Three crowns. That was it. Only three would be going home from the “Little Miss Watermelon Pageant” happy that night, and I obviously would not be among them. After all, these little girls were thin and pretty. And me? Well, after two months of eating a cup of vegetable soup three times a day, my ‘baby fat’ still stuck out on my five-year-old belly, protruding from just above the intense ruffling of my Little Rosie skirt.
The dirt had been scraped from under my nails and a coat of soft pink applied on top. My hair changed from its usual style of gnarled and tangled to brushed, curled, teased and positioned into an elegant, coiled coif. I stood motionless for Mother as she slathered on more makeup. Makeup was a horrendous experience, given her severe nervous issues. I stood in place, my eyes perfectly stationary, as the middle aged woman slowly extended a mascara wand directly at my eyeball with a very shaky hand, while at the same time repeatedly exclaiming, “Stay still!”
Finally, I was deemed perfect, and Mother allowed me to turn around and steal a glimpse at the competition. There must have been fifty girls in that little room, and that didn’t include all the mothers that teetered over them with various combs and sprays in fevered attempts to keep their young daughters’ hair in gloriously large shapes. Five-year-old queens waited, outwardly impervious to the relentless, sticky heat of a particularly unforgiving August afternoon. The mothers constantly dabbed paper napkins to the faces of the kids while cursing the pageant directors for not providing decent enough accommodations to keep the makeup from melting off the children’s faces. Cries would randomly erupt from corners of the room – immediately followed by the parent’s frustrated responses: “Stop crying right now – you’ll make your eyeliner run! No! You can’t go out and play; you’re staying here and doing this!”
As I stood there in a dress that cost my family more than our food for a month, I couldn’t help but realize just how hopeless my situation was. Most of these girls had trainers, coordinators, years of experience, and a long lineage of pageantry. What did I offer the judges? Baby Fat. Oh, and a clumsy gate that refused to be trained by the endless hours of practicing “The Walk” and “The Turn” that had eaten my summer whole.
The toddler division finally ended and we were called from purgatory. Paper slices of watermelon bearing our number adorned our lavish gowns. The signs reminded me of those that numbered the cattle I had seen at a bovine auction. An uptight woman with a clip board lined us up at the stage entrance and, one by one, we stepped into the spotlight to display ourselves for the inspection of the judges. I grew excited and anxious as the sounds of the crowd wafted towards me. I frantically practiced my steps in my head: Walk to the microphone and give the introduction, walk to the first ‘X’ marked on the floor and turn around slowly. Then move center stage, turn again, and make my way off stage. Only thirty seconds - and the judges had to adore me within that time. I took a deep breath. I could see the stage. The voice of the announcer echoed in my ears. Then came the whisper from Clip Board Woman that I had been waiting for: “It’s your turn… go.”
I stepped out and moved to the microphone. “Hi,” I said with my southern speech drawing out magnanimously, “My name is Callista Rowlett. I’m 5 years old and I live in Cave City…” In that moment, I noticed something. The crowd. The crowd wasn’t even looking. The people were talking and chatting. These were the parents, aunts, uncles and friends of other girls, and none of them held interest in another faceless girl slowly turning on X’s. My gaze drifted from the crowd, to the scrupulous judges’ bench, and to the announcer. Perhaps the soup turning in my stomach soured my disposition, but I realized that these people had standards I could never meet and, in that moment, I realized that I no longer cared to meet them. But that crowd was not going to ignore me.
I strutted to the X and twirled on the heels of my pearled leather shoes twice, ending with my arms stretched out and open wide. Then, I frolicked to center stage and Hammer-Danced. My curls jangled about my head, the hovering skirt bounced like the Golden Gate during an earthquake, and the lace lining of my socks ruffled with every jolting, awkward, glorious move. Half the crowd was silenced while the rest laughed. Two of the judges’ mouths hung open. I winked and waved enthusiastically. I leapt and spun around completely before backing toward my stage exit, holding my stage time by blowing kisses to a wave of laughter and applause until my mother’s arm appeared from behind a curtain and yanked me off stage like a shepherd’s hook. Mother was less than enthusiastic.
We left for home while three girls stood on stage with glittering crowns on their heads. I didn’t care. The pretty girls could have the crowns. The pretty girls could have the judges, the announcer, Clip Board Woman and the little watermelon slices that numbered us like cows at an auction. Heck, the pretty girls could have my mother, for all I cared that evening. But the crowd? The crowd was mine.
I went home and had some chocolate cake. It was mine, too.