Sep 6 2012

Things Could Happen

At what age do we start to tell our children about the terrible things that could happen? We try to keep them innocent for as long as possible, perpetuating stories like Santa and the Tooth Fairy. We encourage their kindness and fairness, wanting them to believe the world is a kind and fair place. We build a magic bubble around them so they can grow up feeling safe. I’m never sure if we’re investing in their optimism or shielding them from the harsher truth. Maybe a dose of both.

Buddy-roo thumped down the stairs for one last goodnight kiss while De-facto and I were watching a movie, arriving just in time to see the scene in which a bold manservant attempts to force himself upon a young maid, who, fortunately, manages to push him off her and escape.

“What was he doing?” she asked as I steered her back upstairs.

“He’s trying to hurt her, but she got away.” I didn’t elaborate, partly because I wasn’t sure how much of the attempted rape scene I wanted to explain to a not-yet-nine-year-old, but also because I wanted to watch the movie, not talk about it.

The next morning she descended for the morning cuddle – these are still happening – and after a moment of wordless staring at the ceiling and listening to the familiar morning sounds of cleaning trucks spraying water in the street and pigeons cooing outside the window, she brought it up.

“Why was that guy trying to hurt the girl in the movie last night?”

These are the conversations I wish we didn’t have to have, but I won’t avoid them. One of the reasons I’ve told my daughters how babies are made is so they know how to protect themselves. I can’t warn them to watch out for strangers, without telling them what strangers might do. They cannot defend themselves from an atrocity like a rape if they don’t know what it is or what to watch out for. I hate to frighten them, but I don’t want them to be in the dark.

I took a deep breath and explained that the mean guy was pushing himself on the young woman because he wanted to have sex with her.

“Why was she fighting him back?” Buddy-roo asked.

“Because she didn’t want to have sex with him.”

“Why didn’t she just say no?”

I explained how there are in the world some arrogant men – boys, too – who think it’s okay to force themselves on a woman. They think if she says no, she doesn’t really mean it. Sometimes they don’t even bother to ask.

“If you’re ever in a situation like this, you have the right to say no. Say it loud and clear, and then get out of there.”

I am lucky to have never encountered such a scenario, but I imagine it isn’t always easy to scream no and get out. The whole subject – whether its date-rape or an attack by a stranger – is much more complex and there is no one right way to escape. You’d want to protect your sexual dignity, but you also might have to save your life, if a weapon was involved. Difficult choices might be required. Things could happen.

~ ~ ~

An exhibit at the Hotel de Ville, C’étaient des Enfants, chronicles the story of the children who were deported to the war camps during World War II. A number of these children disappeared right from our neighborhood; almost every school within ten blocks of our house has a plaque to commemorate the children who were taken. Just a few streets away is the address of the apartment featured in Sarah’s Key, the story of a young girl separated from her family during the Vel d’hiv Roundup when, in the course of just two days, 8,000 Jews were collected and deported.

Last week I took the girls to see it. I could have waited a few days until school started and gone on my own or with De-facto. I knew there’d be haunting images, the kind that can produce nightmares. I knew I was putting a sad and frightening story in front of them, but despite the picture of horrific reality that would be revealed, I felt they should see it.

I had to explain, as we toured the exhibit, why only some of the children in the class photographs had stars sewn on their clothing, how in one case an entire class of students completely disappeared, how some families were surprised in the night and then separated and sent off to camps, how the French police cooperated while many neighbors turned a blind eye.

“How could they let that happen?” Short-pants asked, earnestly.

That’s the question, isn’t it? How could they, a modern society, allow a paranoid politician to rise to power and enact legislation that denies the rights of an entire law-abiding segment of the population? It’s preposterous, that this could ever have happened, and to such extremes. But it did. And not so long ago.

~ ~ ~

These days I read the news, and I must admit, some of it seems just as preposterous to me. For instance, it’s become commonplace for white-haired male politicians to sponsor legislation that has a negative impact on a woman’s right to reproductive health. A candidate who knows little about a woman’s anatomy, let alone the reproductive process – and who, remarkably, sits on a science committee – proclaims that a woman’s womb won’t allow fertilization if she’s raped. Another lawmaker proposed legislation that would criminalize miscarriage and make abortion completely illegal, without exception. The bill didn’t pass, but that it was even suggested, that it could possibly be considered illegal for a woman to choose to end a pregnancy that was a result of a rape, this seems barbaric to me.

These social conservatives would insist a woman give birth to a baby that she never intended to have, whether the result of a rape or a broken condom, and that she cannot afford to raise. Yet they would cut a welfare program that would support her when she doesn’t abort, and they would un-fund an organization like Planned Parenthood which – except in the case of rape – might have helped her avoid the pregnancy all together.

It’s preposterous, isn’t it?

I live in a country where abortion is legal, where a big mistake or a violating incident can be remedied. It’s not without angst – abortion is never an easy decision for a woman – but at least it’s without felony charges. If my daughters stay here, they will have the right to choose. But I fret about what’s happening now to women in the United States, how the rights our grandmothers and mothers fought for – my mother was a supporter of Republican Majority for Choice – like the right to make choices about our bodies, the right to obtain safe birth control, all these aspects of reproductive health that, incidentally, contribute to our economic health, that these could slowly be stripped away. How could we let this happen?

That’s the question, isn’t it? How could we, a modern society, allow paranoid politicians to rise to power and enact legislation that denies the rights of an entire law-abiding segment of the population? It’s preposterous, that this could happen. But could it?


Mar 4 2012

Just Us Girls

Feeling proud that I’d conducted the entire business of buying our train tickets in Spanish and not once reverting to French, I pointed the girls toward the train station café. Buddy-roo strutted ahead of me, pulling the miniature rollaway valise – my mother’s old weekend travel case – that I’d packed for all three of us for our overnight trip. I liked the idea of one of my daughters dragging that same little black case behind her, evidence of the good-at-traveling gene successfully passing from generation to generation.

It’s comforting to me, the sound of a suitcase rolling behind you. I like hearing muffled departure announcements in another language that you have to strain to understand, or can’t comprehend at all. I’m at home at a train station café with a perk-me-up-coffee or a celebratory beer, anticipating the voyage ahead. I love to travel, so did my mother, and her mother. I think I’ve succeeded at infecting my girls with the bug, too.

“Why isn’t Papa coming with us?”

“He has to work. But we get to play.” The timing of his job was perfect. The girls were on vacances scolaire, a two-week winter break. We’d headed south, making stops in France and northern Spain, before driving on to Madrid.

“I thought it’d be good to have a little excursion,” I said, “just us girls.”

I’d envisioned the three of us, mother and daughters, traveling light with only our curiosity and a change of underwear, winding our way through narrow and yet unexplored (by us) cobblestone streets. A friend suggested a day trip outside of Madrid. I figured De-facto could use a quiet night to himself – a projection of my own preference for solitude before a job starts, or so he protested, when I informed him of my desire to stay overnight with the girls in Toledo.

Except it wasn’t De-facto who needed the break, it was me. We’d survived, remarkably well, through several long car trips and the zipping and of unzipping suitcases in a different hotel every few days, but I was reaching my limit. Unfortunately I didn’t realize this until we were at the station café, waiting for the call to board our train to leave Madrid. The girls battled fiercely about being next to or across from me, a good indicator that they, too, were over-saturated with our 24/7 companionship. My admonishments were met with pouty and insolent responses until eventually we sat at three separate tables. I questioned my sanity about being the sole adult chaperone at this ¾-mark in the vacation.

I looked at the barman and shrugged. “Una caña, por favor.” He nodded, knowingly, and poured me a cold glass of beer.

The train ride was just the ticket to distract them from their argument. The excitement of finding the right track, the correct coach and our designated seats obliterated the conflict that had caused such severe enmity. Thirty minutes later, our first view of the medieval walled city had them holding hands and jumping up and down. They were even good sports while we wandered in search of our hotel, a task made more challenging because of the maze-like pattern of Toledo’s narrow streets, and because we arrived at nearly the same hour as a public demonstration. We had to move fast or get stuck in (or run over by) the mass of marching protestors. I spotted a café-bar just ahead of the crowd; we sprinted to it and stepped inside, just in time to watch the long parade of chanting, banner-carrying protestors passing by.

“Who are all those people?” said Buddy-roo.

“They’re demonstrators. It’s like a manifestation in France, a political protest.”

“What’s a political protest?”

“They’re asking the government to change something that they don’t like.”

Redonculous,” said Short-pants. “Why don’t they just write a letter?”

I explained that many letters had probably been written, but in certain situations a collective demonstration is necessary to get the government’s attention.

“It sounds like a big temper tantrum to me,” she said.

“Sometimes that’s what it takes.” I reminded her of the picture of my mother at the ERA convention in the 1970s. That wasn’t a protest, rather an attempt to make a law that would protect the advances already made by the determined women who’d protested and demonstrated so that women could enjoy the same rights as men. “As women – at least in our culture – the two of you have rights that you’d never have if the women from two and three generations before you hadn’t demonstrated in the streets, just like these protestors.”

“You mean like all those women who couldn’t go to the stoning, unless they were dressed as men?” Buddy-roo said.

We’d stayed two nights at a small rural hotel in the north of Spain that had a curious collection of VHS and DVD movies. The Life of Brian, though perhaps not the most ideal family entertainment, was one of the few movies we could watch in English. There is a scene where the participants at the public stoning of a criminal are women (or Monty Python cast members pretending to be women) dressed up as men. We’d had to explain, several times, the significance.

“Yes,” I said. “But I hope you never find yourself at a stoning, dressed as a man or a woman.”

“That’s redonculous,” said Short-pants, “there are no stonings anymore.”

I didn’t tell her – not yet, I will when she’s a little older – that there are places in the world where stoning still occurs, without anything resembling a fair trial. Or how the rule of law – and its boundary with religion – grows blurrier in my own culture these days. I read with furrowed brow the news about proposed legislation to define the personhood of a just-conceived zygote, or attempts to restrict a women’s access to birth control and advice about reproductive health care. When the term slut is used unapologetically by a national media host to describe someone standing up for her rights to birth control, I wonder if something akin to public stonings – with women as the primary target – aren’t coming back into vogue.

Mostly, I worry that my daughters’ generation could end up with fewer rights than mine. It doesn’t impact them now, living in France. But what if they moved back to the United States? Would Short-pants and Buddy-roo would be willing go to the streets in protest to protect the rights achieved by generations of women before them?

We spent the evening wandering the streets of Toledo, sampling tapas at various bars. The girls had stayed up for the late Spanish dinner hour two nights in a row and no doubt this contributed to their ornery outbursts. My strategy was to get a feel for the city by strolling and snacking on enough tapas to feel like dinner. An early night would replenish the sleep in their banks and permit a better mood for tourist activities the following day. The girls are still just shy of the age to fully appreciate museums and churches, but I’d hoped to do at least a drive-by the cathedral and one of the synagogues and if possible peek into the El Greco museum. If I could squeeze in just that small taste of culture, I might be a bit less ornery too.

They resisted the idea, but once I dragged them inside, they marveled at the vaulted nave of the cathedral. While we’re not a church-going family, we respect the opportunity it provides for contemplation and prayer, so we found a pew, seated ourselves quietly and bowed our heads. After her prayer, Buddy-roo made the sign of the cross and looked up at the likeness of Jesus on the crucifix.

“Hey, that looks like Brian,” she said, recalling their (now favorite) movie. The two of them broke into a whispered chorus of the film’s closing song, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Too tired to protest, I hummed along halfheartedly, hoping – praying – that we always can.