Coming of Age in a Cracker Box


I guess you could say I came of age in a cracker box gymnasium.

Long before I was a even a twinkle in my parents eyes, they met in that gymnasium. The old Mendon High School gym was home to many local events. One of those events being the Kiwanis Showboat. It is a local talent show staged as a vaudeville type showboat. The proceeds went to (and still go to) various Kiwanis charities. My father was a member of Kiwanis and therefore, actively involved in the show every year. My mother was relatively new in town, and anxious to make friends. She had a beautiful singing voice, and earned a spot in the program. My father was instantly smitten and stole a kiss from her backstage. And thus, the twinkle was sparked.

I can remember many a night sitting in the folding chairs that took up the whole basketball court part of the gym. Watching proudly as my dad played clarinet and cracked jokes with the other endmen of the minstrel show. Listening in awe to my mom sing her favorite Barbra Streisand, Joni Mitchell, Carol King, or Judy Collins song. I once got so excited seeing my parents come alive up on that big stage that I yelled out “there’s dad!” and “there’s mom!” much to the embarrassment of my sister Barb.

Those autumn weeks leading up to the show were an exciting time in our house every year. The rehearsals seemed to spark something in my parents. Perhaps it was the memory of how they met. Maybe it was the comradery they felt among the other players in the show. Perhaps it was the anticipation of entertaining in front of a live audience. Could be that it provided a small break in the mundane lives of parents in a small town. Perhaps it was all those things plus the kick ass parties they had after every show. Whatever it was, I felt the excitement too, and I loved every performance. I loved the music, and the dancing, and the costumes. I loved the same old corny jokes told every year. I loved the simple joy it spread.

I remember sitting in the folding chairs that took up the whole basketball court part of the gym. Watching proudly as my dad played clarinet and cracked jokes with the other endmen of the minstrel show. Listening in awe to my mom sing her favorite Barbra Streisand, or Judy Collins song. I once got so excited seeing my parents come alive up on that big stage that I yelled out “there’s dad!” and “there’s mom!” much to the embarrassment of my sister Barb. seeing my parents come alive up on that big stage that I yelled out “there’s dad!” and “there’s mom!” much to the embarrassment of my sister Barb.

Those autumn weeks leading up to the show were an exciting time in our house every year. The rehearsals seemed to spark something in my parents. Perhaps it was the memory of how they met. Maybe it was the comradery they felt among the other players in the show. Perhaps it was the anticipation of entertaining in front of a live audience. Could be that it provided a small break in the mundane lives of parents in a small town. Perhaps it was all those things plus the kick ass parties they had after every show. Whatever it was, I felt the excitement too, and I loved every performance. I loved the music, and the dancing, and the costumes. I loved the same old corny jokes told every year. I loved the simple joy it spread.

Opening night was the best. We got to dress up and we got to go “backstage”. Backstage was actually just several classrooms down the hall from the stage; and the locker rooms below stage as well. But those rooms became something else on those nights in November. If ever a space could be transformed, it was those classrooms and locker rooms morphed into what I as a young child thought to be an exotic area exclusive to those who were performing. Coming down the hallway, the smell of popcorn, old books, costumes put away for too long, grease paint and sweat, and the undeniable odor of people excited. Women bustled about in hoop skirts and high hair. Young girls in dance costumes and sparkly leotards over fish net stockings. The men wore maritime costumes of some sort every year. How quickly they transformed from land dwelling dads to riverboat scalawags. My dad was captain most years I remember, and seeing him in the uniform evoked a strange mix of pride and fear.

But the Showboat wasn’t the only use for our little auditorium. Growing up in the small town of Mendon I soon learned this tiny gym was pretty much the winter epicenter of activity. From school dances to basketball games, concerts to bake sales, dance recitals to donkey basketball, and best of all-Showboat, this was the place. It wasn’t your typical gymnasium. On one side of the small basketball court was bleachers. On the other side, a stage. A big beautiful wooden stage with giant dark velvet curtains. The cement walls were covered in big Hornet Green felt banners honoring each championship year won by various sports. The perch for the spotlights hung above the bleachers. Before every game, the lights were dimmed, and the starters announced one at a time, with a spotlight shone on each one. The band played and the people cheered. Then with the lights still low, the crowd went quiet as the band played our National Anthem. During home basketball games the band and the students sat on bleachers set up on the stage.

I held a boys hand for the first time on that stage. My teen angst was born there. And it extended beyond the stage to the basketball court every weekday during gym class. Oh how I hated dodge ball against the 8th graders when I started junior high. I wasn’t exactly athletic. Each day was a coin toss. Do I fight the good fight, and dodge those balls screaming past me at 80 miles per hour, or do I take a fall at the first gentle lob that comes my way?!? Decisions decisions.

Despite my lack of athleticism, I still somehow worked up a sweat. Oh how I hated sharing a locker room with 30 other girls. Those wonderful dressing rooms of magical entertainment yore, were transformed back to being the locker rooms of my pubescent agony. It was in that dark damp girls locker room that I discovered I needed a bra. I didn’t physically need one, I socially needed one. So off Dad and I went to Montgomery Ward to get my first bra. (That is a whole other story I will tell on another day). I so wished they had water and sweat resistant material back then. Every school day I would sit through government class still damp from gym class. My long thick hair hanging in a hastily made ponytail, frizzy curls escaping everywhere. A toxic cloud of sweat and Loves Baby Soft perfume surrounded me. We only had a few minutes after gym to shower and get dressed for the next class. I was mortified by my lack of ahem cleavage and curves when compared to the 8th grade girls, and some of my schoolmates back then. So I showered quickly and in my underwear. Hence the need for Loves Baby Soft. I guess you could say I had my first lesson in time management.

Despite the angsty stuff, I experienced a lot of joy in that little cracker box gym. I was a basketball cheerleader in 7th grade. We cheered on our boys in homemade (well sewn in home ec class)uniforms. We idolized the older girls who cheered after us wearing the real deal, and successfully turning cartwheels in sync. I cheered “GREEN AND WHITE FIGHT FIGHT!!!” more times than I can remember, and sung the Mendon Fight Song even more.

I think I had a secret crush on half the varsity team that year. My first experience with fickle love from afar.

My 7th grade year was my first and last year in that gym, as a student, and a vital part of the cheering section. The school millage vote had finally passed, and we got a new middle school and high school. The new gymnasium was was so big you could probably fit three of the old ones inside it. We still used the old gym though. Youth basketball, fund raising dances, and summer recreation kept it alive. I watched my nephews play basketball there. And I even attended a 50’s dance there with my children when they were very young. Many years later it was rebuilt into a beautiful auditorium.

A few years ago, after the transformation, I got to see Seussical the Musical there with a dear friend I grew up with. Her daughter was performing in it. Sitting there in the same space of my youth I felt a surreal sadness for the old beauty of the room, and a joyful pride seeing it so wonderfully transformed and preserved.

Last fall my sister Barb took my dad to see the Showboat, still going strong in the same space. They even shone a spotlight on dad in recognition of all that he gave to Kiwanis and Showboat, with the people he loved, in the town he cherished.

At this late date my adult self is just now figuring out the significance of past events; and the affect they have had on my life today, and every day leading up to now. The tools they provided were invaluable

The excitement of working together to make something for people to enjoy resonated well beyond my youth. When my children were growing up, I was very involved in their extra curriculars. I was a snack mom, a chauffeur, a costume helper, a make up person, and a back stage pain in the ass mom. I never really successfully competed in sports (remember dodgeball 😳), or performed on stage myself, but I lived it, and loved it right alongside my children. Every time I sat in a church, a stadium, tennis court bleachers, a cross country field, outdoor amphitheater, or Plainwell High School auditorium, I was taken back to the joy and anticipation of basketball, and Showboat seasons. And yes, I even exclaimed a bit too loudly “that’s my child up there!” a few times too many to a poor stranger sitting next to me, and several people in the surrounding area. Where was my sister Barb to shush me when I needed her?!?

Watch out Bristol and Elliotte, Grammy isn’t done being a cheerleader/fangirl just yet. My excitement will definitely be shush worthy! I’m still coming of age in the cracker box gym of my own making.

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