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Just Like Me: The Story Behind the Story

March 14, 2022|Insights, Psychology, Self-Esteem, Writing/Publishing

This essay is one of several pieces that tell the story behind the works of authors featured in the upcoming release of the second anthology in "The Truth That Can't Be Told" (May 2022). You can find the rest of the "behind the scenes" essays by writers of the Lake Forest Writers' Round Table on The Story Behind the Story by Billie Kelpin I'm very relieved that the story I wrote for the second anthology of Lake Forest Writers' Round Table never happened because I would have been in big trouble! The "True/Not-True Assignment" "Just Like Me" is a short story that began with an assignment for professor and author Bill Meissner's Creative Writing class at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota years ago. The task was to write write a true story and an untrue story. The class was to vote the next day on which was the true story and the untrue. It was a brilliant assignment - trying to make something true sound fictitious and something fictitious sound true. I was gratified, of course, when the class believed "Just Like Me" was true. They were apparently convinced that some little girl, like the child in the story, might do what Francie did. (I don't want to give away the ending, but I will tell you I would never have had Francie's courage. For starters, my father would have been furious with me, especially since the mess that would have resulted might not have been fixable. The Fiction Part The grandma, Nonna, in the story, was an imagined Italian grandma. She is a composite of the Italian nuns who taught me during my first years of schooling. I imagine if I had had a grandma in real life, she'd be as understanding and loving as Nonna. Both my father's parents had died of the Spanish flu by the time he was ten in 1919, and my maternal grandmother died when I was six months old in 1945, so I had to invent Nonna. I gave her the voice of the nuns who were so kind in the nursery school I attended in Little Italy in Milwaukee. "Francie" is the name of a skinny little girl in my kindergarten class in that school. She and I would cry together over lumpy chocolate pudding the cook at the school wanted us to finish before she'd allow us to go to recess. Mostly everyone in my class was of Italian descent, so I went with those happy memories as a pattern for the story. The True Part of the Story The woman who actually gave me the doll was a sweet older friend of my mother's who let me call her grandma. During the short time she was in my life, she bought the "bride doll" you see in the picture. She was initially dressed in a shimmering white satin dress and a poofy veil. My "Grandma Bernard" did sew a whole wardrobe of clothes, including an extremely modest bathing suit (it was 1953, after all). She embroidered the phrase that you might be able to read on the dress you see in the picture, "The early bird catches the worm." My reaction to the lovely gift was the same as Francie's. I pretended to be delighted. I remember playing with the bride doll only a few times, and I never could give her a name. . Our apartment was small, and I probably kept the doll on a shelf in the closet with my board games, Sorry!, Stadium Checkers, and a beloved card game called, Authors. The Blond Hair I think I always realized why, like Francie, I couldn't connect with this beautiful doll. Even at a young age, it was clear to me that she was the standard of beauty. Because my hair is dark and constantly frizzy and my face is round and wide, I didn't fall into that standard. And it wasn't only how the doll looked physically. The bridal gown she came with was so magnificent that I couldn't relate. If Grandma Bernard had dressed her in that little pink frock, only one of the myriad outfits that she had sewn, I might have related to the doll more easily. There was a favorite doll I had, and it wasn't this one. She was a cloth doll my mother let me pick out from a specialty toy shop on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee, and I named her "Nora." She wore a dress with a little vest and an apron, like Heidi in the classic children's story. Her hair was cinnamon brown and tied back with a print triangle scarf. She was very huggable. It's strange that through the years, the only toy that remained in my mother and dad's apartment was this bride doll. I can now finally appreciate the delicate beauty of the gift from this selfless person I called "grandma" and really can't give her up at this stage of my life. Are you a Writer-Weaver or a Writer Quilter? I recently realized that the majority of my short stories are very similar in approach to this one, and I decided I'm a "quilter-writer." Some writers are like weavers. They create whole cloth from strands of imagination. Other writers, like me, are quilters. They take pieces of used fabric and sew them together to create something new. I think my tendency is to take pieces of what I know and sew them together, hopefully, with some thread of imagination. Since the whole last part of "Just Like Me" is imagined. I suppose you could call that border around the patchwork the small imaginative part of my brain that holds the pieces from the real-life together and makes something new and hopefully useful. When you read the ending, you may understand why the end of this story is imagined. To have happened in real-life might have presented several problems! Even When You Understand, You Forget You would think that someone who lived with the memory of a doll she couldn't love would be the first to have sewn the perfect doll for her daughter when she was little. I thought I had! I made Dolly (left) huggable for sure. Her little face was sweet and smiling like Bethany's, and her hair was "scribbly" like a little boy once described my daughter's hair. Most importantly, it was the exact color of Bethany's hair. Now here's a secret for you: When I took the twenty-something doll out of storage a few years ago, I was stunned! The smile was perfect. The hair couldn't be better. However, I couldn't believe how I had made the eyes! They were blue, not brown like Bethany's, but blue like mine! Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. You won't see those blue eyes in this picture because it didn't take me more than a few minutes to find some brown embroidery thread and stitch right over that blue. So there you have it, the story behind the story. The lesson, I think, is not that we need some toy that provides the children in our lives with unconditional love. Toys or dogs or people can't do that very well. What we all need is something we can love that lets us love ourselves. . To read Billie Kelpin's recently published novel, click on "Falling Idols. Hurry, the price listed is an Introductory offer.

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