Growing Up As One Of The All-Time Best Copycats

I was one of the all-time worst (or best, depending on how you look at it) copycats.

Being a homely, skinny, weird-looking thing with two older sisters, it was probably inevitable that I would want to copy them.

I both worshiped and despised my sisters -- as anyone with older sisters will understand.

They went places without my parents. They had later bedtimes. They had long thick hair, and I had short thin hair. My mom took me to the barbershop for my pathetic haircuts. My sisters went to the beauty parlor.

Christine was smart. Really smart. Astronomically smart. Every teacher she ever had adored her. I was in awe of her brains, but I often hated being her little sister, with so many teachers saying "Why can't you be more like Christine?"

Claudia was a fabulous musician. And funny as heck. I didn't say 'hell' back then, but she was certainly as funny as hell. (Now that we are adults, she's as funny as fuck.) No one could make me laugh like she could, and I was completely mesmerized when she sat down at the piano, but I often hated being her little sister, with so many teachers saying, "Why can't you be more like Claudia?

I may have heard that a lot from teachers, but I never heard that from my parents.

Oh, I tried and tried to be like my sisters. Whatever wisdom Christine spouted, I spouted the next day. Whatever wisecrack Claudia quipped, I quipped the next day. I read their books, played with their toys, listened in on their phone calls. That I wore their clothes goes without saying -- hand-me-downs were mandatory in my neighborhood.

But instead of "Why can't you be more like Christine/Claudia" what my parents said was this: "Why are you trying to be like Christine/Claudia?"

"We already have one of each of those," my mother said, "We had you because we wanted a Nancy."

That was a fabulous, amazing, wise thing to say.

But the problem was -- I didn't know how to be Nancy.

So I continued to copy my sisters. Then later, in high school, I did my best to be like the popular girls. Then like the hippies in college. And the executives at my company.

But little by little, I started to become myself.

Slowly and sometimes painfully, I stopped being a copycat. And a few times, people have even copied me.

In high school -- it happened just once. Forty-seven years ago, and I still remember.

I was an office messenger during First Period. (I'm not sure schools do that anymore, but if you had a free period, you could sign up to run messages to classrooms instead of sitting in a study hall) I shared messenger duties three times a week with Diane, a girl so pretty and so smart and so sophisticated it was hard to believe she was still in high school. And I came in one Monday in a new skirt, a dirndl with a lace-up bodice like a little Bavarian barmaid. And Diane -- gorgeous Diane -- loved my skirt. I told her about the shop in New Britain where I found it, and she asked me if I minded if she bought the same thing. She asked my permission to copy ME!

Now because she was beautiful and popular, I was well aware that Diane would look much cuter in that skirt than I. And I also knew that once she started to wear the dirndl skirt, everyone might think that it was I who was copying her.

But you know ... it didn't matter. I was so flattered that Diane wanted to copy MY style, and that she even asked me if she could.

It was the first time I thought I might actually be somebody that somebody else might want to be. Even if it was just a skirt.

A skirt is a place to start.

And gradually I became the somebody that I wanted to be.

*****

There's a postscript to this story. Two years later Diane died in a motorcycle accident. We weren't close friends, but we liked each other. And she copied me once -- at a time when I needed to feel admired. Thank you, Diane.

*****

- Read more from Nancy on her blog, "Not Quite Old."

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