Iowa Writes

MARY POTTER KENYON
Unexpected Grace


Growing up in poverty in the '60s, I was the class pariah. My severely limited wardrobe pegged me as the poor girl. My dress was practically shiny from wear, with a telltale crease at the hem from being let down too many times, along with thick, dark-colored knee socks paired with boy's sturdy brown shoes. I stood out like a weed in the flower garden of little girls wearing puffed-sleeve dresses, lacy white anklet socks, and shiny black Mary Janes. If I so much as met the eyes of one of my classmates, it was an invitation for their taunts and jeers. I was pushed against the wall, kicked, and spit at. I learned to navigate the hallways of the Catholic elementary school by hugging my books to my chest, hunching my shoulders, and looking down at the ground.


Because of this torment, or in spite of it, I turned inward, filling angst-ridden journals and reading voraciously. I was a teacher's dream student; quick to learn and eager to please. On the track or field, however, I was a dismal failure. At best, I could be described as uncoordinated and graceless. My arms and legs were always mottled with bruises, a testament to my clumsiness. I learned to ride a bike by first crashing into a hedge, then using our steep driveway for a downhill start, resulting in knees embedded with gravel and bloody palms.


In seventh grade I transferred to a public school and managed to escape the torments of my peers, but my lack of grace accompanied me. I dreaded physical education classes, when even in-sync jumping jacks with my classmates required my intense concentration.

Growing up in poverty in the '60s, I was the class pariah. My severely limited wardrobe pegged me as the poor girl. My dress was practically shiny from wear, with a telltale crease at the hem from being let down too many times, along with thick, dark-colored knee socks paired with boy's sturdy brown shoes. I stood out like a weed in the flower garden of little girls wearing puffed-sleeve dresses, lacy white anklet socks, and shiny black Mary Janes. If I so much as met the eyes of one of my classmates, it was an invitation for their taunts and jeers. I was pushed against the wall, kicked, and spit at. I learned to navigate the hallways of the Catholic elementary school by hugging my books to my chest, hunching my shoulders, and looking down at the ground.


Because of this torment, or in spite of it, I turned inward, filling angst-ridden journals and reading voraciously. I was a teacher's dream student; quick to learn and eager to please. On the track or field, however, I was a dismal failure. At best, I could be described as uncoordinated and graceless. My arms and legs were always mottled with bruises, a testament to my clumsiness. I learned to ride a bike by first crashing into a hedge, then using our steep driveway for a downhill start, resulting in knees embedded with gravel and bloody palms.


In seventh grade I transferred to a public school and managed to escape the torments of my peers, but my lack of grace accompanied me. I dreaded physical education classes, when even in-sync jumping jacks with my classmates required my intense concentration.

By high school, I'd discovered my true forte, in drama. Behind the thick, dusty red velvet curtains of the high school auditorium, I magically became whatever character I played. I was transformed into a young, and oddly coordinated, Dorothy, skipping down the yellow brick road; an overweight middle-aged woman with a stuffed bra and well-padded rear; or a rich, poised daughter who drove her parents crazy with elaborate wedding plans.


My real wedding came a year after high school graduation, to a man I met at the restaurant where I worked the summer before college. As his waitress, I'd accidentally splashed coffee on him when I noted his obvious interest. He'd laughed and asked me out, and I proceeded to spill a glass of iced tea in his lap on one of our first dates. He'd found my nervousness endearing and eventually proposed, without weighing any possible hereditary propensity toward clumsiness in future offspring.


Now we have eight children. I winced and worried as one toddler continually slammed her head on end tables, another ran into glass doors and tipped over grocery carts, and a son grew so fast during puberty he couldn't keep up with the long limbs that got in his way. I reveled in the daughter who took to skateboarding and roller-skating, a son who learned to ride a bike at the tender age of two-and-a-half, and another who taught himself to swim. Unlike me, my children have all grown comfortably and confidently in their own skin, without the buffer of an auditorium curtain.


I am now that middle-aged, overweight woman I once portrayed on stage. I still do not personify any of the definitions of gracefulness, but, with nearly half a century of life experiences behind me, I possess something akin to grace. Graduating from college amidst mothering, enduring two years of a chronic illness, keeping my family afloat during my husband's eighteen-month stint of unemployment, and caring for a spouse during his cancer treatment are the accomplishments that have given me the self-assurance I longed for when young.


I have learned to find grace in the real life that is my stage now; in smoothing and clipping wet towels to the clothesline for a softening breeze, in the smell of sunshine in the line-dried sheets at night, when walking in the drizzle of a summer morning rain, or holding my husband's hand and realizing how blessed I am to still have him. I revel in the goodness and grace of the ordinary.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


MARY POTTER KENYON

Mary Potter Kenyon lives in Manchester, Iowa. Her work has appeared in publications such as Our Iowa, Julien's Journal, Home Education, and Backwoods Home, and in the books Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul and Voices of Caregiving. Her book Coupons, Chemo, and Chuck E. Cheese will be released by Diversion Press later this year.

This page was first displayed
on July 20, 2009

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