Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Great El Paso Piss Off of 1955

In the summer of my thirteenth year, my body betrayed me. The body that had served me so well for my entire life, suddenly became the wrong one. There I was, in the boys department of Sears, trying on jeans, and there it was, in the mirror, not fitting into them. The hips too big, the waist too small. There was no way around it, I could no longer wear boys' clothes. I was turning into a woman. I was going to grow up and be like my mother.

And soon it would never again matter that I was always chosen first for Red Rover! That when I held no one could break through, and when I ran no one could hold. It would only matter that I was female. Suddenly, all the boys, the boys who never knew the answers as fast as I did or got as many right, the boys who were chosen after me, the boys who were afraid to climb as high as I, all the boys had a future that was opening in front of them into endless possibilities, and I had a future that was forcing me down an ever narrowing path. My gender had me pinned to the matt, its knees on my shoulders, as it pressed the pillow of expectation over my face. I was smothering. I was struggling to no avail. I was becoming woman, and woman is limited. I wanted to tend a lighthouse and keep the ships safe, to work my way around the world on a tramp steamer, to dig in Chitzen Itza for the secrets of the past, to pilot a rocket to the moon. And my mother got a trip to the Green Stamp store!

Suddenly, the road that I had intended to take was blocked off and I was being shunted down the dark path, away from the sunshine and fresh air. Down the path that was lined on both sides by the impenetrable brambles of gender. This was no mere detour from my dreams, this was the end of dreams, the end of hope. I, who had lived in the sunshine of future possibility and current mastery for all of my years, was being consigned to the dungeons of womanhood. No hope of deliverance. No sanctuary from despair.

It was during this summer that Linda and I raised our standards in defiance and raged against the coming night and the current discontent. For it was not just the future that brought the need to escape to the two of us. It was also the ugliness of the present.

When childhood is unhappy, children find what refuges they can. For Linda and me, there had been four. The classroom, where I excelled more than she; the playground, where she excelled more than I; the future, where we saw the possibility of shaping our own lives and creating our own reality; and each other. There is nothing as comforting as a best friend, and we had found each other. Best friends and living almost next door to each other. Tomboys. Electric and alive and refusing to be sissy. Sharing the burden of an unhappy home life; a home life that mirrored the other's. Kind and subservient mother. Critical and sarcastic and controlling father (or, in my case, step-father). Being happier outdoors and at school than under the family roof. Sheltering from the fault finding, hiding from the autocrats, we banded together and fought the good fight. We practiced creating the life we wanted, full of adventure and challenge and daring do. We climbed trees and dug holes and created a fort on the other side of the canal and held the girls who simpered and obeyed in total contempt.

If 13 has background music, it can only be pan pipes and calliopes. All pandemonium and cacophony. All a sort of tentative pre-erotic confusion, played all out and full blast, causing adults to wince at the memories it evokes of their own lost but not regretted adolescence. I, who had been so centered just a few months before, was suddenly gasping from the effort of figuring out who I was. I felt tossed about, like a ping pong ball in a tornado; first here, then there, with no warning of when or where I would lurch in a different direction. One week my mother was hearing that I needed a white satin blouse, all the girls in 7th grade wore white satin blouses. The next, she was finding live caterpillars in my pockets. Advance towards adult, retreat toward child; long for glamour, take comfort in the mundane. The changes in my body were confusing, somehow both delightful and dreaded. The changes in my moods were simply horrible. One moment the world was my oyster, the next I wanted to crawl under the dining room table and hide. The body that pleased me one minute shamed me the next. My normally sunny disposition could crumble and, with no warning and for no reason, I would dissolve in tears.

Changing from child to adult was hard enough; to do it as a girl in the 50s added layers of difficulty and pain. Dealing with the confusion caused by my own body, inherent and natural, was a challenge; dealing with the demands of the culture, imposed and artificial, felt impossible. Nature was unfolding me upwards, towards autonomy. Society was repressing me back down toward subjugation.

That was the summer of my one and only attempt at homicide. Of course, he suggested it to me himself, not only the act but the method. That would have been very foolish of him, if it had worked.

What led up to it were the facts that I didn't own a watch and Daddy was obsessed with time. I would go over to Linda's to play on a Saturday and he would tell me to be home by 3:00. Linda and I would be outdoors, being horses or rocket pilots, depending on whose turn it was to choose. Time would pass and I would realize that three was approaching. I didn't consider going home early. Not only were we having fun but if I had to be home by a certain time that meant that he was there, and if he was there it was unpleasant at home. In order to know exactly what time it was, I could knock and ask Linda's mother Fern or go into the house and look. If I went into the house, I got Linda in trouble for letting the air conditioning out. Because, if Daddy was home, so was Tom.

So, I would wait as long as I felt safe, and then check again. And again. And again. And, finally, when it was one or two minutes to three, the mad dash for home.

Naturally, I would come running into the house after three. The punishment for this crime was to have my library card taken away (by paying a quarter and faking my mother's signature, I was able to get a "replacement" library card, and by sneaking the books home I could get around the snatched card pretty well) and to hear him say, once again, "One minute late. Always one minute late. If you were ever one minute early I'd have a heart attack and die."

But the day I came home five minutes early I was fated for disappointment. He didn't even comment, talk about clutch his chest and die! And my mother heard me mutter, as I stamped down the hall to my room, "Promises, promises, nothing but promises."

As the days grew longer, twilight became a warm and wonderful time for the two of us to course the length of the block, running, hiding, darting free, alive, fast! And outdoors! Up and down the block, with Jinx wagging her tail at our heels and the future spread out before us on the far desert horizon.

The days warmed and it got dark before it cooled off. In shorts and camp shirts, bare arms and legs and feet, we seldom walked when we could run.

But we could see the future narrowing. The girl rules. Be pretty. Be nice. Climbing trees isn't ladylike. A sweet girl wouldn't do that. No one will like you if you don't do this. If you ever expect to get married, you will have to do the other thing.

The need to break out became overwhelming. The feeling of despair, a monster that hid in the closet, waiting to spring out at any minute and get us.

And then one day when Tom and Daddy had caught us both outdoors when they got home and we had both had the sarcastic dressing down right in front of Charlie Smith, we found an instrument of defense. That evening as we played, I realized that I had to go inside and pee. But, if I went inside, he might notice me and make me stay in. What to do? Ah, I could go in my back yard, under the Meyer lemon tree. No, what if someone heard me and I got in trouble? Well, then I would have to go somewhere else. How about the Smith's front yard? How close to the front window, Linda wondered, would I dare to get?

Not very close, that first time. But, as the summer progressed, we discovered that if we drank a lot of water we both had plenty of ammunition. And on nights when a neighbor had stood quietly by, listening and doing nothing, while we were humiliated that neighbor would get a visit from the piss patrol. And, as the summer progressed and we remained uncaught, we got bolder. We dared each other closer. And if I Love Lucy or Uncle Miltie or Texaco Star Theater was on, we could get right under a window or next to a front door. Right next to a number of windows and doors, if we filled up at the garden hose.


J said...

That's quite a post, mom. Cherry said, and I agree, that you should submit it somewhere. I don't know where. But the picture you paint of puberty 1950s suburbia is so clear...really good stuff. :)

Deja Pseu said...

Joycelyn, this is some of your best writing ever! And your writing is always great, so that's saying a lot.

I have to wonder though, did you ever get caught???

Maya's Granny said...

Pseu, Now that would have really been caught with my pants down! Luckily, no. We made it totally through the summer, peed on a lot of porches, drank a lot of water! Linda and I still laugh about it, too.

lorettambeaver said...

Yes, little sister, have you ever thought of being published? It is interesting the changes that have taken place in the last few generations. But I somehow think there are still young people out there that may feel locked into some sort of mold, and I hope they realize, we each can be anything we want, if we just have the courage to dream and step forward. I suspect that little did you know how accomplished you would be one day. We only have to imagine it to create it. Love from me. :-)

J said...

Did you print this up and send it to Linda, I wonder? I think she would love it.

Chancy said...

Great writing.

There is a short story in this that should be published. Please write more recollections of those years and add to this and continue to develop.

I was not a "tomboy" but I was an outdoor girl. I was always happiest running, swinging, playing hopscotch, kick the can, climbing the flowering peach tree and flying kites in the field behind our house.

Thanks again.


Chancy said...

I just posted this on my blog "DriftwoodInspiration"

"Thursday, July 27, 2006
The Great El Paso Piss Off of 1955

I don't usually recommend another blogger's post but you must go and read Maya's Granny's post of Thursday July 27, 2006.

She has captured in a brilliant word picture the angst and humor of a 13 year old girl(herself) who did not want to grow into a woman.

Click on the link above at Maya's Granny"

kenju said...

A wonderful post! I also came of age in the 50's and you have brought back lots of memories for me.

Kate said...

I'm Gonna Be An Engineer

* (Peggy Seeger)

When I was a little girl I wished I was a boy
I tagged along behind the gang and wore my corduroys
Everybody said I only did it to annoy
But I was gonna be an engineer

Momma told me, Can't you be a lady
Your duty is to make me the mother of a pearl
Wait until you're older, dear, and maybe
You'll be glad that you're a girl

Dainty as a Dresden statue
Gentle as a Jersey cow
Smooth as silk, gives creamy milk
Learn to coo, learn to moo
That's what you do to be a lady now

When I went to school I learned to write and how to read
Some history, geography and home economy
And typing is a skill that every girl is sure to need
To while away the extra time until the time to breed
And then they had the nerve to say, What would you like to be
I says, I'm gonna be an engineer

No, you only need to learn to be a lady
The duty isn't yours, for to try and run the world
An engineer could never have a baby
Remember, dear, that you're a girl

So I become a typist and I study on the sly
Working out the day and night so I can qualify
And every time the boss come in he pinched me on the thigh
Says, I've never had an engineer

You owe it to the job to be a lady
It's the duty of the staff for to give the boss a whirl
The wages that you get are crummy, maybe
But it's all you get cos' you're a girl

She's smart (for a woman)
I wonder how she got that way
You get no choice, you get no voice
Just stay mum, pretend you're dumb
That's how you come to be a lady today

Then Jimmy come along and we set up a conjugation
We were busy every night with loving recreation
I spent my day at work so he could get his education
And now he's an engineer

He says, I know you'll always be a lady
It's the duty of my darling to love me all her life
How could an engineer look after or obey me
Remember, dear, that you're my wife

As soon as Jimmy got a job I began again
Then, happy at my turret-lathe a year or so, and then
The morning that the twins were born, Jimmy says to them
Kids, your mother was an engineer

You owe it to the kids to be a lady
Dainty as a dish rag, faithful as a chow
Stay at home, you've got to mind the baby
Remember you're a mother now

Every time I turn around there's something else to do
It's cook a meal or mend a sock or sweep a floor or two
I listen in to Jimmy Young, it makes me want to spew
I was gonna be an engineer

Now I really wish that I could be a lady
I could do the lovely things that a lady's s'posed to do
I wouldn't nearly mind if only they would pay me
And I could be a person too

What price - for a woman
You can buy her for a ring of gold
To love and obey (without any pay)
You get a cook and a nurse, for better or worse
No you don't need a purse when a lady is sold

But now that times are harder, and my Jimmy's got the sack
I went down to Vickers, they were glad to have me back
But I'm a third-class citizen, my wages tell me that
And I'm a first-class engineer

The boss he says, We pay you as a lady
You only got the job cos' I can't afford a man
With you I keep the profits high as may be
You're just a cheaper pair of hands

You've got one fault, you're a woman
You're not worth the equal pay
A bitch or a tart, you're nothing but heart
Shallow and vain, you got no brain
You even go down the drain like a lady today

I listened to my mother and I joined a typing pool
I listened to my lover and I put him through his school
But if I listen to the boss, I'm just a bloody fool
And an underpaid engineer

I've been a sucker ever since I was a baby
As a daughter, as a wife, as a mother and a dear
But I'll fight them as a woman, not a lady
I'll fight them as an engineer

Maya's Granny said...

I knew you'd understand!