Throughout the typical ups and downs of these past couple months, there’s been a theme of thoughts, that have pulled along with them a stream of targeted memories.
How in 4th grade when we were studying the middle ages and we had a series of projects we needed to do to become knighted by our teacher. We got to chose our knighted name, using Sir or Lady, our first name or last name or both. We were told to come up with our name and provide it at the ceremony. I can still feel my surprise that I was the only girl who didn’t use “Lady,” instead requesting Sir K (my first name). I can feel my combination of pride and uneasiness. And confusion. From everything we’d learned, it was the men who got to make important decisions and go out and have fun. Preferring “sir” over “lady” seemed obvious.
How in 5th grade I dressed up as Fred Astaire for Halloween, delighting in tying my bow tie (I’d only known how to tie a tie before that, from years of playing dress up in my father’s clothes). Complete with topper and black cane far taller than me, I tap danced across the stage in the school Halloween parade. It was with a similar blend of confusion, dis-ease, and pride that I accepted compliments from scads of mothers and strange looks from my peers.
How in 6th grade, when opportunities for public cross-dressing were closing down now that we were too old for Halloween parades, I found my venue in the sufficiently vague science project. I researched the history of the radio, created my own radio that received a christian station and a sports station if you were in the right place and had enough patience, and immersed myself in the life of Mr. Hertz. We each had a twenty minute slot to present our science projects to the class. Before my turn, I dodged out of the classroom and into the bathroom where I changed into what I had decided Mr. Hertz was likely to wear, with my usual touch of my father’s old ties and suit jackets. I stood in front of the class I eagerly explained the science of the radio in my over-sized masculine get-up. By the end of the presentation I was sniffing back tears, because my radio was only picking up the christian station, which I could tell because of my hours spent listening to it, but the signal was so fuzzy it was hard to hear particular words and I had failed to impress my peers and teacher. My only solace was my dapper outfit.
These examples are just a few out of a lifetime. Memories gradually shifted from the adorable tomboyish girl who liked to match her father and play dress up in his clothes to the more confusing and strange teenager who wore a bowler hat to her junior prom and asked her second high school boyfriend to put on one of her skirts before having sex with him.
It’s not as though I had no idea this gender-bending was a theme in my development. But more and more, I wonder about my parents’ reactions, or lack thereof. Because when I try to remember their reactions to my mannish qualities, I can’t. I remember my mother telling me what a flirt I am – how I’ve flirted with men of all ages since toddlerhood. I remember my father teasing me for my girly and later feminine qualities. A recent phone call with him helped me process these seemingly contradictions.
It was his birthday, so we talked for almost a full 8 minutes. He told me that his wife gave him an “everything tool” for his birthday that was a miniature version of his old one and could fit inside his pocket along with his cell phone. He’s always had an everything tool – a slightly enlarged Swiss Army knife with every tool one could need. Growing up, I relished the times he let me use it.
When I reached around 14 years, just a year after my rabbi pronounced me a woman on my bat mitzvah, I hit a second rite of passage. My father decided to upgrade his everything tool and gave me his old one. I was over the moon. I carried it everywhere. The thrill of having just the right tool for the job was potent, and somewhat stereotypically masculine. There was a time when, still closeted but no longer to myself, I was teased ruthlessly when I busted out my everything tool in a social gathering to fix a lose screw on a chair. After that, I didn’t carry it around as often, but since have gradually reintroduced it to my life.
So, when he told me about his new everything tool and I shared in his excitement, I then told him that I still use his old everything tool. His first response was, “Oh really? Do you keep the knife sharp?” A bit taken aback, and nervous that I give the right answer, which I knew existed, but I didn’t know what it was, I replied “Um, well, sometimes, I guess.”
“Hah. See that’s the difference between men and women right there. Women don’t know to keep their knives sharp.” With instinctive indignance I replied, “Well, I don’t use the knife part that often. I use the screw drivers and bottle openers and other parts more often.” He’s not one to back down. “Even with kitchen knives, women just don’t sharpen them often enough. This is just one of those things that shows the difference -” “Pa,” I interrupted, “I think most women don’t carry everything tools.”
I knew I’d killed the conversation, though at 7 1/2 minutes I’d done pretty well. There was a silence. Then there was his standard ending line, “Well, I guess neither of us have anything left to say, do we.” He was no longer comfortable and the conversation ended. I hung up the phone and laughed to myself for a while. Only my father could feminize my use of his old everything tool. I relayed this story to a lesbian friend I saw later that day. She looked at me with sorrow and expressed her sympathy that he couldn’t handle my “masculine of center” gender expression, inextricable from my sexual orientation. I continued to laugh and she mused that it was good I could see the humor in it.
I’d never seen anything but humor in it. But, I suppose, there must be something between my reality and his voiced perception. There could be any number of things, discomfort, unfamiliarity, fear, rejection. In the tangled ball of twine that is my relationship to my father and my relationship to my own gender and sexuality, I think I found an end to follow.