I consider myself rather ordinary looking, neither good looking nor its opposite. (I wait in vain for friends and acquaintances to protest my self-description as too modest.) I just sort of blend into the woodwork, at least when I am alone. But even so, I am part of a highly visible family.
The spouse, on the other hand, has always been conspicuous. She was born with her right leg significantly shorter than the left, and she has always worn a brace on that leg. The brace has taken various forms, but since I have known her, two pieces of metal on the side of the leg extend above and below her shoe. The shoe sits on a metal plate and is attached to the plate by a T-bolt. A crosspiece is at the bottom of the brace covered in tire rubber, and this is the “sole” she walks on. A leather cuff is at the top of the brace, and this wraps around her leg and fastens with Velcro. Of course, this makes her noticeable, and that does have a benefit. People do not have to meet her three or four times, as they do me, to remember her, and acquaintances from decades ago instantly recognize her.
On the other hand, strangers regularly stare at her. Sometimes we have joked about it. In my small northern hometown, we stood outside a downtown department store. Some curious Wisconsinites stopped about ten feet away and stood and gaped. She looked uncomfortable, and I said, “They have never seen anyone from Florida before.” She laughed.
Little kids do not always stand ten feet away to stare. Many come right up to her with eyes locked on the brace. Some ask about it. The wife has a patter for these situations—“I was born that way; were you born with a short leg?”–but it gets wearisome. And often the parents are embarrassed or get angry at their child for their apparent rudeness, and this only makes things worse.
In my initial years with her, I learned to accept what she had long before accepted—not to be surprised by the stares and comments, but that never meant that the looks and words were welcomed. These experiences, however, did make me reflect on some of my own childhood behavior.
My hometown, like many small places in the Upper Midwest, was all white. Six miles north of us, however, was a small Army base. (I don’t know what the point to the base was, but we could hear gunnery practice on occasion. We would see over Lake Michigan small pilotless planes—drones–towing targets. We assumed that when the planes got to the base, shells were fired at the targets. If invaders flew at fifty miles per hour like these planes, I knew we would be safe.) Some of the soldiers were black, and on a few occasions these soldiers would come to our downtown. They stood out, perhaps even more than the spouse. I know that once at the very corner outside that very same department store where she was stared at, when I was ten or twelve, I stood motionless across the street and stared and stared at a black soldier. Because of the wife, only decades later did I get an inkling of what that man might have been feeling.
The spouse was conspicuous and when I was with her, we formed a conspicuous couple. And then along came the daughter.
(Concluded on May 4.)