Monday, March 24, 2014

American Boy Palace: Reassembling A Lost Self

"I want to show you this," my friend remarked, twisting the strands of the doll's staticky blonde hair around her chipped lavender fingernail. "Isn't she gorgeous? Her name is Julie."  I could hear the crackles of electricity with each successive twirl as my friend continued with her narrative.

"My daughter and I got her at the American Girl Store in the city.  We picked out the cutest little outfits, then brought her to the American Girl Palace and had the yummiest scones and tea together..."

As I listened to the story, I fixated on Julie's gauzy peasant-dress and the ruffled hem that draped around her thick plastic ankles.  When my friend spoke, each word fizzled out like an exhausted candlewick, unable to hold a steady flame in my consciousness.

It was imaginably so foreign:  the images of steamy tea finding its way into porcelain cups, the scones dolloped with tufts of clotted cream, the rosy smell of a unboxed new doll sitting at the table in a remarkably unstained, flowing white dress.

All this time, my mind zeroed in on images of my cracked new kitchen tile and an unhinged cabinet door. Images of aftermath.

Is this American Girl Palace stuff real? Tea and scones and doll hair appointments?

As the only sister among three brothers and the mother of three sons, I could only take her word.

There was a momentary blip, though, when its fantastic existence landed on a brown shag carpet.

In 1979, Santa delivered a Barbie Dream House, complete with working windows, dainty flower boxes and a bold ketchup-and-yellow-mustard color scheme.

I had big plans for Barbie, Skipper and Ken.

They were evicted in three days.

My brothers pummeled the front windows and crashed into that plastic A-frame with a contingent of GI Joe tanks and aerial Matchbox cars and scuffed football helmets.

I'm still not over Barbie's beheading, which was after I found her mustachioed with a ballpoint pen.


Don't even ask about Ken.

My mother sympathetically suggested duct tape:  the consolation prize that was supposed to fix all the brokenness.  But somehow--like the busted red roof shingles and torn-off shutters--the dream was no longer intact.

All I could ever understand was demolition--and the process of repair that typically ensues.

I was always reassembling.

During my first pregnancy, I taught English to many teen mothers, who would often comment on the clatter of my pointed-toe pumps.

"I'll bet you want a girl, Mrs. Festa," my students would often remark.  "I just can't picture you with a boy.  You are a girlie-girl with the shoes and the manicures."

Even my mother chimed in and insisted that I was having her granddaughter.  Sizing up my swollen face and widened nose, she handed me a pair of tightly crocheted pink booties. "Girls change your face and make you look different," she insisted. 

Without knowing the gender, I still had that nursery painted blue--simply because pink remained an illusory concept, perpetually out-of-stock on the shelves of my male-centric life.

And then there was the announcement on the other side of the threshold--the one after the last, burning push into motherhood.

You have a son.

Under a dizzying swirl of stinging relief, I felt that hidden part of me shift--that part that finally exhaled a suspended, withheld breath.

Somehow, people assumed that my having a daughter meant that I would feel less alone, more connected, more understood.

Three sons later, they couldn't be more wrong.

Here I am--my sons' compass, their first lens through which they would view women--and this perspective is inextricably linked to how I view myself.  

The hardened truth was that I needed to repair the girl within myself--a reassembling of the shards of her insecurities, her perceived powerlessness, her muffled voice.

As a girl born in the early 1970s, I entered the world right on the arc of another feminist revolution, often navigating among the fresh fallout of detonated sexist notions and the smoldering embers of new roles and redefined opportunities.

I was caught in the crossfire of women's sexual objectification, the feathering of Farrah Fawcett's hair, and the testosterone that besieged my girlhood.

For me, the worst part about being a girl was being called a girl:  throw like a girl, act like a girl, cry like a girl.

I had to apologize for simply being myself.  

In the way that unfurling April leaves reconcile themselves to their eventual October descents, I, too, had to come to terms with my white-knuckled journey to womanhood.

Being a mother to three boys allowed me bid farewell to the daughter inside of me:   the one who remembers hiding behind her femininity and the one who always apologized for her toughness.  

The one who often felt alone and disconnected all those years ago.

Among the ruins of my own brokenness, I have re-emerged as a woman who is unashamed of her own power, her own voice, and her own tenderness.  Perhaps this just might be one of the strongest messages I could send to my boys.

"Everyone needs a daughter," a grandmother once interjected as she watched me chase my sons around the produce aisle.

"Thank you, but I am blessed to have these three boys," I responded politely.

But I really wanted to shout this:

YOU KNOW WHAT EVERYONE NEEDS?  
To raise strong, empathetic men who respect women. 

Period.
Nothing else I would ever do could ever be more important that this.

What I love being the most sometimes terrifies me the most:  the mother who must nurture their spirits, encourage their physical self-expression and celebrate the impulses of boyhood while instilling in them the notion that women are not simply bodies but indeed souls who have strong, equal voices, complex minds and uncrossable boundaries.

I needed to be a mother who no longer apologized for being my gender.

On any given afternoon, my American Boy Palace might have graffiti on freshly painted bedroom walls, rusted bathroom heating vents from misfired streams of piss, half-eaten waffles shoved in between couch cushions, bloody noses, grudge matches, living room slam-dunk tournaments, smeared snot on frilly hand-towels, fart contests, scattered Lego bricks and shards of broken glass.

But these are the new shards, the ones that remind me of my own reassembly of a lost self. 



Amazon high-heel ankle cuff sandal,
by Paul Andrew.
These are also the shards that remind me to embrace the crash-landing, beautiful chaos that has always been a part of my life.  

These are the shards that allow me to understand the splintery, glinting facets of what makes us all simply just human in the end.

It is under this American Boy Palace that exist the roots of motherhood--roots that always ground me into love, connection and just maybe even understanding.