Like many little sisters, I have often been inclined to believe that anything my older sister liked or possessed was probably something I should like or possess, too. When I was little, this went not only for clothing and toys, but personality traits.
One day, I heard my mother talking on the phone about my sister. I was about four at the time; my sister was six. “Rachel’s pretty shy,” Mom was saying. “We’re trying to help her feel comfortable speaking up for herself.”
When she hung up the phone, I said, “I’m shy, too, Mama.”
At that age, I loved when restaurants didn’t have immediate seating available, because while we waited, my parents would let me stand at the door singing to strangers as they entered. No one would have called me “shy.”
Mom looked puzzled. “No, Jennie, you’re not shy.”
“I am shy,” I insisted. “Rachel’s shy and I’m shy!”
“Jennie, I really just don’t think you’re shy,” she said.
I was dismayed. “Well then what am I, Mama?”
“You’re outgoing!” she said. She explained what that meant, and I decided I liked it. For the next few weeks, I often introduced myself by saying, “I’m Jennie Katherine and I’m outgoing!”
Frankly, I have remained “outgoing Jennie Katherine” most of my life. Still, there was a time when I thought four-year-old Jennie wasn’t entirely wrong.
After college, I spent a full year interning in DC, which meant that I was living in one of the most expensive cities in the country and earning a paycheck of approximately no dollars per month.
God bless the restaurant industry.
They’ll take anyone, from professional servers to “kids” like me who spent their days working for free. I figured I’d be able to pay my rent at least, and I might even enjoy the amity that always develops among restaurant employees. I do love banter, even when half of it’s in Spanish and all of it’s laced with sexual innuendo. (That banter is the real specialty of every American restaurant.)
So I got a night job waiting tables, and I was darn-near looking forward to that good ol’ restaurant camaraderie. You know, like on Cheers, or whatever that TV show is that my generation was never actually seen but likes to reference to old people.
But here’s the thing about that “camaraderie”:
First, no one else called it that. Second, I sucked at it—even when it was in English.
All the other employees knew each other from outside of the restaurant. They had gone to high school together. They dated each other. They even lived with each other. The server assigned to train me went over all the employee connections and cross-connections as she showed me how the ketchup dispenser worked. Sensing my confusion, she said, “Things get a little messy around here.”
Drinking was apparently a critical part of employees bonding culture. But I didn’t have much money to spend on booze. Besides, I usually had to go home early so that I could get up early for my “real job”—you know, the one that paid no real money.
So—who woulda thunk it: I became shy. Very, very shy. Miraculously though, this wasn’t true with my tables, only my coworkers. It was like this:
A table of three 80-year-old men? I was golden. I may have forgotten whether they said “decaf” or “regular,” but they tipped me well anyway because I enjoyed talking to them about their grandkids, their service in the War, or the cover story on the newspaper under their coffee. And barring one scare when a fellow happened to have a bit of a heart condition, the coffee confusion never hurt anyone.
Back in the servers’ station, though, a switch would flip and Jennie the Mute would return. I spoke only when absolutely necessary, and even then, those exchanges tended to be brief, like “Hey…so where do we keep the to-go boxes?”
One day, I was preparing a tray full of iced teas when one of the chefs appeared next to me. “When are you going to come out of your shell?” he asked.
I knew what he meant. I had been wondering the same thing. Not wanting to admit that though, I said, “I don’t have a shell.” He chuckled. “Yeah, okay, then you’re a hardboiled egg dipped in titanium.”
I called my mom after that shift. I was disconcerted. “I don’t remember how to talk to people,” I said. “Mom, I’m shy now.”
“No, Jennie,” Mom said. “You’re not shy. You’re outgoing.”
She said it in the singsong voice she always uses when telling stories about my siblings and me as kids, but even without “the voice,” I would have recognized the line; my family is big on telling stories.
Mom was doing what my parents have done on so many occasions: directing my attention to something true but forgotten about myself. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe me when I said my self-assurance was shaken; it’s that she knew I was capable of being confident, because she had seen me do so many times before. She wanted me to remember that I could be that way again.
That’s how this kind of exchange has always worked:
- In third grade, when I wasn’t asked to join the “Talented and Gifted” class because of my hearing impairment was resulting in horrific spelling skills, Mom and Dad told me how smart I was, and that maybe it was time for hearing aids (though I refused them for another three years…).
- In fifth grade, when I got so angry with my little brother that I finally just smacked him across the face, my parents disciplined me because they knew I was a “kind and loving sister,” and hitting my brother wasn’t “consistent with that.”
- In middle school, when I came home feeling unsettled by the constant reshuffling of friend groups, and disheartened by the transformation of one of my closest childhood friends into a mean-spirited bully, my Mom told me that she knew I’d be fine, because I was “knew how to build strong friendships when it was smart to do so.”
Mom was reminding me that I was “outgoing” because she knew that I needed to hear that one of the best parts of myself hadn’t disappeared.
When I think about how and when I formed a sense of my own identity, I imagine that at some moment long ago, my parents decided to be on the lookout for any good traits I exhibited from my earliest days, so that they could remind me about them from then on, forever and ever, at least eight times a month, amen. My parents had always been my own walking, talking mirrors, to which I could look when I needed to be reminded of who I was.
Anyway, I guess I’m Jennie and I’m outgoing.
now about that photo: It was during lobster special week. What can I say?