Sunday, January 17, 2010

On Being A Girl

Remember when you were 4? You were tiny and rebellious and a bundle of energy. Arms and legs and jaw – always in motion. You knew how to read and write, could count well past where you needed to and had an answer for everything. One day, driven by sheer boredom, you embarked on what would be your first cover-to-cover reading of the dictionary.

Around this time, you were baptized and subsequently energized by the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic church. You liked the priest who poured water on your head, quickly blotted it with his long, skinny, scarf before praying over you and putting salt on your tongue. The next Sunday you were mesmerized by the Mass itself. You had no idea what they were saying (it was Latin, not English) but it sounded cool and immediately drew you in. At play, you began to mimic the blessing of the sacraments, a discarded perfume bottle and an empty salt shaker serving as the vessels for your water and wine.
The next year, when you were 5, you started going to Mass every day, in preparation for parochial school the following year. But you were a Vatican II baby and your local church had finally caught up with the times. Mass was now in English. You literally vibrated with excitement as you began to piece together what was being said during the service for the very first time. You learned not only the part that you were supposed to say, but also what the priest was supposed to say, too. You added this to your playtime Masses. Your grandmother would alternately laugh and shake her head watching you.

Around this time, you decided to chuck your plans to become a veterinarian. You were going to become a priest! Priests helped people when they were in trouble and they forgave you for being bad. And most importantly, they worked for God – that had to be good job, right? Imagine the devastation when you found out shortly thereafter that was not possible. Girls did not become priests – it wasn’t allowed. It would be the first time that the gender card would trump you, the first time that “because you’re a girl” would be given as a reason.

During your first year of Catholic school, one of the meanest nuns ever to be found, discovered that your birthday fell on the Feast Day for Mary Magdalene. “Watch that one,” you would overhear her say to your first grade teacher. “She will be trouble – just like Mary Magdalene.” It would be several years before you would understand the reference. You would confound the same mean nun a year later when you read much farther ahead in your Jerusalem Bible and learned that Mary was the first person to whom the newly risen Jesus appeared. Not the apostles. Not even his mother. Mary Magdalene.

“Sister Agnessa (doesn’t this name conjure imagery of Medusa in a habit?),” you bravely began, “If Mary Magdalene was so much trouble, why did Jesus come to her first after being on the cross?”

You had never seen anyone turn so red. Ever. “Go back to your seat,” the nun barked. “Girls should not ask such questions!”

You would feel vindicated years later when historians (both secular and theological) concurred that Mary was not the sinner that she was painted as in some texts. In fact, she may have had quite the relationship with Jesus. But because of the view of women in her time – and maybe to appease the Greeks, whom the Church was courting, and who would refuse a woman in the role of teacher – she was instead vilified. Because she was a girl.
You had no siblings and for all of the cousins you had, the only ones your age were boys. Boys who liked cars and G.I. Joes and football. You clung to them and dutifully blew up Barbie, crashed race cars and endured brutal beatings as you were piled on while carrying the ball into the end zone. You were just one of the guys and you could handle it.

But one day, the camaraderie shifted. You weren’t chosen to be on either side’s team. You knew you were changing physically but why should that have such a weird effect on the boys around you? You did not understand. Then came the chilling explanation: “Because you’re a girl.”

You and your cousin shared a paper route. On Monday and Thursday after school and every Saturday night, you dutifully delivered newspapers. You ran very fast on Saturday night because you wanted to be home in time for Starsky & Hutch. (Your 11-year-old self had an incurable crush on Paul Michael Glaser.)

You bristled every time you went to the door of one customer dubbed “envelope lady” because she would leave her 25 cents in an envelope taped to the door. The envelope was addressed to “The Paper Boy.” After several months of this, even when she would see you on occasion and knew that a girl brought her paper, the envelope did not change. So, on a lark, you changed it for her. She never changed it back.

Around this time, you started to recognize the differences in you in other ways. Scarier ways. One of your newspaper customers was a wheelchair-ridden old man. You always knocked and then brought the paper inside when he responded. He was always very nice and when he handed you the money, there was always a tip. But one day, things were different.

There was the normal, polite conversation but you couldn’t help but notice how he stared at you. It was not normal. Or polite. “What’s that in your pocket?” he asked. You reached into a pocket of your jeans and produced a piece of lint. “Just lint,” you said, holding it out to him. He batted the lint from your palm. “No,” he growled. “Inside your pocket. Let me get it.” He lurched forward in his chair and you jumped back, just out of his reach.

Two quarters were perched on his lap. As he flew at you, they rolled onto the floor. You dropped to one knee, snatched up one (the cost of the paper) and tossed his paper at his feet. And then you ran.

It would be a few more years before you would begin to understand the joys of being a girl. You would learn that a wry smile could help you out when you least expected it. You would find out what it was like to fall in love. You would discover that your modified dream – the one in which you would write for a newspaper – could come true.

You would know successes and have doors opened to you that many generations before you did not. It wouldn’t always be easy, but it would be much, much easier than it was for the women who came before you. You didn’t have to fight for the right to vote or to own land or to pursue any of your goals ormarry someone because that is who your family said to.

One day, you would run into an old grade school friend, now mother to a teen girl. A teen girl who is active in every group imaginable, whose plans and dreams are as countless as the stars. She is the image of her mother at that age. Your parting words to her have deeper meaning than either she or her mother can understand.

“Don’t forget those plans and dreams,” you tell her. “You can achieve them, all of them – because you’re a girl. And girls? They can do anything.”


Jayne said...

This has to got to be one of my favorite posts of all time!

karen said...

Great post. Except all I remember about being 4 was bounceing a ball off the side of our new house. :)

Why S? said...

Excellent. That really reverberates with me. There is so much the young girls will never know. Fortunatately. Unfortunately, they also take so much for granted and squander what they've inherited.

sewwhat? said...

What beautiful writing! Now I know how you stood up for yourself from a young age, which has made you the strong beautiful woman you are today! Glad you are in our lives!

Kristy said...

Beautiful post and so true of many things we don't realize until we are older and wiser.

You have a gift for the written word and should continue this pursuit in whatever form it takes.

Mama Martha said...

NV, thank you for the post. I need to share with little Martha. And I need to not tease when she spends over an hour telling me her 4 year plan for high school.

The mad woman behind the blog said...

I loved this. Amazing how similar our lives were. And yes, my daughter will be told she can do anything b/c she can and she will hear it from every person who loves her.

Hopefully we aren't setting her up for a big disappointment.