“Your cousin, Andrea, held my hand during your uncle’s funeral,” mom began. She’s a man now; a police officer just like her dad was. And she calls herself Andy. Can you pick …
“Your cousin, Andrea, held my hand during your uncle’s funeral,” mom began. She’s a man now; a police officer just like her dad was. And she calls herself Andy. Can you pick her out of this photo?”
“I don’t know. Is that her?” I asked pointing to a handsome, square-jawed male. The only one I thought could possibly have been Andrea.
“No!” growled mom. “That’s Rachel. Can’t you tell that’s a girl?” And then she pointed to a burly, bearded, beer-bellied man, a total stranger, and softly said, “That’s Andrea. And guess what,” mom added with fervor, “She married the nurse who attended her.”
I hesitated to ask, “Was the nurse a man or woman?”
“A female!” groused mom peering at me through narrowed eyes.
I remember Andrea, good-looking in a robust sort-of way, pushing me on her cranky backyard swing. I must have been about ten-years old and she maybe sixteen. I knew she was a girl but something about her was different. I heard she wanted to play baseball, not softball, but didn’t think much of it since it only added to the long list of dissident females in our family.
Mom had been a Den Mother; the female leader of a pack of Cub Scouts. Because I was sandwiched between brothers and had no place to go, she enrolled me in the lair, which in the ‘60’s was absolutely forbidden. My unofficial uniform involved pants. Girls of my generation rarely got to wear pants. In pants, I could do anything!
By the time I was eleven, I could start a fire with two sticks, catch a frog with a single swoop of the net, bait a hook with a live worm, skin a catfish, grab a snake by the tail, paddle a canoe, wire a landline, carve my initials into wood with a hot torch, cannonball off a bridge, work a jackknife, ride a dirt bike and more—all things considered boy stuff in which I was fiercely competitive.
I had my own set of tools: hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches and with these tools, my brothers and I turned my brand new baby carriage into a go-cart. It disappointed mom, but what frightened her most was my tearing the baby doll limb by limb to pieces before sailing down the hill in my new ride.
“You gotta let the boys win sometimes,” mom advised. “Beating them all the time will not serve you well in the long haul. It’s not lady-like.”
“I’m just trying my best to win,” I said. “Why don’t you tell them not to win?”
“Because they’re going to be husbands and fathers someday,” she explained. “Husbands need jobs and the job market is competitive. Girls have the option of marrying.” Marriage was beginning to sound like the thing you did when you were out of options.
At home, sewing and cooking were mandatory for me, but not for any of my brothers; skills I felt would naturally excuse me from Home Economics. Of course, I had to ask, “Can I take Woodshop instead?”
“No! You’ll distract the boys,” came the answer that left me with the impression that boys were weak and unfocused; a point that further baffled when, as early as sixth grade, every girl wanted one.
“What a hunk,” said a friend one day as we passed a 20-something road worker, shirtless, suntanned, and blonde, his muscles heaving as he raked a molten blacktop so noxious it was hard for me to breathe. I turned away. I just wanted to run. And so I did, up the hill away from my cocky friend and the stench of new hot gunk on the road, a last attempt at escaping the inevitable.
RAMONA JAN is the Founder and Director of Yarnslingers, a storytelling group that tells tales both fantastic and true. She is also the roving historian for Callicoon, NY and is often seen giving tours around town. You can email her at email@example.com.
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