I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
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We’re driving down the street — my partner, his father, and I — in the used car I’ve just bought when my father-in-law notices the compass direction displayed digitally on the rearview mirror.
“South?” he says doubtfully. “I think that might be broken!”
“No, we’re heading south,” I say.
He tells me I should have the dealership check it.
My partner asks if I got the manual when I bought the car.
No, I reply, but I know I’m driving south. I point out the driver’s-side window: “The sun comes up over there every morning. That’s east. That makes this south.”
My reasoning doesn’t even slow them down:
“You could probably download a manual online.”
“It could be an electrical problem.”
On and on they go until I stop listening. If the sunrise can’t convince them of our direction, I’m not sure what else to say.
When a male friend tells me weeks later that he doesn’t like the term “mansplaining,” I think of this moment in the car. Two men who care about me, respect my intelligence, and know me to be more than capable somehow still spoke to me as if I were a lost little girl.
East Palo Alto, California
The bathroom light fixture casts a harsh orange glow on the salmon-pink floor tiles. A faint knocking at the door is muffled by the gush of hot water in the sink. I open it expecting to find my nosy little sister, but standing there, outlined in a curl of steam, is my father.
He asks in a kind, inquisitive way if I need help.
“I’m fine,” I say, angling my body to conceal what I’m doing, but he’s six feet tall and peers effortlessly over my right shoulder.
“No big deal,” he says, rolling up the sleeves of his flannel shirt. “Organic stains come out easily.”
I swallow hard but say nothing. What an inconvenient time for my mom to move out.
“Organic means from a living source,” he explains, because Dad can turn even the most embarrassing ordeal into a science lesson. “Ink is almost impossible to get out, but blood is fairly simple.”
He drains the sink, then fills it again with cold water and adds a splash of bleach from the jug in the closet. With thick, freckled fingers, he immerses the white panties with the red-brown stain in the water. Dad places his large hand on my shoulder and tells me to come back in half an hour. I wonder: If someone had told him thirteen years ago that he would someday be raising two teen girls by himself, would he have stuck around?
When I enrolled in college decades ago, there was no question in my mind what my major would be: physics. I was a Minnesota girl with frizzy blond hair, a high voice, and difficulty speaking up for herself. Sure, there hadn’t been many girls in my high-school physics classes, but it had never seemed like an issue to me. My parents had always told me to pursue my ambitions and not hold back.
My first college physics class had only eight students: six men, one other woman, and me. The professor, an older Irishman, raised his eyebrows as I took my seat and asked to see me after class. To my surprise he suggested I reconsider my major. I looked like I belonged at a sorority, he said, not in a rigorous science course.
I studied hard for every test, lab, and homework assignment, and my grades reflected the effort. But by the end of the year I had decided that my professor was right: Physics wasn’t for me. I wanted to be an engineer. When I told him of my decision, he tried to persuade me not to transfer. The physics department needed me, he said.
He didn’t change my mind, but to this day I am proud that I changed his.
San Francisco, California
On a rainy Saturday in November my partner and I stopped at a local park to let our boys, ages five and seven, run off some excess energy. The jungle gym and swings were deserted, so I played with them for a while, chasing them around. Then another small boy joined us. I ran after all three, their joyous shrieks bouncing off the slides and the climbing wall.
More than a year earlier I had come out as gender-queer, meaning I identify as neither male nor female. Ever since then my partner and I had been trying to get our boys to use my preferred pronoun: they. D., who had recently started second grade and loved rules, argued that they was not grammatically correct for one person. We patiently explained that, although his teacher was right about a lot of things, this was not one of them.
At the park it started to drizzle, so I slipped under one of the slides and let the boys play without me. A few minutes later I heard D. and the new boy talking at the top of the slide.
“Who is that?” the new boy asked. He meant me.
“That’s J.,” D. answered.
“Is J. your dad?” the boy asked.
“Sort of?” he answered. “We aren’t really sure if she’s a man or a woman, so we call her them.”
The boy was quiet for a moment, then said, “Oh, OK,” and took off down the slide.
My heart broke a bit knowing D. would have to endure similar conversations for many years to come, but I could not have been prouder of how he’d tried to explain. I could only hope that the other boy’s easy acceptance was typical of the reaction D. would get. It certainly hasn’t been in my experience.
In January 1990 I was referred to a twelve-step program for men only. I left my second meeting feeling calm and at peace, and it occurred to me why: Normally in a group of men some of them would interrupt and talk over one another, but in this place that didn’t happen. I experienced what it was like to truly be heard. Nobody gave advice or asked questions — they just listened. I decided to practice this at home with my wife.
Our kids were all married or on their own, so it was just the two of us. After dinner we would usually sit on the patio, and I would do most of the talking. Even when she started a conversation, I would interrupt many times to give my opinion. Now I tried to practice listening to her. It wasn’t easy at first, but I managed to be quiet and sometimes ask questions like “Why do you say that?” or “And then what?” Just hearing about her feelings was enlightening.
My wife passed away in January 1991. I’d learned more about her in that one year than I had in all the preceding forty-two years of our marriage. Later one of our sons told me something my wife had said to him in the year before she’d died: that she’d felt as if she had a new husband.
My uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, siblings, and parents are all gathered at my grandma’s house for Thanksgiving. The men are in the living room, watching football on TV. The women are in the kitchen. My grandma and her sister are preparing dinner while my mom and my aunts sit around the table telling jokes, laughing, and helping with the food. My cousins and siblings are playing upstairs or outside in the crisp Montana air. I am eleven or twelve: too old to play with the younger kids but too young for the women to let me listen to their talk. I go to the living room but am utterly bored by football. The men don’t even notice me.
Grandma announces it is time to eat. She instructs me to tell the men to come and fix their plates. There isn’t a big-enough room in the house for us all to eat together, so the men will eat in front of the TV. The kids will eat at the kitchen table, and the women will eat there later, after the kids are done. When I ask why the men get to eat first, the adults explain that men always eat first. Why? Because they’re men. This puzzles me, but I don’t question it.
After everyone has eaten, I offer to help my aunts do the dishes. It’s fun to be with the women, who begin to relax and talk openly of husbands, weight, clothes, and pregnancies. A man comes in to make himself a drink, and the talk ceases. He says something about being full, then goes back to the living room, where the other men are drowsing. The football game drones on. A haze of cigarette smoke hangs in the air.
On the way home I ask my mom and dad why the women do all the work on holidays while the men watch TV and sleep. They say that’s just the way it has always been. I declare that when I grow up, I’m not going to do all the work myself; I’ll make my husband help. My parents don’t say anything.
When I was fifteen, my aunt Betty had a hysterectomy, and I took the bus to her house after school several times a week to bring her library books and keep her company during her slow recovery. On the long bus ride the driver and I often engaged in friendly conversation. One afternoon, as he was telling me about his high-school days, we breezed right by my stop. Not wanting the conversation to be over, I told him I would ride to the end of the line and get off at my stop on the way back.
There was a scheduled twenty-minute wait at the end of the line, and while we sat there, the driver told me about his boyhood dreams. He was barely thirty but had long given up on those youthful ambitions. I listened respectfully, touched that he would share this with me.
After that, I frequently traveled to the end of the line with him, and each time, he revealed more about himself. He never touched me or made any suggestive comments beyond “That’s a lovely dress,” or “You have such a sweet smile.” And yet that experience of being granted access to a man’s inner life was a kind of initiation for me. Decades later I still look for this kind of emotional intimacy in my relationships with men.
I got pregnant at eighteen and married a man I hardly knew, a high-school dropout who, I would come to find, loved drugs more than he loved me and our two daughters — more, I think, than he loved himself. He was addicted to cough syrup and a tincture of opium that he and his buddies would boil down in a saucepan, draw up in a syringe, and shoot into their forearms, wrists, or ankles. And then there were the pills: Thorazine, Dilaudid, Quaaludes. I wanted no part of it. I had babies to feed and bills to pay.
I divorced him at twenty-one and moved into a fourth-floor walk-up in a nearby city. Not long after that, I met K., who wore her hair short and dressed in polo shirts and khakis when she wasn’t working at the nursing home. I had never known anyone who was openly lesbian. She and I ended up living together. K. was attentive, loving, and hardworking. She changed my daughters’ diapers, sang them lullabies, and promised to love us forever. She also drank too much. Once, K. drove the babysitter home drunk, and the girl refused to work for me after that.
When K. left me for a coworker, I was on my own again, with two daughters and half an apartment’s worth of furniture. Without K.’s contribution to our income, I struggled to get by.
After several short-lived relationships, with both men and women, I realized that it made little difference whom I dated, what sexual orientation they were, or even how good the sex was: any partner I chose could and often would lie, cheat, be unfair or mean, do drugs or drink to excess, and behave badly.
My first full-time job after college was as a reporter for a small daily in Upstate New York. This was in the seventies, an era when many newspapers still had “women’s pages” filled with advice columns, recipes, and light news. My boss, Mary Lou, was the only female editor among a sea of men.
At twenty-one I was thrilled just to have a job at a newspaper, and I accepted my spot in journalism’s pink ghetto. Though I proofed my share of engagement announcements, Mary Lou also assigned me stories about health, nutrition, education, parenting, and travel, all of which would someday become coveted beats on any paper. In fact, covering so-called women’s issues was often more exciting than reporting on, say, town meetings.
One year Mary Lou, an animal lover, started a feature called Pet Corner, where she ran photos of dogs and cats at the local Humane Society shelter to entice readers to adopt them. The male editors made fun of her, and Pet Corner became the punch line to many office jokes. Though I enjoyed writing blurbs about the pets, I couldn’t bring myself to admit it.
Forty years later one of the most popular features on our local TV news is the pet-connection segment. The newscaster is well liked and does a good job as he lovingly introduces his feline and canine friends each week, but I can’t help thinking: When a woman pioneered this concept, it was considered just fluff.
Loudonville, New York
Losing a father at the age of six, as I did, can skew a girl’s relationships with men. Having a mom who distrusted all males didn’t help. I inherited her discomfort around the opposite sex, and, combined with my low self-esteem, it exacerbated the normal awkwardness of being a teenage girl. I had some interactions with a few “safe” boys, but I never dated.
My romantic problems persisted into adulthood. It wasn’t that I didn’t want relationships — I did, almost desperately. But my desperation either pushed men away or led me to make some astoundingly poor choices.
Finally, in my forties, I drove to my hometown on the thirty-fifth anniversary of my father’s funeral, sat at his grave site, and wrote a letter to him about the impact his death had had on me and the important moments he had missed in my life. Then I read the letter aloud to my dad, laid a single flower on his grave, and drove home feeling at peace.
Exactly one week later I met a kind, respectful, funny man who was captivated by me. We had a brief and wonderful time together — right up until he was killed in a car accident.
That tragedy kept me confused and conflicted about relationships for a decade. Then some meddling friends set me up with someone, and the date became the start of a ten-year relationship. I had to work hard to keep it a healthy union, but he and I grew to love and understand each other.
After he died of a sudden cardiac event, I began to feel that the men in my life were doomed.
I had reached a point where I was content with being alone when I met another man, at the gym. We’ve been together almost a year now. Though we’re miles apart politically, academically, and temperamentally, he adores me, as I do him. He’s patient and forgiving, something I struggle to be. And he’s there for me.
Here I am at the age of seventy-one, in a relationship with the man of my dreams. Is there a possibility he will die before I do, and I’ll be left alone again? Of course. But I will make the most of every minute we have together.
Jo Ellen Christiansen
St. Anthony, Minnesota
My boyfriend, Lou, is a man’s man who hunts and fishes. Sometimes I must compete for his attentions with his friend Miles, a retired, divorced Vietnam veteran. When Lou and I travel to the beach to go camping and dive for abalone — large sea snails with beautiful shells — Miles often joins us, and I find myself playing den mother to the men. I realize I am adhering to outdated gender norms by doing all the cooking and washing up, but I enjoy the guys’ company.
When I tease Lou about the full-blown “man crush” Miles has on him, Lou laughs it off. Still, I can’t help feeling that Miles finds my relationship with Lou threatening. At night by the fire, if Miles has had too much to drink, his rambling complaints about women can turn irrational and misogynistic.
This morning, on the beach, Miles dawdles over his dive preparations while Lou and I grow impatient. I stash our clothes on the cliffs well above the high-tide line, and we put on thick wet suits and weight belts. Then, carrying body boards, we throw ourselves into the waves.
Lou is an excellent abalone diver. I am a neophyte and lack his hunter’s instinct, but I’m thrilled by the underwater vistas and the sea life. Miles often swims away on his own. Sometimes he decides not to dive at all.
On this particular morning Miles does dive, and he returns to the beach first. By the time Lou and I come in, my boyfriend, as usual, has secured his limit — three almost-trophy-sized abalones. I’ve got two, which weigh me down so much I can barely make it out of the surf. I plop down on the warm sand to rest, and Lou asks where I put our clothes. I squint up at the cliff, but our things have disappeared. Why would anyone steal a bag with a couple of shirts and a pair of glasses in it? I’m in serious trouble, because I cannot function without my glasses. Lou is angry about losing his shirt and blames me before he walks off.
I gather my gear and follow. The tide has come in, and I must wade through thigh-high waves around the edge of a cliff. When I almost lose my footing, Miles comes splashing over to see if I’m OK.
“I put the bag with our clothes on the cliff, and now it’s gone,” I tell him, sounding pathetic. “Lou is mad at me, but it’s not my fault.”
Miles reaches out to take my weight belt and body board. “I hate it when he does that to me,” Miles says.
My mood lightens. This is the first time we’ve bonded.
Lou soon reappears, looking sheepish, the clothes bag in hand. We came ashore at the wrong spot.
As a girl, I passed the usual milestones on the path to becoming a woman: some long anticipated (my first bra), others terrifying but grudgingly accepted (my first period). As most girls began to see changes in their figures, I was still waiting for it to happen to me. Despite my period, I did not feel like I had reached womanhood until my body began to fill out. That’s when I went from being a recluse to having a social life.
One Friday night my new friends and I made plans to meet at a high-school dance. One of them would pick me up on the main drag not far from where I lived.
I was so eager, I arrived on the street corner almost a half-hour early. I had on a pair of bell-bottom jeans that I’d bought with money from my after-school job, and they showed off my developing hips. As I waited on the corner, I heard someone yell something from a passing car. I ignored it, but it happened again, and again: guys catcalling, beeping horns, and slowing down to peer at me while making sleazy remarks. It must have been my tight pants, I realized. Instead of enjoying this new attention, I felt disgust and fear. Was this what it was like to be a woman?
I’m well past the age of fifty now, and it’s been years since my looks have evoked any kind of reaction — even from my husband, who loves me; even when I’ve shopped for weeks for a dress that complements my figure and my hair is finally falling the right way and I look damn good. Sometimes I recall the night I waited on that street corner not with bitterness but with sweet nostalgia.
Yonkers, New York
Ever since my mom passed away a few weeks ago, my dad has wanted to get a pedicure with me. It’s something I always wanted to do with my mom, but I didn’t have a chance before her unexpected death from a stroke.
When my elderly father and I arrive at the nail salon, he insists I get the deluxe pedicure — complete with a warm-towel wrap, massage, and sea-salt exfoliation. The women at the salon know my father by name and express their condolences about my mom. He would bring her there each month and wait patiently for her to get her toes done. Once in a while he would get a pedicure, too.
The only man in the salon, my father settles into the cushioned recliner, rolls up his pants legs, and puts his feet in the tub of hot water. I sit next to him and do the same.
“You have your mother’s feet,” the woman says as she gently massages my calves and soles, and my eyes fill with tears.
When the woman is ready to paint my toenails, she asks me what color. I usually prefer muted tones, but my dad points to a bright polish and tells me it’s the one my mom usually picked. I agree it’s perfect. My father closes his eyes as the woman rubs lotion on his feet. We sit, enjoying our new father-daughter ritual, both missing my mom in our own ways.
Laguna Beach, California
The only thing I remember about my first and last day at Girl Scout camp is the bus ride there.
I was the tallest kid in the third grade and skinny, too. I wore my blond hair cut short because, when it was longer, I would whine every time my mom brushed it. I got made fun of at school, mostly by boys whose insults were so primitive they almost didn’t hurt: Giraffe! Empire State Building! Walking Talking Dictionary! (I was smart, too.) At Girl Scout camp, I thought, no one would know me. Maybe I wouldn’t be just the tall girl or the nerd.
That dream died quickly. As I got on the bus, a girl yelled, “Ewwww! There’s a boy on the bus!”
I looked around in surprise for the boy. Then I noticed everyone was staring at me.
“I’m a girl,” I said.
“You’re not a girl; you’re a boy!” my tormentor shot back, putting a disgusted emphasis on the word boy.
I showed her my pink-and-white-checkered shorts as evidence of my gender, but it was no use.
The next day I refused to go back. I don’t remember anything else about that camp, just the feeling of shame as I realized I wouldn’t be accepted as one of the girls.
By the sixth grade I’d learned to slouch to disguise my height and grew my hair long again to cover my face. I wore loose-fitting clothes to hide my skinny body. I remember being called a “flat-chested bitch” and a lesbian because, again, I didn’t fit the other kids’ idea of what a girl should look like.
By my freshman year of college I had finally blossomed into what society deemed a proper woman. My height and slim frame were assets now, and I no longer felt the need to hide my body. Though my self-image hadn’t quite caught up with my looks, I enjoyed the attention I got from men.
One day, after a women’s-studies class, a young woman who had a buzz cut and wore a loose flannel shirt confronted me. She criticized my short skirt and red lipstick and said I was in league with the oppressors.
I wanted to hold up the image of myself at the age of nine, the same way I’d held out my pink-and-white shorts to the girl on the bus. I wanted to explain that I was just like her. But once again my appearance got in the way.
Jennifer L. Howell
It was my first year as a science professor at a small college. In my student evaluations, one word kept coming up: aggressive.
As a PhD student I’d been encouraged to share my views, argue a point, and question others’ assertions — all essential traits for a scientist. In the lab and at meetings, I’d stood up for my ideas and answered questions with authority.
When I’d become a teacher, I hadn’t realized that my students would read this behavior as aggression. Fair or not, society had taught them that women were not supposed to forcefully argue a point. My male colleagues told me they never got these complaints in their evaluations. When they expressed strong opinions, they were confirming students’ expectations of them as men.
At this particular college, student reviews played a large role in the decision to grant tenure. Worried about my career, I turned to my fellow female professors for advice. They said my students wanted me to listen without judgment, then gently encourage them to rethink any misguided ideas. I should ask probing questions rather than just point out their errors.
I took my colleagues’ advice, and my reviews were soon full of glowing comments, but I felt conflicted about my new role as mother figure. I still do. My idealistic side says it is wrong that society has forced this persona on me and not on the male professors. On the other hand my teaching has improved. By adopting a more nurturing manner and encouraging students to test scientific ideas themselves, I have helped them become better scientists.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
When my wife and I began dating, I thought she was a gay man. It turns out I was wrong.
On our wedding day, which remains the happiest day of my life, we were married as husband and husband. We wore homemade superhero capes and ran up and down the beach holding hands. Then we dove into the ocean together.
She had not come out to me as a transgender woman because at that point she had not been able to come out to herself. It wasn’t until about a year and a half into our marriage that she privately came to terms with her identity. Meanwhile I had no clue.
I wish I could remember the exact words she used when she told me she was a woman. I can picture her clearly, standing next to the couch where I had been reading. After she revealed that she identifies as female, I knew the next words out of my mouth would be extremely important. I decided to lead with my heart.
I let her know that I still loved her, that I would continue to love her, and that I wanted to stay married. She was happy to hear all of this, having prepared herself for a very different reaction.
Since then, our relationship has only become stronger. After spending my early adulthood looking for the right man, I find myself in love with the right woman.
Lago Vista, Texas
I grew up in a family of mostly women: two older sisters, my mother, and me. My father was in the military and overseas much of the time. When he returned home, he was a gentle parent and told me he loved me in effusive terms, but he never cried in front of me.
It was common to hear my teenage sisters sobbing after fights with their boyfriends, or to see my mother tear up at a sad movie. When I bawled over a skinned knee or a bad day at school, my mother held me and told me it was all right. But I did not see my father cry.
Once, I think he almost did: I was seven, and one of my sisters had been hospitalized for anorexia. My mother was crying, and my father’s eyes misted over. That was it.
The very idea of my father crying came to terrify me: If he were to lose control of his emotions, what would happen to the rest of us? Someone had to hold it together.
On a rational level I know this is absurd, but I’ve carried this attitude with me into adulthood. Deep down I feel it is unacceptable for men to cry. I’ve chosen to be in a relationship with a man who controls his emotions and does not express his pain. But sometimes I’m disappointed that he and I can’t shed a tear together at life’s sorrows.
White River Junction, Vermont
When I graduated from nursing school at the age of forty, the only job I could get was at a Veterans Affairs hospital. The work was a challenge in every possible way. It didn’t help that the veterans teased me relentlessly, asking over and over if I was married. (I’m a lesbian.) My growing discomfort with the question seemed only to egg them on.
Meanwhile, caring for them required a great deal of physical intimacy. While changing a dressing or washing a severely ill patient, I often could tell it had been a long time since he had been touched with kindness. Gradually I came to love the crusty old vets and the stubborn guys in detox, many of whom were homeless. Their spirit and resilience in the face of tremendous adversity were a kind of miracle.
Later I worked on the psychiatric ward, where patients could become argumentative, even aggressive. I sometimes didn’t feel safe there, especially after it occurred to me that all these troubled veterans were combat trained. Once, a large, psychotic man approached me in a threatening manner. Just as I was starting to worry, an equally large Vietnam vet with dementia quietly came between us. Several other vets seemed to appear out of nowhere, and they stood nearby in silence. I felt safe.
I have retired now, but I still volunteer on that ward twice a week. I feel like I am visiting my family.
Durham, North Carolina
The call comes in at dawn for a body removal in a rural area out past Redmond, Washington. A man named Ronald has lost his wife, Liz.
My coworker Shari and I make a couple of wrong turns on the way, and I call Ronald to ask for directions, but his thoughts are scattered. Over an hour later we finally find the place: a long, low-slung home overlooking a misty valley. Ronald greets us with forced cheer. His wife was cold to the touch when he awoke early this morning, he says. He leads us into the house, grateful for the company, having been alone with his dead wife for five hours. Before he shows us where Liz’s body is, he motions to the panoramic view. And, indeed, it’s a profoundly beautiful sight. I feel as if we are in a hot-air balloon riding among the clouds.
Finally Ronald brings us to the living room, where Liz lies facing the picture window, her skin an unnatural greenish yellow. Classical music is playing loudly.
While Ronald watches, we efficiently shroud Liz in a quilt, then wheel her toward the sliding glass door to the deck, which leads back to the driveway. I ask Ronald if he needs a last moment with his wife, and he shakes his head. As we guide the gurney out the sliding door, Ronald stands inside looking as if he is about to say something. We stop. “That’s my wife of forty-eight years!” he says, and his face contorts. He hurriedly shuts the door.
As we put his wife in the van, I imagine Ronald all by himself in his big house, standing behind the glass, looking into the fog.
Growing up, I quietly observed the duties my mother performed for our family. She had little free time and, perhaps as a result, never pursued any hobbies or made many friends. She didn’t even have the time or energy to watch television. On the rare occasions when she’d join us in front of the TV, she regularly fell asleep halfway into a film.
My mother’s days began at 5 AM, when she would wake to get us ready for school and then go to work herself. She returned home in the evenings to make dinner, do the laundry, clean, and pay bills. In contrast my father didn’t seem half as burdened by responsibilities. He had, to my eyes, a leisure I never observed in my mother: time to go out with friends, to take up photography and woodworking. And he had none of the restlessness and anxiety that fueled my mother.
As a young woman, I crafted an unconventional, active life for myself, untethered by serious relationships. My time and energies were defined by travel, study, work, community service, friendships, and a fierce exploration of books and art. Bemused by the absence of boyfriends in my life, my father inquired if I was gay while my mother mulled silently.
Rather than become a noble, nameless servant to home, husband, and child, I consciously chose to remain single. Although I recognized the value of that service, the sacrifice seemed unwholesome. I railed against the loss of a woman’s individuality and intellect when she became a wife and mother.
Now middle-aged, divorced, and childless, I reflect on the person I would have become had I followed my mother down that conventional path. I don’t think I would have been half the mother she was, but I don’t regret my choice.
My mother introduced me to her new boyfriend, Richard, a successful lawyer twenty years her senior. He had a shiny bald head, almond-shaped eyes, and a toothy smile. Each time he spoke, my mother jutted her chin in his direction to show she was paying close attention. “Isn’t your mother gorgeous?” Richard said to me, and he put his arm around her as if she were his prized possession. They were sitting on the daybed that doubled as a couch in my mother’s small New York City apartment, where I was visiting over Thanksgiving vacation. I was twelve and attended boarding school.
My mother and Richard had just come back from Mexico City, and they’d brought me two puppets on strings: a man with a sombrero and a woman in a red shawl. Richard made them dance, the man leading the woman around in a circle so quickly she could barely keep up.
“Lillian, get me a Scotch, will you, please?” he said to my mother.
In her spike heels and black dress, my mother walked into her tiny kitchen and came back with two glasses of amber-colored liquid. They toasted each other while I tried to make the puppets dance. The man and woman bumped into each other so much that I put the man down and let the woman dance by herself.
Two years later my mother and Richard got married in a civil ceremony. My aunt Lydia and I were the only guests. My mother stood amazingly still in her beige silk dress. Richard held her hand tightly.
We went to live in Richard’s Brooklyn apartment, which my mother decorated with faux-velvet wallpaper and antique furniture. He bought her furs and jewelry; she praised his brilliance and charm. They sat on embroidered stools and looked into each other’s eyes and held hands a lot. I think they loved one another. My mother was tough and smart by nature, but she played the role of the adoring wife and would ask Richard for her allowance in a little-girl voice. In private she advised me to ask boys about themselves and make them feel important; then they would do anything I wanted.
It was the sixties and the world was changing around us. Women were burning their bras and renouncing the role of housewife. They wanted to be people in their own right. When I was sixteen, Richard had a heart attack and withdrew into himself. My mother sat at the kitchen table and blew smoke rings. I stayed in my room and wrote poetry about the decaying nuclear family and the absurdity of marriage. Two years later Richard died. I went to college, and my mother moved to Florida and never remarried. She created a new life, with no one to hold her down or rein her in.
I flailed about trying to find the right partner. After several false starts and bitter disappointments, I moved in with a man with beautiful gray eyes. He loved electronics, the Marx Brothers, and me, but happily-ever-after did not come easily to us. We argued on the cobblestone streets of Montreal, at an inn in Tokyo, on a trail in the Arizona desert.
“You are just like my mother,” he would say, “telling me what to do.”
“You’re the tyrant,” I would reply, refusing to follow his lead. He had a temper and a strong will; I, too, was stubborn and defiant — though sometimes, to keep the peace, I would speak to him in a little-girl voice and tell him how smart and handsome he was.
We nursed each other through serious illnesses, and over time we learned to trust one another. Our actions and reactions now often come out of genuine love. Each small step we take together in the same direction feels like a victory.
New York, New York
In the early nineties new students who entered my middle-school home-economics classroom were shocked to find a male teacher, especially one who looked like me: My face bore the scars of more than a couple of schoolyard fights, and my nose would never be straight again. I rode a motorcycle and had a ponytail and a beard to match. I was not the person they had expected to teach them fundamental homemaking skills.
Back then every student, male and female, was required to take home economics. The young women came in confident, sometimes even angry that they had to learn things they already knew. The young men came in tentative, a little embarrassed, but with a lot of bluster — that is, until they saw me.
I’d start the class by finding out what skills everyone had. There were always a few of both genders who had some basic cooking ability. It was rare to find any student, male or female, who knew how to sew.
That first day I explained that knowing how to cook could save you money and keep you healthy. I compared the cost of a fast-food meal to the same meal made at home and shared with them how, in college, I’d made a deal with my roommates: they would give me a certain amount of cash every week, and I would guarantee them a hot dinner on the stove and leftovers in the refrigerator every night. I charged them enough that I never had to pay for food myself.
Eventually my students would start to rethink “traditional” gender roles. We would talk about how important it is not to judge someone by his or her looks, and we’d pick apart male and female stereotypes. Everybody was able to be proud of whatever he or she created in class. No one snickered or made snide comments about the boys sewing.
Unfortunately, due to a push for standardized testing, home-economics classes were eventually removed from the curriculum. Before I retired, though, many students would come back and visit me as adults. Some of the women had ended up in so-called male occupations. Some of the men had ended up in professions typically occupied by women. They would all tell me how important the class had been to them — not just for the skills they had learned, but because I had made them see themselves and each other differently.
La Mesa, California