As far as I can tell from my non-scientific research, if you were a girl growing up in the Seventies or Eighties, you loved Judy Blume. Maybe there are exceptions, but I haven’t met any of them yet. Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. was the ultimate guide to growing up; maybe it still is. My memories from this book were about first periods and bras, but it’s so much more than that: friendship, crushes, spirituality, family, and shame. Let’s get started!
We meet Margaret Simon through her conversation with God – like a dear diary, but with God. We find out that she’s moving from the big city of New York to suburban New Jersey. As a child growing up in the Calgary suburbs, I would never have realized how significant such a move would be. Interestingly, this book was published in 1970, and if I’ve learned anything from Mad Men fashion blogs, it’s that New York in the 1970s was a cesspool. Or, as Pete Campbell so succinctly said, “The city’s a toilet.”
In any case, Margaret has come home from summer camp to find out that their NYC apartment has been rented to someone else and her family now owns a house in Farbrook, New Jersey. Now, this part went over my head because I probably didn’t even set foot in an apartment building until I was about thirteen years old. It didn’t really register, at the time, what a difference it would be, going from an apartment to a brand-new suburb where all the houses are alike, Margaret can go to public school, and her mother can have all the grass, trees, and flowers she ever wanted.
We also discover that Margaret assumes the move is to get away from her paternal grandmother, who adores her only granddaughter, pays for her NYC private school tuition and summer camp in New Hampshire, and knits her sweaters that have labels sewn inside saying “Made Expressly For You By Grandma.”
My mom crocheted baby blankets for both my babies that had a label like that, and I always kind of wanted a sweater with such a label for myself. Alas. Also, when I was a kid, I didn’t realize how many New York City kids would be sent away to a full summer camp, presumably to get some of that grass, trees, and flowers that they didn’t get in their apartment buildings. I mean, I went to summer camp for one week, and it was Lutheran Bible camp up at Sylvan Lake. It was awesome, but I’m guessing it was a different experience than a summer-long hiatus in New Hampshire. All I know about New Hampshire, really, is what I saw on Breaking Bad, and that is that they live free or die there. I’m guessing summer camp would be a refreshing change from the hot town, summer in the city, with the back of Margaret’s neck getting dirt and gritty.
Speaking of Bible camp, we also find out that Grandma is Jewish and hopes that Margaret will have Jewish boyfriends. Put a pin in that, because it becomes significant later on!
The Simon family has moved into their new house for no more than an hour when a girl comes to the door. It’s Nancy Wheeler and she knows all about Margaret from the dossier that the real estate agent sent out to the neighbourhood. Can you imagine that happening now? Privacy issues ahoy! Anyway, so Nancy knows that she and Margaret will be in the same class at school, and she asks if she wants to run under the sprinklers, every single suburban child’s favourite thing to do on a hot summer’s day. Nancy loans her a swimsuit – ewwwww – because, of course, the Simons aren’t unpacked yet.
Nancy has something I always wanted: a dressing table with a heart shaped mirror and a fluffy organdy skirt. I also wanted a canopy bed.
Margaret shyly puts on the bathing suit in front of Nancy, who has no boundaries, apparently, and not only will not leave the room to allow this girl who she’s known for ten minutes to get changed, but who giggles about Margaret’s non-development in the chestal region. Nancy boasts that she’s already developing, and in a few years she’s going to look JUST like those girls in Playboy, which is something that twelve year old girls really shouldn’t aspire to. Margaret calls bullshit on this, in her mind, because her dad gets Playboy and she’s seen those centerfolds.
HOLD THE PHONE. Why is Margaret reading her dad’s Playboys? For the articles? Oh right, this is the Seventies, era of permissive parenting.
Nancy is relieved to see that Margaret isn’t some fast-paced city girl who seems to find out early how to open doors with just a smile, but instead has yet to kiss a boy. Nancy shows how she’s been practicing kissing, on her pillow, so that when the opportunity arises she WILL BE PREPARED. This is shocking to Margaret, who, despite years of summer camps in New Hampshire, has never seen another girl make out with her pillow. Nancy also mentions that Margaret’s hair – which is in the growing-out stage – is kind of LAME, which made me think: didn’t we all have a Nancy in our lives? A frenemy who would passive aggressively talk about your crappy hair, your boobs, and your lack of make-out experience. I guess if you didn’t have a Nancy, chances are you WERE the Nancy.
Through conversation with Nancy’s mother, we find out that a) Margaret’s mother is an artist, and b) Margaret doesn’t go to Sunday School. Shocking! Mrs. Simon doesn’t even play BRIDGE for chrissake, and they moved to the suburbs? The girls go play in the sprinkler, and get totally drenched by Nancy’s older brother Evan, who cranks up the water pressure. That is totally something my own brother would have done. Nancy runs crying to her mother because her perfectly coiffed 1970 ponytail is all wet.
Evan is accompanied by Moose Freed, who mows lawns in the neighbourhood and immediately mentions this to Margaret. Five bucks a week, and I trim too. That’s a steal of a deal! Moose Freed. I’m in the phone book. Put a pin in that one too, because Moose awakens all sorts of feelings in Margaret. She even names her pillow “Moose.” Just kidding! She doesn’t really. Or does she?
Because Nancy’s a big crybaby about the water spray, Margaret goes home, but not before she’s informed that she needs to wear loafers with no socks on the first day of school to be part of Nancy’s secret club. Because wearing socks will make her look like a baby, unlike sobbing because your brother soaked you with a sprinkler.
Margaret’s dad isn’t going to call Moose Freed – he’s in the phone book! – because he wants to cut the lawn himself. Unfortunately, the city slicker/ lifelong apartment dweller reaches his hand in the bag on the mower while the engine is running, and he has to go to the hospital for stitches. There’s an exciting scene wherein Margaret goes to look for the severed body part; anticlimactically, we discover that all his digits are still basically intact, and eight stitches are all that are needed.
After that, arrangements with Moose are made.
The day before school starts, the family gets a surprise visitor. It’s Grandma! She came all the way out on the train even though it’s full of germs. She also brought deli food because there ain’t no deli like a New York deli. She assures Margaret that they are going to be as close as they’ve ever been, even though they’re geographically separated.
First day of school! Margaret doesn’t wear socks and gets blisters. She notices a very tall girl in the class with huge breasts, who no one talks to, so Margaret thinks that maybe she’s new too. She’s not! But more on that later.
Their teacher is male, and it’s his first year of teaching. He’s pretty bright-eyed, though, and gets the class to fill out a form about themselves. Margaret says that she loves tuna fish but hates religious holidays. MAJOR PLOT POINT.
The secret club meets, and there are only two girls besides Margaret and Nancy: Janie and Gretchen. Gretchen is immediately fat-shamed by Nancy, who asks how much weight she gained over the summer when Gretchen reaches for the cookies. Aren’t girls fun. After fat-shaming Gretchen, Nancy begins to slut-shame Laura Danker, the tall girl with the rack. Margaret, innocent Margaret, says that she noticed her right away – she’s pretty!
“Pretty!” Nancy snorted. “You be smart and stay away from her. She’s got a bad reputation.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“My brother says she goes behind the A&P with him and Moose.”
“And,” Janie added, “she’s been wearing a bra since fourth grade and I bet she gets her period.”
POOR LAURA. I had a bra in fourth grade and let me tell you, it was no picnic. Nancy goes on to say that the teacher was ogling Laura, like all men would. They cannot help themselves, they must look lustily at a twelve year old girl who wears a bra.
It turns out that none of the other girls have their periods yet, but they promise to dish the deets the second that they respectively start. They also agree that to be a part of the club – dubbed the Four PTS’s for Pre-Teen Sensations – they all need to wear a bra. They need to maintain a Boy Book that details their crushes, and share them at each meeting. Hilariously, they decide that they will all have sensational secret names: Alexandra, Veronica, Kimberly, and Mavis. Margaret gets to be Mavis.
We find out that not only does Margaret not go to Sunday School, but she also doesn’t go to Hebrew School, so whether the family will join the Y or the Jewish Community Center is unknown. The reason Margaret’s family isn’t a part of organized religion is quite romantic: her mother was Christian and her father was Jewish, and they eloped! Margaret’s mother is estranged from her parents for marrying a Jew, but Grandma Simon – as we have seen – is accepting of the situation.
Moose comes to mow the lawn, and Margaret watches him while pretending to read a book. ROMANCE AHOY. There’s nothing sexier than an older guy with a power lawn mower, am I right? Moose is awakening all sorts of feelings. Plus he smiles at Margaret, so let’s all sigh in unison. SIGH.
Margaret and her mother go bra shopping, where she has to get the smallest size available. She runs into Janie who is also buying the smallest bra available, and there is a lot of blushing going on.
Margaret tries her bra on at home, and stuffs it with socks to see how she’d look. She likes it! But she takes the socks out, because SOCKS. In her BRA.
Her dad gives her a “my girl is growing up speech” which, if that was delivered to me by my own father, I probably would have died of embarrassment. Thank god that never happened.
The Four PTS’s meet and they’re all wearing bras and they’ve all listed Philip Leroy as their number one choice in their respective Boy Books. Margaret’s REAL number one choice is Moose, but she can’t write that because what would Nancy DO. They practice a few “We must, we must, we must increase our bust” exercises and they get BUSTED BY MOOSE AND EVAN OMG. Ha, busted. See what I did there?
The class is assigned a year-long personal, unmarked, meaningful research project. Yawn. Due to some disruptiveness, the desks are all rearranged and Margaret, much to her chagrin, is next to Laura. OMG I HOPE HER SLUTTY REPUTATION ISN’T CATCHING is what Margaret thinks. She’s not even going to LOOK at Laura, but fortunately, and sadly, Laura doesn’t look at Margaret either. She looks straight ahead at her work.
Despite the desk rearrangement, the class is still playing pranks on their first-year teacher: they hand in all their test papers with no names on them. Margaret is very irritated because she studied really hard, but she goes with the flow because peer pressure, and if no one is putting their name on their paper, then she won’t either. She’ll jump off the bridge with everyone, feeling very indignant about it.
Ha ha! Mr. Benedict the first year teacher is not so dumb after all. Everyone gets their tests back, and they all have their names written on it, so Margaret’s study efforts did not go to waste. She got a ninety-eight, while the guy who initiated the “no-name” thing got a fifty-three. KARMA, BEE-ATCH. Mr. Benedict reminds them of their research project, and Margaret, after some soul searching involving bras and Moose, decides to write about God.
Margaret’s grandma has gotten them a subscription to Lincoln Center, so Margaret gets on a bus to New York by herself. Margaret’s mother is extremely nervous – don’t sit next to any men! – but the bus trip is uneventful and Grandma is there to meet her. They go for lunch and Margaret tells Grandma she’s wearing a bra – can she tell? Of course Grandma can. She looks very grown up, says Grandma.
For the record, in a thousand years I would have never told my grandma about my bra. NEVER. That conversation would not have happened. In my house, one would not discuss one’s underpinnings.
After the concert at Lincoln Center, Margaret asks Grandma if she can go to temple with her sometime and OMG YES YES A THOUSAND TIMES YES. Grandma is thrilled! She always knew she was a Jewish girl at heart. Margaret says no no no, that’s not it at all, but Grandma doesn’t care. She’s just happy Margaret is showing an interest. Margaret’s parents, on the other hand, are NOT. They think it’s ridiculous for Margaret to think about religion, but grudgingly agree that Margaret can go to temple for Rosh Hashanah.
Will Margaret find God in the temple? Will she still have to sit next to Laura? Will Nancy stop being a bitch? Will anyone get their periods? Tune in for the next installment!