Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Blog Against Sexism Day

I started writing this a month or so ago, when Blog Against Sexism Day actually occurred. But since I never could really get to the part where I condemned the whole sexist part of the story, I never finished it. I just found it in my drafts and thought it was worth finishing and posting, even if all it does is reveal me as a less than perfect feminist. (Are you shocked? Don't answer that.)

Both my parents went to college in the south, in the 60's. My mother attended Salem College, a small women's college in Winston-Salem, NC. My dad went to Carolina. Dad graduated in 1967; Mom didn't graduate, she got married and had a baby instead.

I wish I could post some photos of their time in North Carolina, in the late 60's. I saw several of them when I was home over the holidays: small, square, black and white and faded photos of clean-cut, extremely young-looking, white, happy people, posing in front of impossibly old Chevrolets, with huge headbands and flipped blonde hair, khaki high-waters, your perfectly typical Happy Days-ish kids. Alas, the photos are in boxes, in Delaware, 3000 miles and a scanner away. You will have to imagine them yourself.

In these photos, always there are four of them: my mother, my father, Uncle Mike and Aunt Sheila. My mother and Sheila met at Salem; Uncle Mike was already in law school while my dad finished his undergraduate degree, both at Carolina.

After college, my parents and my sister moved to Nashville, where my dad attended Vanderbuilt law school. I was born there. Sheila and Mike, after Mike graduated from law school, moved back to Roxboro, North Carolina, not far from their family. They started their own family in the correct manner, marrying first, finishing school, then having a girl, Zane, about a year after my mother mistakenly had me. (I don't mean anything by that, except to inform you that both my sister and I were accidents. Fertile myrtle, my grandmother used to call my mom.) By the time Sheila and Mike had their second daughter, Anderson (Don't ask me about those names, I have no idea), Mom and Dad had moved their growing family back to Delaware.

You'd think the friendship would fade away then. 7 hours away by car, no email, no voicemail, no call-waiting: how could this endure? But endure it did, happily, forcefully. The Cardens came to visit us at least twice that I can remember before I was 7. They would rent a huge Winnebago, and drive all the way up I-95, through Richmond and DC and Baltimore, finally arriving in Wilmington, a town that seemed like a city to them, coming from small-town Roxboro.

I remember being awed by the way Zane and Anderson called their parents "Ma'am" and "Sir". My own parents were strict, especially my father, but even he didn't insist on those mannerisms. Zane was younger than I was by about 18 months, but she could swim much better than I could. (They lived on a lake, and I, well, I was never a "strong swimmer". Still can't really swim. But I digress.) This stays with me to this day: how Zane got to swim in the big pool at my grandparents' house while I was relegated to the baby pool, and she was younger than me! Oh, the injustice!

Aside: Zane looks exactly like Michael: jet black hair, dark olive skin, a beautiful girl. Anderson looks exactly like Sheila: blonde, fair, all big eyes and friendly smile with none of the complexity of Zane or Uncle Mike. You would never, in a million years, imagine them to be sisters.

We visited the Cardens in those years too, though we would just drive down in our paneled station wagon--or was it the Datsun, then? No Winnebago for us, much to the dismay of my siblings and I. We loved visiting them. They lived on a lake, and had a few speedboats, and waterskis, and rafts, and a dog, and--my god, the fun we had there. I learned to slalom waterski there, one summer when I was about 10. My parents had flown me down there for a few weeks, to keep Zane company, and to get me out of their hair. Uncle Mike, with unimaginable patience, drove the Boston Whaler round and round the lake, giving me pointers, watching me come almost up and then fall, over and over and over again. Until, hours later, I finally made it up, and I've been a slalom skier ever since. Whenever I waterski, I think of him, and that long long afternoon. How he refused to let me give up, how he didn't get bored, how he even seemed to enjoy it, no matter how many times he had to whirl the boat around, dragging the ski rope back to me, across the still water.

Aunt Sheila is fabulous, too. In typical Southern fashion, she is the most friendly, welcoming person you will ever know. Pretty, bubbly, interested--no, fascinated--in you and your life, just because you are a person she loves. When I was a college freshman at Carolina, she drove up to Chapel Hill one weekend to pick me up, and in the car on the way back to Roxboro, she started quizzing me about my current boyfriend, a leftover from high school, with whom I was very much in love. The relationship was on its last legs, which I knew on a level that I was refusing to see. "Tell me what is so great about him, Amy. Tell me why you love him so!" I will never forget that conversation: no one had ever asked me such personal questions about Anton, not even my mother, and yet I couldn't be offended. Her intention was entirely pure, born of love and curiosity, and I remember thinking how strange it was that it felt so comfortable talking to Aunt Sheila, when I would never be able to do the same with my own mother.

But back to Blog Against Sexism Day. I must have been 8 or 9--so late 70s--when we all were visiting the Cardens once again. One evening before dinner I noticed a button on the refrigerator. It was a round white button with red letters-- ERA-- contained in a circle with a line through it.

"What's this?" I asked.

"Oh, nothing, honey" said Aunt Sheila. "Here, have some crackers."

"What does E.R.A. stand for?" I asked.

My mom turned to me and said quietly, "It stands for equal rights amendment, Amy."

"Oh. . . . . Why is there a line through it then, if it's for equal rights?"

"Oh, well, darlin', sometimes things are called what they shouldn't be. Now why don't you run out and see what Anderson's doing? Here, take some more crackers with you."

In typical Amy fashion, I obeyed, never one to rock the boat. I could tell something was up with that button, though, and I asked about it on our ride back to Delaware.

My parents explained what it was, and tried to explain how Aunt Sheila and Uncle Mike, people I loved like family, could be against something that seemed like it should be a given, to me. I don't think they did a very good job of it, and how could they? How do you explain that because of your gender, some people think you deserve less? It doesn't compute. It didn't to me, it didn't to my parents, and it still doesn't.

Yet, my parents have remained dear friends with the Cardens throughout the years. I have not loved them any less, even knowing this strange little fact about them. I have never mentioned the ERA to them, never questioned them for this belief, never stood up to them or tried to enlighten them.

Truth is, it is not such a "strange little fact". They were Southerners first. Staunch Republicans, faithful Christians, believers in the way it was is the way it should be. That they are also dear, funny, wonderful people doesn't really fit with that side of them, but then again, isn't that what it means to be human?

Years later my mother and I talked about it, and she asked me if I'd ever noticed how subservient Sheila was to Michael, always. (I hadn't.) His word was law, and she and her girls never questioned him. He was the king of the house, and she was his handmaid. She waited on him hand and foot, which is what he expected. Here's the thing, though--she expected it, also. She did all this willingly and knowingly, and they were both very happy in their positions. It should be no surprise that the passage of the ERA would have been difficult for them to accept.

I can't really explain why I never noticed this, except to say that I was a kid for most of the time we spent together. Then in college--I don't know, in college I suppose I was too involved in my own life to pay much attention to anyone else. Plus, they were Sheila and Mike, and that's the way they were. If I had ever seen Sheila stand up to Mike, that I would have noticed. Maybe I just didn't want to see it.

Two months after my wedding, Uncle Michael suffered a sudden, massive stroke. He died around Christmas, 1998. He was maybe 55 years old. Hanging on a wall in my house is the Thomas Kinkade painting of California Street, complete with tacky gold frame, that they gave me as wedding gift. My husband hates it, and I'm sure I would, too, if it wasn't from Sheila and Mike. If it didn't remind me of sitting in their hotel room in San Francisco, catching up, listening to Sheila tell me how beautiful I was, laughing with Uncle Mike about how many homeless people there were in town, and how I was going to go broke if I kept giving them all my money.

But I don't hate it. I love it.

Maybe part of the reason I love it so much is that it is ugly. Ugly, like the part of them that was sexist, and also racist, and homophobic, all to some degree. Then again, the painting itself--California Street, in the city that holds my heart--is also beautiful in a way, despite the cheesy paint-by-numbers thing. The fog, the trolley cars, the bridge in the background: there is enough of the good stuff to counteract the bad.

Just like Aunt Sheila and Uncle Mike, and possibly me: beautiful, and flawed.

1 comment:

isimsiz kahraman said...
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