Summer weekends, when my parents motored our cabin cruiser through the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, there was the inevitable question; not of whether we’d scrape the hull on the rock jetty by Vesey’s Cove, not if we’d discern the channel markers in the dimming Friday evening light, but rather, whether we’d have television reception on our 12” square set once we moored. The Miss America Beauty Pageant had to be planned for and this weekend it was on.
I had a personal stake in the pageant because I was named after Miss America, 1957, Lee Ann Merriweather. That year I was flown from a German orphanage with my Grandmother Elsa to America to unite with my adoptive parents. I was dubbed Diane Lee, a compromise solution. When I reached the age of ten or twelve, I felt a kinship with the contestants and pressure to measure up to them somehow. But whenever I mentioned this coincidental moniker to my friends, they only wanted to know, “Was this grandmother your real grandmother, or your adoptive grandmother?” I’d say, “She’s my real grandmother,” thinking, how could she be anything else when I knew no biological relatives?
I’d wondered about the mother or father who’d left me in the orphanage and was all too aware that many kids would never have the option to investigate their pasts. They’d come from Russia or India or China, where records were not kept. But I’d come from Germany where precision was the guiding light, a tantalizing glimmer of possibility. But like all adoptees I was to shun curiosity in favor of gratitude for what I had. If only I’d realized then that these were not mutually exclusive.
Now the television flickered onboard our deck and the Miss America contestant from Pennsylvania, where we lived, faced the camera to answer a question about whether school children should pray after they said the Pledge of Allegiance in homeroom. She beamed her 1,000-kilowatt smile, then set forth the reasons why God, country, and the classroom were one and the same. Miss Pennsylvania had done her job with obvious satisfaction and it was up to Miss Jersey to topple her in the Q&A. Then it was on to the big event of the evening: the swimsuit competition.
The parade of sky-high thighs and spike heels worn with white bathing suits and state banners was staggering to me, a girl who wore flip flops with swimwear. It was daunting to think I’d have to compete in life in each of these categories; looks, personality, brains. But the mandate had implicitly been conveyed: I’d have to shape shift from a flat-chested tomboy to a another type of girl to win approval and maybe even love. The immediate imaginary prize was that our family unit would last forever.
My parents and my favorite entry, Miss Pennsylvania, won. It felt heartwarming to unite this way as a family, to celebrate a hometown girl who’d wear the crown of Miss U.S.A. From this, I understood that no matter how much talent existed in the contest, only one woman could win the title. Everything in life was a competition, whether it was the international space race, academic honors, these beauty tournaments, or young girls chasing a boy. It would all come down to one contestant besting the others. Binary solutions like this were personal—if the winner takes all, then by extension, I’d have only one mother and father. The notion of my ancestry was to be banished in favor of those who so worthily claimed the title, my parents. There would never be anyone other than them, or so I thought.
When my biological father barged into my life around my forty-seventh birthday, parental exclusivity fell by the wayside. Along with that mind blowing development, additional either/or constructs such as insider/outsider and one’s intrinsic worth/performance value dissolved under introspection. With a new mindfulness, I could deconstruct these previously sacrosanct labels. I could locate a more authentic and pluralistic reality and in doing so, my own truth.