cherchez la femme
Tomorrow's my birthday. I'll be turning 45, which feels surreal, but I've been tooling around my forties long enough to buy it, I guess. I think it's true. 1969. The number's right. It all adds up. I'm middle-aged, no fighting it. And that's cool. It's a little improbable-feeling, but word on the street is that these birthdays keep feeling improbable until the grave, so I'm not alone, at least.
My genes—those bringers of mixed blessings—hooked me up with a young face, which is nice now, but might possibly have stunted my maturity a little, since it's hard to feel all grown up when the people of the world have been pinching your cheeks since time began. In my first year of college, in fact, when I joined a sorority (Kappa Alpha Theta, whose...what do we want to call it, 'motto'—?—is "Theta for a Lifetime", though I ultimately went with the lesser-traveled "Theta for Two Years"), we had an awards night for our pledge class, where every young lady was honored for some notable personal quality. I was excited as the recognition made its way around the room. What fun thing were they going to honor me for? Girls were getting props for their athleticism, their toughness, their boy-craziness. Would it be my sense of humor? My fashion sense? My indomitable spirit? I couldn't wait to find out. And then it was finally my turn, and my pledge mom, Jennifer, stood up and lifted up a big, pale yellow placard emblazoned with the word "Youthfulness" in girly script, with some stupid fucking poem about youthfulness or whatever copied by hand beneath it, and everybody beamed at me while she said stupid things about how young and fresh I was, and I forced a smile instead of jumping up and yelling, "YOUTHFULNESS?? WHAT THE FUCK??" and kicking over a table like I wanted to.
Fucking let a woman be a woman, even if she isn't one yet, was my feeling. I was seventeen and the most virginal virgin ever. At a function that year with my favorite fraternity—Delta Tau Delta—where we all wore white t-shirts and got wasted and drew on each other with Sharpies, the same basic thing happened. The hottest senior Delt, upon whom I had a huge crush, stopped and wrote on my shirt, smiling. I made my way to the bathroom and twisted the shirt around so I could see what he wrote. It was the letter "V". Just a big V. It even took me a minute. V? What do you mean, V? V? And then it dawned on me. Goddamn it.
All I wanted was to be a woman, from as early on as I figured out that girls became women. (Not hip to transgender issues as a tot.) I was like, let's get this show on the road, then. Let's move it. Mostly I wanted breasts. I stuffed my shirt with tissues when no one was looking, until I saw Half-Pint try it with apples on an episode of Little House on the Prairie, which looked promising. (Tip: nope.) In first grade, sitting at my little table of four people, I was possessed with the idea to fold my turtleneck over in a flap at the chest area and rig a proto-rack for myself. I was pleased with the results until some slobbery, total non-player at my table ogled my flap and I shut the operation down, chagrined.
What was a woman? How did you do it, besides with boobs? The women around me made their impressions, and I took subconscious notes.
First, always, is Mom. We like our women beautiful, culturally, and I'd heard the news. My mom was beautiful, I was happy to see. And she knew she was beautiful, and I knew she knew it, because she told me how often she'd been told it in her life, which was often enough that she said it took her a while to figure out that it wasn't enough just to look good. She thought for a long time that this was her contribution, that she could just bring her face into a room and then chill, mission accomplished. Good deed done.
I loved watching my mom get ready to go out on the town with my dad. Sometimes they'd head into New York City to see a play, sometimes they'd go square dancing. (Square dancing! I don't know why but it kind of kills me. My mom had/has a very swish, Eva-Gabor sort of European accent—she's from Finland—pronounces "darling" as "dah-ling", that kind of thing—and so the incongruity of square dancing as a hobby with her fancy lady voice gives me Green Acres feelings.) She'd put on a pretty dress, usually in some silky brown fabric of the 70s, and some Revlon lipstick, which was the only makeup she wore or needed. High heels. Pearls. I was in love.
But home was her real domain, and domesticity was Aino's jam. Everything in our house was clean and fresh and pressed, and she cooked squishy, yummy food: cheese soufflé, Baked Alaska, potatoes in Bechamel sauce, Finnish crepes rolled up with brown sugar, waffles on weekends. And if we were entertaining, especially if we had some kind of VIP coming over, she got a real glint in her eye, something almost cocky. This was her sport. Nobody was too posh for her to impress. She presided over her end of the table in smug calm while our guests ooh'd and ah'd over their plates.
As much of a charge as she got from entertaining, Aino came even more alive in the garden. She kept her pearls on but she knelt in the dirt and tugged and toiled all day, beaming at us from underneath her sun hat. Hard work, sunshine, nature: this was hers, only for her. Not for guests, not for her family, just a pure date my mom went on with her own life force. I saw how she came inside different after a day in the garden, dirty and tired and happy and real. Her voice sounded right. It didn't have a spin in it, or the sound of trying.
And there was her mothering, of course. She said over and over to me and my brother that she'd wanted kids with a blind urge, and that she recommended that nobody have kids who isn't dazzled with the need for them like she was. She loved the job. She wanted the job, she loved the job, and she was built for it, especially the early childhood part, which is so endlessly physical. Clean this, feed that, change that, boom. I don't know how she did it, but she was ten steps ahead of all of that stuff. Seamless. It's obnoxious how seamless that was, I say now from experience. WTF, Aino? Nice bar to set. I'm not clearing it, by the way. I could stroll straight under it wearing a top hat.
She loved her children, too, which doesn't go without saying in our lineage. (Granny, you're up in a moment.) She was tender and devoted and cuddly, and always talked to us in a soft, sweet voice, even if it wasn't her post-garden voice. There were hugs, there was bedtime singing, and above all there was her gaze, which told us she was always happy to see us, which was no lie, no spin.
That gaze is the biggest thing, I can feel it. Ground Zero, the central sun of my conception of womanhood. Care and attention. I can see you. That's what a woman is, someone who can see you. Someone who stops to see you, who helps you know you exist.
And then there was Granny—read up here if you need to—whose gender seemed somehow beside the point. It wasn't on the table. She was the most powerful person in whatever room she was in. I don't know if that was true when my grandfather was alive, since he checked out before I could check that out, but it was unswervingly true afterward. I never once saw her defer to another living person. She had none of the softness that I associate with womanhood, and she didn't seem particularly allied with her gender, though she had female friends. (There was no sisterhood thing going on for either her or my mom, for that matter. Feminism was loud and shocking to Aino, and didn't draw any particular comment I can remember from Dora, whose force of personality made feminism seem almost unnecessary for her. And there sure the hell wasn't any sisterhood going on between the two of them.)
We weren't close, Granny and I, so while she's burned into my consciousness, she didn't become one of my chosen female icons. My mental walls are not lovingly postered with her image. But I know she's deep in my mix, such was her power and her proximity for so long. Inspiration, cautionary tale, I don't know. Something to grow into, something to avoid becoming. I'm still unwinding her influence. No verdict yet, or maybe ever.
Then there were the female friends of the family who flew or drifted in for visits. Goddesses. They were close enough to bring love with them—that gaze—but they were distant enough and were with us in short enough bursts that there was no time or space to calculate their flaws. So they didn't have any. Case closed.
There was Renée, a philosophy professor with big, beautiful, deep brown owl eyes who sat with us in front of the fire one New Year's Eve, leading me and my brother in Socratic dialogue about Plato's allegory of the cave. I was hypnotized. She was so respectful towards us, towards the power of our minds, and her cashmere sweater was so soft, and her voice was like coffee and honey. She spoke French to us with that voice sometimes—she had a little Jeanne Moreau about her—and I died of it. She was Peak Femininity.
And there was Emily, my mom's friend, the daughter of her Spanish professor in college, who was a world traveler and operator in high political/diplomatic circles. She had a soft, posh voice like Renee's, and sat on our couch with a ballerina's posture, legs crossed just so. Emily was fearsomely correct. But she loved us. She was crazy about my mom and so she loved the rest of us by extension, and not by default, either. Really really. So her correctness and refinement wasn't a threat; it felt more like an asset, even. She was one of ours, and she knew so much about the world, and she gave advice that felt, because of her palpable love for us, conspiratorial instead of corrective. She gave you her full attention, asked you lots of questions, and then bubbled over with ideas for how you, with your specific gifts and talents, could basically take over the world. It was hot stuff, and you felt like you could photosynthesize her charisma and savoir-faire if you sat with her long enough. She was better than a movie star.
Then there were the walk-ons: an older Australian woman named Elizabeth, for example, whom we sometimes saw at Indralaya, with a slender figure and long white hair. She was old, chronologically, but her hair and the wrinkles on her face were the only tells. In every other respect she would have taken that Youthfulness award in a heartbeat. I remember an afternoon when she and I walked around the camp collecting pebbles, and then we retired to her A-frame to turn them into mice with black markers, which was bliss. The mice were charming but the time and attention she lavished on me were the real goods.
And there was Hilda, an elderly Scottish lady at Indralaya who used to hold my face and exclaim, "You look just like a Victorian cameo!"—"There she is, my Victorian cameo!"—which was so unnecessary/sweet, and made me feel like ten million bucks. To this day, I do like Hilda did and don't hold back with the compliments. They cost nothing and I'm a menace with them, trying to pay it forward, assaulting mostly elderly women at the grocery store with "What a beautiful scarf!" and "The color of that sweater is so luminous!" on the off chance I can give them that same thrill of being seen and appreciated that Hilda gave me.
There were the glamour girl walk-ons, too, but I'm less inspired to talk about them now. I'll just give a quick shout-out to Charlie's Angels and my friend Amy's mom, who was an Avon lady, whippet-thin and sexy-chic, with long dark hair and long burgundy nails. She was the only real lady I knew who could have been a Charlie's Angel, though she was always harried and grumpy in a way the Angels weren't. Quick personality/schedule overhaul and she would have been there.
It's only recently that I learned that the phrase "cherchez la femme" doesn't just mean something along the lines of "Hey, women are cool/sexy, so track 'em down!" like I thought it did. I found out that the phrase, which originated with an Alexandre Dumas novel called The Mohicans of Paris, evolved to mean something like "If a man committed a crime, find out who the broad was who drove him to it, because let me tell you, IT WAS A BROAD." This blew my mind. Also: sigh. It was better the other way. I'm reclaiming it, though, right here, right now. I'm supplying my own meaning. I'm keeping the "go to the source" part, and erasing the "of the trouble" part. We give life, after all. You come from us. You come from Dad, too, but let's be real. We're the door. You want to know who you are? You know what to do.
P.S. I always thought I would have a daughter, but no. Two sons came. (I wouldn't, obviously, have it any other way.) I really wanted to shepherd a little girl into womanhood, and then I remembered, oh. What else have I been doing all my life? Right.