My friend Pauline died recently. From the time I heard that she was ill, and since she passed, I spent a lot of time thinking about the dynamo that was Pauline and the times when our paths crossed. I have no doubt that when her final illness wrapped her in its arms and began to squeeze the life from her remarkable eyes, she met it face on, full throttle, and with uncommon grace and courage. I am also certain that the Reaper learned a lesson from Pauline, as I did more than fifty years ago.
I was not near Pauline during her illness, did not talk or otherwise communicate with her. So, how can I be so certain of what I wrote above? I will tell you a story about Pauline and the very events that taught me that valuable lesson many years ago.
Pauline and I were friends, but not best friends. We didn’t hang out together, giggle about boys, or share our innermost teenage angst. Were we not classmates at Anchorage High School, we most likely never would have met. Even after graduation, our disparate interests led us in opposite directions.
The last time I saw Pauline was in 2010 at our fiftieth class reunion. She was as beautiful and gracious as ever. Many of us had purchased the souvenir tee shirts made especially for the event. Pauline? Oh, Pauline! She modified the neckline and removed the short sleeves. Had I worn it, it would have looked like a tank top. On Pauline it was a fashion statement and she looked radiant in it.
She was everything I wasn’t. If Pauline suffered angst, she never showed it to me; I fairly reeked of the stuff. Pauline was a poised city girl; I was a country girl. She was comfortable in social settings; I was shy and awkward. She had lustrous brown hair and always looked like a model; I had wavy, dark blonde hair and looked like I had a rat’s nest tied to the back of my head if I tried to wear it in a pony tail. If Pauline had been in my pre-teen Girl Scout Troop, she would have been with the majority, the girls who wanted to learn to dance and use makeup; I wanted to go camping and learn to tie knots.
If she were in a crowded room, you’d know it; if I were in that same room, you might stumble across me trying to become one with the wallpaper.
She was a charter member of the Cotillion Club, a group organized by parents for the debutantes and young men of Anchorage society to learn and practice ballroom dancing. She was a Junior Prom princess; I never went to the dances. She was a majorette; I volunteered to work in the coat checkroom during basketball games.
Yet somehow, we were friends. She invited me to her home a couple times; she was never in mine, nor at the one party I had there with three close friends. I was never, ever going to be invited to join the Cotillion Club, yet it was because of the Cotillion Club that I learned that lesson from Pauline, and was caught behaving at my teenaged worst.
There was to be a school assembly in the spring of 1958, during which a chosen few, undoubtedly members of the Cotillion Club, were to demonstrate ballroom dancing. When it began, I was seated on the far right side of the auditorium, quite close to the front.
On the stage before me, Pauline, as striking and beautiful as ever, was dancing a waltz with the gorgeous and talented Louis, a senior, and the most popular boy in school. Remember, this was 1958, and that meant the dance partners were actually touching each other, with the boy’s left hand holding the girl’s right hand, and his right gently at her waist. The girl’s left hand rested lightly on the boy’s shoulder and there was daylight between the two of them.
As Louis and Pauline twirled and whirled on the stage, I noticed something. I noticed it because my eyes were on Louis and I was wishing I was up there dancing with him. Yes, I was smitten like most every girl in school, and quite envious of Pauline. What I saw was Pauline’s slip. Gasp! Having your slip show was akin to walking about stark naked in those days, a social faux pas ripe with the potential to ruin your life forever.
And this wasn’t any old slip. No, this was a petticoat, designed to be worn under full skirts and hold them out. You might remember those felt skirts with the felt poodles on them? That’s what those petticoats were for. And Pauline’s was quite noticeable in its voluminous, ruffled, white glory as it slipped lower and lower, as if it were unwinding itself from her waist at every spin.
I snickered. So did those sitting next to me. As Louis twirled Pauline around and around, the petticoat descended lower and lower. I watched in gleeful and morbid fascination, both anticipating and dreading the train wreck that was about to occur. Pauline would have to leave the stage quite soon, and in her embarrassment she would know what it was like to feel as awkward as I did.
An undercurrent of muffled laughter and horrified titters swept through the auditorium as the offending undergarment reached Pauline’s knees…
I never did get to dance with Louis, but a decade and more later he came back to Anchorage for a short visit. Employed as an entertainer on a cruise ship that had docked in Anchorage, he had but a few hours in town. Pauline hosted a small gathering at her family home for him, and she invited everyone who knew him.
I drove to Pauline’s home. She welcomed me graciously. When Louis arrived, he began greeting everyone there. When he got to me, his smile got even brighter and he gave me a big hug and said he had hoped he would see me there.
As I watched him greet others, moving effortlessly through the small gathering, I thought back to the dance exhibition on that AHS stage and that petticoat descending to the floor. They were right in front of me, twirling, swirling, whirling, their poise in peril of being undone by that white garment.
Cool as can be, Pauline and Louis somehow whipped off the wayward petticoat and tossed it aside, never missing a step.
I sat there stunned. As I thought about what had just happened, I realized I had just seen something very special, something that had me examining my own teenaged pettiness and envy. Pretty, popular Pauline, dancing with the wonderful Louis, had exhibited a grace under pressure that few teenagers could pull off.
And that’s my favorite memory of Pauline and her misbehaving petticoat that taught me a lesson I’ve never forgotten, and why I believe she handled her last days with the grace and courage she exhibited in high school so long ago.