I'm a mother of boys. And yet I'm a pretty girly girl. Somewhere in my mother's attic is my collection of miniatures: the house, the parqueted floors, the knitted covers, quilted quilts, leather-bound books, and copper wire bird cages and chandeliers. I spent my childhood immersed in a little girl's world of barbies, dress-up clothes, and dreams of being a princess one day. I adored watching Ivanhoe, but found Elizabeth Taylor so very much more lovely than the bland blond who won the knight's affection. I also adored very pretty clothes, frilly pink dresses, having long hair, and ballet dancing.
Growing up, I actually spent far more time with my older brother than with my older sister. She had made some recipes with me, used me to test her gynmastics' knowledge, teaching me back flips, handsprings, and more with the collection of house mattresses piled on the floor. And I was a useful listener when complaints of unfairness -- the subject generally being my brother or my parents -- needed airing.
But, she didn't seek me out by choice, and after a time, nor did I seek her. When dolls and the Four Story Mistake ceased to interest me (or palled for a time), I went in search of my big brother. Amidst the teasing, the tormenting, and the knocking about, there were moments of joy and hysterical laughter. Many was the summer that I was his only option for a playmate. And so he made do. He taught me all the basic games, and played them with me assiduously (I nearly never won, but that's another story); chess, checkers, backgammon, card-games by the dozens. He used me to test his knowledge of bridge bidding, and many a prank. "Do you know the game 52 pick-up?" he'd ever so innocently ask, before sending me to the floor to gather up the splattered deck.
I trailed after him climbing trees, lifting logs to unearth salamanders, catching and caging snakes, toads, and whatever the natural world offered up. As the long summers sped by, he taught me to hook a worm, to clean and filet a fish. From him I acquired overhand frisbee tossing, and the rules to Ultimate Frisbee. I never mastered spinning a disk on my fingernail as he did, but I watched in fascination, great audience that I was. Likewise, I could barely handle juggling two balls in one hand, while he spent months mastering this skill and juggling 3 and 4 balls with his two. I don't believe he mastered 5, but he certainly gave it a good try.
My big brother is the reason I hit the tennis ball so hard, and make sure I'm well positioned to return a hard-hit serve. My big brother taught me to kayak, and to be simply sensibly afraid of rough white water. He teased me mercilessly when I complained of being tired on long walks as a ten year old touring across Europe with our mother. To banish this image and family reputation, I then pushed myself as an adult to never be the slowest, weariest, and certainly never to be known as a complainer. He also taunted me about my concerns about gaining weight (whereas my sister went on diets of cottage cheese and grapefruit), making me scream with frustration as I would say, "I only weigh 132 lbs" and he would interject "thousand" handily between the "two" and "pounds."
I was a favorite target to practice wrestling holds on. And at one point, I would fall to the floor laughing and screaming at simply the idea that he'd tickle-attack me. But through all this, I knew I existed. He played with me. Even if we had our share of battles (and did we ever), I cared about his opinion of me, and reveled in the time he taught me and spent with me. Never have I played such good tennis as with him coaching me along to master returning his top-spin.
So, though I was a girly-girl, I adjusted to the masculine habits of my brother. It was a childhood marked by feminine pleasures, and my often attentive big brother. Today I am a mother of boys. Being 43, I think I'm finished producing children, and so this is what I'll remain. To whom will I offer one day my collection of dolls and miniatures? and later my gorgeous wardrobe of Darbury Stenderu originals and pretty jewelry from the grandmothers?
But also, with whom will I paint my toe nails, pluck my eye brows, go shopping and pampering? Yes, I've girl-friends, but, not friends with time and funds to play. And the intimacy of the vanity table is not one that come easily. My sister has two girls. Her toe nails are painted with flowers, her eyebrows plucked to perfection, day trips to spas were part of their lives till recently. Pretty clothes and sharing a taste in elegant shoes are things she can share with her teenagers.
All this is leading to the other evening, reading to the boys, I was benignly plucking at my chin hairs. Yes, now over 40, those stray eyebrow hairs are responding to gravity. I've not a perfect set-up for this in the house -- neither the lights nor the magnifying mirror -- so I just pinch away blindly. And Leo, seeing this, noting this, asked to help me out. I didn't think twice, but agreed with alacrity. I lay back, tilted a lamp towards my face, and handed the tweezers to my now twelve-year old son. With care and concentration he went at the task. It pleased him, and it pleased me. As I care for my mother when we're together, my elder son entered into an intimate female moment with me. And I, so appreciating a moment of care and attention, lay back and closed my eyes and enjoyed his gestures.
I know that if I had a girl child, likely this would never have come to pass. And, if I lived with a man (particularly someone as macho as JP), neither would I have allowed such a moment to occur. But, alone with my boys, the old laws and customs are shifting. It's me and them. They're my source of strength and the beings for whom I am responsible. We spend many an evening curled up, the three of us, reading books, watching a film, chatting. I am the person Leo comes to with his questions about men, women, sex and growing up. Not his father. And he is the one I bounce ideas off as often as not, as I make my way in this world, confused and seeking. By default, he is seeing more of the female world, and I am his primary adult reference -- both feminine and masculine.
Good? Bad? Indifferent?