A Tender Distance: Letters from Mothers to Our Sons

“The Girl”

June 6th, 2016 by

My son’s eyes and mine meet. He looks slightly sheepish and hugely proud. We are in a crowd leaving an auditorium where my granddaughter – my son’s daughter—has just finished her first ballet recital. She is five.

It is the first dance recital for all of us. My granddaughter is the first girl to be born in my family in twenty-one years. My sisters and I have all raised boys like stalks of corn, one sturdy row after the next. My son, in turn,  repeated the run of male progeny and we’ve smiled and shaken our heads in this rough and tumble celebration of masculine energy. Until now. When Aurora made her appearance five years ago the hale and hearty commotion of the family stopped to stare. A girl!

A girl! In twenty-one years of boys, all that feminine energy had been storing itself up to be expressed in this one little human being. She loves tutus, nail polish, pink and purple clothes and anything that sparkles.  She loves to dress up dolls. Better yet, she dresses up the dog, who patiently wears a rainbow array of tutus much of the day. The dog went missing once and was later found sleeping in a pile of laundry – so covered with the shirts and skirts she was wearing that the only thing visible was her face.

We are all mystified by this child. Her mother, grandmothers, and aunts have mostly been tree-climbing tomboys.  Yet this girl spends agonizing moments trying to choose what to wear and often changes wardrobes several times a day. Holding up one shirt and then the next, she sighs deeply, “It’s so hard.” Sometimes she cannot make the choice and wears it all. Layer after layer. Her accessories will always include a matching purse. She is known around the house as “the bag lady” for her prolific collection.

Now this. Ballet! Out she came on stage, a sweet sprite, smiling and dancing and looking out beyond the bright lights for a glimpse of her proud dad and mom, brothers and grandparents. She is sometimes simply known as “The Girl.” When my boys were youngsters, they would often converse, even while I was in the room, referring to me in the third person … “she.” You know, the odd one.

Aurora may be all frills and bows, but she is also, in a household of brothers, tough as nails. She stands up to them, reasons with them – scraps with them if necessary – and from some deep well of kindness, always volunteers comfort and company to them when they are sick or hurt.

I think I have some things to learn from this dear one. Aurora is tough, independent, playful and smart. “The Girl” is helping me get in touch with my own inner pink and purple. Secretly, I always wanted to be a ballerina.

Growing up in a small town in farm country in the 70s, there was no such thing as ballet lessons. I also dreamed of being a jockey but the only thing I knew about horse racing, I read about in books. I just knew I liked horses and wanted a job that included them. Even if the opportunity had arisen, I was too tall and gangly to be either a ballerina or a jockey.

My sister and I wanted Barbie dolls. Our friends had them along with suitcases of clothing and shoes. But my mother insisted that no doll in our house would have bigger boobs than hers. As far as my father was concerned, no doll should have a boyfriend named Ken. So we each got a Skipper doll (Barbie’s younger, flat-chested cousin) plus one outfit. Truth be told, our stuffed animals were more fun and didn’t need clothes to keep from being naked.

People were always expressing their sympathy to my Dad for his plight at being the father of three girls. “Three girls, huh, Joe?” they said. “Don’t try for a boy or you could wind up with four.” God forbid.

If Dad ever told us “you’re doing it like a girl,” we knew we were doing it wrong. The message, intended or not, was that boys did things better. In my ten-year-old opinion, the Hardy Boys DID have far more interesting adventures and mysteries to solve than Nancy Drew. I devoured books about horses and dogs. My Side of the Mountain  was a perennial favorite.

I did my best not to disappoint Dad and he in turn was eager to make sure his daughters grew up independent and strongAurora. He taught us how to change the oil on the car, fix a flat tire, shoot a gun, and clean a fish. I enjoyed laying under the car with Dad as he showed me how to use a grease gun. I’ve always been grateful for that time with him and proud to know the things he taught us.

It was when our femininity blossomed into puberty that Dad grew distant. We couldn’t quite figure out what we’d done wrong except that aside from embarrassing changes to our bodies, Dad seemed vaguely … angry. Like we had betrayed him somehow. I think he just didn’t know what to make of us. Dad’s mother had been a high-spirited beauty and from stories I’ve heard, an outrageous flirt. His father spent much of his time in a jealous rage. Dad had no patience for “boy crazy” and assured us none of us would be dating before we were thirty. So when our interest eventually turned to that mysterious otherness of boys, we kept it secret.

I guess that was the nature of being a girl in my family. Keeping it quiet and working hard to run and throw like a boy.

The other day, I ran into my daughter-in-law at the grocery store. Aurora, who was sitting in the cart, was wearing a glittering navy-blue Christmas dress (in May) and pink sparkling shoes. Her cheeks were stained pink from the markers that she used as rouge. We talked and agreed that she and I ought to go shopping soon. I needed to find something other than the Carhartt jacket with hay-filled pockets that I wore to the store that day. And she needs a new purse. Aurora is blatantly, unabashedly a girl.

No apologies needed.

Ever.

 

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