I was twelve years old and it was a customary weekend at my grandfather’s farm in West Virginia. It included my brother, my cousin from Baltimore, and me catching salamanders down by the stream and racing them around the huge wraparound porch. We sought refuge in the barn from a hot sun, jumping at least one story from the hayloft into great piles of cool hay. When scaling trees to see who could climb the highest, I always won. Much smaller and lighter, I could sit on the very thinnest of branches.
Sunday afternoon as we were leaving to go home, my sixteen-year-old cousin Richard, walked me to the car. Sliding into the seat, I raised my face for his customary kiss on the cheek, but this time he whispered, “You’ve got great legs, Jacquie.” I drew back, but before I could ask the question, the car door closed. Winking, he turned away. Looking down, I saw two legs sticking out of a pair of homemade pumpkin-colored shorts. The shorts looked as though they had been fashioned from an orange gunny-sack.
What does that mean? What are great legs? These are just the same old legs I’ve always had. Being a little sprout enabled me to stretch those appendages full length in front of me in the back seat without touching the front seat of our Desoto. Staring at them intently, I wondered; what was the secret thing that made them great?
These are the same legs that straddle a horse bareback and ride through meadows, the wind tickling as it whooshes between my naked toes; they run the length of the makeshift football field my Dad has fashioned in our backyard, using a grass seed spreader and lime—only functional until it rains. The limbs stretched before me are what I wrap around my father’s waist as he gallops through the house holding me piggyback. Both of us laughing conspiratorially, my mother shouts, “Take it outside you two … no running in the house.” Somewhere in that five hour drive, and after a reasonably long nap, I forgot about my legs entirely.
It took four long years—between the ages of twelve and sixteen—for my parents to cajole me into being a girl. I absolutely never thought about my legs unless one had to be tended for injury. Running track, they kicked up a cloud of cinders behind me; swimming they propelled me forward, and diving from a high board, they folded on cue into a perfect jackknife before elongating and disappearing into the pool. They barely made a splash.
The evening of my sixteenth birthday, after extinguishing the candles on my cake with one breath, I was silently wishing for a bigger and better football field in the back yard. My father, walking towards me, began by draping me in a bear hug as he ruffled the top of my pixie short hair. “Jacquie,” he smiled, “You’re a young lady now. I won’t be taking you to the barber shop with your brother anymore. Mom’s gonna take you to the beauty shop. And by the way, maybe it isn’t so ladylike for you to climb trees.” He rattled on, “Oh you can watch the games with me, but honey, you’re starting to develop, and I don’t want you playing football with the boys anymore.” Taking my hand, mother led me into my room. Her face, beaming like a new moon, she held up skirt, after skirt, and dress after dress. Until now, the only time I was out of pants was for church every Sunday. It was the worst birthday of my life.
During my sophomore year of high school, wearing skirts provoked comments from boys about my great legs. Once, even a teacher whispered in passing, “Psst … great gams.” By the end of my senior year I was beginning to think that there could be something to this after all. Cute and perky not beautiful, my appearance didn’t matter because now I was convinced that even if I grew a beard, I could still catch a date …because of my great legs.
My legs conjoined with my idea of femininity and at seventeen I was okay with being a girl. Time marched forward; my hair got longer and after learning the specifics about make-up and skin care, my eyes became ringed in eyeliner as I brushed my cheeks in pretty pink blush.
My career in sales gave birth to my true conviction in the power of my legs. Shorn in the sheerest silk stockings, right ankle adorned with a dainty gold bracelet, they became my ticket to the head honcho—the guy who could seal the deal. I knew my business, I knew my product, and I was a great closer. But who was I kidding? In the long run, it was probably the legs. My customers were without exception, men.
Short skirts, never out of fashion for me, assured that my legs were clearly visible beneath a hemline slightly south of immodest. Sitting across from my date, legs crossed, my top leg would swing a two/two beat synchronized with an unseen metronome; and I knew exactly how high to bounce that leg to make him believe he just might get a glimpse of the Promised Land.
My legs, responsible for my two marriages, I’m fairly certain, and a few serious relationships in between, weren’t enough to sustain the connectivity. But without them, might I have been an old maid?
So it stands to reason, that my legs have brought me full circle to the realization that I have become … a woman of “a certain age.” Striking without warning, it startles like blunt force trauma to the head.
I was to attend an out-of-town wedding and wanted to look my best. I have a pool three steps from my back door and swim almost daily, but rarely do I sunbathe. Gazing at what I still assumed were my thirty-five year old legs I observed a few brown spots … not many … and maybe a few leftover shaving scars that didn’t appear too conspicuous; but I thought the pallor unattractive.
Among other things, moving to Florida has freed me from the bonds of marriage and the encumbrance of panty-hose. The similarity of those two things is positively eerie. Both are easily ripped wide open, tight enough around the waist to make your chest ache, and ghastly expensive to replace continually. Rarely can they be repaired. I swore both off forever, by the way, but in terms of stockings, I vowed to keep my legs tan enough to banish panty-hose in perpetuity.
With a fifty-SPF sunscreen slathered over my face, shoulders, and décolleté, I lay fully prone on my lounge chair, holding my newspaper straight armed above my face so the shadow would further protect that part of me. Confident that a few hours of sun would bring my legs to a lightly toasted, caramel colored look, I immersed myself into the Sunday New York Times Styles section. The sun was warm as it painted my legs.
Later that evening, resting my bare feet on the coffee table, I noticed them. What the hell were those white streaky things across my knees? Bending forward to examine further, I was confronted with my knee wrinkles for the first time. I could barely hold my terror at bay. Had I pointed my toes, or what? My legs had to be stiff as boards not to tan those wrinkles. The crash of reality sounded unerringly like a train leaving the track. I had knee wrinkles, and they were wide and deep.
Don’t panic, my inner voice intoned. Scurrying into my bathroom I opened a vanity drawer searching for a sample pack of tanner. It wasn’t self tanner, but rather a new glow product, which tanned in a few minutes, didn’t stain clothing, and washed off. So the writing on the packet claimed, at least. Breathing a sigh of relief, I thought, I can fix this.
Carefully, I applied a sparse coating to my legs before lowering myself to the floor, a bad back dictating my death grip on the edge of the counter. Kneeling, I rocked back on my heels before putting my weight on the heel of my hand. My taut thighs made the wrinkles disappear as I rubbed a tiny bit more directly onto the scurrilous white lines. Pondering if I needed to hold this position for two or ten minutes … I wasn’t sure, my back started screaming and my knees cracked in protest. Do I really want to glow anyhow? What does that mean? I just want nice, evenly colored, brown legs showing beneath my gold sheath dress and tapering nicely into spiked four-inch gold Prada evening sandals. Is that too much to ask … really?
A moment of reflection caught me wondering … had I missed the knee cream aisle at Neiman Marcus? For years I’ve been buying fancy expensive creams for my face—progesterone enhanced, collagen laced, whatever. Apparently they work. I can count all the wrinkles on my face and neck and combined they wouldn’t equal the wrinkles on my right knee alone! Struggling to my feet, I grip the counter while lifting all of my 105 pounds into standing position. Whispering a small prayer … please God, I’ll do whatever you ask if my knee wrinkles tanned evenly … I pause, waiting for the crick in my back to subside before walking to the full length mirror.
Looking down at my feet, my eyes sweep upwards. My mouth opened in a perfect oval before both hands fly to my face. The smallish brown spots are now blazing like newly minted quarter sized copper pennies. There are three on one leg and two on the other—not even symmetrical polka dots. The skin around the quarter sized copper pennies, is the hue of month old copper pennies—smudged and matte flat. The minuscule shaving scars now resemble uneven strips of dead grey flesh. I hear an ethereal screech as my eyes reach mid-leg to behold black knees. Looking like I had been kneeling in the garden for hours with soil deeply embedded into my wrinkles, they appear longer and positively cavernous. Tears are threatening as I sink into a heap.
Aha! In the last three weeks I had been on three coffee dates in my standard attire; a short skirt with a tidy blouse and high heels. From the moment these men laid eyes on me, I saw that my legs held no appeal to them. Their gaze wandered downward to my sticks … usual … yet rebounded to my face immediately … unusual. Now it became clear. I’d never get past the Barnes and Noble café if I continued to expose my knees. No more free ride, slide by, forget I have a beard, check out the legs days. I’m still a good closer, but no talk, no spiel is smooth enough to make a guy forget those puppies. No sir.
Where did they come from, these bags above my knee caps? I stretched my legs in front of me and jiggled one. Oh yeah, it was real. As it quivered, so did I … with repugnance.
So there you have it. In terms of a painful coming of age, this isn’t too far behind my sixteenth birthday. Like taking a ping pong paddle to the face, I am bludgeoned into realizing that I have become a woman of “a certain age” with my now acknowledged knee wrinkles.
I scrub the glow from my skin, and dress in slacks with a tidy blouse and high heels. Grabbing my purse I head to the mall knowing I will stop for panty hose before scouring Neiman Marcus. I will find the damn knee cream aisle today … yes I will.
Evidently my legs are no longer a commodity. Spotting an entirely climbable Banyan tree while driving by the park, I can’t help but wonder … am I too old to be a tomboy again? It might be exhilarating to return to a time when my legs were … just my legs.
About the Author:
Jacqueline Gum  is the author of a book, Confessions of a Corporate Slut published in January 2008.