by Jean Zorn
We named this month’s Short Takes section after a song that was performed most famously by a man – and that exhibited a distinctly male point of view. There is another song, more apt in so many ways, that we should instead have chosen. When ABBA recorded Dancing Queen, the main vocal was sung by the two women in the group, the men on board just for backup and harmony. The lyrics are from the perspective of that seventeen-year-old girl. And, most germane, the song sums up what all the marvelous pieces we’ve chosen for this issue describe: at seventeen, we have within us all we will become, and yet we’re still at a moment when we might, depending on circumstances, character, and luck, become almost anything. But we don’t know that yet. We are not yet what we will be; we are the shy girl, the bookworm, the tomboy – or the Dancing Queen:
Young and sweet
Feel the beat from the tambourine, oh yeah
You can dance
You can jive
Having the time of your life
Ooh, see that girl
Watch that scene
Digging the dancing queen
Take Elizabeth Warren, for example. By seventeen, she had already been the star of her high school debate team. But she was also a child of the 1950s, of Oklahoma (on the scrabbling, southwestern fringe of America’s so-called heartland), and from a family who, as Warren herself described it, was teetering “on the ragged edge of the middle class.” Warren’s mother called herself a housewife, as women proudly did then, even though, to keep the bank from foreclosing on the family’s home, she worked a full-time, minimum-wage job at Sears.
The part of Warren that had won those debating trophies enrolled at George Washington University. But there was another part of her that believed, as women were taught then by every romantic movie they saw and every book or magazine they read, that the natural goal of all good girls was marriage and children. That part led her, at seventeen, to drop out of college, marry Jim Warren (one of the guys from her Oklahoma City high school), give birth to his daughter, choose to be a stay-at-home mother, and even follow him as his jobs took him to Houston and then to New Jersey.
And in that life and that marriage the Dancing Queen might have remained, but for those occasionally helpful standbys, circumstances, character, and luck, that impelled her to finish her college degree at the University of Houston. Even then, she saw herself in traditional women’s roles. Her highest aspiration for herself was to be a teacher, and she taught in the Houston public schools until the move to New Jersey cut that short. The first wave of modern feminism was changing what many of us believed about ourselves and the limits we had set on our aspirations. Perhaps that had something to do with her decision to enter law school when her daughter was two. But even then, the realities of women’s lives – the circumstances and luck – colluded. Unlike Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had not been offered a single law firm job when she’d graduated from law school almost twenty years earlier, Warren was sought after by the large New York firms. But, a soon-to-be single mother of two, she turned the offers down so she could work from home, drafting wills and writing up real estate closing documents at her kitchen table.
From there, we know the path: law school teaching, a constant trajectory of moving upwards to more and more prestigious law schools, and a slowly developing interest in bankruptcy law, one of the legal fields seen – probably because it involves banks and money – as particularly the domain of men. The more she grew to appreciate the important protections provided to ordinary hardworking people by the bankruptcy laws then in effect, the angrier she grew at the conniving of banks and lenders, politicking to get the legal scales tipped back in their favor. The next step – moving from an interest that was primarily academic into activism on behalf of families and working people – was, for Warren, inevitable.
There are so many ways in which her life and career, up to and including her run for the presidency, corresponds to the lives and careers of all the women of our generation. There is, first, the continuing likelihood that because she was a woman, she might never have had a career outside of the home, or, if she had, that it would have been in elementary school teaching, a noble profession but less likely to lead to the White House. There is, in addition, the accidental nature of much of Warren’s career. Like most women, she had no clearly ascendant goal when she graduated from law school, not even of partnership in a big law firm, let alone of high political office. Women our age, even as we found the courage to get degrees and jobs and baby sitters, were taught not to set our ambitions too high, nor to push for those ambitions too overtly. Instead, through circumstances and luck, the increasingly more important jobs came to her.
Well, partly through circumstances and luck. Of the three conditions, character may be the most important. If she hadn’t been who she was, if she hadn’t been that seventeen-year-old high school debate star, if she hadn’t persisted in finishing college and then law school, if she hadn’t been drawn to the humanity lurking in an area of law that most male scholars treat as if it were as dry and inhumane as dust, if she hadn’t made the leap from academics to activism, if she hadn’t been and done all those things, she would not have been Elizabeth Warren.
When we are seventeen, all that we can be is there within us. But only circumstances, luck, and most especially character will decide how much of it we become.
coming down the stairs to find us spooning
on the single bed in the basement, the lower parts
of our bodies unclothed under blankets.
He sat down in the old captain’s chair
rolled a cigarette, asked about our day,
amber flecks of tobacco falling on his knee.
That was my father, half lost
in himself and the symphony of images
he would paint, his own music so loud
that he never flinched when the needle
stuck in the last groove of Joni Mitchell’s
Blue. Not one of us budged,
the smoke of his cigarette curled
into a lyric of its own.
I Stole Francie Bigassi’s Boyfriend
It wasn’t hard. We were at a weekend leadership retreat at Cumberland Falls State Park. My diet pills had worked, so I was wearing a size six denim shift with an apple embroidered at the bustline. Sleeveless to show off my tanned arms. An upperclassman with an easy laugh and a deep voice, Marty towered over me. We danced and talked until curfew. I kept his red tie because it matched the apple on my dress. Back in the bunks the girls told me Marty was Francie Bigassi’s boyfriend. They said Francie was one tough cookie. I said any girl with a name like that deserved to lose her boyfriend.
On Monday, Maxine knew where Marty and Francie sat in the cafeteria, so I went up to their table.
Marty, I forgot to give you back your tie.
That felt better than being thin.
After high school graduation in 1965, I get my first job as a long distance telephone operator. From June through August, I sit, headset on, plugs at hand, staring at rows of unlit bulbs. One glows. My stomach contracts. I hesitate. What kind of call awaits? I plug in (because I must) and toggle the switch to hear and be heard. “Operator,” I say. A voice requests the most basic kind of call, station-to-station. I dial the number; wait for the ring, then toggle the switch assuring privacy. I breathe in the smugness of success. I thank the god of fate for luck and wait for another light.
Callers have a choice of call types – station-to-station, person-to-person, or collect which can entangle with station-to-station and person-to-person. For each, I have a script to follow, one that assumes alacrity of connection.
Person-to-person: “I have a call from___ for___.”
A yes/no choice for the call’s receiver. Yes, that person is present (the one speaking or one nearby). No, that person is not available. I leave a call-back number. Not too difficult; a smile for fate; a plea for luck when the next light glows.
Collect: “I have a collect call from___. Will you accept the charges?”
Here lie two outcomes. A verbal skirmish; a caller trying to talk before I’ve completed the contract for payment. Or, a mystery of why charges are denied. Experienced operators say it’s a signal to call back, avoid higher collect call rates, used mostly by college students. College, my destination in September. I will remember this. I laugh at fate, shake hands with luck.
Long distance from a pay phone: “Please deposit $ __.”
My gut roils. Luck decamps and fate asks for a sweat sacrifice. I find the charges from ___ to ___. The caller deposits quarters, dimes, and nickels into slots. Each coin sends a unique tone. I count them, hope my arithmetic skills hold, hope my intense concentration doesn’t stray. The last step, remember to pull the coins into the box. I wait the three minutes, time allotted for pay phone conversations.
Breathing stops. Did I pull the coins into the box? Memory backtracks until I hear collected coins jangle, fall onto metal.
Electricity hums in cool air. Sweat on my upper lip dries. I breathe easily until a light comes on. Fate lets luck hover above my hand. I reach for the plug.
On My Own Two Feet
Until I turned three, family photographs showed a happy child. Then it was time to take care of my lazy eye. From that day on, I was transformed into an awkward chubby girl, then a teenager with short brown curls and heavy glasses.
When I turned seventeen, I enlisted in the army. The photograph from my army period show that I lost the glasses plus several pounds. Not a great beauty but pleasing to the eye and able to conquer the hearts of the other sex. No compliments, affirmations, or even a verbal approval from my mother reflected that change. I was still her awkward offspring. The one who would never match up to her younger brother.
The conversations with my mother followed the same pattern for years. “I don’t understand,” she would say, and my insides tightened.
“I do not understand why you married this man,” she said a week after my wedding, and repeatedly in the coming years.
“I do not understand what it is that you’re doing,” referring to my professional choice to become an educator (just like her).
“I don’t understand why the kids never eat,” was another favorite, meaning my daughters, who routinely declared a hunger strike on our visits.
Forcing me to wear clothes she sewed for me was, I was convinced, a form of humiliation. Cruising the streets of Jerusalem in search of material, then spending hours in front of the mirror being stabbed by sewing needles. When I was sure I had finally broken free, she showed up before my wedding day with a dress she’d made for me. All that was needed was the final fitting.
That sense of not being good enough, not quick enough, not pretty, and not as talented as my younger brother was always there. A curse, but in some ways perhaps a blessing. Once I turned seventeen and joined the army, I learned to stand on my own two feet.
Still, every year when I drive up the steep hills into the city that used to be my home to visit my parents’ graves, I am reminded of being an awkward seventeen.
I pick a few stones and put them on the grave as tradition dictates. Then I update my mother on my life in the year that just ended:
Still married to the same man,
Kids are all grown up,
Not an educator anymore.
When I get to the last part, my current profession, I hesitate for a minute. I know what she would have said if she were still alive:
“I don’t understand why you went to school and got a master’s degree, so you can become an innkeeper.”
But now, finally, I can smile.
Mother and Daughter Pretend
When I was seventeen, sharp abdominal pains sent me to the hospital, initially for observation, but the following day I was wheeled into the operating room. The general surgeon removed a dermoid cyst, complete with partially formed teeth and hair, attached to my ovary like a remora. Not only did the surgeon remove half of my reproductive organs; he performed an appendectomy as well, endorsing it as a preventative measure. A jagged seven-inch scar curved from belly button to pubic bone. During my recovery, my unemployed, despondent father paced the hospital corridor. Later, saddled with bills and burdened by his own trauma when he was seventeen, he plunged further into depression.
A few months later, as I neared my high school graduation, he attempted suicide, painfully suffering from his self-inflicted injury until his body surrendered. My mother wanted my opinion about an autopsy on a body that two weeks prior had been a sullen man, but very much alive. I was horrified. A nurse handed us tiny white pills, which we washed down with paper cups of water.
At the funeral home my mother asked me to choose his casket. I did, with all the sensibility of a seventeen-year-old, choosing a gray box. During the viewing, I sought refuge in a lounge. The joviality of relatives and acquaintances buzzing around the room with my father’s closed casket was too much. I puffed on cigarettes. My absentee brother joined me once.
I wandered the school corridors, shell-shocked, my mind now a blank in every class. During that time, I met a rebel, my future husband. I was fully aware of my choice, as he was the opposite of my gentle father. Two welcomed daughters arrived as I endured nineteen years, finally divorcing the violent drug addict.
There was no denying that what happened at the tender age of seventeen profoundly influenced my life. Especially when the horror of the first six months of a blossoming teenager was swept aside by friends and family.
A mother and daughter pretended. We cried in separate rooms. We never spoke about my traumas, as if my disfiguring operation and my father’s death never happened. Each day going forward was to be no different than all the others. Not to my family, not to my neighbors, not to my classmates, as though the silence would rewrite my history. Only then could I be a normal seventeen-year-old.
When I was seventeen…
When I was seventeen, I was five feet ten inches tall and weighed a hundred pounds. I stood out when I stood up.
When I was seventeen, I was a practicing Catholic. My mother had been in a car accident a year earlier, and after a period of intensive rehab, her doctors said she would never walk, think, remember, or speak clearly again. Since only a miracle could change her back to how she was before the accident, I prayed for one, pleaded for one.
When I was seventeen, I climbed into bed every night with the imprint of my rag rug on my knees. I recited the Holy Rosary every day and confessed every impure thought. Throughout the six weeks of Lent, I attended mass daily. I made promises to God about how I would live the rest of my life if only He would heal my mother, and even issued Him a few ultimatums. But no matter how hard I prayed or how many times I went to mass or how many other proofs of devotion I offered, my prayers remained unheard, unanswered.
When I was seventeen, unlike most of my peers, I knew that terrible things happen at random, that there’s no protecting against them, no fixing them, and no silver lining. In addition to being different on the outside, the experience of unmitigated loss made me different inside too, estranged.
When I was seventeen, I still had my faith.
A Life in Pieces
When I was seventeen my mother looked up from her sewing machine and said, “When you get married I shall make you the most beautiful wedding dress. It will be my magnum opus and you will walk down the aisle to admiring glances and feel like a princess.”
“Do come in.”
The woman stepped into the hallway of the empty retirement apartment.
A sewing machine stood in a wheeled teak cabinet.
Decades ago my mother had sewed my ivory satin wedding dress on it. Then she sewed three hundred pearls onto the front of the bodice, by hand. She also designed and created three pink bridesmaids’ gowns, copying HRH Princess Anne’s bridal style after her Westminster Abbey nuptials. Her magnum opus, that wedding.
“It’s a superior model,” the woman said, stroking the teak cabinet with her fingertips.
“Yes, she maintained it fastidiously; she sewed all her life. Only six weeks ago Mum shortened a beige cashmere skirt. She was less than five feet in height. Nothing bought in the fashion shops would fit,” I said.
My mother had fallen, broken her leg and never recovered. She was eighty, “a good innings,” people said, as if she’d played cricket.
The woman said, “Our charity runs community classes and sewing is now very popular. They’ll be so grateful for this machine.”
I wheeled the cabinet towards the door. The castors bumped up against the wooden threshold. One of the teak legs buckled and snapped off with a crack.
Tears welled up and spilled over.
“Don’t worry, our cabinet maker will fix that,” the woman said, laying her hand gently on my arm. “We are very grateful for your mother’s treasured machine.”
I wiped my eyes and together we eased the wobbling unit into the hallway.
The cabinet’s door swung open and banged against the wall, startling us both.
A paper carrier bag tumbled onto the floor, spilling out jagged remnants. Pink satin, an unfinished lace-edged handkerchief, and a two-inch-deep strip of beige cashmere, followed by a trickle of small pearls.
I picked up the cashmere.
It smelled of Mum.
One Girl from 1972 to 1973
Seventeen was a kaleidoscope. We were backlit by TV screens filled with Vietnam heartbreak and Watergate trust-break.
I chafed being under my mother’s wing, shrugging off her protective arm when crossing a street. I bristled at her every word. But when she went away to help one of my older sisters who had given birth, I ached for her.
Fear of looking un-cool constrained me. I didn’t ride my brother’s bike all over town anymore, button my coat or wear a hat in the cold, act in the play (ridiculed by my class), talk to anyone “weird,” or act like I cared. But I had my license, and got to drive sometimes. I knew the soundtracks from West Side Story, Camelot, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar, and belted them out them when nobody else was home. I liked some of the weird kids. And I did care.
My first boyfriend had broken up with me after junior prom; that soreness lingered like a ghost. I went out with other guys, lukewarm about most of them. I didn’t risk rejection by pursuing the ones I really liked. I disdained marriage and motherhood as primary aims. But I still adored babies, and hoped for love, romance, and clear skin.
My mother, aunts, sisters, cousins, and neighbors were traditional wives and mothers. That didn’t inspire me. Female wasn’t the number one slot in our immediate culture. Career? Rare. Speaking out? Dismissed. Independence? “Honey, how are you going to do that? (Chuckle, chuckle.)” I was resigned, and angry. Still, I basked in the support and the sunny funniness of women, and loved them. Loved the men too.
Seventeen was tender-skinned, with elation and despair all in the same week. It was sweaty palms before a test, a sentimental heart pitter-pattering around a cute boy, and eternal minutes on classroom clocks. It was thinking the future was Friday night. It was thinking you knew it all. It was not thinking.
Then, I was pieces of who I would become. Now, all my pieces still contain who I was when I was 17.
The Week of June 26th to July 2nd
When I was 17, one Saturday I inscribed, “Here are three poems I wrote. They don’t express what I feel.” I elaborated, “My aim wasn’t that. It was to write more maturely using symbols and images.” I could not help adding, “I feel really unsure.”
Through pools of water I walk
My past fading away in the ripples of time
The farther I walk
The closer I get to the dry sand
Where the empty shells preside.
I cannot walk fast,
The water is too deep
But it does not matter.
I have time enough
To make it to the other side
Before the sun goes down
And leaves me with the fleeting ripples
And the dry sand.
The little green car
That took me to the supermarket
The winter clearance sale
The free painting lessons
And the French restaurant
Has been replaced by
A long black one.
As the words came flooding out
And ran over my lap
Onto the floor.
As my voice
Crept higher and higher up my throat
And grasped onto me
And cut me off
So I could speak no more
And then they looked away.
No Mistake at All
I was in Memphis, Tennessee visiting my adored grandmother, Mama Mamie, for a few weeks during summer vacation. It was rare for us to leave her little hometown for a shopping excursion in the big city.
After a few hours of power shopping, we were burning up in the blistering heat. So we took a break in a lovely city park – pink azaleas like cotton candy spinning circles around magnificent magnolias. I was enchanted; magnolia trees didn’t thrive in Michigan, where I grew up.
It was the quiet that caught my attention. I was watching an ant crawl around the toe of my white sandal carrying an impossible load before it disappeared in a crack at the base of the drinking fountain. The water was refreshing. Much cooler than I expected, so I took a second drink. From that head-upside-down vantage point, I saw Mama Mamie’s chunky-heeled church shoes drawing close. I stood up and swallowed the water.
In her pale pink suit, she looked like a Popsicle about to melt in the brutal sun. A steady line of little kids waited patiently to get a turn on the slide. I heard a few giggles. Mama Mamie placed a weathered arm around my shoulders, her sweet lavender fragrance mingling uneasily with the smell of many close-up bodies. She guided me towards the shade of a live oak tree, but I was still clueless until I saw it – another drinking fountain. A fountain for white people like us.
Okay. No harm done. Jim Crow raising his ugly head. That’s all.
No need to feel embarrassed. Humiliated. Rattled. A simple mistake. That’s all.
Giggling rose again from a crowd of cute kids.
I took a deep breath and climbed back into my white skin.