The Things Nobody Tells You, aka How to Be a Girl
|Not teenage me - might as well be.|
I was a teenage girl, you know, between the tree-climbing moments, the bookworm moments, the crazed artistic moments when I threw and broke things I'd made with my own hands.
You feel yourself growing into new bones. You know other people - mostly boys and nosy aunties - are checking your front-side for bumps, signs of some imagined ripeness you can't comprehend. Sometimes you actually do feel ripe, and it's both glorious and horrible; you wonder if you should choose. You can't choose, vacillating between that thresh-hold of newness and the terror of familiarity being stripped away. It's clear by this time that you can't hold onto childhood forever - you are expected to leave, so best get started. People give advice like county fair ribbons they won ages ago, still shiny in the eyes of the prizeholder but looking dim and tattered in the sunlight. Everyone wants to say they had a part in helping you become a lady.
This is the time you learn to be gracious, when you're a girl. Thank people for their compliments and advice; reward their ancient benevolence. Smile. It isn't wrong.
I've tried calculating alternate histories: what if my parents had told me I was pretty, or smart without a "but..." When my parents weren't busy trying to survive their marriage, they seemed to have loftier goals for me than being a pretty wife.
I remember them telling me I should try for college scholarship because they couldn't afford tuition. They looked sad. I didn't understand what they meant or why they were even talking. I guess they wanted what we all want: to break the mould, stop following in my footsteps. Let our children achieve what we couldn't.
I remember my mom, finally divorced, returning from New Orleans with tee shirts for the other kids, a scoop-neck spandex crop top for me. That item of clothing is possibly the only indication I ever received from family that I should give thought to presenting myself as physically attractive. I was mad that I didn't get a shiny Mardi Gras logo, and I didn't know what to do with a shirt that wasn't baggy. I finally wore the top with ratty jeans I'd patched with bandanna-fabric. I can't create an alternate universe to explain why Mom wanted me to have that girly-top. It probably spoke to something deep within her she couldn't explain, either.
I remember my grandma telling me if I kept up my grades she would pay for Notre Dame; I could live with her instead of on campus. I didn't understand any of this conversation, either. I was probably wearing that spandex top and a sullen face. I didn't want to live with my grandma. This moment I sort of regret. And I sort of regret angrily breaking things - ceramics, paintings, notebooks - wanting to be acknowledged as something other than my work. Maybe trying to understand my value as a woman.
In the now, I measure myself by my work, but I am sometimes surprised when appreciated as a person, and it's still awkward if someone tries to appreciate me as a woman. I like the lesson I learned - I am more than a sum of my parts.
Somewhere between questioning ripeness and hitch-hiking to Texas there was a conversation nobody remembered to have with me. There are still so many things I don't understand. I think in the end, though, I've ended up exactly what I should have been all along.
Thanks, Mom. You did alright.