There are very few childhood memories that I have that aren’t somehow linked, inextricably, to either of my parents. I think the reason is that most of the memories are split between the fact they were actually there & involved, or because I was fearful/excited/triumphant, awaiting their reaction to what I had done. We were enmeshed, sometimes good, sometimes bad.

This one has nothing to do with them whatsoever. Well, in a roundabout way, but so much less than the usual dosing.

The school organized swimming lessons each summer, and we would board a big yellow bus in the morning, to be transported the 11 miles or so to the next, larger, town that had an actual swimming pool. I love water, I love to swim, say what you will about horoscope signs (Cancer!), I’ve always adored a pool. Wanted one my whole life, and of course it took being much older to even comprehend that pools aren’t “magic”, they don’t clean themselves, adjust their chemicals automatically, BLAH BLAH BLAH. The beauty of swimming lessons, when I was 8, was a morning of instruction, followed by an afternoon of exhilarating play, with TIMED BREAKS FOR SNACKS. God, the concession stand at the pool was the greatest. Push-ups, Fun Dip and those tubes of frozen syrup (that you tore the corner off with your teeth) are the ones that float to the top of my memory pile. Then the whistle would blow and those of us who had to ride the bus back to be collected by our parents would heed the yell of the chaperone, and off to the locker room we’d go, changing out of our suits if we felt like it – other times, just going with the towel-wrap, or throwing on shorts, for the bus ride.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

I would rather stay in a wet suit than put dry clothes on a wet body. And so I threw on my shorts, probably my t-shirt as well, and then tucked my flowered underpants into my towel and marched off to the bus. Where I sat down, in my middle-of-the-bus seat, and looked out the window. Suddenly, from the other side of the bus, through the windows, a commotion unfurled. Like a pair of underpants becoming unfolded. Suddenly, there was a pair of blue floral underwear being thrown about amongst the boys, still filing out from the pool and towards the bus. Underpants that looked extremely familiar. A quick check of my towel confirmed they were, indeed, my underpants. Icy horror filled my torso, starting at my stomach, and seeping out to my limbs, causing utter paralysis.

The shouts of “Jennifer’s Underwear!” broke me loose from my frozen state. Some fellow girl swimmer had apparently identified them from seeing them on me that morning. Traitor! What to do? They were my underpants! We didn’t have much money, it wasn’t like they were disposable. A brief flash of my mother’s disapproval vanished. I had the course of action within a fraction of a second: Utter Denial. Absolutely not my underpants. Never seen ’em. The boys wanted to play keep-away from me with them, which quickly lost its charm when I showed absolutely no interest in trying to get them. I recall one of them wore them on his head, which in retrospect (and 31 years of distance from THAT particular moment of horror) is hilarious – and made him look utterly stupid, but I had no choice but to stick with my plan. I stoically sat down, faced forward and composed my poker face of steel. Which I’m pretty sure was complemented by a beet-red face. Everyone knew they were mine, including me, but I refused to own them.

I didn’t care if my mother would be mad – one of the few times in my childhood where my fear of her was eclipsed by my own decision. I didn’t really care what I had to tell her, that they were lost, purloined by gnomes, whatever, I was simply not going to endure the mockery of my floral pantaloons. Ultimately, a “big kid” (someone in junior high) stepped in and took them from the kid wearing them like a flowery Rasta hat, and handed them back to me. I said nothing, (still on some level denying they were mine!) but eventually shoved them into the folds of my towel, my face showing, I’m sure, my pain and awkwardness with the situation. My drama with my mother avoided; my drama with my peers forever branded on my memory.

I look back and am not surprised the boys threw my underwear around, having a heyday and reveling in the chance to tease and torture. They’d have done the same thing if I was their sister – but of course with no siblings of my own, I had no frame of reference, except to feel horribly tortured. That said, I also remember the sense of kindness and lack of judgment the big kid (a girl) had when she retrieved my undies, how she had had enough of their antics and stepped in firmly to end it and restore some dignity (or at least my underpants) to me. I was always grateful, even though I couldn’t express it at the time – probably because I was trying too hard not to cry!

It’s funny how things that happened over 30 years ago can feel as live and real and palpable as if they happened yesterday. Our brain’s filing system is extraordinary! And obviously better than hiding yer underpants in a towel.