving for a man she did not love and who had been horrible to her that turned her into the bitter woman who was doing battle with me.
It took decades of hindsight and therapy for me to see and understand this, but in the thick of our day-to-day dogfights, all I saw was a woman who would do everything in her power to hold me back. If she couldn’t be happy, no one was going to be happy.
I’ve had three failed marriages, the final one lasting only nine months. My therapist helped me to see that I chose the same personality type each time: three overachievers, three brilliant and talented individuals, three bright and shiny objects. And by doing that, I was seeking my own validation—they reflected well on me, and surely they must see the same qualities in me.
What I didn’t realize was that in these types of partnerships with high-achieving individuals, there is only room for one successful person, and that person would not be me. Megalomaniacs do not share the spotlight.
Finally, in my sixties now, I understand that aloneness does not mean loneliness. I am more content and fulfilled than I’ve ever been in my life, as I pursue as many passions and dreams as the remaining years will allow. To finally achieve self-acceptance and self-esteem through rigorous study and therapy has been the greatest gift imaginable.
It all started with understanding that my mother’s mistreatment had nothing to do with me. She let her pain shape her life. I won’t do the same. And I won’t spend my time seeking validation from anyone else, as I once did with my mother and three husbands. It’s natural to want approval from other people, but all that really matters is that we approve of ourselves.
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