by ERIKA HOFFMAN
I couldn’t have been much more than 6 when I learned the emotional message behind that saying: “Two’s company; three’s a crowd.” The feeling of being a third wheel must have happened during the summer before first grade in my old neighborhood.
My dad’s mom was a skilled seamstress. Her German preciseness was evident in the frocks she made for me. They were embroidered and resembled clothes Heidi might wear. Not only did Grandma Christine spend countless hours designing and sewing my dresses, she also created identical garments for my dolls.
Mom gushed over her mother-in-law’s matching creations. Mom taught herself how to sew after college and soon realized the meticulousness needed for the craft. Diligently Mom hand-washed these carefully fashioned outfits of mine, and she cautioned me about taking my dolls outside when they were attired in Grandma’s homespun costumes.
Down the street lived Sharon, an only child and a policeman’s daughter. Across the road was Barbara, whose Dad was a truck driver. I wanted them as friends, but I think my mother thought I was smarter than other children on our street because of what she’d studied regarding IQ tests in her masters program at Rutgers. I’d seek these girls out, who were a year older and seemed to prefer each other’s company to mine. Sometimes, they hid from me to play dolls by themselves. Their toys were not as costly as mine. And their dolls’ wardrobes didn’t compare to the hand stitched clothes worn by my baby dolls.
One day Barbara announced that I couldn’t play with her and Sharon anymore unless I purchased “doll food” from them. They showed me this “doll food.” It consisted of acorns, leaves and mowed grass they’d scooped up from their lawns. I asked if I could make my own “doll food” and bring it back with me from my yard.
They told me I had to buy their “doll food.” I had no money. Then, Sharon said I didn’t need cash as they were willing to trade me “doll food” for doll dresses.
“NO!” they said. “It wouldn’t be the same.”
They told me I had to buy their “doll food.” I was worried. I had no money. Then, Sharon said I didn’t need cash as they were willing to trade me “doll food” for doll dresses. I was required to get doll food from each of them, and so I bartered the lovely apparel fashioned by my loving grandma for a couple of Mason jars filled with twigs and rubbish.
I knew it wasn’t a good deal. But, this was what it took to be their friend. After the exchange, I played happily all afternoon at Sharon’s house and retuned at suppertime with my two naked dolls. Mom didn’t discover my trade for a couple of days. When she commented on how nice it was that Sharon and Barbara had invited me over a few days in a row, I nodded eagerly. And then she added,” By the way, I haven’t seen the newest dresses your Grandma Christine gave you for your dolls. “Where is that little dirndl? And the polka dot dress with the matching bonnet?”
I told her. She looked thunderstruck. She stared at me like I was an alien. Finally she said, “Erika, how can you be so dumb?”
That was the first time in my life anyone had used that word to describe me. Furthermore, it came from my own mom!
Mom phoned Sharon’s mother, and the next day the girls returned the doll clothes, but they didn’t ask me to join them again. In fact, they avoided me from then on.
What did I learn from being dumb? How did a lemon of an experience turn into lemonade?
I learned I was the type of person who’d give in to peer pressure. I learned my mom was quick to judge. I learned I could disappoint people I cared about like Mom and Grandma by not appreciating things they’d done for me or given me. I learned I’d let folks down just for the momentary pleasure of belonging to a group of girls who didn’t really like or want me. And while my parents placed a great deal of emphasis on education and IQ, understanding the value of relationships and emotional connections are important things for children to learn, too.
ERIKA HOFFMAN is a freelance writer from North Carolina.