Today, I’m in physical therapy because I ache like a woman. The physical therapy team has given me more challenging exercises as I’m fighting my way back towards the tennis courts despite a re-torn meniscus, damaged rotary cuff, and two busted shoulders. At the end of an exhausting regimen (I’m here four times a week) while both shoulders are being iced, I watched a curly-haired girl with her grandparents and learned how little girls get broken. They are broken by the people who claim to love them best.
The warning signs of grandparent narcissism are manifested almost immediately. For this middle-aged couple (perhaps five or ten years older than me) their world clearly revolves around this young child. Physical therapy is a mere stopover en route to more suitable locations for shopping (Target) and pancakes (Ihop). They define and contain the child’s experience, asking her to identify people in photos on an iphone and, by extension, keep the wider world at bay. They purposefully do not speak about where they are – a room filled with maimed people riding exercise bikes, lifting weights, pressing colored balls between their knees, poking pegboards, and stretching elastic bands. Instead, they vocalize promises of indulgence to come:
“This is your Special Day!“ “Do you need more dolls?” “You are a Princess!” “Your brother wishes that he was getting a special band aid for his pinkie.” “We’re going to pancakes very soon.” “We’ll be at Target soon, too.”
“Target!” the little girl echoed.
The grandmother told the occupational therapist:
“My daughter is working. Nobody really knows what happened. She’s is with the nanny most of the time. My daughter just discovered that she could not extend her finger.”
OMG! For all they know, this older brother deeply resents his younger sister and broke her pinkie…
The girl was never asked how her injury happened. She’s never asked about whether or not she is in pain. She’s never asked to directly cooperate with the therapist (Try and stretch the damaged finger) or explain how she feels about the harm to her body.
“Don’t worry” replied the male therapist. “I can measure her other hand and make a proper splint.”
After being given a choice of three dull colors, the girl reluctantly picked a white one. At some level, she knew the “choices” were limited. The splint materials are not cute like the multi-colored band aids adorning her fingertips. Grandmother approved her selection.
“Good. You can draw on it.”
The fact that white could show dirt, that a brown splint might mesh with her wardrobe, or that a black one could be be sleek and elegant…These perspectives are not provided for her consideration. Even when choices are lousy, it’s good to have a fuller sense of what it means to make the best of them.
But what galled me the most, aside from the ungrounded praise, emphasis upon consumer consumption and materialism, adult domination of youthful experience, as well as proliferation of superlatives unconnected to any concrete action by the female child, was a sense that boy would have been treated differently. In a family with traditional male socialization, he might have been asked to “tough it out.” In a progressive family, a male child would have been encouraged to ask questions and tell the story about what happened. He would have been spoken to as a person and perhaps persuaded to do his best to cooperate with the therapist – not placated with goodies as a potential “Princess.” A boy would have been encouraged to have agency when it came to coping with painful challenges (physical and emotional), to learn about the unusual setting that is physical therapy, to discover that everyone in this strange place was trying to heal their bodies, and learn new skills. He would have been asked to think about a career in the medical arts and sciences. He would have been praised for rising to the challenge of a scary, painful situation, and handling it with grace. How do I know this? Because I am the mother of a son and, if I had raised a girl, that’s how it would have played out.
I checked my internal bullshit detector. Is my repulsion due to repressed envy of these suburban grandparents? To be brutally honest, I’m in no rush to become a grandmother. Am I resentful because I don’t have a daughter? Nope. My son fills me with delight. Whatever I have imagined a daughter might be like, it is not the girl before me this morning – despite her impeccably combed hair, complete with a large maternally installed blue bow. For years, I’ve joked about the need to hire a consultant in order to properly raise a suburban daughter. It wouldn’t have been to bolster the quality of my parenting but to cope with the pathological forms of female socialization unfolding around me. Girls are still raised to be nice, to receive doting, to stand out with their clothes, hair, and shoes instead of using their brains, to shine constantly in the eyes of others, to be passive in the company of omniscient adults, to depend on them for protection from big bad wolves – instead of learning how to strategically avoid, fight, and defeat whatever beasts may materialize. As the wayward daughter of a soldier and a psychologist, I was taught to act bravely and endure trauma while remembering my manners. Consequently, dragon slaying during midlife has become a mere sideline. Dybbuks, however, – they remain a perennial challenge.
What happens to the broken girls? Some become mothers, wives, maids, and office workers way too soon. Some broken girls must always have a husband, boyfriend, a lover, a form of external male validation telling them it is okay to be who they are. Others find relief in booze and pills and don’t live long enough to grow up. But some manage to heal internal wounds and find their missing parts. “The Girls Who Live”, they become poets, comedians, journalists, artists, scientists, sexual outlaws, political outliers, and singer songwriters…
So, it’s a Wednesday night and I’m going to hear women singer-songwriters perform at a Suffolk County dive bar. I tell my two fifty-something companions (that I became friends with through the Zumba place which no longer exists) that I need to stop en route for the purple “nuclear option tampons.” I haven’t seen these friends in ages but tonight, women musicians have brought us together for an unprecedented evening out. We’ve each made it to the make-up stage but don’t wear pearls or take amphetamines. Our alcohol consumption will be measured and carefully timed in case of an encounter with Nassau County’s Finest during the ride home. As women of a certain age, we know the pleasures of, and our disappointments with, what men have to offer. But, if you asked us privately, we’d confess to still believing in the possibility of love.
We found a strip mall near Jericho Turnpike and I marched into Rite Aid wearing new black suede boots reduced in price from outrageous to plausible. After ten minutes of searching, I finally discovered where they were hiding those boxes supposedly invented by a Swedish female gynecologist, and realized that I’d demonstrated brand loyalty for four decades. Like the teenage girl I once was, my overfilled purse is quickly stuffed yet again with every type of menstrual item necessary for total peace of mind. (No leaks during the show!) Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” played in the background while I swiped my credit card. At age fifty-three, my period is still, improbably, with me. Every time I think it is finally gone, there’s an unexpected return. My fertile paradise will be paved over someday but for now, the Every Ready Bunny Rules. I keep going and going and going…
We arrived at the tiny roadside club, ordered “Jacks and Cokes”, generously tipped a vaguely Goth female bartender, decided that we’re starving, and ordered sushi (food is not served in this venue but the neighborhood Japanese restaurant delivers directly to the bar!) and heard young suburban women singing their songs of love, loss, anger, and angst. While they are musically talented (a guitarist who could strut the Fashion Week catwalk strums in the spirit of Carlos Santana, the tank-topped and flannel-shirted brunette with a bare midriff has a hipster urchin vibe, the third resembles Brook Shields but sings about telling people “to go fuck themselves”, and the fourth has the pipes of a genuine Broadway star) their lyrics are neither intensely poetic nor intellectually compelling. Is it them, or is it us? I mean, we are old enough to be their mothers. When it comes to heartbreak, betrayal, death, and transformation, haven’t we heard it all? Hey, these young women aren’t even writing songs about mortality, divorce, or transformation…At some level, they still think they will always be “forever young.” Oh, but they are quite lovely! These young women could be our daughters…A wave of affection rose in my chest. Yes, I remember that adorable younger self. She knew better, too.
The oldest singer-songwriter of the female crew fearlessly performed her anthems about Parkland and #Metoo to an almost empty bar. There’s a loudspeaker promise of joining together for a final song. As the young women mounted the stage, I thought about “The Last Waltz” and wondered what their common musical ground might be. Perhaps Joni Mitchell’s “Amelia?” Together, they closed the show with a rousing rendition of “Isn’t It Ironic” by Alanis Morrissette. That we knew the concluding song meant it had been a great night of Sisterhood across the generations.
Heading westward along a serpentine Northern State Parkway, I found myself humming “Just Like A Woman”, interweaving the Dylan original and a gorgeous Judy Collins cover. My divorced friends steeled themselves for a rendezvous with the worlds of teaching and retail come morning. I girded myself for a return to the perpetual marital experiment. We’re grateful to have stepped outside of Time, taken a break from the status quo, and stolen freedom from the economic (there was no cover charge) and social constraints of our lives. Our trip across the county line has been a form of Hejira: We’ve heard womenfolk make beautiful music and have come alive once more.