Jan 20 2014

How Fitting

The saleswoman directed us to the fitting room, a long row of closets where we could undress and try on our selections. Short-pants and I had toured the lingerie department thoroughly, in search of new bras. We used to find them easily in the girl’s section, the starter bras for budding young women. I’d noticed the week before that those easy-to-buy standards were not only a bit ragged, they were too tight. It was time to buy her a real bra.

I’d wager that most women remember the acquisition of their first bra, and not always happily. It’s a question – and I’ve asked different circles of girlfriends over the years – that’s always met with groans. How could such a simple step into womanhood have so many unpleasant stories? My experience is a classic example: My mother, noting that my nipples were popping through my favorite striped turtleneck sweater, drove me to McCurdy’s department store. It was “out of town,” meaning it was a 30-minute drive (that was a good distance in those days) so you didn’t go there for every-day things. It was a special trip. This was where we went to do Christmas shopping, or to buy back-to-school clothes. I remember coming home after those late August shopping trips and laying all the new outfits on my bed and feeling the discordant mix of excitement about going back to school along with a deep sadness about the waning of summer and its late sunsets long after dinner, stretching the hours of play to the maximum.

In the same shopping plaza as McCurdy’s, there was a lingerie store called The Ethel Abraham Shop. It was classy place. My underwear worldview, in house_of_underwearthose days, was fairly polarized. You bought underwear at a department store like McCurdy’s, or by mail-order from Frederick’s of Hollywood, which was reserved for people kinkier than my mother or her circle of friends. Lingerie was an evocative word. It spoke of the unspoken: sex. Or so I thought, until Ethel’s little boutique became part of my awareness. Its balance of quality silk and satin with just a very tiny hint of sensuality (at least what ended up in our home) opened my mind to the possibility that you could wear silky underthings without being one of the models in the Playboy magazines I’d found stacked in the bottom drawer of an old junky cupboard in the backroom of our house.

Sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s turquoise Chevy Impala, I pictured us going to Ethel Abraham’s, imagining what it would be like to walk out of the store with one of her distinctive boxes. They were usually plain on the outside, but when opened a bright flowering print exploded from the interior of the box. A metaphor, I suppose, for the lingerie she sold: something beautiful but kept inside, hidden beneath a simple, unremarkable exterior. My father used to go to Ethel’s on the day before Christmas and pick up gifts for the women in his life: my mother, his sister and his mother. The shop carried a lovely array of nightgowns and robes, silky and lacy and soft to the touch. One year he gave my mother an elegant pink quilted robe that came in a long flat brown box. When she opened the lid, her face conveyed her delight. The robe was folded in the bottom of the box and I couldn’t see it until she held it up for us, but I knew right away it was from The Ethel Abraham Shop because of the flower print on the inside of the lid.

Forty years later, cleaning out my mother’s backroom, I found that box, or one just like it. My mother recycled boxes for years – she piled them on a table next to the cupboard with the hidden Playboys – and you could find any size you wanted for any occasion. This was especially handy for gift-wrapping at Christmas. The box from Ethel’s was used and re-used and re-used again, saved because of its beauty or perhaps because of its nostalgia. I had a hard time throwing it away and even included it in the shipment of things I sent to France. It was only there, out of the context of my family home and its thick web of childhood memories that I could see it for what it was: a dilapidated, overused 40-year old cardboard box. Even the pattern on the interior had faded. I finally put it in the recycling bin and watched the garbage truck pick it up and haul it away, but not without a deep sigh.

My mother parked the car in front of the entrance to McCurdy’s. I was mildly disappointed, and yet at the age of eleven or twelve or whatever, I was old enough to reason that I wouldn’t be fitted for my first bra at Ethel’s. I was excited enough about the acquisition I was about to make to erase any disappointment. I was also a bit nervous. Like any adolescent girl, I was self-conscious about my body. I knew I’d have to strip and let my mother examine me. I was embarrassed just thinking of it.
leopard
It played out pretty much like my worst nightmare: the racks of the bra department were thick with cupped, hanging devices that looked like a jungle to navigate. The saleswoman was right out of central casting: pointy-heeled shoes with skin-tight pants in a leopard print (when leopard was out of fashion), a thin sweater over her thick middle and cat-eye glasses hanging from a chain around her neck. When she asked if she could help us it was more of a screech than a request. Her voice was incapable of any volume but public broadcast.

My mother answered, matching her volume. “Yes, we’re here to buy a bra for my daughter. It’s her first one.”

Every other shopper in the department turned to look at me, the newbie. I suppressed the instinct to turn and run out of the store – I really wanted a bra, all my friends were wearing one – and just dropped my head, cringing inside, praying that being “out of town” meant none of the people who could overhear this conversation might actually know me.

The saleswoman ran her eyes up and down my chest and torso, then reached out and put her hands on my shoulders, pushing them back and thrusting my very small breasts toward her.

“Stand up tall, sweety, let me have a look at you.”

A half-dozen white “trainer” bras were placed on the glass counter for my mother to inspect, which she did by holding them up so that everyone in the store could inspect them, too. When I could escape to the dressing room, I pulled the curtain closed, fussing with it to keep it fully shut in order to achieve the privacy I felt I deserved. My striped turtleneck came off and on the chair and before I had a chance to clasp one of the bras around my body, my mother had thrown the curtain open.

“Let me see, honey.”

She was helping me to adjust the straps when the bobcat-dressed lady barged in and asked for viewing rights. She pushed her way in, taking over for my mother, instructing me to bend over into the bra, and fill the cups – not that I had much to fill them – before standing upright. Her cold hands poked and prodded to make sure it fit correctly, adjusting the shoulder straps and then snapping the strap in the back – ouch! – to see how tight it was.

I was sure everyone in the lingerie department could not only see into my dressing room, but could hear my mother and this tacky woman discussing how to fit a bra to my barely-existent breasts. They kept handing me different models, and ripping the curtain open before I’d hooked them on. I felt like a mannequin being dressed and undressed in the window. I was cold, cranky and tortured. I just wanted to get a bra and get out of there.

Later, in the parking lot, a bag of new bras in my hand, I eyed the sign for The Ethel Abraham Shop. When I had real breasts, I told myself, I’d go there. It had to be more civilized.

~ ~ ~

While perusing the racks for the right style of bra for someone Short-pants’ age, I came upon several models that appealed to me as well. The straps on my best black bra were on the verge of disintegrating, I needed a new one to wear under my favorite black sleeveless sweater. So as we speak_the_truthwere bra hunting for her, I collected some for myself. We entered the dressing room – at the Corte Ingles, a much upscaled version of McCurdy’s – with our hands full. The saleswoman didn’t stay around to assist us, a slight disappointment as I’ve outgrown the need for privacy while bra shopping and it’s actually nice to have someone at your beck and call to fetch better sizes and make suggestions based on a full knowledge of the inventory. There were intercom phones in the dressing rooms, in case we needed to call for a size change, but our hands were full with multiple sizes of the same models.

“Do you mind if we use the same dressing room so I can help you?” I asked.

Short-pants wasn’t at all reluctant, she seemed delighted to be sharing the experience with me. We both stripped to the waist and took turns trying on what we’d brought in. I showed her how to bend over and fit herself into the bra, just as I’d been taught, but with a deliberately gentler explanation. She seemed genuinely eager to learn the nuances of putting on a bra. We hooked and unhooked each other, admiring the fabrics and the patterns – teenager’s bras are far more interesting today than in my day – laughing at the ones that were too tight, too big or just too quirky. We stood side-by-side under the fluorescent lighting, staring at each other in the mirror, mother by daughter, in different phases of our lives, but still two women standing together in their bras. Freeze this frame in your memory, I told myself. She won’t want to do this with you forever.

In the end, none of the bras I’d tried on fit. But Short-pants selected two pretty white ones and a deep burgundy satin number, something a little bit soft and ever-so-slightly sensual.

“The thing about nice lingerie,” I told her, while standing in line to pay, “is you wear it for yourself. It’s a gesture of self-respect, having something pretty on, but just for your eyes only.” I didn’t mention that sometimes I keep De-facto in mind when I select my bra and panties for the day. She’ll figure that out on her own.

“Like the purple one?” she asked.

I nodded. “Wear that one on the days when you feel a little down. It’ll give you something to smile about, every time you remember how you’re wearing something beautiful underneath, something just for you.”

~ ~ ~

I learned about the pleasure of lingerie when I moved to France. It’s said that French women spend 20% of their income on their undergarments. It’s certainly a habit I picked up while living there. But recently, in New York on a very quick transit stopover, I spent a Sunday afternoon with two college friends and the subject of lingerie came up. After a long lunch, including a bottle of wine, we walked back out on to the street debating what to do. pink_negligeTwenty years ago this same trio would have gone to a movie or hit a favorite jewelry shop. Last Sunday we went to Sugar Cookies, an exclusive lingerie shop. It was about to close, but stayed open for the three of us. We opened the curtain between the side-by-side fitting rooms and tried on nearly every bra in the store. I wished Short-pants could have been there to see us, each with dozens of silk and lace contraptions going on and coming off, modeling for each other, frank feedback flying back and forth, giggling, oohing and aahhing, viewing ourselves in the beautifully made undergarments. Unlike my experience at Corte Ingles, where nothing came close to fitting me, nearly everything I tried on seemed to work. An hour later, I laid a pile of lacy things on the counter. The saleswoman rang them up and wrapped them, and my friends and I walked out of the door swinging our bags, exhilarated by the items that only we – or perhaps a special somebody – would get to see.

I’ve overcome any collateral damage from my early bra-buying trauma, though it’s never been a task I’ve relished. At least that awkward first occasion produced the awareness to construct a different experience for my daughters. It occurred to me, giggling with my girlfriends in the dressing room, and reflecting on my shopping trip with Short-pants, too, that trying on bras can actually be something fun to do. How fitting to discover this hidden pleasure, just in time to pass it along.


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.


Mar 8 2011

Determined Women

One morning in November of 1977, my father woke up to discover his wife pictured on the front page of the daily newspaper. She stood with her arm raised defiantly in the air waving a placard, cheering beside her cohorts, the delegation of women from New York State who were attending the Equal Rights Amendment caucus in Houston, Texas. The photograph had been picked up by the Associated Press wire service and appeared in newspapers nationwide – my mother received clippings from friends and family from all over the country.

I would never have called my mother an activist, but I think she classifies. Throughout her life, she was engaged in local and state (and even a little national) politics. A Rockefeller Republican – for real, she knew him – she managed to be fiscally conservative but socially tolerant, something that’s hard to find these days with the cacophony of the current political climate in the US. She was pro-choice and anti-discrimination. She worked for the passage of the ERA because she believed it would give women the opportunities that they deserved. Growing up with my mother, I couldn’t help but be cognizant of the strides women had made. I admired Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug. I would be a feminist too, just like my mom.

It helped a lot that my father stood beside her. He respected her immensely and the support and encouragement she gave to him was reciprocated. As a little girl, watching and learning about male-female relationships, this was the ideal scenario to observe. It created an expectation, one we ought to cultivate in all little girls, everywhere.

A small aberration: in college I attempted to distance myself from the radical segment of the women’s movement by giving a speech about how I didn’t call myself a feminist. It was an exercise for a class titled Persuasive Communication, which happened to be taught by the resident feminist on campus, a woman who once phoned the request line at the college radio station to complain about the lyrics to The Rolling Stones’ Under My Thumb. My speech, I’m afraid, wasn’t terribly persuasive, but it was a pass/fail course and I still got credit for standing up in front of the room. A few years later, when I went to work in the real world, it didn’t take long before I regretted the talking points of that speech. I came to understand that the existence of the radical is what moves the middle, it draws attention to issues that are otherwise swept under the carpet. There is good reason to stand with your strident sisters.

But what do girls today know of the battles fought by our grandmothers and great grandmothers so that we could be liberated? My daughters have seen the photograph of their grandmother practicing her feminist politics, but they don’t understand where she was and what happened, or that even though the amendment was never ratified, it still had an important impact on women’s rights.

“Women, for real, weren’t allowed to wear pants?” Buddy-roo said, in response to my list of all rights women had to fight for. Short-pants was fixated on the idea of equal pay for equal work, shocked that a man might be paid more for doing the exactly same job.

“Does Papa make more than you?”

“When we do the same kind of work, we make the same amount.”

“Did you have to fight him for that?”

I explained that because the previous generations of women protested and pressed for change, now I don’t have to fight, at least not as much as they did. My soapbox continued, delving into the complexities of women’s advancement and how although great strides have been made – here’s where the girls were starting to tune out so I raised my voice – we shouldn’t take them for granted ever. I told them how women are still paid and treated differently in many professions, especially when it comes to top management, and how there are some people who want to take away a woman’s right to medical care and advice that allows us to remain independent.

“But Papa said women were taking over the world,” said Short-pants, a reference to a speech De-facto made to his Toastmasters club. His speech combined his story of renting a muscle car with a summary of an Atlantic Magazine article about the end of men ruling in the workplace. He practiced it for her so many times that she memorized it, too. “Men. Love. Cars.” She’d repeat these opening words of his speech, emphasizing each word, just as he did.

“Even so,” I said, “we have a long way to go.” I thought about the veiled women who might prefer to be uncovered, and about the atrocities against women that are permitted and promoted in other cultures. Some day I’ll make the girls more aware of this particular brand of religious and cultural inequity, but it didn’t have to be today. They were still getting their heads around the idea of being prohibited from voting, playing sports or simply wearing trousers.

All of this just the warm-up for an inspired cultural excursion to a little museum down the street, the Galerie des bibliotèque-de-la-ville, which happened to be exhibiting a collection of photographs of French feminist movement. Short-pants was eager to come along, Buddy-roo not so much, opting to stay at home and watch a Barbie movie that I would later try to interpret for her through a feminist lens: “See, the princess didn’t need the prince to rescue her, she had her own creative ideas and they worked together to solve the problem.”

What better way to celebrate Women’s History month than an edifying stroll through French feminist history, of which I know very little. But even if I didn’t recognize the names of the women in all those photographs, I could recognize their spirit; there was a look of determination in the eyes of every portrait we saw.

I pointed this out to Short-pants, as we walked past the framed photographs, reading the paragraph about each woman’s contribution to the feminist movement. I told her about how the simple choices that she and I count on would not exist were it not for the spirit of these courageous women. What I didn’t her – not yet – is how lately it feels like women’s rights are being assailed in the United States, and that ultimately having a foot on French soil may be the thing keeps her free and fierce.

“When I grow up,” she said, nodding at the photographs, “I’m going to be just as determined.”

“That’s just what it takes,” I said, hoping she never has to put her fist in the air to get what she wants. But if it comes to that – because she’s got a bit of her grammy in her – I think she’ll be up to the task.


Jun 11 2010

India Dreaming

The women sat in a circle on the floor – actually the roof, the meeting took place on the flat rooftop of someone’s house. The cement walls of the balcony painted lime green, adjacent to a house of pumpkin orange, and each and every one of the women wrapped in a vibrant sari, the whole scene like a painter’s palate of the colors of India. They chanted together, a call and response that sounded almost like a prayer but was probably a pledge to honor the agreement of this community of about twenty women, all of whom have come together in the name of micro-credit.

They have all taken a loan, something equivalent to several hundred dollars each, and they meet every week to check in on how their small businesses are doing, and to make a collective weekly payment. The interest ends up being nearly 20% by the end of a year-long loan, which might seem egregious except for the fact that they have no collateral and there are money-lenders who charge much more. It is a way to get the money to start a small business – to buy a cow, buy supplies for a small restaurant, retool a cottage-industry toy-factory – and to produce cash-flow for their household that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to create.

We are in India, we came to lead a meeting for an organization, Unitus, an important innovator in the field of poverty reduction. Part of the meeting included this field visit, a chance for everyone who works at Unitus to see how important it is, the work they do, by visiting the microfinance institutions (MFIs) that make the loans, and also the clients who take them. Seeing it first hand makes you realize how important this work is, how what they’re doing really matters.

A few of the women stepped up to the front of the circle where the representative of the MFI was seated and paid the installment in cash; the tattered bills were counted out carefully as they sat and watched. After the payments were made, they grouped in smaller circles and had a chance to talk with the women about their loans, their businesses, what they need. They are grateful for the loans, but they wish could they could borrow more. They have dreams of other things they want to do.

After the meeting we were taken around the town – halfway between Bangalore and Mysore – and several of the women showed us where they live and work and answered more questions about the kind of expenses they have. We did the math in our heads. Even though these loans are helping to create growing businesses and in some cases even employment to others, these families are still living on just a few dollars a day, sometimes less. And this is not the worst of the poverty in India, or elsewhere.

This morning, for the first time in too long, I woke without an alarm. No kids to get ready for school. No plane to catch. No workshop to run. Not a single pending activity that required timely attention. I woke naturally, when my body was finished sleeping. This is a luxury.

Without the need to bound out of bed (or drag myself out of it), I lay still, listening to the waking world. The metal ceiling fan in our hotel room clips along, some creaky piece of it not quite fitting, ticking like a metronome. Bird-calls I do not recognize come from the garden outside our balcony. Even though we are 5 km outside of Mysore, you can still hear the muted, distant sounds of the chaotic traffic in the city – rattling old buses and the distinctive beeping of the tuc-tuc horns.

Then, the sound of a crowd, cheers that crescendo and fall, whistles and buzzers: the sound of the Lakers vs. the Celtics. De-facto turned on the TV to watch the NBA playoffs. It is morning here, the night game is on in Boston; he gets to watch it live. He is delirious.

Our hotel was once a palace, designated for guests of the king of this region. Yesterday we visited the Maharaja Palace, it put this one to shame. But still, when we arrived earlier this week, this white domed, grand building made for an impressive approach. Once inside, the sense of opulence wore off. Though it is a building that speaks of its own grandeur, it is aged now, a tired tribute to its more glorious past. Still, I like it. Were it taken over by the Four Seasons and restored to immaculate elegance, it would no doubt be a work of commercial art, but it would not have the funky historic charm that it has now, that makes you feel like you have actually stepped backwards into another era of India’s history. And because we are here off-season, and we were part of a large group, the price was very right. The group has left, but De-facto and I remain, taking advantage of such grand accommodation at a discounted rate (about this, he is also delirious) and resting, playing tourist. Mostly resting. Talking. Wondering about our future. Where should we be? Is France the right place for the girls? Aren’t we both a little restless? Where else could we go? Would we return to the states? Go someplace else exotic? Is it time for a new adventure?

We laugh and dream. On some level we believe, we know, we can go anywhere we want. We can choose where we want to live, and find a way to get there. We can travel; leaving our children in the care of someone else, just to come to India for a week. We can go shopping at the silk emporiums and come home with gifts that our girls will appreciate, but they don’t really need. Not because we are so very rich; we are not. But we have the means to do the things we dream of doing.

I keep thinking about those women, meeting on the rooftop, draped in their colorful fabrics, faces worn and weary from constant labor, but still somehow – amazingly – serene and beautiful. They work so hard and they don’t give up. My life is privileged compared to theirs, but if they would only loan me a little of their grace, I might appreciate it more.


Mar 10 2010

Of Whales and Women

We trudged along the sandy path lined with scallop shells, following it to the edge of the camp and down a narrower path leading to the beach. We were a symphony of sporting gear: our waterproof pants shooshing back and forth in rhythm with each step, our knee-high rubber wellies marching out a hollow gahlump-gahlump percussion as we crossed the sandy flats to the rocks where the pangas were moored. Each one took her turn sitting on the gunwale, swinging legs over into the small boat until six plus the guide were situated on the flat bench seats and Ranulfo, the driver – whose father was the first person to touch a whale in this lagoon – pushed off and drove out, away from the shore.

A 5-minute open-throttled ride until we reached the point at the edge of the lagoon, where the boat slowed and stopped, radioing “Tico, Tico, Tico!” for permission to enter. Tico, guardian of the lagoon, squawked his okay on the radio and waved back to us from his chair on the shore. The panga motored forward and into the dark green waters of the lagoon.

This escape, a whale-watching trip to Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico, was the inspired idea of my friend the Fiesta Nazi, a woman who needs no excuse to abduct her gal-pals for a good adventure, and yet she used the occasions of a rather monumental birthday and International Woman’s Day as reasons to invite a gaggle of girlfriends from every stage of her life to join her in the Baja in search of gray whales. Imagine a remote camp on the beach with 18 wildish whale-smitten women. The days were sunny and slow, pivoting around patient excursions into the lagoon to watch for whales. Happy happy happy hour started at sunset and stretched through dinner and late into the night. Many of us, liberated from motherly duties, took advantage of these un-dutied days, as did those not encumbered with family appendages, equally happy for the leisure. One imagines that the crew at this camp – kind and most attentive – didn’t expect a pack of women to consistently stay up as late, drink as much beer and generate as much sexually innuendoed humor as we managed to stir up. Plus we were crazy about the whales.

“Look, eleven o’clock,” someone shouted, pointing just left of the bow. A football field’s length away, the shiny body of a gray whale thrust itself straight up out of the water. “That’s a spy-hop,” said our guide, José. Everyone in the boat fell silent, probably pondering what it would be like to be able to push more than a third of your own body weight vertically out of the water without touching the sea floor. “Why do they do that?” someone finally asked. José’s answer became one of the trip mottos: “Because they can.”

“Three o’clock!” All heads turned to starboard. About 15 meters from the boat, a 20-foot long gray whale dipped out and back into the water. Ranulfo turned the nose of the boat and inched forward respectfully, taking us to get a closer look. “That was the baby,” José said, “now look for the mama.”

Everyone sat upright, on vigil, heads left to right scanning the water, cameras poised. The sea held its breath like we held ours, until a long thick mammal came into view, submerged, hovering – maybe even teasing us – before breaking through the surface and baring her knuckled spine.

She was in no hurry. Her thick spotted body skimmed the water in first gear, turning slightly just before she disappeared, leaving only an odd rounded footprint into which the waves could not penetrate. Ranulfo cut the engine so we heard only the waves lapping against the wooden panga. We sat, frozen, for the longest, quietest minute. Just when I had given up, certain they had swum beneath us and far away, both whales, mama and baby, sliced open the surface in tandem, gliding in slow-motion through the water only a few meters from our boat. The mother’s body was thick and spotted, decorated with patches of barnacles. The baby whale – José estimated it was a month old – was smoother, newer, no discoloring on the skin. It had not yet picked up the marks that scar and give character to an older whale, the markings that mamas (and women of a certain age) collect over time, the wear and tear and bumps and barnacles that come from navigating an ocean from one lagoon to another season after season.

The timing of this trip was not uncomplicated. When I made the decision to attend, I did not know that I would spend three weeks away from home this winter, caring for my mother. I engaged in a serious debate with myself to decide if this trip was still doable. I was not sure I’d have the stamina. I wondered about the wisdom of a third transatlantic aller-retour in 6-week window of time. I was also a little bit afraid that escaping to a secluded camp with no technology to distract me would be too much of an opportunity to confront my grief. Running about and being busy is further protection from the pain that still feels so close, a long shadow just below the surface waiting to breach.

But De-facto and his mother offered their full support, so I hugged my little girls goodbye, again, and boarded the plane to find myself removed from the strain of the recent chain of events and enveloped in the rounded embrace of the best friends of one of my best friends: clever, accomplished, adventuring women, in abundant possession of wise words, crazy spirits and a good dose of humor; well keeled women unafraid to camp outside and live out loud.

On the other side of the lagoon, we cruised directly into the patch of birded water filled with flocks of gulls and terns and egrets, and the occasional pelican with his beak pressed shut as if keeping a secret. Some of the birds took wing as we sped by; others paid us no attention, perching nonchalantly on the surface of the water. Beside us, three dolphins danced in and out of the water like lords-a-leaping, keeping pace with the boat. Just ahead, a whale breached the surface of the lagoon, twisting and slapping the water with its fluke as it slowly dove back in. It felt as though the birds and whales and dolphins had opened a door to us, pulling us fully into their watery world. We were no longer observing the wildlife around us; we had joined it.

What a privilege to spend a string of days with nothing to do but pet a whale’s nose and look her right in the eye, go for long walks on the beach, eat fish tacos and drink shots of mezcal or cold cervezas from a continuously re-stocked ice-chest. Each day, a little of the weight of these last weeks was chipped away. Each day, a few salty tears fell back into the ocean. Each day, I felt a little more restored. I return to my world, hopeful.

Nothing makes up for the loss of one’s mother, but the healing company of so many compassionate middle-aged sisters sure helps. Like the mama whales, we’re all a little bit worn; we’ve collected the marks that build character. We’ve endured the wear and tear and bumps and bruises that come from caring and crying, from coaxing ourselves through the odd passages of life that test and jeer at us. We keep swimming forward with grace, navigating what life hurls at us, season after season, each one of us breaching and spy-hopping and dancing in the water in our own unique way, because we can.