As silly as it sounds, I never knew I was a redhead until I was in sixth grade. I found out literally by accident when Michael Finnegan ran in to me in his frantic haste to get out of school at the end of the day. Shoving me aside he snarled, “Move out of the way, you little redheaded witch.” If it hadn’t been me that he was pushing, I would not have known who he was talking about. As it was, I looked around in all directions confused and also a bit pleased that someone as popular as Michael Finnegan had acknowledged me on any level even if it were in the form of a minor assault.
Not knowing my own hair color wasn’t the result of me never looking in a mirror or even of me being dim-witted–far from it. I was a pretty smart gal, what was often referred to in those days as a “brain” in fact. However, in my world my mother was the vivacious redhead who captured everyone’s attention while I was the quiet little homely girl who hid in her room reading books.
It was a point of fact that I wasn’t in touch with my hair color but I was well aware that I wasn’t attractive. My mother frequently reminded me of that. She tempered her criticism with the never pleasant sounding compliment that I was smart and that this may someday assist me in the highest quest possible of procuring a well-heeled husband.
Essentially throughout childhood and most of my adolescence I believed I was homely (her word), fat (again her verbiage), awkward (absolutely factual), and out of the program (combo platter). In the meantime, she was the center of the family’s solar system. Beautiful, fiery, self-proclaimed charismatic. A good portion of my parents fighting stemmed from her flirtatious exchanges with various men, most of them my stepfather’s coworkers. My mother enjoyed creating the illusion that she was highly coveted and perhaps illicitly linked to one man or another who she believed was more successful, more interesting, more powerful, and definitely wealthier than my stepdad.
As for my stepfather, well, I didn’t find out he wasn’t my biological father until I was around the same age that I discovered I was a ginger. I am not sure if my mother would have ever told me. He disclosed it to me one evening when my mother was “out” and he had had a few too many. I no longer remember what spurred him into having this conversation with me. I only recall shock and relief followed by an overwhelming desire to uncover whatever I could about this person who might have the potential to save me from this life of perpetual unhappiness. I waved the magic wand of my imagination to dispense with my stepfather’s claim that this person wanted nothing to do with me.
Years later finding out the term “redheaded stepchild” was derogatory didn’t come as any big surprise. However there is something very empowering and almost satisfying in a perverse way about being born in the role of the illegitimate misfit. Getting past the shock and maybe shame of being a nontraditional sort of person, allows for liberation. For me, feeling like that person who doesn’t fit allows for living a life of my own creation where my imagination leads me to flow with circumstances and pursue adventures with a level of fearlessness that might otherwise encumber me.