"The hardest thing was when I looked at my daughters, and they were old women."
My grandmother never had to look at me when we talked; I was usually buried in a book or magazine. She was old enough that she no longer crocheted or did needle-work, her version of distractions, so she would just sit.
"If they were old women, then so was I. Older even. But I never thought of myself as old until they were."
She had to be nearing eighty then, both of her daughters shy of sixty. My own baby girl, an arm baby, and me young in my twenties.
Lying beside me today, sick in this last week of school. I feel her next to me. She lacks only about 2 inches looking me in the eye. Long gone are Dora and Elmo. Even Jesse and Shake it Up are passing us by. She prefers reruns: Cosby, Fresh Prince, Full House, Everybody Hates Chris.
She can use the microwave, wash dishes, fold clothes, clean a bathroom, hold an intelligent conversation with adults, read, multiply, divide, straighten her hair, sign herself in at the doctor's office, underline the predicate, circle the preposition, post photos to Instagram, and facetime with her Pops.
As much as she knows, these are the things I hope she learns from me:
1. You are not defined by your breasts, your behind, or your beauty.
We stopped by the Dollar Store on the way home; she was on the next aisle over, looking at press-on nails. I rounded the corner saw the boys, two of them, maybe 12 or 13. One elbowed the other, motioned toward my daughter. I sailed beside them, turned, channeled my tattoos like a superman suit, hidden beneath my dress slacks and blouse, and gave them my "I will cut you and they won't find the bodies" face, and they skulked off, mission to talk to the "hot" tween girl thwarted. And I decided, @ that moment, to change careers. Tattoo shop, Mossy Oak employee, mechanic. Anything where I could wear tougher clothes and carry some type of weapon. (I relayed this story to my usually calm and level-headed husband. He is buying a gun and calling his cousin to get a pit-bull.)
I grew up when cute, petite, tiny girls were it. Tiffany, Alyssa Milano, Debbie Gibson, Whitney Houston. How I would have loved a Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson, Adele...anyone at all with breasts and a butt. All the 80s and 90s taught me was that thin girls become famous and date Corey Haim, us early-developers get a life of faking sick to avoid jogging in PE and having the boy behind you in Mississippi history try to feel you up all year when you pass papers back.
But now I see it differently. In an age of twerking videos, Kim Kardashian thick bodies and curves, when my baby girl's baby chubbiness is transforming and boys look at her, I worry what her curse will be.
I want her to know she is more than that beautiful face that has stopped strangers for nearly 11 years. She is more than junk in the trunk (her friend's phrase) and dance moves. And though these components that make-up her appearance will be with her, and likely be others' first impressions, they are not her at all. They are, rather, how she looks. And those are not the same.
I also want her to know that it is so, so good to know she is pretty, to feel pretty, and to be confident. She is not conceited if she likes her hair or her complexion. When someone says she is beautiful, I want her to say, "thank you" and mean it. To never be afraid to accept a compliment or deflect it with some inane counterargument, "You think so? I thought my hair looked bad."
2. You are also more than your brains and talent.
I was smart; it was my thing. I wasn't particularly athletic beyond middle school; I wasn't the outgoing fun type. I was good grades and know-it-alls. And I believed my hype. (Again, please let me take this opportunity to apologize to those who knew me before I was thirty-five.)
How I am proud of her As and awards. I am proud of her cheer ability, reading level, and critical thinking. But I hope she learns she is more than smart, quick-witted, and athletic.
And just like beauty, it is great to be proud of these talents, Better to know they do not define the whole of you.
3. That I will always tell her the truth, even when it is hard.
I was one of those parents who didn't want to do the whole Santa Claus thing. It felt like I would be lying to my child for years, and I absolutely wasn't going to do it. Until I caved. (We will call it peer pressure, but that is only because I would hate to call out my parents online.) So we Santa'd it for a few years, until we just didn't anymore. I don't think baby girl considers me dishonest, but may that be my only lie.
When you are an unmarried mom of a different raced child, you answer hard questions early.
"Why was I the only one in my class who didn't get invited?"
"Are you bad because you're not married and have a baby?"
It is the older questions that have truly been harder because she has formed opinions and has seen discrepancies and doesn't just believe everything I say because I'm her momma.
"If L___ (stepdad) ever told you to leave me, would you?"
"A man blew up the race in Boston? Why do you think he did that?"
"Who will take care of me if you die?"
And on the way home from our hair appointment Friday night, "Are Eric and Dave married? Like you and L______ are married? And who had their kids?"
And so I do what I've always done, take a breath, and start slowly. It has been my goal to answer honestly, trying hard to give facts and information without going overboard into detail or making everything political, right or wrong. "I think they love each other like L_____ and me. They have been together and lived in the same house together for a long time. But the law in this state says that they can't be married, legally, like L____ and me because they are both men. (I resist here. Oh, do I resist! There is an impassioned speech about interracial marriage being illegal within the last 40 years. But she didn't ask.) Dave was married to a woman before he met Eric. Dave and that woman had two girls, but they got divorced. Now she and Eric and Dave all help take care of them together." Her response, "Cool. What are we having for supper?"
4. That women are just as good as men and can do anything they set their mind too.
I was a pre-school feminist. It is a true story around my home that my mother was called into the Temple Baptist Pre-School office because I was making a fuss over the Letter People. Though I was only 5, I knew there weren't nearly as many girl Letter People as there were boys. And that was not fair. (As an adult I remember the girls [the 5 vowels] were also kind of miserable: Ms. A-choo, Ms. Obstinate....)
This story is second-only to the one of me arguing my mother to exhaustion about whether I could tee-tee standing up. She tried and tried to tell me that girls could not do this. And finally, one day relented, and I soaked my legs and the tiny NFL stool I was standing on.
So began my love affair with Gloria Steinem, Gertrude Stein....any woman who I thought gave it to the MAN. (Yes, I wore t-shirts that read, "People call me a feminist when I do anything that distinguishes me from a doormat.") I protested National Honor Society when they barred a pregnant high-school female from joining but not her baby's daddy!!, was a card-carrying NOW member, and lived at home and went to college paid for by my parents. It is much easier to be a radical when someone else is paying the bills!
And though my parents were conservative and traditional (& suffered through my zealousness over women's lib), they never once told me that I couldn't do something because I was a girl. Play football with the neighborhood boys: check; wear Chuck Taylor's: check; be a lawyer/doctor/astronaut: check.
And I hope that is what baby girl feels. The world is hers, all of it. And any part she wants is OK for a woman.
5. That letting a man love and help you doesn't make you weak.
I owned my own house, my own car, had a career, a 401k, and had successfully replaced the plastic flange thing in the toilet tank. I didn't need the bearded man in the suit with the spiky preacher hair. It didn't matter that he was funny or smart or could do Steve Harvey as Sister Odell without missing a beat. I didn't need him.
But I did. I knew it always, from the first moment he shook my hand across a crowded table at lunch. I needed him in my life.
May she see that I am still me, still strong and capable, even though he opens my car door or send me flowers. That sharing a house with the people you love is more important than whose name is on the title. That he is still a man sitting outside the dressing room holding my purse and neither of us is smarter or better than the other. We are just smarter and better because we are together.
And with this may she see the importance of the right man. No, I would never leave her for anyone. But he would never ask me to.
It is tempting at times to hold her close, too tight so that I can control the world she knows. But at what risk? Would she be better off afraid rather than cautious? Naive rather than educated? Sheltered rather than realistic?
I hope that she learns all she can from all of us that came before. These lessons and the most important ones I learned from my parents: that I will always be here, even if she falls. Hard. And that a praying parent is the best kind to have.