When I see old reviews of the humorous and touching 1988 movie Cocoon: The Return, I can’t help but think of my friend Marie. She was a professional makeup artist for television and motion pictures. In the late sixties I even got to watch her work when she invited me to lunch on the set of the then-popular television series Gentle Ben.
To most of the world Marie is an unknown, but not to many people whose very career hinged on her talents. She was responsible for helping some very famous people put on their best face for the public. She encouraged them to “Get out there and knock ’em dead!” almost every time she made contact with them. She was a “hands-on” person that was completely intimate with every little blemish or flaw, inner and outer, that the celebrities she worked with had. She often worked, long hours to bring out the inner charm and beauty of each one. And so, in the end, her work will remain visible for generations to see and, hopefully, admire.
I had met her at a luncheon for ex-stewardesses. For some mysterious reason, we bonded immediately. Then, our husbands, armored with their collective Italian heritages and involvement with the movie industry, become fast friends.
We were the most unlikely candidates for a lifelong friendship. I was twenty-three and she was thirty-three. Feeling ashamed of my ignorance, I rarely looked anyone in the eye. I thought they might see my ignorance as if ignorance itself was branded around the edges of my cornea. Marie was different; with her, I could share my deepest thoughts uncensored. We enthusiastically discussed marriage, societies, world religions, and philosophy. It was not as if I really knew anything about these subjects, but I came alive with the opportunity to even be discussing such things. Spellbound by her extensive knowledge, I was stunned that she found my opinions interesting.
Really, we were an improbable match for any type of relationship. I was a young wife—shy, frightened, and uneducated, with three small children. She was beautiful, worldly, fluent in three languages, well- educated, and a nationally known makeup artist who had chosen not to have children. I could barely put together any type of clear, cogent sentence. For reasons that will forever remain a mystery to me, she saw a seed of value in me. She believed in me.
I remember the day she brought lunch to my home and we talked as my three babies napped. She was so excited about a night course in psychology, I think it was called “The Self,” that was being offered at the local community college. She wanted me to take it with her.
At first, I thought she must be crazy. I shamefacedly told her the results of my high school IQ test, still convinced of my “borderline retarded” prognosis. I told her about being placed in remedial classes. I did not comprehend grammar, spelling, or parts of speech, and told her to please not even talk to me about numbers. Seemingly simple tasks with numbers often appeared backwards in my mind. Likewise, I could rarely fit those funny-shaped little pieces of wood, used in intelligence tests, into their rightful slots. “No, Marie, I could not possibly take this course with you.”
Like throwing a rope to a slowly drowning person, she persisted. I had been lost in a sea of despair and endless struggle for my entire life. All through our friendship, her interest in me, her belief in me, and her trust was something I had never experienced before. She stirred something deep within me because she responded to me as if my opinion held a modicum of intelligence, as if I had value. I think the something she saw in me was a profound hunger. A burning appetite I didn’t even know I had, and an enthusiasm for knowledge that I was convinced it wasn’t possible for me to attain. Had I met her sooner, I might not have believed those who proclaimed that I was dumb or a “little” retarded.
She begged me to take this college-level psychology course with her. She said that she needed the support. I eventually went because I loved her and wanted to repay her many kindnesses to me. My husband, Bill, said that I would make a fool of myself and show my stupidity for the entire world to see.
I received an “A” in the course. Even after achieving my silver wings, I had never been so proud of any accomplishment in my life. A bona fide idiot according to the experts, I got an “A” in a college course, can you imagine? I so much wanted to hang that grade around my former husband’s neck (and fit it very tight). By the time I received that grade in the mail, some three months after starting the course, I had left my marriage. Because Marie held up the unwavering possibility of success for me to step up to, she single-handedly breathed life into my weary being. For the next thirty years, I never stopped studying or taking one course or another.
I still can’t spell very well, nor do I thoroughly understand parts of speech. Wooden squares, rectangles, and circles continue to con-found me, and numbers in any fashion are forgotten in a nanosecond. And yet, I am smart. In fact, I think it must take a special kind of intelligence to achieve what I have, academically, given the confines of my apparently malfunctioning brain. The psychologist who last tested me said I was “absolutely brilliant” in the area of common sense. She said the gap between my “common-sense knowledge” and my “academic knowledge” was the largest discrepancy she had ever seen.
Learning to believe in myself taught me that tenacity trumps shortcomings. Tenacity even trumps major learning disabilities. I suppose there is no way of testing desire, willingness, and perseverance, but if there were, I can imagine that a whole new world of possibilities and options would open up for thousands of people. Unfortunately, the IQ test remains the gold standard by which most everyone’s intelligence is still measured.
Some forty years have passed since Marie lovingly coerced me into taking that class. I have since earned two master’s degrees from major universities. My ending grade point average from both schools was just under 3.8. Many times, I had to withdraw from a course just before I crossed the point of failing, and then would immediately re-take the course. I always “got it” the second time around. I have held the position of adjunct professor. I have a successful counseling practice. I am proud of myself.
Marie has watched me grow over the years, and has thanked me for giving her life meaning; she once told me that I am her greatest success. Can you imagine? It is I who should thank her—I will be eternally grateful to her for setting me on the path to a new life.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Before I got to where I am today, I had several more hard lessons to learn.
Ruled by a hundred forms of shame, guilt, need, emptiness, hate, anxiety, false pride, and a makeshift persona, I was without balance or perspective, nothing more than a frenzied reactor greedily ripping and tearing through life.
“We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourselves to put in the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.” —Robert Bly
There was little difference between me and the bag.