Preggo and Perspiring. At a Pageant.

Right before I gave birth to Thing One, a friend asked me to judge a beauty pageant. My friend is a former beauty queen herself, first runner-up Miss Texas to be exact. (She should have WON.) In college I was her piano accompanist when she would go around making appearances and singing. Most of the time we went to nursing homes and retirement centers because that was her platform — old folks, and singing for them. I have tickled many an ivory key playing at places with “Oak” in the name, cranking out crowd-pleasers like “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from Phantom of the Opera.

Before I played for Lindsay in college, I volunteered playing hymns and old-timey WWII-era tunes at a retirement center in College Station for resident Sing-a-Longs. A group of us 19-year-olds would pass out well-worn laminated songbooks with print the size of newspaper headlines to the wheelchaired guests, who sometimes looked up at us with bewildered, confused expressions, like we had just handed them the ashes of their pet. We just smiled and told them we were taking requests. I guess you could say entertaining the elderly comes naturally to me.

A few years after her pageant days were behind her and she began working for a retirement community, Lindsay arranged for a Miss Heritage Place competition for her female residents. Anyone was eligible to participate as long as they came prepared with an evening gown, a talent, and a sound enough mind to answer an interview question. (Thankfully there was no swimsuit portion.) Lindsay recruited several young men — including my adorable husband — to be escorts. Families came from out of town in their tan SUVs, bought corsages for their mothers/grandmothers, took pictures, and went to Olive Garden afterwards. It was festive.

I was actually filling in at short notice for a judge who had fallen ill or died of her own beauty and sophistication. The other two judges were the current Miss Texas and a former Miss Texas. And me. I sat between them, the size of a Miss Texas Float. They were shiny, decorative bookends to me, the complete volumes of Encyclopedia Brittanica. I had packed on about 50 pounds during my pregnancy after the most harrowing battle with morning sickness —which I won only after fighting back with 9 months of chocolate milk and Arby’s Beef N’ Cheddars.

Lindsay had each judge stand up and wave from the wrist as she introduced us and read our credentials. The first Miss Texas had been working for a cure for AIDS in Africa. With Bono and Jesus. The former Miss Texas had recently been awarded the Medal of Honor for Awesomeness in All Things by the Archangel Michael. I was a stay-at-home mom who wasn’t really even a mom yet, just a pregnant 25-year-old without a job or a waistline. Drew was due any day, and I could feel the weight of him and the extra me surrounding him boring into my pelvis, crushing my bladder against itself. The only thing that fit me was a strapless, bright dress that might as well have had speakers built in to broadcast, “Make way for the navel orange!”

I wanted to be back behind the piano where I belonged.

One by one, the contestants were escorted up the center aisle, slowly, carefully, some of them with walkers. When they were all lined up across the stage — about 9 of them — the audience broke out in spontaneous applause. Their faces glowed like someone had plucked off their lampshades, and their dresses, which ranged from vintage 1940s to present-day Coldwater Creek, twinkled under the stage lights.

As the competition progressed, I was faced with the prospect of taking away or adding points based on a series of criteria: poise, confidence, grace. Was this how it worked? At home I judged beauty contestants on TV with a gut reaction, never so mathematically. A pang of guilt — oops, she stammered on that answer — too bad. Minus three? Or two? What’s this? A brilliant smile? Plus four! Woops, she doesn’t seem very prepared. Too bad she’s 95 years old. Should have taken her Centrum. Minus four.

Then the thought: Oh yea? Why don’t you get up there and see how gracefully YOU waddle across the stage?

Then: Hush-up, you’re the judge and you can throw your considerable weight around any old way you want.

Then: Give them a break. This is just for fun.

Then: Relax. They’re probably judging YOU right now for being so big. In 1950, they only gained 7 pounds with pregnancy.

And so forth. I was sweating big vats of pregnant perspiration into my orange muumuu. This was somebody’s grandmother.

My counterparts, however, Miss Texas #1 and #2, managed to be poised, confident and graceful even as they went about adding and deducting points for poise, confidence and grace. But as beautiful and accomplished as the Miss Texases were, it seemed weird for them to critique women who had lived through the Great Depression, planted Freedom Gardens, and raised children before disposable diapers.

Then: Whatever, you’re just jealous you can’t wear stilettos or have attractive, unswollen gums.

Ironically, I don’t remember much about the various talents or dresses or interview answers, except for one rousing rendition of Blessed Assurance. I can barely remember the woman who won, but recall thinking she was the obvious choice at the time. Of course she was the obvious choice — we chose her. Which was gratifying. She seemed genuinely pleased, like she had been awarded a title that meant something, something more than just a favorable mathematical calculation from three arbitrary young women at her retirement center. What did it mean, exactly, to her? I wondered.

I wonder what it would have meant to me. All I felt that night was the misplacement of things — 90-year-old beauty contestants, my presence on the judge’s panel. It was strange and silly and…sweet. It was the frayed underside of expected. It was odd hilarity — how you might describe some version of grace. (Grace. Not to be confused with poise.)
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5 Comments to “Preggo and Perspiring. At a Pageant.”
  1. Liz says:

    After reading the title of this blog, i at first thought this was your way of cluing the world in to the beginnings of a Thing #3! Whew. :-)
    I find it delightful how poised, graceful, and charming your writing is about things that often don’t feel that way. Plus 10!

  2. Julie Rhodes says:

    Ha! I know, I toyed with other titles but my love for alliteration won the day. Thanks for the points!!

  3. Alice says:

    Wow. That is a perfect definition of grace – an odd hilarity. May I use that? :-)

  4. Brillance, as always! Beauty pageants are usually a topic that would make me squirm, but your narrative was sheer delight…and as always – grace-filled amidst the wit and the laughs! :) See you tomorrow morning my friend! :)

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