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Gender Roles Among Women

I AM INTERESTED IN HOW ideas about gender organize identity and social relationships among women. Perhaps because I am a lesbian and have noticed how women who are lesbian adopt one gender role or the other (female or male), then discard it, combine roles, and act in ways that confuse me, I feel a need to come to better terms with the use of gender roles by women. Why am I fascinated, confused, repulsed, and drawn in when a woman acts like a stereotypical man, or like a stereotypical woman, for instance? Why do I hate, at one moment, to see stereotypical gender roles among women, and then take satisfaction from seeing these same roles the next?

Do I want to be a woman or a man? To be seen as a woman or a man? Do I have to be seen as one or the other? Do I have to choose; do I have a choice? Do people like me because I am a woman, or because I am a woman who is also like a man? Do I really know which gender I am? Why do I perpetuate a rigid gender system despite my wishes to the contrary, saying, with my choice of women, that gender really does define people? If gender did not matter, I might as well choose a man. I might as well be a man. Yet gender matters more than it might seem.


Even attempts to make one's gender ambiguous or to push away conventional gender roles suggest the formative nature of those roles.

By gender roles, I mean ways of defining oneself that are congruent with common ideas about how a person of one's perceived sex type behaves and feels—so that the outside world sees a woman, for instance, and so that the inner sense of self is that of a woman. Ideas about how to be of one's gender vary with time and culture. In this essay, I wish to identify neither universals nor variations, but rather to discuss what an individual does to come to terms with the fact of her gender, however that is defined. I focus on particular social settings with which I am personally familiar.

I think that coming to terms with gender is a process never settled once and for all but one that is ongoing—a series of repetitive motions much like "coming out of the closet" (it is never enough to announce only once that one is a lesbian). Repeated attempts at defining oneself by one's gender are integral to defining oneself as a person, in my view, although gender is often talked about as if it were secondary to a nongendered status—that of being a gender-neutral "person," for instance—and as if one's gender were a relatively trivial aspect of oneself, something one could easily be without. The importance of gender, in other words, is frequently denied.

When I teach about gender socialization among women, or think about it in my own life, the denial of gender—that it makes no difference, is not important, or not as important as something else—is the biggest fact I have to confront and the most persistent. Students in my classes on women become disturbed when required to see gender everywhere, particularly female gender, because doing so reveals a world not congruent with ideals of equality. When looking at gender in my own life, I feel a similar discomfort. I want to believe I can be separate from my gender and that I am not a victim of it. I do not want to be reminded of my female subordination or of the gender role-playing in my life—the ways I try to be like a woman, or like a man, and the uncomfortable responses I often feel upon seeing others who act as I do, or who act in ways that are more extreme or deviant. These include both those who play the femme or the butch more strictly and those who say they follow no gender roles at all. My discomforts with gender-related behaviors are


key to the comforts of gender. They suggest reasons for the enormous hold of it in my life.

Discomforts With Gender Ambiguity

Each year, I attend the annual lesbian and gay parade in San Francisco, where I see gay men in drag pretending to be women. I become uncomfortable when I see them because I want them to be one gender or the other, male or female, not the two mixed up. If they are to be women, I want them to be real women, authentic and appealing, rather than caricatures of certain aspects of female styles that I usually stay far away from—high heels, stockings, made-up faces, and ways of saying "dahling" and gesturing broadly to crowds. The superficiality of these men playing women scares me, much as it probably comforts others who like it precisely because it is superficial.

Over time, I have become more used to men in drag, but I still feel hurt and left out by them. The women these men like, those who seem to matter to them, are glamour queens, not me. Having grown up wanting boys and, later, men to like me, and having felt that the right ones—the popular and handsome ones—never did, I have always felt awkward as a woman around men. It was with relief that I turned from the heterosexual world to a lesbian one where I could forget men and seek only the affections of women. However, even among lesbians and gay men, occasionally at a party, or a political gathering, I would find myself with men and feel uncomfortable again: Why should gay men like me? I would feel. They have no use for me, they only like men. When they like women, they like the desperately outgoing types—the kind of woman I could not be when I was straight and cannot be now. They like the trappings of being a woman—the effusive, stylized parts—because that is all most of them can grasp. When they imitate women, I feel it is a way of putting on a show, or externalizing. It does not present a fundamental challenge to being a man. It is more like putting on a new pair of clothes, a new act, annexing a new country. Yet, however crude the caricature, a man putting on a female act may feel a greater sense of freedom. He may feel more himself.

The year before last, my favorite part of the gay parade was a marionette


of a man in a purple sequinned dress riding a unicycle. He had long teased-out blond hair swept back, wore makeup, very high heels, and stockings, and he gestured to the crowd occasionally, throwing kisses and showing off his legs. High above him, a man on stilts worked him with strings, walking the entire length of the parade near the edge of the street, his attention riveted to the ground far below him where the little lady on the unicycle had to be kept upright and in constant motion.

To me, this marionette of the woman in the purple dress was wonderful. I liked it because the woman on the unicycle was not real. She was not even supposed to be real (in the sense of being a flesh-and-blood person), and so did not confuse me about reality—about whether she was a woman or a man. She was clearly a doll who looked like a woman but who was actually a gay man in drag. Because she was not a caricature of a woman so much as she was a caricature of a gay man dressed in women's clothes and makeup to be in the parade, the doll did not make me question whether she was fully enough a woman, or the right kind of woman—someone I could be. The questions she raised were, instead, about men. When I saw this little woman in her purple dress riding her unicycle down the street, I saw her as a comment on gay men parodying women. "You might as well be a doll" was one possible message to them. Although she was a doll, the marionette was lifelike to me. I liked her because she let me see, without confusion, something that really existed—a man dressed in drag as a flamboyant type of woman who, nonetheless, was still a man.

Before I ever saw a gay parade, I saw a movie called Tricia's Wedding , featuring a song and dance group called the Cockettes—men who played women's parts and dressed in women's clothes and hats and generally went wild. The movie was a takeoff on a wedding party for Tricia Nixon. What most bothered me as I watched it was that although the men in the movie impersonated women, imitating female mannerisms and styles, they did not change their voices (they still used deep men's voices), and they did not put makeup over their beards or appear to have shaved closely. The hair of a woman and a woman's hat and dress would be seen from behind, then the face would turn around and it would be an unshaven man's face. I thought, at the time, this must indicate


a cheaply made movie, or that the men in the movie were simply slobs and had not finished applying their makeup.

Now I think there were probably other reasons, having to do with maintaining male gender visibility, rather than completing the act of appearing to be a woman. Different would be the case of a male-to-female transsexual who tries hard to complete the act of passing as a woman, or the case of any everyday woman whose behaviors are aimed at constructing a convincing appearance of being a woman because her life—and getting proper treatment and not ridicule—depends on it. Watching the Cockettes, I felt these men were not taking the pains they should have with the female gender, or that I, or most socially-constructed women, would have taken, and are required to take, and that seem necessary for our safety. When I stepped outside the theater after seeing the movie, I was shaken. The images of women the Cockettes had presented scared me and made me angry. They certainly looked ugly under their hats.

About the time I saw the Cockettes, I saw the Andy Warhol movie star Holly Woodlawn in a monologue-type movie, Trash . Holly Woodlawn was a man who played a woman so well that in watching her, I did not feel distress. Her gender moved into the background, and her qualities as a person—down to earth, honest, interesting—were most important. Woodlawn enacted a woman in such an understated way that hers seemed not an impersonation but a way of being. I felt comfortable with her and accepted her gender switch, suspending my anxieties about whether, indeed, she was truly, and once and for all, a woman or a man. The difference, I think, between my responses of uneasiness to men who pretend incongruously to be women, and my more accepting responses to others, like male-to-female transsexuals, everyday women, or Holly Woodlawn, is a difference tied to my experience of my own gender.[1]

Because I have been socialized intimately as a woman—taught that what is female is me, and that what is male ought not to be me—I identify much that is male as foreign and artificial, and much that is female as natural and good. I tend to understand women better than I do men, and to value women more. I seek my protection with women, I want men to be women, I do not want women to be men. My gender thus


splits the world in two—providing a line I feel I should not cross, or that I cannot cross, and that I feel others should not cross either, unless they are very convincing about it. Most fundamentally, I think, I do not want the boundaries between the two genders to be confused because my sense of gender is closely tied to my sense of social order and personal safety. If the genders get confused, I get confused about who I am and I cease to know how to be safe: for if I am not a woman and cannot do things women do to protect myself, what can I do? I fear I will be left wide open, that I will easily become the victim of abuse. To be left genderless is to be left defenseless, or it feels that way to me, perhaps because the basic defenses I have learned are gender-linked. These defenses hinge on my ability to feel and act like a woman—to speak quietly, appear innocuous, or defer to others, for instance, and to feel "not myself" when I behave differently.

I think it is worth keeping in mind that while felt in such ways very personally, and as integral to the self, gender is more than personal. Because it is essentially about dominance and subservience, visibility and secrets, gender is political. To be male is to be powerful, to be a woman is to be weak. Given such a context, it is useful, if not necessary, especially if one is a member of the subordinate group—which is kept subordinate, in good part, through camouflage, through confusion of the difference that gender makes—to clarify relationships and not to forget who is who. A man appearing to be a woman may still be a dominant and dominating man; a woman appearing to be a man may be simply ignoring the chains that bind her, or ignoring what is noxious about perpetuating a style of dominance. In a system where women are neither equal nor safe, and where a great deal of one's safety depends on knowing the right ways to behave—how to dress, how to speak—it is good to see clearly the gendered structure of one's relationships. At the same time, such a vision is difficult, for gender distinctions are often hidden. Their significance is understated because these distinctions are thought of as trivial and because they are embedded in personal identity and in much that is taken for granted about daily life. The embeddedness of gender in daily life can be seen in instances of mistaken gender identity. These disturbances in the surface of gender expectations


raise questions about the relationship between gender appearance and inner gender identity.

On Being Mistaken For A Man

I used to like to be mistaken for a man. I do not anymore. In the past month, I have been mistaken for a man, in person, at least three times. The first was in a hospital waiting room where, when I emerged from using a women's bathroom, a small boy asked me, "What'cha doing using the women's? Why didn't you use the men's?" His comment made little sense to me when I heard it. I thought he was talking to someone else. However, there was no one else behind me and he was standing in front of me, looking straight at me. I felt uncomfortable, and ridiculed. I did not wish to be seen as a man. There might be grounds for it in my style of dress, but would a man wear two gold earrings and have a face like mine? Curiously, on each of these recent occasions when I have been mistaken for a man, it is my earrings I have focused on. I think my earrings surely show I am a woman. A man would wear one earring or a mismatched pair. I forget that the two gold hoops I wear are relatively small and perhaps not what the person facing me sees. Instead, that person sees an image suggested by short hair, jeans, a sweater or jacket, oxford shoes, a physical stance. Yet so much do I feel not a man that when mistaken for one, I doubt I have heard correctly the person speaking to me. I become confused and wonder what I have done wrong. I become, in other words, unclear about whether the mistake in identifying me is someone else's or mine. I usually do not question or correct the person who has called me a man, for I do not want to call attention to myself at that moment.

In my second recent experience of mistaken gender identity, I was buying bread in a bakery. A woman behind the counter addressed me as "sir." I mentioned this to a friend who was with me. "That can't be," she said. I thought of my earrings and thought I might be mistaken. I must have heard wrong. Still, I had felt some pride in being seen as a man, as if that made me more desirable than being seen as a woman, and I did not want my friend's disbelief to take that away from me.


When the woman behind the counter addressed me as "sir" a second time, I felt vindicated. I had heard correctly after all. Nonetheless, I still felt doubt: Was it really "sir" the woman had said? What about my earrings? What about my face? Why do people do this? Do they call me "sir" because when in doubt, it is better to assume maleness, better to call a woman a man than to insult a man by calling him a woman?

The third instance of this sort occurred one afternoon when I was walking down a street in the city. A man called after me from behind, asking what the date was. I was in an area where it is sometimes unsafe, and I did not want to turn around and find a strange man making faces at me, or making an obscene gesture referring to sexual parts, or a sexual act, simply because I was a woman. Why else, I thought, would this man be calling after me except to taunt me? It was late on a Saturday afternoon and I did not think he really needed to know the date from me. He could walk into any nearby store and find out. I kept walking. The man kept calling after me. I walked faster. He called out, "Sir, what's the date?" I thought his calling me "sir" was a ploy to get me to turn around so then he could make fun of me for being a woman. I kept walking. He kept calling after me. Now he was calling me, "Hey, sir, you with the gloves." I was wearing gloves because it was cold, but most people that day were not wearing gloves. By this time, I thought the man behind me probably did think I was a man. What kind of man, though, from the rear?

I thought maybe he saw me as a gay man, this being San Francisco, and that he was going to taunt me for that. Gay bashing came immediately to my mind and I was frightened. I had never been mistaken for a gay man and picked on for it. I felt I would rather be obscenely gestured at for being a woman. I was familiar with that. The man kept calling after me and I kept on walking, quickly and determinedly. He finally simply howled at me with no particular words. I felt he was frustrated that I would not obey him by turning around and answering him.

Afterward, I thought this man must have been troubled, that he wanted to be responded to, and that he was not a person who was planning to harass me for being a woman or a gay man. At the time, however, I did not want to take the chance of turning around and finding out. What stays with me from that episode in terms of gender, aside


from my fundamental, and probably female, fear on the street, is my feeling that it was more frightening for me to be mistaken for a gay man than to be treated as a woman, and my more basic feeling that I did not want to be mistaken for a man at all. This mistake must have been made, I told myself, because of the jacket and pants I was wearing. These were men's clothes, chosen for a reason. Men's clothes are more durable than women's and I feel more physically protected in them. I also think these clothes make me look more like a man than a typical lightweight woman, and that people will treat me better as a result. However, although my clothes were men's, that did not mean I wanted to be seen as a man, a distinction that is sometimes difficult to grasp and that may seem to be asking for too much gender discernment. It is also a distinction that raises the question of what it means to want to look like and be treated as a lesbian. This question is related to the broader issue of lesbian invisibility. People are so used to seeing heterosexual women that a lesbian who looks different, who is, perhaps, more male in style, may pass unnoticed as a woman. People see the man in the image rather than the woman behind it. They say "sir" rather than something else they are perhaps afraid of.

The Clothes Of My Gender

Both the pants and the jacket I wore on that day the man called after me on the street were purchased in men's sections of a department store, where, too, the issue of gender appropriateness arises for me. When I shop there, I always feel awkward: Will someone kick me out, look at me funny, think I am shopping for someone else—a man? Will they wonder what I, a woman, am doing here, think it strange? Have they seen other women do this? Didn't women used to shop in men's departments? Where are they now? I see women elsewhere wearing men's clothes. Is it not normal then? Is it not okay for me?

Clearly, the question of what is suited to my gender concerns me not only when I look at others (men in drag, for instance), but when I look at myself. A worry about gender appropriateness seems like something I have had all my life. I constantly think about whether I am acting enough like a woman, or in ways considered, by others and myself, as


fitting to a woman, or as felt to be revealing of a woman. Am I dressing, speaking, feeling, moving, taking out the garbage like a woman? I wonder. Should a woman even be taking out the garbage? Am I assuming too many attributes of the other gender and, mistakenly, expecting good treatment for it? If I become too much like a man, what will happen to me? Will I be looked on as a freak, a bad person, a bad woman? Will I no longer qualify as a woman? One problem I have with thinking about these questions is that I easily become confused. There are so many injunctions—statements deeply learned about how I ought to be—and, at the same time, many factors interplay. It is hard to tell what is gender and what is not.

It is also hard for me not to see myself as a man when others see me that way. This is complicated because my own aims have often been to be a man. I think I have tried, since young, to be like men and boys, and not to be like women. My efforts have sources in my family. My mother, for instance, did not like frilly dresses and taught me not to like them and what they implied. She preferred a tailored look. She wanted to be taken seriously and not to be seen as a frivolous woman. I associate my mother's choice of clothing style with her wearing a light blue shirtwaist dress and silver jewelry. The shirtwaist style, a dress made like a man's shirt, was clearly not a ruffles and bows style; it commanded more respect. The silver jewelry, to my mind, meant my mother was a socialist.

I do not wear shirtwaist dresses and my mother has, for a long time, I think, found my style of dress inexplicable. "Why not wear brighter colors?" is the way she speaks of this. She does not say, "Why not wear more ladylike clothes?" The message I hear is the same, however: Why not wear something more complimentary—more expressive of you, more fitting to your gender? When visiting my mother, I try to please her with the colors of my shirts. I give up on my pants, my shoes, and my posture. Perhaps not surprisingly, I feel awkward when my mother looks at me, as if I am failing to be a woman and, for no apparent reason, masquerading in the clothes of the other gender. I feel that I am denying myself, that I am terribly uptight (which I am, since I am with my mother), and that I am denying others—my mother, most certainly—pleasure in me.

My relationships with the world at large are like those I have with my


mother. Not that these relationships are the same, but there is a similar sense of failing to live up to what is expected of a woman, joined with a sense of being an imposter as a man. One solution to this sense of dual failure might be to change my clothing style, another to relax about it. However, I am not good at relaxing and I find that my costume cannot be switched easily, nor can the more fundamental imperatives that cause me to want protections associated with maleness. I am not trying to argue here that my basic nature is male, or even that part of it is, and that therefore a male costume is fitting to me; that I only feel such a costume false, or not truly mine, because others think so. Rather, I wish to speak of the hurt of being seen as a man, or as a woman trying to mime a man. Such hurt seems to me central to my experience of female gender.

The Hurt Of Being Called A Man

When on various occasions, I have been accused of being butch, a male-identified woman, a man, like a man, or, as once happened, a bulldyke, I have shuddered, feeling, "Of course I must be as they say" and, at the same time, feeling wronged and hurt. So central to me have been my efforts to be like a man, and not like a stereotypical woman, that I think I have succeeded. Thus the "Of course." In addition, so fundamental have been my identifications with important men in my life (my father, men in movies, boys when growing up) and not with the seemingly less adventuresome, more confused, less self-satisfied women (my mother, women in movies, women relatives) that I am surprised to find I am still a woman, that my attempts to outstep my gender have not worked. Often I know this only when called a man, or when ridiculed for being a mannish woman, for it is then I feel the hurt of having been overlooked as a woman for so long, the hurt of "you are not seeing me."

It was only a few years ago that a student in one of my classes told me that another student, a man, had called me a bulldyke outside of class. That was the first time I had heard that term applied to me. I felt I did not fit the image. In my mind, I pictured some other woman who was bigger and squarer than me, wore a leather jacket, rode a motorcycle, and slicked back her hair, and who did not make my little concessions


to femininity—the earrings again, a woman's watch. Maybe that woman made her concessions, too, but, at the moment, I was mostly aware of mine, and of the degree to which the term "bulldyke" unnerved me. It made me anxious, as if it were indeed true of me, and uncertain about what kind of monster the student had seen.

At first, I thought it was the hate in the word that was so unsettling. The male student who said it was a ROTC officer, and he had not, I was sure, used the term bulldyke with pride, or with affection for me. There was fear in the word, I assumed, his of me, and I did not like to be feared. More importantly, however, although it took me longer to see it, I think the term shook me up because this fellow was calling me a man. In calling me "bulldyke," he was transforming me into a grotesque male thug, a person ostensibly a woman, but whose principal features were male—being brutish, for instance. There was something intrinsically horrifying to me about both the ridicule of my gender and the denial of me that were involved in the male bulldyke image. I was not well enough defended against the accusation of being such a mannish grotesque to disbelieve it entirely, however, or to keep it at a real distance from me.

Only when I spoke with a friend who was also a lesbian, and who, too, had experience being called a bulldyke, did I begin to see what bothered me. She said the term upset her because it made her feel she was being called a man and being told that she should not be like a man. My friend clearly looked like a woman to me, even in black leather with inch-length hair. Thinking of her, I was able to see myself also as a woman, rather than as the caricature in the bulldyke image. I was able to see that I could reject being called a man.

Nonetheless, after the name-calling incident, when walking the stairs and hallways of the building where I taught, I was more than usually self-conscious. What did people see when they looked at me? I wondered. Did they see a big, tough woman and hate her? Did they see a woman trying to be like a man? Did I look very odd? There was nothing much I could do about my discomfort except to try not to care. The discomfort was not really new to me, for it was about gender appropriateness and my own acceptability, about whether I could be a woman when seen as a man, and, most basically, about whether I had a right to be seen at all. In one sense, the story had a good ending. By the semester's


end, the student who had called me a bulldyke came around to liking and trying to understand gay people, finding fault with his previous prejudices. He told me about this after the last two class sessions, pleased with himself for how he had changed. His ability to alter his prejudices seemed less unexpected to me, however, than my own response to a single word he had used. I would not have thought that being called "bulldyke" would have fazed me.

Another experience when being called a man hurt me occurred with a woman, a close friend whom I loved. In part because she was a woman and, in part, because of the context, I was hurt more deeply and for longer than when the male student called me a bulldyke. Why, I still wonder, did she do that? Why hurt me that way? Was I that bad? She was a straight woman. I was a lesbian. We had a minor sexual involvement. "It was like being with a man," she said. I heard, "It was not supposed to be that way with a woman. You were not supposed to be that way." I imagined I must have been barbaric, brutal, unfeeling, insensitive, like a living-room rapist. I felt terrible, as if part of me (the female part) was cut off by her comment. She had seen only my self-protective (male) shell. I felt there was more to me, but she no longer wanted my advances.

This straight woman did not want me to touch her, to be near her, to take her any further than a subdued sense of sexual arousal that she could experience by herself. During our sexual encounter, I had wanted her to respond to me so I could know that I mattered to her, that she was willing to be with me. She did not want to respond, to be a lesbian, to feel it was worth it. She wanted to lie on a couch, or a bed, and go into a trance, I felt, to be near oblivion, and then have a transcendent experience. I failed to provide that experience. I was a man for her. Are not lesbians really men? Are not butch lesbians, especially, stand-ins for men, to some women? Such questions keep haunting me.

At the time, and for some time after, I felt my friend's reaction to me implied that I had tried to make her feel more than she wanted to, and in doing so, that I had forced myself on her. Thus I had been like a man in a most offensive way. However, she did not give me a chance to be different; I also did not take the chance. I did not show my friend openly how I felt, but, instead, I wanted her to show her feelings to me.


I wanted her to be the yielding, revealing, expressive woman, while I was the one who shows little, who covers how she feels and tries to urge feeling in another. Only much later did I think, Why did I not see her in the man's role? Why am I so quick to put myself in that role? My friend was the one who lay there unwilling to feel, who would not respond. She felt hard and unyielding to me. I did not, therefore, say to her, "You felt like a man to me." Was that because she wore stockings and I wore pants? Because she lay beneath me and looked up? Am I fooled by such appearances? Do I see them and act like a man just so I can play the gender role I think will provide greater protection for me? Did I act like a man? Did acting like one make me one? Why does the hurt of being called a man run so deep for me?

That episode of my being seen as a man in an intimate encounter appears to me, eleven years later, in such highly gendered terms. The other woman seems the woman, I the man. I clearly associate maleness with self-protection and femaleness with a lack of it. When a man accuses me of being a bulldyke, or looks at me and sees a man, it hurts me far less than when a woman does so. A woman, I assume, knows me better. I take seriously what she says. I find it hard to rid myself of feeling I am the person another woman sees.

Much of my feeling that I am a man thus hinges on how I think I look to others. I feel often that my gender lies in my appearance. I also think such a feeling is deceptive. What is true of gender is not that it is primarily a matter of appearance, but that it is so important as to need to be signaled constantly by appearance. It is constantly necessary to tell who is female and male, to announce one's gender and be confirmed for it, for it is not only the outer but the inner world that asks, Which gendered terms describe me? How? Do these terms fit me well at all?

Responses To Femme And Butch Styles In Women

I usually think it is other women, and not me, who adopt gendered roles, that these roles—femme and butch—do not describe me. I am clear that I would not call myself a femme. That style is, for me, too associated with what women traditionally stand for. However, I am less certain about the term "butch." I feel uncomfortable applying that


term to myself and I am suspicious of my discomfort, as if it means I am trying to avoid who I am. I think I want to deny I am butch because of the male implications of the term, and because the goal people speak of always seems to be androgyny, a mix of gendered elements in which no one role is dominant. I also wish to deny I am butch because I have learned that a woman should not ape a man, because I think being butch is not true of me underneath, and because of how I often respond to other women I see as butch.

When I see a woman in a butch role, I recoil. I do not want to be near her. I see no point. What would I gain? I feel I am in search of a womanly woman. I do not fathom very well that the style might not be the person, that the whole might be more complex. I see male clothing, physical mannerisms, or style of speech, and I think, "This is a man," just as others may do when they look at me. Sometimes, I try to undress a butch woman in my mind. I think that if I can see a female body beneath this woman's clothes, I will feel differently toward her. If I can see breasts and a woman's rounded shape, I will feel this is someone soft and caring, capable of saying the gentle things I need to hear, which I often cannot say to myself because my mother did not say them. If I see a woman's body, I will be able to imagine myself curled up between this woman's breasts, my head nestled in them, myself as a child held and protected. I will know then that this is a woman. Of course, that is stereotypical thinking of an unreal sort. All women do not have breasts, all breasts are not nurturant, all mothers are not good, all mothers are not women. Yet I persist in looking for the most clichéd of female appearances.

When I see a woman wearing a dress, for instance, or with breasts whose shapes are visible through a shirt, a woman with a way of looking at, and speaking to, me that suggests she will be caring toward me, when I see long hair and a full-bodied figure, when I see the most standard displays of female style, I think, "Here is someone who will be kind to me. Here is a woman." I want to go to her, to be held, to go to bed with her. In that closeness, I think I will feel what I need. I fall for a symbol and move immediately to intimacy, and both the fall and the move can be disastrous for me.

One reason I think I look for femme-style women is that I do not feel


I myself am a woman. I have breasts, but they are not breasts. They belong to someone else. They are bumps, they are too small. My shape is not the shape of a woman. It is a man's shape, but it is not a man's shape. I have kindness in me, but it is not the kindness of a woman. Rather, it is my father's kindness. When people receive from me, they receive from him. What I offer is what a man offers. Usually, I think I am a young man, offering adventure and gentleness and a need for nurturance that some women will respond to. The sources that make me feel I am a man thus include my desire to be a man. This is so strong in me, in good part, because I have seen it is men who receive the affections of women. It is men in the movies whom women hold, men whom women are most caring toward. My mother slept with my father. My younger brother aroused much affection in people, and I always wanted to be him, to be male.

Heterosexuality has profound effects. It is more than an observation about who mates with whom. It is a theory about incompleteness and completion, about the desirability of women valuing men over women, and about the need for maintaining distinctions between the genders. I think it is a bad theory, but I am not immune to it, to the gender idealizations that come with it, and to the way it shapes the imagination.

Lesbian In A Heterosexual World

Several years ago, for the first time, my lover, whom I will call Judith, and I spent a night in a country inn. We stayed in a room upstairs with a down comforter on the bed, wine and mints on the dresser, and antique dolls in the bookshelves. Nearby was a common room with a woodburning stove, and across the hall a bathroom with copies of magazines neatly set out. I was not accustomed to the deliberateness of the setting, but the least familiar part of the experience was the group breakfast in the morning. In the kitchen downstairs, around a big circular table sat all the people who had stayed at the inn the night before—ten people, five couples, including Judith and myself. The four other couples were heterosexual. One of the men was a coroner, another designed downtown department store windows. Over breakfast, while the innkeepers served us, the heterosexual couples discussed other inns


they had stayed at, antique furniture they had bought at auctions, and large round globes that were the trend in department store windows that season. Judith and I felt out of place and very aware of the heterosexuality of the company.

Later that day as we drove away from the inn on our way to the ocean, I imagined a changed scene. No longer was the social climate of the inn heterosexual couples speaking of consumerism. Instead, the guests were lesbian couples and the inn was a setting for a mystery. My mystery began with a woman in dark clothes lurking in the doorway to a barn in a field behind the inn. But it was the nature of the couples whose paths might cross out by the barn that most fascinated me. In my mind, I saw one couple clearly. They were inside the inn talking in the common room by the woodburning stove—a small, dark-haired, butch-style woman and a larger, more outgoing, femme-style woman. I had little sense of the plot that would unfold. My focus was on the mystery of the attraction between these two women and, potentially, between these two and others staying at the inn.

What did the open-mannered, femme woman in the couple see in the smaller, dark-haired woman? I wondered. What did the quieter, dark-haired woman have to offer? What comfort did she find in the larger, more sociable woman? What was on the surface in each of them? What was underneath? Who gave what? Who needed what? What about the femme-butch aspect of their relationship? How important was it? What did it mean? Was the butch really the femme underneath, and the femme the butch, if one looked closely? Why would anyone value the butch woman when the femme, it seemed to me, had so much more to offer? Clearly, these questions were from my own life, but that was not the point for me at the time. The point was that I could not escape structuring my imagination in terms of gender roles—those female and male styles, highly variable and essentially heterosexual, here adopted by women.

Although I never was able to write a mystery plot set in the inn, the image of the lesbian couple by the stove stayed with me for a long time. It was a way that I reminded myself of a puzzle that bothered me. All of us, I think, have situations, or puzzles, in our minds in which the gendered behaviors we see are unsettling for us and not yet figured out. My


mystery of the inn was a story of my own importing gender roles from one context, the inn (a heterosexual world), to another, a world of women, and then attempting to determine the meaning of these roles in the women's world. To what extent did female and male gender roles become different when adopted by women or, more accurately, when adapted by them, than when adapted by men, and different still when adapted by lesbians? To what extent did women adapting gendered roles perpetuate a system of male dominance and female subordinance in which women appear less substantial than men, and men are more important and more safe? Was a straight femme woman the same as a lesbian femme? Or was a lesbian different because she was more false in that role—less subordinate to men, although subordinate, perhaps, to women who acted like men? These distinctions seem important to me because women who act like men are not men, and because lesbians are again different, and the differences of women, and of lesbians, often are not seen. At the same time, what is seen—a surface gender style—is often not well understood, either in terms of what it means to an individual, or in terms of a deeper structure of gender.

In recent years, I have heard it said that gender roles are declining in significance both among lesbians and among heterosexuals. The gender differences these roles reflect are said to be increasingly superficial, rather than basic, reflecting people's attempts to hold on to old symbols of identity, even as these symbols lose social import. The two genders are said to be becoming more equal; women and men are becoming more the same. Gender role-playing among lesbians is often seen as something done years ago, in prior generations, when there was less of a feminist critique against reproducing heterosexuality. In prior years, the roles were supposedly taken more seriously: butch lesbians dressed in clear male ways, acted differently than femmes, chose femmes for lovers; and when they lived together, the two often divided labor according to traditional heterosexual marriage roles. Members of a more contemporary lesbian couple will usually not divide in such a strict manner, and there is a new "playing with gender" attitude. Yet it seems to me that gender roles persist and re-arise in many ways that are beyond our control and consciousness, some of them subtle, others blatant. The roles appear among working-class lesbians who take traditional gender


roles seriously, as does the surrounding class culture; among younger lesbians who play at the roles, keeping, or feeling they keep, a more stylized distance from them (lipstick lesbians in the femme revival, for instance). The roles appear among women who wish to transcend gender roles in themselves and others, yet who see the roles everywhere, like myself; among career lesbians in male-style female clothes who must make great efforts to prove they are still women; among queer women and transgenderists, who often deal with gender by treating it as malleable, and by switching back and forth between female and male styles, as if they seek to do away with gender by mixing it up.[2]

My point is not how sharp the roles are, or how unchangeable, or how much the same from place to place, but the needs they speak to. More than announcing who is female or male, they represent a preoccupation with gender, a need to define oneself in gendered terms that is no less real for being unacknowledged, and that in women is often understated, or engaged in so quietly it seems to be natural. People who know me, for instance, think I look like myself, and that I am a woman. My clothes seem fitting to me. They are not aware of how much I feel, and fear, I am a man. When younger and wanting so much to be a man—in order to be free of being a woman, or like my mother, and in order simply to be free—I used to take greater pride in being mistaken for a man than I do now, and to feel less discomforted when called one. Maybe I got so accustomed to the pants and freedom that being called a man did not seem so much of a compliment anymore. I felt better when seen as a woman. But maybe the reason has more to do with a change in what the genders came to stand for in my particular world. At some point, the meanings switched, and good became female, and freedom became female, and so did I.


This is not a completed story but, rather, a suggestive one, providing a few illustrations to indicate the presence of inner conflicts in a female gender role. Although I have emphasized male elements in my gender style, my central concern is with my appropriateness as a woman—with whether I qualify, and what I must do, to be seen as female. My efforts


to be a woman are harder to talk about than my efforts to be a man. They are more embarrassing, and less self-conscious, and they may be viewed as unnecessary—I cannot help but be a woman. However, I cannot remember a time when I could take that status for granted, nor when being seen as female was unrelated to feeling I was female. I know I gain a sense of protection when adapting elements of a male style—men's clothing, for instance. However, I feel touched most deeply when seen as a woman, as if being female is the most and least visible thing about me, and the most important thing.

I rely on women for both intimate and more formal relationships because of qualities the gendered role of women provides for me. Among women, I find some who are, in style, like men, and others who are more like traditional women. I, myself, am often unsure of how to be. I feel that my gestures are either female or male, that a nongendered choice is not one I can make. At the same time, I often think that my actions are an individual matter and not gendered. Yet when I look closely, it seems to me that my needs for protection, the sense of vulnerability these needs are tied to, my compliance with a system that says I am unimportant, my fear on the streets, my wanting to look tough like a man in my clothes, my seeking out femme-style women for comfort, my undressing butch women to find a similar comfort, my hurt on being called a man—all these are very much related to my being female. They are bound up with what I have learned is my gender, much as I wish they were simply signs of myself.

Clearly, I import heterosexual habits and perceptions into my female world. I would like to do differently. I would like to stop trying to be like a man, stop seeing femme and butch styles among women, stop thinking these matter. Yet I cannot easily do so, as if part of my self-protection lies in not overlooking the signs—woman, boy, girl, man. These identifications emerge from a context in which women do not count for much, and in which the basic gender categories remain strict assignments for most people most of the time, even when gender roles other than one's own are tried on and partially adopted, blurring lines between the genders. Gender categories are so strong in their consequence that playing with gender remains just that—elaboration, embroidery,


variations on a theme of male dominance and female subordinance, male importance and female silence.

The seemingly trivial behaviors involved and the inner preoccupations of my gender have far deeper impact than perhaps they ought to. I speak here for acknowledging the importance of gender rather than succumbing to the confusion of it, and for trying to think about why the confusion so easily sets in. Anything that makes light of gender and understates the degree to which it is defining of people, and constraining for women, may have great appeal. Our social system depends on a female underclass, and attempts to disavow the importance of gender conveniently hide this dependence. The work women do is often invisible and takes many forms. One of these is that of maintaining a female gender role despite inner conflicts. This role, as I have learned it, does not offend and keeps much internal. In part for that reason, it is important, I think, to speak about the difficulties of female experience with as much candor as possible. It is important to make public more of what is usually hidden in individual female worlds.


Becoming A Lesbian

TWENTY YEARS AGO , I first lived with another woman. This is a story about that experience, excerpted from a novel I later wrote. Although written in the third person, it is strictly autobiographical. To me, this story is not only about lesbians, but also about female-female relating and the challenge of intimacy between women. I call it "Becoming a Lesbian" because, for me, being a lesbian is an ongoing process of seeking intimacy, personal value, and happiness with another woman.[1] This process may have an initial stage, but it does not have an end. Often, I think, becoming a lesbian involves challenging basic assumptions about oneself. For me, it has required admitting my most basic needs of other women rather than walling these needs off, or denying them. It has required discarding some of my previous ways of being female, and finding new ones. As this story suggests, women often teach each other how to be lesbian. Fran, my lover, taught me, as she was taught by a previous lover.

I hope this tale indicates that I think lesbianism is a choice, rather than an inborn nature. At some point, I chose, for the first time with awareness, to meet my most intimate needs with other women. However, I think I did not become a lesbian suddenly, or as a result of any


single cause, but rather as a result of many small experiences and invisible choices I had made along the way. Eventually I found myself living with another woman, sharing sexuality and interpersonal attentiveness, and feeling quite unprepared for it. I then had to learn a great deal about what was involved. I had to grow to appreciate the specific emotional contours of a lesbian relationship. I think that lesbian relationships touch the deepest emotions women have. They are important far beyond what one expects. A two-year lesbian relationship lasts for a century and leaves the parties to it forever changed. When a lesbian relationship ends, there is no overstating the heartbreak. In part to mend an early break, I wrote this story about a lesbian love.

From "Jenny's World"


Often these days Jenny thought about Fran, the first woman she had lived with. Fran was the first in a series of dreams that now haunted Jenny like broken glass. Jenny was younger then, although at the time she felt old, for she was in her late twenties. Fran was eleven years older. Fran was wiser, Jenny thought. She wore her graying hair short, her clothes tailored. She drank regularly, often heavily, chain-smoked, and spoke to Jenny with a tone of affection and of reason. Fran's father was a fundamentalist minister. Fran had therefore become a scientist. Each day she went to her lab. She knew how to tune her car and how to fix things around the house. Anything that moved she believed she could take apart and then put back together again. Her very way of speaking conveyed precision and depth. She was one kind of dream come true for Jenny.

Jenny had first met Fran at meetings of a lesbian group they both attended in which Jenny was outspoken, making more enemies, she felt, than friends. Fran came up to her after one of those meetings and asked for her phone number. Within a few days, Fran called to ask her for a date, her way of proposing it formal and somewhat nervous. When Jenny accepted, Fran had responded by saying "Nifty," which made Jenny wonder about her. The people Jenny knew did not say "nifty."


That night of their first date was as clear to Jenny now as if it had happened yesterday. She pulled her car up to the front of a large mock-Tudor style house in a section of town where the lawns were deep and the houses big, some of them huge as mansions. Fran had told her on the phone that a dirty white VW bus would be parked in front of the house where she lived, so Jenny could not miss it. As she drove up, Jenny saw the bus, but since it was dark out, she was not sure exactly how she was supposed to tell if it was clean or dirty. She did know, however, that she ought to be on time. That had seemed implied in Fran's tone of voice on the phone.

Jenny walked up to the house, crossing the damp front lawn to reach an entrance that reminded her of entrances to buildings at Ivy League colleges. Beside the heavy, dark-wooden doorway was a small, lit, yellow light. She rang the bell and Fran came immediately. Jenny looked at Fran, then quickly away and up at the high wooden ceiling of the large living room behind Fran. Elaborate wrought-iron lamps and ornamental ironwork hung down from it. Never before had Jenny been in a house like this. Fran invited her in, smiling, her intensity showing in a vague tremor in her lips and in a shaking in her hands as she reached to take Jenny's jacket, which Jenny would not let her take. Jenny wore wool shirts as jackets, then as now, and she liked to hold on to them.

In those first few moments, Fran, in her stance and bodily motions, seemed to Jenny like a woman poised on the verge of excitement. A highly refined and constrained excitement was the feeling she conveyed. She led Jenny to a seat on a couch in the living room and asked her if she would like a drink. Jenny did not drink much and could have cared less, but she said yes. Pointing to a glass on a table by her side, Fran said she was drinking scotch. Jenny said that would be fine for her too.

While Fran went off to the kitchen to get her drink, Jenny looked around the living room and thought about Fran and this house. The house seemed to be as mysterious and awesome as Fran was. Perhaps she had a husband who had left her, some children who were not there. Jenny did not find out until much later that night—after she and Fran had gone on their date to a harpsichord concert—that the house did not actually belong to Fran. She rented a room with a bath in the back of the house behind the kitchen. In the time since she had been living


there, however, she had become friends with the owners, who were now away on vacation. She was taking care of the house for them while they were gone, using the whole of it as if it were hers. Although Jenny found out later that night that the house was not Fran's own—it was simply one of the shells she moved in and out of with seeming ease—the image of Fran in the big solemn structure stayed with Jenny and seemed to fit Fran more than many of the images that succeeded it.

After Jenny and Fran returned from the concert, they sat and talked in Fran's back room. Jenny sat on a couch at the opposite end of the room from Fran, who sat on a chair. Darkness from outside the room seemed to invade through side windows despite lights on within—two glowing lamps sitting on a large golden oak desk set against an inner wall. Jenny and Fran talked back and forth, getting to know one another. But the experience felt to Jenny more like an inquisition than a regular conversation. Fran asked her many questions about her life, leaving little space for Jenny to ask questions of her in turn. Jenny felt far away from Fran because she was sitting across the room from her. At the same time, she felt as if Fran's questions were opening her up and reaching deep inside her, exposing her to herself.

Jenny saw into her own feelings as a result of Fran's questions. She felt that Fran valued her, whether that was true or not. Jenny also decided then and there that she would end her marriage. She made that decision not in order to be with Fran, or because Fran said to do it, although Fran certainly seemed to imply that ending her marriage might follow logically from what Jenny told her. Rather, it was because, prior to this one night, Jenny had not felt that anyone else in the world other than the person she had married could get to her deep inside, could touch her with words or with insights. Here Fran was doing that, thus proving her wrong. She was showing Jenny that there were other possibilities, possibilities Jenny wanted very much.

When Fran was finished with her questions and with revealing what little she did about herself, Jenny felt very tired. She stood up to leave, carrying her glass of scotch to put it down on Fran's oak desk. The glass was nearly as full as it had been when Fran had handed it to her earlier. Fran, too, then stood and walked up to the desk. She offered to take Jenny's glass, to see her to the door. Jenny looked at Fran and saw that


Fran was going to let her go, was going to leave a wide swath around her, a distance between them, as she had done when they had sat and talked. Jenny said something then, from inside her, about these people like Fran who asked questions. "Could you touch them?" she asked. Fran nodded, or seemed to Jenny to nod, or at least not to say no. Jenny reached out her hand and touched Fran's arm. Fran moved closer to her. Jenny was surrounded by darkness and by Fran's subdued excitement, by an embrace and a kiss.

"Would you like to spend the night?" Fran asked. "The couch you were sitting on folds out into a double bed." Jenny turned to look back at the dark green couch behind her. She was afraid. Never before had she gone to bed with an actual lesbian. The women she had slept with before were straight women who were having brief flirtations with her, not women like Fran who had loved and lived exclusively with women for the past eighteen years. That much Jenny had managed to gain from Fran in their previous conversation.

After sitting down to give it thought, weighing her fear against her need, Jenny decided to stay. Then, before she went to sleep that night, she outdid herself in sexual performance. In no way did she want Fran to know the inexperience she felt, particularly since, when she had been talking with Fran earlier, she had implied that her prior sexual affairs with women were more fully developed and more numerous than they actually were. In bed with Fran, Jenny wanted Fran to feel that she had been made love to by an expert, not a novice. She also did not want Fran to sense her fear. Finally, very tired, although not before deciding in her mind that whether or not she saw Fran again, she would still end her marriage, Jenny fell asleep.

The next morning when she woke, Jenny had breakfast with a woman she did not know, a formal person larger than herself, dressed in a deep blue oriental silk robe, whose hands shook and who displayed an intensity when she spoke. At a table in a sunny alcove off the kitchen, Fran served them each a slice of cantaloupe with their breakfast. Jenny did not like cantaloupe, it made her burp, but she thought she had best be proper and eat it. She looked over at Fran and felt like running away and also that she was one of the luckiest people in the world. Later that morning, Jenny went home, promising to come back at dinner time.


Fran stood in her blue robe in the front doorway of the house and asked Jenny to come back as she said goodbye to her. Fran stood erect and looked calm, yet the lift of one eyebrow, the break in her voice, her way of simply standing there, suggested that she feared that Jenny would not return. Jenny did return that night and slept with Fran. She also returned the next night and the next night and the next. For roughly two years after their first date, Jenny came back each night to sleep with Fran, except on those occasions when either one of them was out of town.

On the second night Jenny spent with Fran, they went out to dinner at a Middle Eastern restaurant where a belly dancer performed near their table. Jenny felt disturbed by the performance. Fran found it entertaining. Jenny drove them to the restaurant, parked a few blocks away, and walked with Fran up the street. As they walked, she looked over at Fran, who seemed preoccupied and intent, her gaze straight ahead. Fran was wearing a bulky-knit Scandinavian sweater her mother had made for her. The sweater, with its black and white design, brought out the silver in her gray hair. Jenny looked at Fran and thought that she was positively handsome. Never had Jenny been with such a handsome woman. She reached her arm around Fran's shoulder to show Fran, to show the street, that she was not scared. Fran's generation, Jenny felt, would not do such a thing in public. Jenny therefore would.

At dinner, Jenny found it hard to talk, given the noise of the restaurant, so mostly she caught glimpses of Fran when she thought Fran was not looking. Jenny also tried to eat. Fran asked her many questions. Yet the questions were either too serious or too pointed for Jenny to answer them well. Fran, however, answered directly the questions Jenny asked of her. Most of Fran's answers were short, her comments casual, almost flip. There was a tone of sarcasm beneath the surface in Fran's voice and beneath that, Jenny felt, a layer of hurt. Jenny also felt she was hearing Fran's story in bits and pieces that were not entirely connected. Names and years seemed jumbled together. Jenny hoped her confusion about who Fran had been lovers with, when, and for how long, or when Fran had moved here or there, did not show too plainly.

In the next few weeks, Jenny gained a more solid sense of Fran. It came in small increments, usually at those moments when Fran, a drink


in her hand in the evening, was willing to sit back on her couch, or on a chair, and to tell a long story, her dark eyes taking both of them back to another time or place. Fran's past seemed to Jenny to be another life, perhaps because Fran presented it as such. She suggested that her other life was over, and that now she was a different person, someone who had emerged with great difficulty and as a result of much learning.

The sense of Fran's need to break with her past bothered Jenny, who kept searching for regularity and for a sense of the sameness about a person. Jenny wanted the security of knowing what Fran was like now from these stories Fran told about herself before. The woman Fran had lived with for eleven years sounded a lot like Jenny. She had similar fears. Fran had left her. The woman Fran became involved with next was different, more outgoing, more in command. She had rejected Fran. Coming back from a camping trip one night, she told Fran she wanted their relationship to be over. Fran had cried for hours in the back of her VW bus trying to get this woman to change her mind. Jenny felt that Fran's telling her about this breakup made Fran seem more human. There was something about Fran that was so remote, so permanently under control, held down by the alcohol, the smoking, the focused intensity of Fran's way of being, that Jenny, even from the beginning, looked constantly for breakthroughs—for moments when a more vulnerable, accessible woman would appear.

Fran gave Jenny one of those moments by surprise one afternoon on the second weekend of their knowing each other when Fran got very upset with her. Jenny had called earlier in the day to say she would be late in coming over and to ask Fran if she should come at all. When she finally arrived, Fran was agitated. Jenny sat on a window seat in the wood-paneled den located near the front of the house, in the one part of that room that was not dark. The sun came in through the window behind her and warmed her. Fran sat on a chair across from her, then stood, sat again, then stood, speaking with difficulty. There were "demands" she had of another person, she said. Over the years she had come to know them. She had not always. She had stayed in her eleven-year relationship and not known her needs until the end, she told Jenny, until that relationship became so painful that she felt like she was bleeding inside. That was when she left. She took off in her bus and traveled


around the state for a year, sitting on rocks, thinking, and learning to like herself. She quit her job, gave away most of what she owned, and rebuilt the inside of her bus so that it could be a moving home for her. Never again, she told Jenny, would she let what had occurred back then happen to her.

"I want you to know from the start," Fran said, standing, looking across at Jenny. "I have a list of needs, expectations. I want to be absolutely clear about them."

Jenny heard and did not hear. She heard Fran saying she needed another person to be there for her, to be responsive to her. Fran then listed her needs: one, two, three, four. Jenny remembered the formality of their presentation more than what they were specifically. She felt all this must be occurring because Fran had sensed in her a desire to run away. It was more than a desire; it was a reflex actually. Fran must have sensed it immediately, just as Jenny had sensed Fran's hunger, her need for someone else's emotions to fill her. Jenny was not used to opening herself to another person, but she nonetheless felt it not beyond her to be with Fran. She told Fran she wanted to measure up, to respond. Fran said that was good enough. "Well met," she told Jenny moments later, lifting her glass in a toast.

Already in their first few weeks, a pattern had begun to emerge in Jenny's relationship with Fran, a pattern not easily broken, one that had its own challenge, its own tenderness and fear. Jenny would come each night to the big house where Fran lived. Occasionally, Fran came to Jenny's house, but because it was a small apartment with little furniture—a place whose emptiness was not apparent to Jenny until Fran commented on it—it seemed to offer them less. Fran soon decided that she and Jenny should use the master bedroom upstairs in the big house. "After all," she told Jenny, "it's sitting there empty, why not use it?" So that was where they slept. Jenny would arrive at Fran's in the evening, usually after dinner, and leave in the morning before breakfast to go back to her own house to work. Sometimes she would bring with her the notebooks in which she was writing, carrying them, a change of underpants, and a toothbrush in a red canvas bookbag. Most people had green bookbags at the time, or had had them several years earlier. Jenny's, therefore, was deliberately red.


When at one point Fran suggested that she leave her toothbrush, Jenny refused to do it. She might need it later in the day, she told Fran. "You could buy another toothbrush," Fran added. It was not about toothbrushes, however, Jenny knew. What if she did not come back? Then there would be this remnant of her in someone else's house. Also, she was very attached to her things. Even her toothbrush was important to her—the bristles were worn in just the right way. She preferred to keep it with her.

One quiet evening when Jenny arrived at Fran's house, Fran showed her slides of trips she had taken into wilderness areas. They sat at a large polished mahogany table in the darkened dining room. Fran projected her slides on a far wall. With enthusiasm, her kind of contained, deliberate, almost planned enthusiasm, Fran told Jenny about the beauty of the places she had visited and proudly showed her the pictures so that Jenny could see for herself. Fran had mentioned her wilderness trips to Jenny before. She had told Jenny about her backpacking equipment and how she had converted her bus, and she had shown Jenny her well-worn hiking boots. Jenny had kept a distance from it. This time, though, with the slides large and bright on the wall, Jenny could not keep her distance and felt scared. After Fran was through showing her slides, she turned on the lights in the room and smiled over at Jenny, awaiting her response.

Jenny, not big on tact, told Fran immediately that the pictures had scared her. The wilderness did not seem friendly to her. The marshy bogs were not friendly, nor were the stony mountains. She needed the security of a house, she told Fran. She needed her own schedule, her routine, her familiar protections. She needed to be inside. That was true for right now. It might always be true. She felt she risked losing Fran to say it. To her relief, Fran said that was all right. Jenny need not go backpacking with her. There were other people she could go with. The woman who owned this house was one. Fran then took Jenny upstairs to the master bedroom and showed her the woman's well-worn hiking boots in the walk-in closet.

The next morning when Jenny woke, as on many of those mornings of the first weeks she stayed with Fran, while Jenny showered, Fran went downstairs and made coffee. She brought it up in two large earthenware


mugs and sat on a small couch in the bedroom, listening to classical music on her portable radio, reading from a book, and occasionally looking up to watch Jenny dress. Often at that time of day, the music the radio station played was Bach. Jenny previously had not heard much Bach, but she began to like it. Fran would sit on the couch in her robe listening to her radio. She would put down her book when she saw Jenny was done dressing. Before Jenny picked up her bag to leave, Fran would stop her and ask her to sit beside her or on her lap. Fran then would look directly at Jenny close up. "Je t'adore," she said once, translating when Jenny asked. Jenny was moved, yet found it odd. She felt that she did not deserve such attention from a woman of the stature of Fran, and also that she had to leave to go home to do her work.

Much as she pushed them aside at the time, impatient to get on with her day, those early mornings of Jenny's first few weeks with Fran were important to her. The sweetness of Fran's stopping her before she left and holding her, stroking her, clasping her close, meant more to Jenny than the nights that came before them. Jenny knew that, for she remembered the mornings when the nights had long since faded. There was the sound of Bach, the morning sun entering gently through a recessed upper-story window, Fran sitting there waiting, looking over at Jenny and sipping her coffee slowly. Then Fran would get up to see her to the door, Jenny like a kid going off to school, bookbag in her hand, although she did not have a lunch.

The nights that Jenny spent with Fran came to matter more to her later, after Fran moved to another house and as Jenny gradually joined her there and eventually moved in with her. That other house was smaller and much more theirs than the house in which they first met. It was set back in green hills at the end of a canyon, removed, surrounded by bushes and high trees, and visited by birds and by deer more than by people. In that house and in another near it, Jenny had experiences with Fran that marked her and touched her deeply, so deeply that by now they were like grounding. Like bedrock, they were what the rest was built on. If it had not been for Fran, Jenny thought, much that had occurred next in her life would not have happened as it did. Fran had taught her about living in other people's houses, and appreciating the outdoors, and feeling special about herself. At the same time, Fran had


hurt her. Fran had left her. She drove off one day from the second house they lived in and then did not speak to Jenny for three years. Something broke inside Jenny then and never got repaired. As a result, it was now hard for her to remember back. Her past with Fran, the good parts of it, seemed hidden beneath trappings. The trappings were tough. They were Jenny's anger. Back in the beginning, however, Jenny could not predict such a break. She was very slowly entering a new world.


One afternoon during her first month of knowing Fran, Jenny arrived at Fran's big house to take a drive with her up into the hills. Fran had told her there was a small house about half an hour outside of town that belonged to some friends of hers, a retired couple now traveling around the country in their camper. They had asked her if she would live there and take care of the house for them while they were away for a year. Fran knew the house, she told Jenny, because ten years earlier, before this couple bought it, she had lived there with her lover. Back then, the house was no more than a cottage, very rustic, poorly insulated, and without heat. Patty and Bob, when they bought the place, had fixed it up so that now it was a very comfortable small home.

As Fran drove her bus up into the hills, Jenny sat beside her. She looked out the window, listening as Fran spoke, and thought about how people trusted Fran with their homes. The road up to the house wound through thick green trees and had views of wild brush and of orange poppies blowing in the wind. As they climbed, the air got quieter and the drops on the edges of the road became steeper. They seemed to be going much farther than half an hour away.

Jenny liked sitting up high beside Fran in her bus. She had never before known anyone with a VW bus, and it felt exotic to her to be riding in one. Jenny had never been up this particular road and she did not know where she was going. She was used to being in town, used to city streets. Jenny was, after all, a Brooklyn girl, although Brooklyn was very far behind her. She had a fear of heights and of strange places and people. Fran sat calmly next to her, looking out through the top of the front windshield of her van at the sky or at the high limbs of trees. She


looked up at them as often as she looked down at the road, Jenny thought. Fran also occasionally looked over at Jenny with affection. She was enjoying the ride, enjoying Jenny, pleased to be showing her someplace new, to be taking Jenny away with her.

Not wanting to reveal fully her fear, Jenny asked Fran cautiously about the road at night and the safety of it in the rain. Fran assured her there was nothing to worry about. There was another way to come if a storm got bad or if Jenny became afraid. That way, however, took longer. Jenny did not feel reassured. She held on to her seat, held her breath, and decided that Fran was a perfect person to die with should the bus careen over the edge of the road after hitting a pothole at a bad angle. She could not know, just then, that only months later she would grow to love that road, to trust it, to speed on its curves with a daredevil's ease, or that she would copy Fran's way of looking up and out, whether she was driving Fran's bus or her own car. She could not guess that years later she would dream of that silly road and miss it with a pain longer than any trip, a pain that contained all the places it had led to and all her own needs to turn from them and move on.

After climbing and taking a sharp turn down and weaving back into a canyon, Fran and Jenny finally reached the house Fran had described. Fran drove her bus up a graveled driveway and pulled into a dusty lot by its side. She and Jenny got out and Jenny looked at the small white house before them, unpretentious, set into the hillside, its shutters neatly closed. Jenny helped Fran unload belongings from the back of her bus and carry them into a storage shed across the way. Then she went with Fran into the house. The space inside felt close to her. The rooms opened directly onto one another. There was a comfortable small living room in which a soft couch sat in front of a broad bay window. A television set sat opposite the couch. Two chairs were by the fireplace; a thick goldish-green rug lay on the floor. To the left of the living room was a dining area and behind that a long narrow kitchen. Down a hallway leading back from the living room, past a bath, were two bedrooms—a smaller one that had belonged to Patty and Bob's daughter, and the larger master bedroom farther back.

Jenny caught up with Fran at the entrance to the master bedroom. Fran was looking around, thinking, Jenny suspected, of what the room


had been like when she had lived there before, when it was half the size it was now and not a bedroom at all but a drafty storage space. At present, in the middle of the room, a very broad double bed took up most of the space available. That bed looked so large that it seemed to Jenny to be the room. Fran told her it had been made by pushing two single beds together and laying a mat over them, which would give Patty and Bob plenty of space to be apart. Jenny, looking at the wide bed, imagined the older couple there more easily than she imagined herself and Fran. The bed was covered with a bold, white, tufted spread.

After checking through the house one last time for improvements and finding that Patty and Bob had left her a bottle of her favorite scotch in a kitchen cabinet, Fran led Jenny outside. Taking Jenny by the hand, she walked with her around the house, pointing out a workshop in back and flowers and young trees Patty had planted all around. Fran then gestured to the hillside across the way and told Jenny that deer were all over these hills. Jenny would hear coyotes and she might even see foxes, "if you'll be coming to visit, that is, like you did when I lived in town."

Fran offered that last line cautiously, as if expecting the hesitation that followed in Jenny's answer.

"Yeah, maybe I'll see," Jenny said.

They drove back to town quietly, Jenny thinking about the dangers of the road, Fran looking up through the top of her windshield and whistling, now and then, to the classical music that was playing on her car radio.

Two days before Thanksgiving, a month and a half after she and Jenny had gone on their first date, Fran moved into her house in the hills. Although she had her fears, Jenny continued to visit her as she had done while Fran lived in town. She came back each night to sleep with Fran and often to have dinner with her, as well, no matter how uneasy she felt about the road. She came, as she had to the house down below, with her bookbag and notebooks and a change of underwear, although Fran finally did convince her to leave her toothbrush in the bathroom and, ultimately, after a month or so, to leave a couple of shirts and a change of jeans in the bedroom closet. As before, Jenny left each morning,


except on weekends, to go back to her own house in town to work. As time went on, she also went home to pack.

Two and a half months later, in the middle of the winter, Jenny moved most of her belongings to a garage of a friend of Fran's in town. The garage felt special to her because it stood beneath a tree that bore bright orange persimmons, Jenny's favorite fruit. Jenny then formally moved in with Fran. With her, she brought her clothes, her typewriter, her work (a nearly finished dissertation), her radio, her hair dryer, some pills for sleeping, and her car. The first night she came to Fran in this way, shorn of the place she used to go to, she felt exposed, unprotected, and terrified, and as if she were young and new.

In coming to Fran, Jenny was leaving behind not only an apartment but also a marriage. The man she had been married to had left to take a job in the Midwest the previous summer and Jenny had not followed him. She had been married for four years, but marriage had never been a form that fit her well. She rebelled against it. While married, she wore her wedding band proudly, since it meant to her that she was normal, but at the same time she made nasty comments when people noticed the ring or acted as if marriage made a difference.

As might be suspected, Jenny never was the wife her husband Steven wanted her to be. She never was anyone's wife really, except that she did do the grocery shopping and cooked. She was, then as now, Jenny, who was very young and who fought a lot with Steven and with anyone who came near her, which not many people did. She let Steven get close to her and marry her because he was smart. He could see into her, Jenny felt. Also, he challenged much of what her parents had taught her. By her early twenties, as a result of her parents' training, Jenny felt like a moral-political machine. She felt mechanistic inside. She knew how to act according to values she had been taught, but she did not know what to do with her feelings. Steven insisted that she follow her feelings and treat herself like a person, not a machine.

"Don't tell me why you want to do something," he would say. "Just tell me that you want to. That's enough. I don't need a reason. I hate your reasons. They have nothing to do with anything."

Jenny would feel hurt and confused. Yet she knew he was trying to


touch her. Unlike her parents, Steven would not have political arguments with her over the newspaper at breakfast or while they were walking down the street. "What is really going on?" he would ask her. "What are you upset about?" He would also hold Jenny when she cried. He so much preferred her crying to her angry armor and her striking out, the way she broke things and sent cups, plates, and furniture crashing against the walls of the places where they lived. Steven often got mad back at Jenny when she did that, but he would hold her, and even when the sex between them was not right, he would sense, as with an extra antenna, what Jenny needed. Then he would cradle her in his arms and rock her.

Before she moved in with Fran, Jenny had to pack up all her belongings from her life with Steven. When she went back to her apartment each day that last month before she moved, she would work for a while, then pack and pack. Between boxes, she would lie on the floor and cry. She would also eat handfuls of sourdough bread, which was a comfort food for her. Then at night she would return to Fran, unable to explain fully what had happened to her, but explaining as much as she could in answer to Fran's many questions.

By now, Jenny had grown used to Fran's questions. She knew that Fran would ask and ask until she became frustrated by Jenny's difficulty in answering. Jenny was not used to being on center stage, even the center stage of a discussion between two at a dining table. She tried, because she wanted to please Fran, but she felt she was not the kind of person who could normally spill out everything. Fran, however, seemed to need that, and Jenny wished to bask in the attention Fran offered. Jenny therefore answered, although usually the outcome was that she would start to say things and then not finish her sentences, which irritated Fran. "If I am sitting here giving you all my attention," Fran would say, "the least you could do is to finish your sentences for me."

Jenny felt Fran was right, but she also felt that it was impossible for her to fill the void she sensed in Fran. Furthermore, she feared Fran's judgments of her answers as she might the judgments her mother would give at the dinner table. She feared Fran would be critical and verbally lash out at her. Jenny did not like eating at tables. She also did not like


or trust other people's questions. She would speak in her own time, in her own way.

What she wanted and did like was the quieter attention that Fran gave her, the attention that seemed to ask less of her. Fran gave it in the way she looked at Jenny when Fran was raking leaves on a weekend or pulling weeds in the garden. Fran would stop when Jenny came near her and look up at her with affection. She would smile at Jenny, who would feel warmed. Or in the early months, when Jenny would clearly and definitely leave no more than one extra shirt in Fran's closet, Fran would open the closet door, look at the shirt, then at Jenny, and smile. Jenny felt understood, if not accepted. She knew Fran wanted her to leave more of her clothes.

There were also those times when Jenny was riding in Fran's bus or sitting in the evening talking on the living room couch, and Fran would abruptly stop and stare at her, Fran's eyes soft, the conversation between them suddenly interrupted. When Jenny asked her, "What?" Fran would say simply that she was glad Jenny was there with her. Or in bed, in that big white bed that both lured and frightened Jenny, where Jenny sometimes tried to hide to escape the inevitable, Fran would catch her at it. She would remove the pillow from over Jenny's head, look at her sideways, lift one eyebrow, and smile. It was as if Fran knew and also as if she was determined to overcome.

Jenny felt both Fran's warmth and her distance. She felt extremely lucky to be with Fran. Here was this impressive, knowledgeable woman, self-contained in her intense focused way, with a set of very evident moral standards, dignified in how she presented herself to the world, superior even in her stance, and deep in emotional possibilities, bestowing some small bit of her noble countenance upon Jenny. Fran, of course, did not see herself as superior or judgmental. She spoke to Jenny of equality, acceptance, and growth and said that she wished, for the two of them, that their relationship would be one of development and change. She hoped that neither she nor Jenny would ever take the other person for granted. They should never assume that either one could not change.

Jenny heard Fran's words and wished to believe them, especially since


the more she was with Fran, the more she began to feel that she was becoming small again and beginning, under Fran's watchful eye, to grow. Fran would say the growth words, the caring words, when Jenny sat with her on the couch in the evening recounting to her the experiences of her day. Fran would listen, reassure her, and give her advice, telling Jenny, for instance, about how the inside of her car worked, how diseases spread, or how a person could learn to feel good about herself. At the same time, Fran would keep the emotional distance she had shown early on to be her way, ever since that first night when she and Jenny had sat opposite each other in Fran's back room. Jenny was not entirely comfortable with Fran's distance, but she thought it benign, that it freed her. Oh, how lucky she was!

Here was this patient figure there for her, not demanding of her other than that she share her life. Jenny felt very special. She carried with her everywhere a note from Fran that said, "I love you." A month after she moved into their house in the hills, Jenny wrote to her parents that she was happy. She was living with a woman and was happy. There were deer outside that came right up to the doors of the house. Some of them had fawns following them—spotted, awkward babies. The almond tree out in front of the house was in bloom, its delicate white petals falling to the ground like snow. "Imagine that, Mother," Jenny wrote, "an almond tree in our front yard! I am very happy!"

Jenny knew that she was happy because she felt like a cared-for child, whether child again, child for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, it did not matter which. Jenny looked at Fran's full woman's body, the age clear in Fran's face, and felt surprisingly content, as she had never felt in her whole life. "Happy." It was a word that had not before had meaning for her. Once, Jenny remembered, she had argued with a friend of Steven's when he asked if she was happy: "Happy? I don't know what it means. I'm not one way or the other. It's irrelevant for me."

Now, one morning after she had moved in her things and no longer ran off to her other house each day to pack or to work, Jenny was sitting on the couch in the living room of her new home in the woods. It was early. The bay window behind her was lit with a misty morning light. Jenny had been drinking coffee, eating toast, and writing, looking down at the papers spread out before her on the long coffee table in front


of the couch. Then she heard Fran and looked up. Fran was standing directly across from her in the short narrow hall that led to the back bedrooms. She was wearing a deep rose-colored robe but the buttons were undone. The robe hung open in front so that Jenny could see clearly the flesh of Fran's body, her hips, the curve of her waist up to her breasts. Fran's eyes were sleepy. She rubbed them as she stood there, looking over at Jenny. "Morning," she said.

Jenny, nodding back, noticed that Fran's short hair stood on end on one side. She knew Fran did not like that, but she herself loved it. Fran's body emerging from her robe, however, was what caught Jenny, riveted her gaze until she quickly looked away and up, instead, to Fran's sleepy face.

Jenny wanted, right then, to go to Fran, to kneel before her and kiss her belly, to rise and be held, her head between Fran's breasts, to touch Fran, to make love to her on the soft gold rug by the bathroom door. But something in Fran would not have it, Jenny felt. Fran projected an early morning discomfort. Or else it was something in Jenny that would not have it; for Jenny, at that moment when she first caught sight of Fran's body, had thought of her own mother and her mother's body. Jenny's mother and Fran were about the same height, both of them a few inches taller than Jenny. Both were heavier, both similarly solid and similarly inexplicable in Jenny's eyes, placed there before her as if to represent something she could only yearn after. So, of course, she did not go to Fran, only marveled at her and remembered forever after the sleepy shape that had moved her.

When Fran crossed the hall to turn on her morning music before washing up, Jenny watched her turn away and felt ashamed. She was ashamed of the origin of her desire. She was sure Fran would not feel pleased to be told that the mother-child core of their relationship was what was most compelling to her. Fran would rather understand their tie in terms of mutuality, pleasure, and growth. Jenny, however, felt that somewhere, even if it was where it could not be spoken, Fran knew Jenny's truth to be so. Fran knew that Jenny basked in Fran's mothering and that Fran herself was nourished by it. Probably, however, she did not know how guilty Jenny felt, as if this mothering she received was something she stole from Fran and hid from the world. Jenny was angry.


Here they were, the two of them, in a house at the end of a wooded canyon road with Jenny coming home each night to a comfort that could neither be acknowledged nor discussed. It was obvious, it had to be obvious to everyone, but Jenny felt she alone bore the weight of it.

She also bore another kind of weight, that of responding as Fran would like, of "being there," as Fran would say. When with Fran, more often than not, Jenny would tend to take off, to go somewhere else in her mind where Fran could not follow, where she could be alone. Jenny did not feel such behavior peculiar. She had done it all her life. But Fran challenged it in her and, in doing so, challenged something fundamental to her. Nowhere did Fran present her challenge more directly than when she and Jenny were in bed. There, from the very beginning, it was as if the scene had been set, the expectations made plain. There were lessons to be learned.

It started as a test of wills. That was how Jenny felt on one of her first nights in their house in the hills. The bed in the back bedroom glowed white, the spread and sheets reflecting moonlight coming in through small high windows across the room. That night, Fran got into bed before Jenny, which was unusual, since ordinarily Jenny curled up earlier alone, resting, trying to feel safe, waiting for Fran to finish watching television and finally come in and join her. Tonight, however, Fran already lay in bed, waiting, watching as Jenny self-consciously, trying to hide her naked body, slipped in beside her. The bed was warm. Fran had turned the electric blanket to its highest setting. "I turned it all the way up to Mother," Fran said. She had also turned on the heat, Jenny noticed. The small electric wall heater in the room was set so that it would warm them later. Then they would be free not only to lie under the covers but also to emerge and play on top of them, to "fully enjoy one another," Fran proposed.

Jenny, however, had other things than enjoyment on her mind, as she always did. She wished tonight to get into bed and to lie there quietly and cry herself to sleep, to be comforted by Fran but mostly to be in her own world of crying. She wished to think about Steven and his being gone. He was precious to her, like a possession she had once had and protected and thought was delicate. She had thought she was special because of him. Jenny wanted to think about that feeling, hold on to it,


and get lost in a sense of being lost with Steven gone. It did not matter that she had broken their relationship, Jenny did not like to lose her things. She did not like to lose anything she had ever chosen.

She looked up. Fran was looking down at her, a bemused, questioning expression on her face. It was an expression Jenny often saw in Fran at other times when she wondered, as she did now, about what was real. Why was Fran so persistent, so interested in her? Why didn't she just give up?

"What's happening?" Fran asked.

"Nothing," Jenny answered.

"Be here," Fran said.

Then Fran gently prodded until Jenny rolled over fully on her back. Jenny resisted enough to feel Fran's opposing force, Fran's determination set against her own. Then she let Fran lay her back, pin her arms to the bed, and hold her shoulders down. She let Fran and, at the same time, struggled against her, trying to wrestle herself free. Jenny soon put all she had into the struggle so that she was finally fighting, sweating, pushing her strongest, but pushing more inside than outside. She was simultaneously containing herself and trying to break free. She was pushing against Fran not with all her might, but with all her psychic might.

Then something changed and Jenny started really to try to break loose from Fran's hold. Forget the restraints, she told herself. She had always been able to be free. She had this basic faith that she always could find a way out, a way to bite or scratch. She could make a quick turn with her body, evade a captor out of sheer struggle, the sheer stubbornness and the quick shifts of her moves. So she lashed out at Fran, looking for loopholes, seeking to dig her nails deep into Fran's arm, or into whatever she would get hold of. Jenny wanted to go for Fran's eyes but could not reach them. She was struggling now for real and she knew it. Fran must have known it, too, the way she skillfully avoided Jenny's attempts to bite her, to claw at her. Fran stayed there leaning the weight of her body over Jenny's, keeping Jenny's arms pinned beneath her, Jenny's legs locked under her own.

Fran had wrestled her almost without moving, Jenny felt, simply by staying on top of her, by persevering, by looking down intently, holding


firmly to the bed those points of Jenny's body on which she counted to keep Jenny still. At last, Jenny gave up. She relaxed back quietly on the bed.

"You win," she said to Fran.

"No," Fran shook her head. "It's not a matter of win or lose."

Did Fran know? Jenny wondered. Did she know what the fight was about? She looked up and searched Fran's eyes for an answer, asking with her own but without using words. Jenny moved her eyes about, trying to have them speak for her, darted them, raised and lowered them quickly. She was asking if Fran understood and telling her about it at the same time. She was telling Fran how she both wanted, and did not want, what Fran offered her and about how Fran had to be able to handle her, to counter her fears, to keep her from running away. Fran had to be good enough, big enough. She had to be Jenny's equal, or to be better than Jenny. She had to know more about what Jenny needed than perhaps Jenny knew herself. For when Jenny wrestled with Fran, she was very small—a baby in a crib asking her mother to take care of her. Her eyes had to speak for her because she did not yet have words.

Fran's eyes reflected back to Jenny a partial understanding. They reflected an attitude of seriousness and of mild but not superficial amusement. Jenny felt that Fran had probably missed the child part of what she wished to tell her.

Jenny also felt mastered, yet Fran still held her pinned tightly to the bed, as if she awaited a signal not yet given, an outright permission. If Jenny were to struggle against her again, Fran was saying, if Jenny were to try to break free once more, Fran would not let her. Fran knew her role; she knew what she was supposed to do. She was not to let Jenny trick her, even at the last minute.

"Okay," Jenny finally said. "It's over. I'm done. Let me go."

"Are you sure?" Fran asked.

"Yes," said Jenny, rolling away as Fran gradually eased up and slowly lifted her hands from where they had been locking Jenny's arms to the bed. Then Fran moved her legs to the side and sat down beside Jenny, facing her. "I want a drink and a cigarette," she said, letting out a deep breath.

When Fran came back to the bedroom with her drink and her package


of Salem menthol cigarettes, she sat up against the headboard behind the bed, slowly sipping her scotch and smoking. Jenny sat next to her, resting. The smoke from Fran's cigarette reassured her, as did Fran's deliberate, careful sipping of her scotch. Fran dipped her finger into her musty golden drink and held it out to Jenny. "Unblended," she said. "It has a smoky taste." That kind of scotch, Jenny knew, was Fran's favorite, as it eventually was to become her own.

Jenny opened her mouth to suck on Fran's finger, once, then again and again. As she sucked, she was drawn closer to Fran, her body seeking to curl around Fran's body as her mouth did around the smoky tasting finger Fran extended to her. Although Jenny moved closer, Fran continued her ritual of smoking then taking a sip or two of scotch. Then, seeming to have taken the time that she needed, she stubbed out her last cigarette in a small black ashtray on the headboard behind her, a cast-iron ashtray in the shape of a lady sea nymph that was a present from a previous lover. She put down her drink on the headboard and turned her attention once again to Jenny.

Moving her hand down the length of Jenny's body, she let it come to rest between Jenny's legs. Then she moved her own body so that she was sitting opposite Jenny at the foot of the bed, her legs crossed beneath her. She looked over at Jenny, watching, waiting, until Jenny lay back, giving in. Jenny lowered her body and put her head down slowly on the pillow behind her, but she did not feel relaxed. She felt on edge, uncertain of what Fran would do next and of whether she should let her. What was happening did not seem mutual, and these things, Jenny thought, were supposed to be mutual. Jenny lay back as if steeled for an assault. Fran's hand remained in place. She stroked Jenny carefully, then bent over her and, with her tongue, found Jenny's point of need, began to lick it, raising Jenny toward her.

"No," Jenny let out a cry. "Stop!"

Fran stopped, sat up, placed her finger back where her tongue had been, and continued as she had begun before. She was taking her time now, moving slowly, not probing but, rather, stroking, watching all the while for Jenny's response. Jenny felt a response but did not want to show it, was afraid to move her hips as she had seen Fran do many times, up and down, up and down, as if in tune with inner music. Rising and


falling rhythmically, Fran would absorb a small touch with her whole body, then yield, letting herself spread out.

Jenny, however, would not do that. Yet now she had to move. She turned so that, at last, her head was in Fran's lap. Then she could look up into Fran's eyes as Fran touched her. She needed to see the acceptance in Fran's eyes, the encouragement, the connection. Without it, Fran's finger, that touch that aroused her, was foreign and to be feared.

Now Fran held Jenny, cradling her as she touched her. "Close your eyes," Fran suggested. But Jenny would not do it. She needed to check constantly the gaze that looked down at her. Only in this way could she let herself be touched until a feeling rose inside her, a feeling that made the nerves of her legs seem like hollow cores and that traveled to her feet and made her curl up her toes, curl them up and bend her knees so she could feel it all the more. That feeling, Jenny later told Fran, was like gold. It was like a vein of gold ore being tapped, tapped and tapped inside her until it ran. Jenny felt like a baby cradled in her mother's arms, held and cradled and given gold.

Then suddenly, as suddenly as she had relaxed, Jenny stiffened and pulled back. "Enough," she told Fran.

"Why?" Fran asked. "Where did you go?"

Jenny shook her head. She did not want to say. Fran tried again several times to touch her, to bring her back, calling after her each time she went away, "Where are you? Where did you go?" and most importantly, she told her, "Be here. Concentrate on right where you are. Don't pay attention to me. Focus on yourself. Feel all you can."

Jenny tried for what seemed a long time, but after a while Fran's touch began to hurt her, to scrape against her. An inner defense she had long ago built up was now back in place, making her feel alone. Fran seemed far away, a woman she almost did not know. Jenny reached down her hand to touch Fran's arm, to draw it up, to tell Fran to stop.

That part was over now, but Jenny could not explain to Fran why. She could not tell Fran where she went when she left her, that she went to Steven, to her work, to sentences she had been writing earlier in the day, to a picture of the absurdity of herself and Fran in this bed. She went to her own selfishness, to the wrongness of Fran's attentiveness to her, and then to the center of her need, which was far, far away—wrapped up


with herself as a tiny child and her urge to cry out with pain, to say no. She went also to how foreign Fran was to her, to how Fran held her own body when naked, how upright, poised, and unashamed she seemed. Fran had told Jenny she had not always been proud of her body, but that when she was young, twenty years ago, a woman fifteen years older had taught her, by making love to her, to love herself, to cherish her body, to take pleasure in its movements. That woman, named Stella, was a hard drinker, smoked like Fran did, had a husky voice, and now lived with a young lover and a miniature poodle in an apartment in Los Angeles. Jenny thought of Stella teaching Fran and of Fran now teaching her. She then thought of her own sentences, her sheets of yellow writing paper.

"Be here," Fran said. But Jenny was too tired. She could, however, draw Fran up and have Fran lie back beside her. She knew that Fran would respond and almost exactly how she would respond. She kissed Fran's breasts, then touched her, following the directions Fran gave, the directions Fran had been giving implicitly, yet clearly, since their first night in Fran's back room when Jenny had worried about being a good enough lover. Jenny knew, by now, how, gradually, to build up Fran's feeling so that Fran's body would rise beneath her hand like a giant ocean wave, cresting and falling back. She kissed Fran, touched her, watched her. There seemed little for her to do but to ride Fran out, lying beside her, stroking her, following.

Fran's eyes, Jenny noticed, were closed. She did not curl up her toes. She did not, as Jenny did, shake unrhythmically, her body unleashing small tremulous sobs. No, Fran in bed was a careful study of the evenly paced, full female response, or so Jenny thought. Fran seemed focused on herself, just as she had told Jenny to be. She was as controlled and as self-contained as she was in real life, which made Jenny feel left out. In the end, though, after Fran had worked up a sweat and Jenny knew it was coming, Fran reached for her and drew her close. She clasped Jenny to her at that exact moment when it counted, her sighs letting Jenny know, her smile afterward, her kisses, her saying Jenny's name, making up for the time they had been apart.

Jenny felt rewarded and taken in. She felt she had served, paid something back. She watched Fran drift off to sleep, then rolled over by herself


and lay thinking. She thought about how Fran had said there would be other nights, nights when Jenny might even let Fran take her all the way. She might come to trust Fran that much.

Indeed there were other nights. They came one on another like parts of a process building. Jenny let Fran touch her more and more, let herself make sounds that Fran could hear. Fran had said she wanted to share it, she wanted to share everything. Jenny worked at concentrating, at responding to Fran's commands. She did not fight with Fran again as she had done that first night when she had struggled against her to be free. Yet she often thought about that night and about how Fran's opposing force had pleased her. Then, too, Jenny thought about the gold, the feeling of the hollow core. She kept striving for it and was disappointed if her efforts of an evening or an afternoon did not yield it.

One weekend, Fran told Jenny she had a fantasy of their spending a full day, or an entire weekend, in bed. They could have a special meal, eat cracked crab and French bread, and drink white wine right there, which once they finally did. They ate the meal, that is, naked, surrounded by white sheets and the vast white spread. Jenny would not spend the whole day, though. She needed to get up and leave.

Especially on weekends, when both she and Fran were at home, Jenny felt she needed to run away, to leave not only the bedroom but the entire house. There was something about being with Fran without a break that made Jenny tense, made her bowels stiffen and her head begin to ache. Then she would devise to go into town, to do the laundry, or to buy a paper, then to stop at the local library where, among the many different books, she would begin to feel better. Why looking at books would make her relax, Jenny never altogether understood, but standing there looking at the titles of the books, the many subjects and worlds they represented, the promises, the thought of her own work and of new knowledge, it was like adventure opened up for her. Jenny's interest in the world opened up and she was free again. Then she would be ready to return to Fran.

Jenny discussed with Fran the fact that she felt constrained when she and Fran were alone together at the house for long. Yet her tenseness around Fran did not change. It did not change until the following year, the next fall, when she and Fran moved to their second house in the


hills. In that house, located not far from the first, Jenny felt more isolated in her own world and her own work, and her aloneness seemed to make her feel easier.


The second house Jenny and Fran moved to was set farther back in the hills than their first at the end of a narrow private road in a very quiet canyon. Its yard was the steep side of a cliff. Oak trees towered above it. Like their first house, this one, too, was small and cottagelike and came furnished, its owner temporarily away. At the center of the house was a broad open living room with a soft white rug and white couch across from high bookshelves and windows looking out. Here Jenny felt protected. Soon after she and Fran moved in, Fran told Jenny she had decided to quit her job. She needed to think about whether to continue her work as a scientist. There were ethical problems with it, she said. Fran then stayed home more of the time than she had before. She would read for long stretches and repair things around the house.

One afternoon, she helped Jenny unload into a storage shed across the way the belongings Jenny had previously kept in the garage beneath the persimmon tree in town. As they carried in Jenny's possessions, Fran said she felt Jenny should at least unpack some of them into drawers and cabinets in the house. Jenny, however, refused, as she had once refused to leave her toothbrush.

Although eventually Jenny did unpack and bring inside some of her things—her dishes, her wedding dress, a peasant blouse her mother once gave her, other pieces of clothing and special material she felt might get mildewed if left outside—she was uneasy about it. She felt that most of her possessions did not belong in the house. She still did not believe her stay with Fran would be permanent. She did not believe it even though one morning as she stood with Fran by the long soft sofa in the living room, and looked out at a neighboring hillside, Fran held her hand and sought to reassure her. "We can be together forever," Fran said, "for as long as we want to. You can unpack."

Jenny looked back at Fran suspiciously. Such thinking was not realistic, she felt. She also felt there was no arguing with Fran when Fran


sought to reassure them with her dreams. Jenny now knew much more about Fran than she had at first. She also knew more about herself. She knew that she valued highly the slow, careful lovemaking Fran had taught her. She valued looking up at Fran as Fran held her, looking down as Fran moved beneath her. She valued simply watching Fran from across a room, prizing her, enjoying her handsomeness, feeling for the deep discomfort Fran took care of with her alcohol and cigarettes. Jenny valued, too, the changes she felt that Fran had encouraged her to make. No longer, for instance, did Jenny set her hair; she let it stand free, a great lion's mane of curls. No longer did she wear a bra. "To hold up what?" Fran once asked. Nor did she take contraceptive pills anymore, or wear women's pants or shoes. She wore boots. She also drank wine, the good, thick red wine called zinfandel.

In the evenings, Jenny would sit on the couch in the living room of their new house in the hills, sipping her wine while Fran drank her scotch. From the start, Fran had been concerned to educate Jenny's palate. Her first Valentine's Day gift to Jenny had been a bottle of fine red wine, which she told Jenny was hers to drink all by herself. At times, Fran would bring home unusual wines, or encourage Jenny to taste them when they were out. Jenny felt that the wine was a way that Fran instructed her more broadly about life—that there was an activity called "enjoyment," you could sit back and do it. There were finer things. One deserved them; that tasting came slowly. Life, like wine, was to be savored.

Fran took Jenny, too, on several camping trips in her bus. She showed Jenny how to look around, how to stop and appreciate the countryside. Although afraid of the strange open places they went to and eager always to get home, Jenny did begin to understand, to learn. She wanted very much to be like Fran, to live in a world where her home was transportable, where stopping and looking outside herself did not mean she would be overcome by fears. She wanted to sit, as Fran did, and read by the side of the road, to do nothing and seem to enjoy it, even to backpack someday, forgetting the troubles of her life. She wished to act like Fran, self-contained and self-assured, to let things pass her by.

Yet Jenny was not like Fran. On their trips, Jenny wrote while Fran read. It was not enough for her to see the flowers in bloom in the desert


where she and Fran went on their first long trip, Jenny had to write down exactly what the flowers looked like and what it had meant for her to see them. Her writing kept her from feeling too alone while Fran drank her scotch, smoked, and read. It soothed her, calmed her, taught her. Jenny felt she was learning—the goals of a good life were becoming clearer to her—but she was not often happy. She felt she was not learning quickly enough how to be the person Fran wished her to be.

At home in their new house, Fran acted increasingly inward and depressed. She would sit at the dinner table and look hurt when Jenny refused to answer her many questions; or she would sit reading on the couch, sipping her scotch, and looking sad. Jenny continued to work first thing in the mornings. Later each day, she would go off to look for jobs, and eventually she took one, then another. She did not think Fran would mind. She did not know that Fran minded. Yet in their new house, Fran was not sexual with her often. Fran said that was because she felt bad about herself. She asked Jenny to have patience.

Jenny heard coyotes crying outside in the woods at night. She started writing a novel. She started to live more in a world of her own. Fran complained, at times, about that world, about Jenny's self-absorption, calling it selfish, stinging Jenny with her words. Nonetheless, once when Jenny got very sick, stomach sick with an intestinal flu so that she lay in bed with a fever, Fran came into the bedroom and sat beside her. She drew down the covers and touched Jenny gently, feeding the dream Jenny still had that Fran cared for her tenderly and deeply. For several days, Fran sat nearby reading in the living room until she was sure Jenny was well. Jenny could not remember anyone before sitting near her and waiting like that while she was sick, although perhaps they had.

The rest of it she preferred not to remember. Fran soon found someone else. Fran denied it. She spoke simply of a friend, another couple she wanted Jenny and herself to know. With this couple, Fran felt, she and Jenny could expand their concept of love. Jenny, however, knew that something was wrong, was over, a trust had been broken. Fran's intense, total caring no longer was there only for her. One night when Fran did not come home, Jenny got angry and broke a set of wine glasses Fran's new friends had given to them. Fran felt gravely justified in being angry back at her from then on.


In the midst of this, Jenny's father died. Jenny went back East twice to visit him in the hospital. Then she went back for the funeral. From the time she left on her funeral trip, she could not reach Fran by phone. Fran was off camping with her new friends. Jenny called the house and listened to the phone ringing, called back, listened again, and cried. She cried for the loss of her relationship with Fran instead of for the loss of her father. When she came home, Fran was not there to meet her at the airport. Instead, Fran sent her new friend.

It was Fran, however, who finally declared that their relationship was over. She and Jenny had taken one last camping trip during which, at night in the back of Fran's bus, Jenny lay with her legs apart and let Fran touch her. She hoped to feel the old caring, the sweet hollow veins of gold. Instead, she felt Fran's steadfast attempt, her coldness, the harshness of Fran's touch as Fran sat beside her dressed in a gray plaid woodsman's shirt. Fran looked stern more than gentle, intent on a task. Jenny rolled over and cried in gasping breaths, ashamed that she had asked, that she had thought she could recreate, recapture what they had had, that she had thought she could offer herself in the end and save them. When she and Fran took a hike the next morning, Fran told her she wished that Jenny were stronger and had fewer troubles. She wished that the world would not always look black to her and that Jenny would come out of herself more. Jenny asked for time, said she would try, that she was willing to learn. But there was no time. Fran's patience was up. Whatever Fran needed, Jenny no longer offered it.

Perhaps it was Jenny who seemed to promise too much, Jenny who misled Fran. However, Jenny did not feel that way. She felt that Fran had failed her.

The day they parted—not weeks, but months later, after going back and forth far too many times—the morning when, before going off to work, Jenny left Fran standing in the soft, white living room of their home in the woods, Jenny looked at Fran's eyes for a sign, searched her face for softness. Fran was hard, as perhaps she had to be, her face unreadable except for a veneer of cool disdain. Jenny sensed that Fran's disdain was not only for the housecleaning she was about to do, but also for Jenny's having brought them to this parting because of her lack of trust. Nonetheless, before she walked away, Jenny saw one long heavy


tear roll down from beneath Fran's left eye. That tear pleased her, as if it said Fran still loved her, and that Fran found her special and would miss her.

That night, Jenny returned to the house to do her part of the cleaning and to pack. She was angry at Fran for leaving her alone in the empty dark house at night, so she cleaned less thoroughly than she might have otherwise. She packed up her balalaika, a small Russian stringed instrument like a guitar, that she had smashed in a prior moment of her anger, and placed it on the front seat of her car. Her balalaika was her most treasured possession, yet she had banged it and banged it on the floor one night when Fran did not come home. Then she had sat with it and cried before gathering it up in her arms like a broken doll.

Jenny looked at the house one last time before she left. Fran was gone and she could not believe it. Nor could she know that in subsequent years, she herself would seek to be Fran—she would buy a tent, a backpack, and sturdy boots, go off alone into the woods and the desert, prefer scotch to wine, plan to buy a bus, learn to tune her car and to fix things around the house. She would live in back rooms off other people's houses and seek out places far away, reached by back roads, that felt special to her, like when she had lived with Fran. Years later, after she had made these attempts, she would look back at them and see Fran, not herself, and feel suddenly bare, without comfort, without home. She would come back to the hills, those same hills where she and Fran had lived, only to find other people in their houses. She would be alive but with a sadness that she could not forget. Fran was gone but not the memory of the time that Jenny had been with her, the soft spot Fran had helped her to open up.

Fran had loved Jenny. She had made her feel the center of the world, a person deserving of attention. She had adored Jenny, hard as that always was for Jenny to believe. Fran had challenged Jenny to relax. She had made her want to have good times. She had opened new worlds for her, both outside and within herself. In the beginning, Fran had seemed so frightened that Jenny would leave her, and now Jenny was sad and frightened in leaving Fran. Fran had held Jenny, had given her the gift of her full woman's body. She had let Jenny feel like a child in bed with her, a small child seeking contact with her mother and seeking to grow.


Fran had given Jenny a sense of her own inner possibilities. She had made her feel sensitive and special and like her dreams could come true. In the beginning, Jenny had not understood how this marvel of a true-lesbian-older-woman with a body so like her mother's could be so ready to embrace her, and now she could not understand where that readiness had gone.

Why a relationship of only two years' duration—a match with a woman so different, so little inclined to be content with her, who did not finally value Jenny enough to stay with her—should be so important to her, and cause her so much sadness and prompt so much new direction, was a mystery at once hard for Jenny to understand and yet simple. Fran had touched deep needs in her. Jenny would forever after be marked by Fran's way of being a lesbian. In bed with other women, she would wait for them to be like Fran and try to teach them what Fran had encouraged in her—particularly about being there, and trusting, and trying to feel good. In future years, Jenny would learn new lessons, have new experiences, and her time with Fran would move farther into the background, but it would still be there, reminding her of her needs. At times, Jenny would look at that relationship of her youth and find it wanting. She would feel that Fran had not really cared, and that Fran had not deserved her affections. But that was because Fran was no longer with her. Jenny's loss was real, but so too was the longing she had felt, her need of another woman, the sweetness of the relationship she and Fran had shared.


The Family Silver

I HAVE JUST COME BACK from a trip to Florida to settle the affairs of my lover's aunt, who died suddenly at the age of seventy. She was carrying her groceries up the stairs to her apartment when she dropped dead of a heart attack. A neighbor found her. When we arrived several weeks later, we found her grocery list and the cash register receipt itemizing what she had bought—lettuce, tomatoes, salad dressing, breakfast cereal, milk, tuna fish. It was an otherworldly experience: going to Florida, where I had not been before, to clean out the house of a woman I did not know—sorting through her clothes and jewelry, finding snapshots she recently took, using her bathroom, meeting her friends, literally stepping into her life, not the life of someone still with us, but a vacated life.

We were there for a week, closing out the small business Aunt Maxine ran out of her home, disposing of her possessions, and looking for vital documents, like the title to her car—a long white Cadillac with a red carriage roof and matching deep-red leather seats. Maxine was a short, buxom woman with bleached blond hair. She had dropped ten years from her age when she moved to Florida. Her closest friends knew her as sixty at her death. She dressed dramatically in bright colors and bold


prints and wore her best jewelry daily, her gold chains and diamonds. Her apartment had not been cleaned in five years. The living and dining rooms, full of cartons and paper goods, were devoted to her small business. She sold rubber self-inking stamps of the kind that says "Jane O'Hara, 48 Front Street," or "First Class," or the date. She played golf and was a supporter of the local theater group, and the best way I can put it is that she collected clothes. I emptied her closets, putting her clothes in large plastic bags to give away to charity, counting, as I bagged them, for tax purposes. There were 419 shirts, including gold lamé and sequinned shirts and golf shirts, 275 pairs of pants, 7 leather jackets, 162 pairs of shoes, 16 jumpsuits, 83 handbags. Stacked beside her bathroom sink were hundreds of old lipstick tubes that she never was able to throw out.

Maxine was acquisitive and materialistic. When she felt in need, she bought something, usually clothes, preferably on sale. She liked large earrings and large beaded necklaces and had forty pounds of costume jewelry in, and on, her dresser in the end. She had married three times and received a significant diamond ring from each husband. The husbands, however, did not amount to much and she divorced them, preferring the life of a bachelor girl. She liked going out with others, and having a good time, and making money, although she only began making money on her own after she gave up on husbands and the myth that they would take care of her. She worked long hours, both to have the money to buy things she wanted and because she was constantly afraid her money would run out. When younger, she had gone to art school. The paintings we found in her apartment showed that she had talent. She also could sew and had a fully equipped sewing machine in her bedroom, but she preferred playing golf and being taken to dinner. She did not believe in doctors and saw them as a self-indulgence, which is one reason she had not been aware of her heart condition. She was a big talker and could fill up a room with talk. Her friends said she lit up any room she entered. They also said she was always an "up person," which to me meant she had no tolerance for depression and that she would not have understood or liked me.

She was a woman whose values I have little respect for in the abstract, but there I was sorting through her clothes and the odds and ends on


her bedside table, becoming intimate with her. After a few days of doing this, I knew exactly how she dressed and that her style of dressing was not mine. However, occasionally I would still take a shirt of hers that seemed tailored in cut and large enough to fit me, and carry it over to the bathroom mirror to try it on. One look would reveal it was a shade of pink that she could wear and I could not. She liked gathers in her clothing, bows, bright purple colors, large oval earrings. She liked overstatement as a form of self-expression, while I like understatement. Despite such differences, however, I finally came to think that if I had met her in person, I would have liked her, although only if our meeting was brief and if I had no expectations that she would meet my needs, for responsiveness of a subtle sort was not her style.

Aunt Maxine seemed well suited to Florida. Florida is a peculiar place—home of the sun loving, of those who seek life without winters or who want to start a new life, home of the elderly, the Los Angeles-style glitzy rich, the poor. It is part of the South, yet there in South Florida people spoke like they do in New York City. The people who came in and out of Maxine's apartment while we were working there, and those at the supermarket in the nearby shopping center, were upwards of sixty-five and mostly women. Maxine's closest friend was a gay man, but her other friends were small, square-shaped Jewish women like herself who wore heavy makeup and colored their hair, usually bleaching it blond. These women were eager to clear out Maxine's closets, look around her apartment, see what her niece was doing, and either give an opinion, or announce very clearly that they were keeping their opinions to themselves. They spoke in loud voices and carried out garbage and books and moved furniture. The few men who came, although bigger and taller than the women, were slower, and they looked fearfully at the physical work, as if it might give them a heart attack. The women took charge and got bossy. The men waited to be told what to do. This was reminiscent, for me, of the types of families I have known, where, around a house, women are useful and men are not, unless told by the women what to do.

While clearing out Maxine's apartment, the physical activity of sorting and bagging and carrying out trash occupied me, and the people coming and going and working in the apartment made my life seem


full. At the heart of my experience, however, was an emptiness. My life stopped during that week and for several weeks afterward, because I wished not to feel and because this was a death. Now at home, I keep trying to fill in the empty space. I keep thinking back to Maxine's bedroom, probably because I spent so much time there taking her clothes out of her closets and looking around the room at the dusty empty beds and the closed shades. For entertainment and for a break, I would repeatedly go over to her dresser and sort through her jewelry, looking, each time, for something I could take home and feel was mine. Yet there was nothing there for me. This was jewelry that belonged to a woman who carried her golf clubs in a pink leather golf bag. I have spent much time in the past few weeks seeing, in my mind, images of a woman who played golf, ate out, bought clothes on sale at Marshalls, and worked long hours driving around in a red and white Cadillac selling rubber stamps.

One night as we drove back from Maxine's apartment to our hotel, Judith asked me, "What is family silver," and "Why do people make such a big deal of it?" Her mother had advised her to save any family silver she found at her aunt's home, and she wondered why it mattered. Not knowing, I tried to explain anyway—that it is what women have of material value in a family. Most things women have wear out, like bedsheets, or even beds or furniture, or clothes for themselves or the children. Silver is more like a durable good because of the value of the metal. However, you have to keep it up by polishing it, and eventually it wears out too, or the plate does. All women's things wear out. Silver also has social value. It brings people together for special occasions and dinners. Using it is a way women run things.

As we spoke, I kept thinking back to things my mother has said about her mother's silver. Her mother had two sets—a daily set which got more wear, and a better set for holidays. Often I have been told about my grandmother's silver. A few months ago when speaking with my mother on the phone, I told her I had just polished the two silver candlesticks of my grandmother's that my mother gave me several years ago. I was unable to get all the black out. My mother said that was the way old silver was and then gave me detailed instructions on how to clean a set of silver flatware. She advised immersing it in a solution of Soilax and


warm water, and then adding crumpled up aluminum foil to create an electrolytic process that cleans the flatware but also takes off a little of the plate. She then mentioned some frightful things that eat silver, like vinegar and eggs.

In our conversation, my mother told me again, as she has several times, that she wanted to give her silver, actually my father's mother's silver, to my sister. (My mother's sister has their mother's.) However, she did not want to do this until my sister's children were more grown because, in my sister's house, they threw away silverware. They threw it out with the garbage, either by accident or because they were not paying attention. Better they should throw away stainless steel, my mother said. She then concluded by asking me about my stainless. How many settings did I have? I said six. She said that was not enough, I needed twelve. What pattern did I have? I should check to see if they still made that pattern and get more. You cannot have just six.

My mother had told me previously that I would be getting my father's sister's silver, which is less ornate and desirable than my father's mother's but comes in a special chest. My father's sister's silver, my mother said, has her initials engraved on it, although unfortunately they are her married initials. My father's sister, Aunt Jessie, went into a nursing home earlier this year and so would no longer be needing her silver. My mother said she was keeping it for me in her basement on the condition that I come back East and visit her in order to get it. After all, you can't just send it.

From these conversations with my mother, I learned that, more than for its use in eating, and more than because of its value as a precious metal, family silver is a big deal because it provides lessons in cleaning, sibling rivalry, childrearing, and proper behavior. It links the generations and makes people come home to claim it.

On our last full day in Florida, I found Maxine's silver flatware in a back corner of one of her high kitchen cabinets behind a box of recipes. I had gone into the kitchen to inventory the contents to decide what we were giving away. The kitchen was so greasy that none of us had used it during the week. When I reached back in the cabinet, I found an accordion case with felt linings and, within it, a full set of National Sterling flatware. The imprint "sterling" on the flatware, I was later to learn,


meant each piece was made of solid silver (92.5 percent pure), as distinguished from being silver plate upon a baser metal. Maxine's silver was untarnished and seemed never used. The pieces had a plain pattern around their edges, with space left for initials, but no initials were engraved on them. Because of its plainness and lack of use, Maxine's silver seemed to me not really valuable, not really "family silver." The family silver we might have found was Maxine's mother's set, but that, along with her mother's china, had been stolen from the storage room of Maxine's apartment complex years ago. To replace it, Maxine had bought this silver and a set of china with a floral pattern on it. She kept the china, a Japanese copy of an old English style, in a living room cabinet next to her television, where we also found several pieces of tarnished silver holloware (bowls and salt and pepper shakers) that may have belonged to Maxine's mother. Before we left, we mailed Maxine's silver home to us, probably to sell it, and we gave away most of her other things.

That week we spent in Florida was very much about material things for me, which is often, I suppose, how people deal with death and with the questions it raises about living, questions such as, Why golf? Why rubber stamps? Why take home the silver? Some of the answers are obvious—because that is the business her third husband got into after they were divorced, and she learned about it from him; because that is what people do, you don't just leave the silver. Yet the harder questions to answer, for me, concern value: what value playing golf or selling stamps? What determines this value? Is the value different if one is a woman? How separate the person from what she does, or sells, from the clothes she wears, the things she keeps, the friends she does or does not have?

My Aunt Jessie

My aunt Jessie sold ladies' underwear for a long time at a department store in New York City. She is eighty-three now, and since she has moved into the nursing home, she is walking again and is less depressed than when she was living alone. Jessie is more direct in her statements than other members of my family. "I love you," she says to me frequently


on the phone, even when I cannot say it back. I spoke with her on the Fourth of July, and after telling me that the weather was disgusting, meaning hot, she said, "You know, after the Fourth of July, you think Christmas. I guess that comes from twenty years in a department store." I remembered back to when I worked in a bookstore, in order to grasp the truth of her statement, but mostly I liked the implication. It was, to me, a statement about a world of artificiality, a constructed world, a commercial season, about a logic that ran contrary to what is viewed as natural (in nature, Christmas does not begin in July), yet it is how we live. I also felt my aunt was saying to me, "It's a long way to Christmas. It's a long way to anywhere from here. When are you coming to visit?"

Perhaps she was only talking about the store. I easily feel guilt with my relatives. Thus, I try to avoid saying anything that will provoke them to ask me when I am coming to see them, for the chief thing I need in relation to them is distance. Since emotionally, I have none, I have put much physical distance between us. I live on the West Coast, my family lives in the East. I visit them as infrequently as possible. My most immediate relatives are Jessie, my mother, and my sister and her family. Recently, Jessie and my mother have been talking about my coming back to visit them. My mother says, "I'm retiring." Jessie says, "Are you coming in July?" Both mean, as I hear it, "I'm going to die soon. I am elderly. I'm frail. Why aren't you here?"

Although I knew in advance I was going to Florida, I was reluctant to tell either Jessie or my mother about it. I did not want to tell Jessie because of certain parallels—Jessie is my father's sister and Maxine was my lover's father's sister, and Jessie often wishes to be dead. When I thought of telling Jessie about the trip, in my mind I saw her threatening a funeral, standing by her grave, pointing at the tombstone, and looking over at me. I heard my mother asking, "Do I have to die? What about the living? You can go there to clear out someone else's, but you can't come here to help me." My mother, only months ago, cleaned out Jessie's apartment and settled her affairs when Jessie went into the nursing home.

Why I ever mentioned to my mother that I was going to Florida makes only a demented sense. It comes, I think, from my not wanting


my mother to feel I am where I am not, and from a wish that she would decide I had done my part by cleaning the apartment of another aunt. That, however, is not the kind of logic that holds much sway with my mother. I had thought, too, that going to Florida to settle an in-law's affairs was a family matter and something one ought to tell one's mother about. The trip, and the unsettling event of Maxine's death, were a secret I had been keeping for over a month and I was eager to tell it. So just before I left, I told my mother I was going. She swore she would not tell Jessie. "Why tell her? She never needs to know," she said. But then, of course, "It slipped. I didn't know what I was saying."

My mother told me she had slipped and told Jessie when I called her one night from the hotel in Florida. I had, again, an inexcusable urge to be in touch with her. Specifically, I wanted to ask her what to do with Maxine's costume jewelry. "How do I tell the better from the worse? Who buys this?" I wanted to know. I thought she would know and that would help me decide what to give away and what to keep. My mother was of little help. She claimed to know nothing about costume jewelry, but she actually knew something. My mother, I have found, knows something about everything, although she claims not to—"You want to know where the scissors are? I have no idea, but you might look in the top left drawer of my desk." She said of the jewelry that unless it had a designer's name on it, it was worthless, but it might be interesting for me to look at. I told her about Maxine's apartment and about going to the lawyer and the sheriff, who gave us, in a brown paper shopping bag, Maxine's wallet and jewelry and the shoes she died in. The trip was like that, best discussed in terms of concrete, physical facts.

When I got back home, after putting it off for a week, I called Jessie to explain why I had gone to Florida and why I had not told her. She took it silently. Mostly, we discussed the tall buildings in Florida that were built right up to the beach and the mess Maxine's apartment was in. "My apartment was a mess too, you know. Your mother cleaned it," Jessie said. "Not as bad a mess as this." I told Jessie that my lover had not been close with her aunt, seeking to make the situation seem unemotional and not like the relationship between Jessie and me. "It was an obligation," she said, as if helping me out. We discussed the disposition of the Cadillac. "You should get what it's worth. Put an ad in the paper.


But if you can't, you can sell it to a dealer." I never mentioned Maxine's silver to Jessie. I felt it would hurt her feelings to know we had brought this silver back with us, even if I felt her set was better and I would prize it.

Soon after I got back, I received in the mail from my mother a letter in which she criticized Judith's Aunt Maxine for not cleaning her apartment, for playing golf, and generally for living the life she did. It felt like an attempt to destroy Maxine's character and meant, to me, that my mother was feeling jealous of my visit. In her letter, she also discussed her retirement, hinted at being at death's door, and suggested that perhaps she was losing her mind—how else explain that slip to Aunt Jessie? Finally, she announced a time the next month that I would have to come back to see her since she was going to have a retirement party and had suddenly set a date. I wrote her back telling her to stop threatening me with parties, or the loss of possessions from relatives, or I would not visit her at all. Along with the note, I sent selected pieces from Maxine's jewelry collection that I thought were in my mother's taste—a light green jade necklace, a silver Mexican ring, and a silver scarf holder.

There is something soothing about the luster of sterling silver, that metal that is not as valuable as gold. It has always seemed to me a second-class metal, so that what you do with it is what counts, the crafting of it into shapes and designs. Silver is the people's jewelry. It shines despite grim circumstance. It is soft for a metal and has, for me, a feeling of inevitability about it—you can always fall back on silver. Members of my family have favored silver, even when wearing gold. We tend to identify ourselves with silver, with being second best, not fitting in (like silver in a world of gold), and with liking handmade and imperfect arts. Silver is a private curiosity with us, something we look at on the sly and admire and gauge ourselves in relation to. We wonder, Do we look like this silver? Does it look like us? Are we brave enough to wear it? My sister and my mother and I each has a small collection of silver jewelry that we like.

I wish I could say that my family has the qualities of such well-wrought silver, but I cannot. I basically do not like families. I feel they are constraining. My family is something I have inherited, but that I wish I did not have, which is to say I wish to be free of my past.

Yet I know that to speak about family silver is to speak about connections


within families and across generations, especially among women. In Florida, for example, a couple of Maxine's friends, two seventy-year-old women, tried to get me to carry several cartons of books down the stairs of Maxine's apartment building by doing it their way—using a shopping cart. I refused, wanting to carry the books in my arms, my way. They proceeded to use the shopping cart, and as we passed each other on the stairs, they would not let me hear the end of it. Like silver, this was a low level, low luster argument, not apparently about anything important, yet Maxine's friends had to insist that their way was best and I had to refuse, each of us with a passion. What gets passed down through the generations, I think, is this desire to do things one's own way. Thus one daughter no longer engraves her initials on a set of sterling, another does not have a set at all. Silver seems not functional, it takes so much cleaning, it is expensive. Then a relative dies or passes her silver on and there is a decision to be made: Do I use it, or sell it, or put it in the basement? Which generation am I?[1]

Curly Hair

Something else passed down through the generations in my family is curly hair, and, much like family silver, it is both gift and burden. My sister has curly hair, her three daughters do, and so do I. When my sister and I were growing up, having naturally curly hair was a chief fact of our lives. It was not the right kind of hair, not the desirable kind, not the hair most other people we knew had. It was not gold hair. It was the silver of hair and it was something we felt we alone had inherited, and that we constantly had to correct for. We had to overcome our hair—tie it down, grow into it, be better than it. It made us feel we stood out like sore thumbs. Much inner personal misery was tied to our hair, an outward manifestation that was easier to talk about than other difficulties, such as being a big child, in my case. I felt like a rounded mass of flesh with curls on top when I walked across the street to visit a neighbor, a small, thin girl with straight hair. She was Catholic and had told me that the Jews killed Christ. I assumed I did it. How could she like me, given how I looked, given who I was?

If only my hair would be straight, I used to feel, I would be like everyone


else, I would be happy. I think people often have a feature, a skin color, a cultural heritage, a personal characteristic that makes them feel they stand out and for which they will be rejected, an outward sign that sums up all the inner pain and that they wish to hide or change. Women, who are so dependent on appearances, feel especially in these ways.

To the outer world, one's sensitive feature might seem no more than a curiosity. On one occasion when I was in high school, I went into a bathroom where a group of tough girls were smoking. One came over and asked to touch my hair and then said, startled, "Oh, it's soft. I thought it would feel like Brillo." I felt good that she thought that my hair was soft. I also felt let in on a reality—to the world, my hair looked like a steel soap pad. Once, growing up, my sister applied hair straightener to her hair, and the house smelled foul. My mother and I were horrified, feeling there were some ends to which one did not go. My sister's hair did not get altogether straight, but she was satisfied with the result, as if proud of having had the nerve to try. I remember, too, the nightly physical pain of wearing curlers and the trouble of turning my head on the pillow, the quest for the softest curlers (so they would not hurt) and the largest (so they would straighten as much as possible). I stopped using such curlers only when I began living with another woman for the first time, at age twenty-nine. The point here for me is that physical self-acceptance is not natural so much as learned. It takes a long time to come by even a small amount of it, and for a woman, self-acceptance may depend a great deal on intimate acceptance by other women.

My mother, much earlier, may have had the best idea about what to do with curly hair—cut the hair short so the curl will seem to go with the head. However, on the subject of hair, daughters tend not to listen to their mothers. In the process of growing up, I learned that hair is not a matter of appearance in an abstract aesthetic sense. Rather, it was about fitting in, being one of the people who counted for me, one of a majority. It was about being current and beautiful, like movie stars and others I wanted to escape from myself by being like. When I tried to change my hair, I was trying to be the more valuable metal, the more valuable person.

When I look back on pictures of my sister and myself as young girls, it is clear to me that, in some, my mother has wet our hair and then


pinned it down with a barrette to make it look straight for the photograph. Thus we learned about how it was fit to be seen—in public, one's hair does not curl. Much later, I see my sister's daughters in photographs and notice their hair. My sister says it is a major preoccupation for them. I am aware that although in a photograph, my sister's girls look very cute—the three of them, since small, topped by furry-looking thick brown curls—in person, this mess of curls is a tangle for each of them. My sister says her oldest has told her next oldest that some people simply do not like you if you are Jewish and left-handed and have curly hair. I had not expected such things to be passed down.

My sister's two older girls have temporarily solved the problem of their hair by letting it grow long, and, as it grows, pulling it down to make it seem straight. The hair is still frizzy and it bushes out, but it looks as if it is flowing downward, and that general impression is important; the attempt to straighten their hair shows they are trying to blend in. My sister's youngest child, Annie, has not yet adopted this longer style, however. As if reacting to the anguish the other two express about their hair and to the attention they give it, beginning very young, she refused to brush her hair, or to have it combed or brushed by anyone else. She said brushing hurt her, which sometimes it did, although there may be more to it. Beyond physical pulling, I would guess, to comb or brush her hair was to pull her out of her childhood, and out of her self, out of her own world and into a world where hair, like the rest of the person, conforms; where, although harboring silver, one claims to value gold; where one passes for someone one is not—a straight woman, a Christian woman, a younger woman, a man—as women often do.

Although my sister's girls have many years of pulling down their hair to look forward to, for me, having curly hair is no longer a misery. I have grown up into an era where adults, at least, do not stigmatize curly hair. In fact, many women have permanents, which, at first, seemed backward to me. Why curl your hair when it is already straight, when it is already the way it is supposed to be? Straightening curly hair, on the other hand, has seemed not backward so much as necessary, perhaps because I am more familiar with the motivation for it. To see someone with a permanent feels disconcerting to me. This woman pulls her hair


up to make it look right; I push mine down. She seems to get the benefit of curly hair without having gone through the suffering of it, although I know little of her suffering—much as a lesbian born after liberation knows little of the anguish of a lesbian born before, or a woman born after the washing machine knows little of the trials of a woman who lived earlier. A straight-haired woman's curled hair seems to me like new silver, acquired wealth, like getting to pick your pattern instead of inheriting your grandmother's, which is fine except that it does not answer the question that is so central to me—how can I feel good about, and value, what is mine? How can I accept what I have been given?

Hair, a woman's pride, like those other possessions that belong, if only momentarily, to us—those things by which we are marked, and that feel part of who we are—what do we do when these are lost? Such possessions are our wealth, our family silver. My aunt Jessie wore a wig for twenty-five years because her hair had thinned. She liked her wigs and felt unpresentable without them. When she moved into the nursing home, she stopped wearing a wig, and when my sister's girls first came to visit her, she was extremely worried they would be afraid when they saw her, as she put it, "with no hair." After their visit, my sister told me they had not been afraid. What they noticed and cared about was how Jessie acted toward them. She had not acted in a way that scared them. My sister felt Jessie looked fine without her wig. She looked like all the other women did in the nursing home, with thin gray hair. This was a world of silver. It did not have the same pretenses as elsewhere.

When I visited Jessie in the nursing home later, I noticed that all the women in the dining room had perfectly done white or gray hair, in sharp contrast to physical problems in their bodies. The room seemed beautifully aglow with their hair, and I wondered again about the relationship between a woman's appearance and her reality, her sense of self and her dignity. I wondered about what really matters in one's life and about my own concern with my appearance. I vowed never again to care about looking perfect, a hard promise to keep. But which of our promises are easy? Especially hard, I think, are those promises aimed at transcending the ways of one's gender, the old self-protections, the passed-on gifts.

Some gifts are subtle. When Judith and I went back to visit Jessie six


years ago, while she was still living in her apartment, Jessie slipped onto Judith's finger a handsome, Indian-made silver ring. jessie had gotten the ring many years before, when she used to take vacations in Arizona. I think she wanted to give her new in-law something and had decided on this ring. She found a finger where it fit and slipped it on. Judith liked the ring and decided to wear it all the time. She felt married into our family, or accepted in, by virtue of this gift. She made clear to me, too, that she liked silver and preferred it over gold. I knew that my parents' first wedding rings were silver bands, so I soon put on a silver ring myself, feeling that it was a fitting act. We never, of course, traded rings. That would be too heterosexual, too married, too coupled. We simply finished off something Jessie started with her gift.

Women's Wealth

This discussion of gifts, family relationships, and family silver illustrates, for me, some characteristics of social patterns among women, at least among a few I know, with special attention to the concrete physical facts, and the details of information and concern, around which our lives sometimes interconnect. The circle of relationships between myself and the other women I speak of here opens outward and turns in on itself again. Before leaving for Florida, for instance, I called my sister to ask her husband, a lawyer whose mother lives in Florida, for the recommendation of a local lawyer to help settle Aunt Maxine's affairs. There is something here about a habit of turning first to one's women relatives, and about the probability of finding that one of them lives in Florida. But the main thing for me was that getting that lawyer's name required that I call my sister back, after I first talked with her, in order to say to her, "Don't tell mother." I explained that I feared she would tell Jessie. My sister greeted my request with a significant silence in which I heard, whether intended or not, my mother's refrain, "You can go there, but you can't come to see me."

Who said what? Who felt what? That the line between my sister and myself, and my sister and my mother, is blurred for me is significant, but no more so than the line from an old song—it is a song about who does right by who, whose suffering should not be in vain, who should be recognized,


who should be heard, about attentions due one woman by another. It is about my needs of my mother, my mother's needs of me, my needs of my sister, and hers of me.

Women are said to be open, soft, expressive. Silver is known for its white color and said, because of its softness, to be fairly useless structurally, so ornamentation was made with it. Social patterns among women are, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder—my world of women is soft; it is also frightening and full of invaders. Yet, to some extent, each woman's mind's eye grasps outer realities. The outer world of women is soft, I think, because it is an underworld that yields to dominance, that provides indirect routes to get things done (a web of telephone connections, for example), and that takes very seriously the appearances of things (for instance, clothes, those signs of social place, and hair). This is a world that relies on ephemeral strategies, of being here one minute and gone the next, and of shifting one's position. Direct routes, anything very visible, would be interrupted, or the resources would not be available to women.

A world of women is frightening, I think, because it is unfamiliar—without power, without hierarchy, without order as order is normally understood, not described well by the words we know. Further, such a world is different for different women. Not every woman has relatives in Florida, not every woman's family has silver tableware. In fact, few do, but what counts is the idea of a woman having something of value—inner lasting value even when a thing wears out—the idea of use, of crafting, of making it your own, of not fitting in, not being what is valued most, not being gold.

In a world of gold, the silver is kept secret, locked in a box and wrapped in silvercloth to keep it from tarnishing. It is taken out for family and social use—to celebrate an occasion or keep the children in line. Silver tableware was once a possibility for only the wealthy, but aspired to by the middle classes. Acquired by them when production processes changed, and considered wealth, it was passed down in families, among women, and it fell to collectors—men appropriating women's wealth. Now, when most tableware is stainless steel, silver is largely unnecessary, archaic, mostly nostalgic. Initially silver had a functional advantage in that it did not interact with foods as much as prior metals—iron or


pewter, for instance. But silver was never very practical. Its uses were more ornamental, ceremonial, social, and to do with status. Further, it could be sold for money. It had that larger material value.

The questions silver raises concern value, and I am saying that I think the value problem is central to understanding relationships among women. To know these relationships one must, first, think it worthwhile to see that they exist. Relationships among women are often hard to see because they are camouflaged and devalued; they look like something else and fade into the background and are characterized by invisibility. Had I not pointed it out, for instance, no one but those close to me would know about my female relatives or about the particular web I make of them. Our relationships are interstitial, unremarkable on the surface. They are like Maxine's empty apartment, one among many that look like it. In my mind, there is an image of a woman on a phone in a nursing home in Connecticut talking with her niece in California about her woman lover's father's sister who died two months ago in Florida. The niece is seeking to repair damage done when her mother, somewhat vengefully, spilled the beans and told her aunt about it. Meanwhile, in another state, three curly-haired nieces of the niece are considered by their grandmother to be not yet ready for her husband's mother's silver flatware. She fears they will, by accident, throw it out. Suggestive, interconnected, understated, loaded with emotion, and with a rushed sense about it, plotless, fading away just beyond reach, this is a woman's world.

When women hold on to silver in their worlds—their mother's, or their mother's mother's, somebody else's, or their own—when they pass it on, whether the silver is used or kept in a bottom drawer, whether it is a single piece or a set, something is being said. When the silver must be sold for money because the woman is poor, or needs the money, or no longer wants or can keep it, when a woman takes out her silver and asks her daughter, "Do you like my pattern? Would you like to have it?" and the daughter, uncomprehending, tries to tell her, "I don't know how to answer your question," something more than silver is in the air. Sometimes the silver is not silver at all. It is a piece of cloth, an old dress, a head of curly hair, a memory, a belief, a sense conveyed that we are this kind of people. What will the next generation make of the wealth of the


generation before? What is one woman to make of her own wealth? Why is it so easy to lose family silver? It can be stolen, melted down, destroyed by fire, misplaced, thrown out. When the silver is lost, what else is lost? What does this silver represent—the kept female past, the precariousness of the female present, the need to guard what is women's? In some sense, this silver is an inner core, something too good to discard. "I keep my grandmother's family silver in a bottom drawer," says one woman. "Of course, I don't use it. There are not enough settings, and, anyway, it's too good."


The Passing Down Of Sorrow

MY MOTHER HAS ALWAYS seemed big to me. I used to think she looked like Marilyn Monroe. As I got older, I thought she looked more like Ingrid Bergman, which means that I thought my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world. When I was growing up, we would ask my mother why we had to do something. "Because I am your mother," she would say, and I would think she must not feel she was our mother if she had to say this. My mother seemed to me a person who felt absent apart from the role she played, or from the reasons she gave for things. These were not her reasons, or her wishes, but something outside herself—"Because it needs doing … Because it needs taking out … Because that's the way we do things in this family."

Of my two parents, my mother was the more volatile. My father expressed his emotions in a subdued way and seemed to me more rational, more simple, more obvious. He was slow and general compared with my mother. He did things with persistence, guided by principles. He was more directly affectionate, while my mother had a harder time expressing her positive feelings for others. My father loved my mother and felt she was wonderful. I think he steadied her emotionally while he was alive. My mother moved abruptly and was quick and smart. She seemed


to know about everything and to be good at all she did, but she felt inadequate. She repeatedly told me that "Nothing happens for anyone in our family without their working to make it happen," and she seemed to be referring especially to herself when she said this. I could hear the hurt in her voice, as if she felt the nothings she had to work for should have come to her without work. There was the implication in her tone that she was not born lucky, or favored, as was her older brother, a first-born Jewish son. My younger brother, like her brother, she used to say, was born lucky. He had mazel. That was something never said of my sister or me, or of anyone else in our family.

My mother's feelings of inadequacy, like her feelings of sadness, were beneath the surface and not immediately apparent to others. Her surface behavior was often a display of just the opposite of what she felt. She would get proud or angry when she felt scared or hurt, and she would push people away when she wanted them close. I think my mother wished to be above having frailties and needs and to be knowledgeable and respected, and she wanted her children to be that way too. I also think that my mother felt, and still feels, very much alone, and that a person who feels alone acts differently than someone who trusts others.

My mother often speaks as if she is lecturing, rather than in an interactive way. I think I learned, as a child, to be silent when she spoke, or to fight with her in order to have a connection with her. I also learned that my mother might cut off contact with me suddenly. Something I might say would scare her and she would get quiet and withdraw. As an adult, I find I often say goodbye to people several times in order to check that they have not yet left me. I also need to get very close to people because my mother was so distant. Only by getting close do I feel that I exist and that others, and myself, are not the same as my mother.

I am the oldest of three children. My sister is three years younger. My brother, who was seven years younger than me, killed himself as an adult. My sister and I suppress our emotions and dampen our affect when we speak, wishing to escape being emotional like our mother, or being hurt by her or someone like her. My sister was the quiet one in our family. My brother was the baby. I was the one who fought back more. I always felt that my family was unusual because of the socialist political


beliefs my parents taught us, and because my father was a writer. Otherwise, it seemed traditional. My father had his world, my mother hers, and as children we moved between the two, learning about male ways of being from my father, about female concerns from my mother. There was much distance surrounding each person in our family. We discussed things intellectually, rather than speaking of our personal feelings. Much that was important was said indirectly, or left unsaid. Much about my mother's moods was not explained. Growing up, I reacted to my mother's surface behaviors and I often did not know what she really felt. Now I am drawn to speak specifically about my mother—from out of my family constellation—because, for a long time, I have been unwilling to do so. I have feared that to speak of my mother would be to speak badly of her, and I have wanted not to hurt her.

I am sure I do not have a proper perspective on my mother. In my mind, she is either too bad, or not bad enough at all, and the issues are very much of good and bad—was she good or bad to me? I usually think about my relationship with my mother in order to explain inner difficulties I have, why my life is not easy for me—a version, perhaps, of my mother's complaint, "Why was I not born the lucky son?" I do blame my mother for my troubles in this way. Not to do so would be to grant her less importance than she really has had for me, and to grant inflated importance to others—my father and the rest of the world—to imagine others have enabled me to escape my femaleness. That growing up female is, for me, largely about growing up my mother's daughter makes a surprising sense, and one that I did not, at first, expect to see. That what has been handed down to me—as well as how to set a table, clean a house, or not lose the family silver—is an inner trouble of an entrenched and depressed sort also makes sense to me. Not that I think that only mothers, or women, hand down emotional troubles to their children, and especially to their daughters. But I do think that women internalize much emotional pain and that mothers pass this pain on to their daughters. I think that the passing down of inner sorrow is an important strand in the persistence of female gender. This essay is about sorrow, about expectations of irrationality among women, and about how internalizing trouble is part of femaleness.


My Mother's Pain

That my mother was hurt long before I came into the world is hard for me to comprehend. She once wrote to me, "I have known few moments of true happiness in my life—once when you were born, and several times as you were growing." I liked especially being told that my mother was glad when I was born. I usually feel I cause her nothing but unhappiness. Yet my mother's comment has a mixed meaning for me. On the one hand, it makes things seem normal and glowing: here is a mother happy to have a child. On the other hand, it says my mother rarely feels this way. She goes on in her letter to tell me that she does not value happiness. Other things are more important to her, such as working for progressive causes. I am left feeling that, for my mother, something that I have learned is good and normal—happiness—is not so for her.

The mental image I have of my mother is of a woman brooding. She is sad and about to cry. She is sad because I am not there, and because my father and brother are gone and no one cares about her in the right way. She is also sullen, which means there is anger in her sadness.

My mother used to tell us that the point of seeing a good movie was so we could have a good cry. Often, when there was a conflict in our family, my mother cried. I grew up feeling that being sad was more real than any other emotion because, for my mother, that was so. Not long ago when I visited my mother, I disagreed with her in a conversation and she responded by feeling hurt and crying. When I asked her not to cry, she insisted she preferred to cry. I felt miserable for making her so miserable. Our disagreement was over the fact that she thought being a lesbian ought to be kept private and in the bedroom, while I felt it should be talked about. She also thought a single woman who purposefully got pregnant to have a child was a whore, and I felt differently. My sister says my mother has a hard time agreeing with me, as I do with her, and that when I contradict my mother, she gets unusually upset. I feel awful for contradicting her, and I wonder why I do it.

I have, all my life, tried not to be like my mother, probably because she was not a man. I wanted to be like my father. I felt he had more


admirable personal qualities—rationality, an even temper, an ability to feel content—qualities I did not then associate with his gender. In many ways, I have been successful in being like my father, doing the same kind of work he did, adopting his habits of gentleness. But the ways I am like my mother feel more at the center of me. They are more internal and they seem to have happened without my knowing.

When last I went back to visit my mother, things flared up between us, not atypically, but to a greater extreme than usual. My lover, Judith, had come with me to buffer the effects of my family on me and to place my life with my family in the context of our life together. Along with visiting, we planned to pack up my aunt Jessie's silverware and a decorative chest it was stored in and ship these back to our home in California. When Jessie, my father's sister, moved into the nursing home, my mother had stored the silver for me in her basement. Part of the difficulty of this visit was that my mother felt I kept leaving her to go off to see my aunt, and she did not understand what I was doing in the basement when I was packing up the silver.

The day on which most of the trouble occurred was tumultuous from the beginning. My mother had stored others of my aunt's possessions in her basement—clothes Aunt Jessie no longer needed, old medicines, miscellaneous photographs. My mother wanted me to go down to the basement with her and sort through Jessie's things and decide what to give away and what to keep, and then load the giveaways into her car and take them with her to a thrift shop. That morning, I was slower to get up than my mother wanted, or she had extra energy. I remember she left hurriedly in her car to mail a package right after the post office opened. This was the day before I was to leave to return to California.

When Judith and I went down to the basement later that morning to sort through Aunt Jessie's things, my mother was already fired up, like a brew in a cauldron ready to boil over. We descended a set of stairs off the kitchen to the basement—a large, semifinished room with walls on three sides, a white composition ceiling, a white linoleum floor. There were two guest beds, bookshelves against the walls, a small desk of my mother's, some file cabinets, and a closet in which my mother keeps her out-of-season clothes. Behind doors lay a furnace, washer and dryer, and storage shelves. But the main feature of the basement for me is that


all around are reminders of my family's past and especially of my father—pictures of him, one of his father, paintings by him, books he wrote and collected, and copies of advertisements he designed for the Ladies' Garment Workers Union, one of them framed on a wall. This is the house my mother moved to after my father died and the basement seems to me full of all the items too weighted with emotion to keep upstairs.

When I visit my mother and sleep in her basement, it is hard for me to get ready for bed—to place my flashlight above my head at night in a bookcase I know only too well from its placement in my father's study over many years. In my mind, this is the original bookcase, the one all others are deviations from. On the top shelves are now books of my mother's and, above them, a soft-looking photograph of my mother's younger sister when she was in college. This basement is, at once, familiar and foreign to me. It is familiar because it reminds me of my father, and foreign because my mother's things are now in places where my father's once were, and because my mother has decided where to put his things—down in the basement in exactly this way, some placed carefully on the walls, others not carefully stored, like drawings by my father that are mildewing in a large accordion envelope near the furnace. The thought of these pictures poorly kept always bothers me. Why does my mother not take better care of them? I feel. I do not feel, Why does my mother not take better care of me? Life in our family is indirect. Worries about oneself are expressed as concern for other people and for things.

Upstairs, my mother's house is more fully hers—more tied to her present life—than the basement. There, too, it is full of reminders of my family's past, but these are more specifically my mother's surroundings—her dining room table, her pots and pans, her white glass lamp throwing a soft light opposite the front door. The house upstairs reflects my mother's way of organizing external space. She leaves clear surfaces and makes rooms feel restful. It does not reflect the inner turbulence I associate with my mother.

When Judith and I arrived downstairs, my mother began taking out large plastic bags and several suitcases that had Aunt Jessie's clothing in them, tossing these containers abruptly onto the beds or asking me to


life them. Then she lit into the contents, pulling out the garments with rough motions and coming to sudden decisions about whether to give away a sweater, or pair of slacks, or hold on to an item and send it to Jessie for reconsideration. The vengeance with which my mother attacked the bags was very familiar to me. I had seen it in action many times before when she would march into my sister's or my room, or my brother's room, and decide it needed to be cleaned up, the closets and dressers sorted through and anything extra tossed out. She would attack as if suddenly the confusion of the room, or of someone else's sense of order, had become too much for her, or as if suddenly she needed a target. She needed to be rid of something. Cleaning out a linen closet was a similar experience, although the object of attack was less tied to an individual person's things than to more generalized towels and sheets. Still, her movements frightened me. I hated those attacks. Once when I was already grown, I remember feeling like crying for my brother when his orderly, but jam-packed, teenager's room was suddenly torn apart by my mother. My father stayed in his study, keeping out of my mother's realm, and only I seemed to feel like interfering, as if it was wrong for my brother to be unprotected. In my family, I usually feel hurt for someone else—for my mother, or father, or brother, and less often for my sister, perhaps because she is closer to me.

When my mother attacked Aunt Jessie's things, I felt hurt for my mother, because she was upset, and for Aunt Jessie, whose belongings were thrown around. I also felt hurt because it felt tragic to me. I felt this was not supposed to be happening. These tirades and launchings into other people's things were supposed to be in my past, in my childhood. My mother was supposed to be better now, to have grown out of it, to be less angry, not more so, to be more happy, more restrained, not less controlled. Further, I felt that I was no longer supposed to be treated as an object of her attacks. Even if I only looked on, I felt attacked by my mother because I knew she was angry at me. If she felt burdened by having to take care of Jessie, and thus struck out at Jessie's things, she was also including me in her striking out. She was telling me she felt I was not doing enough for her. Often, my mother strikes out at absent people to make statements to those present. When hurt, she identifies


all of us as sources of her pain. She feels we have wronged her, or let her down.

Judith and I tried to cooperate with my mother in sorting through the clothes. We wished not to anger her further, nor to come into conflict with her, and we wanted to get this over with soon. I felt embarrassed that Judith was witnessing my mother acting in an aggressive way. While as a private event, my mother's attacks on objects and people seem undesirable to me, they do seem normal in terms of my mother. To an outsider, however, I felt her actions would not seem acceptable.

I describe my mother's physical actions rather than her words here because, for me, they summarize her way of relating and give a graphic image of it. Her words have a more painful feel and are harder for me to remember. Although some of my mother's speech sounds beautifully musical to me, her words are often harsh, critical, or ridiculing of other people. Growing up, I learned what my mother felt were desirable, and undesirable, characteristics of people from hearing her sharp comments about others. I wanted never to be the person who had such a fault as my mother would see in others and comment on sarcastically. My mother felt that Jessie, for instance, was at fault for feeling uncomfortable about wearing certain clothes and thus rejecting them. My father was at fault for thinking his work had value when the world might not. Children were at fault for being crybabies and wanting their needs met right away, adults for being upset, or anxious, or for having specific desires, or for having fears. My mother often ridiculed people for worrying. I think she experienced most human vulnerabilities as faults, perhaps because they left another person exposed in a way she did not want to be exposed herself.

She wanted to be strong, impervious, above it all, and, to some extent, she was. When I think of my mother, I do not see a small, weak woman but a big, strong one, a proud woman concerned about her dignity. I think my mother covered her troubles with pride and with an affect of superior intelligence. Yet her habit of striking out at people has made my own inner world harsh. My mother's criticisms of others are often ways I accuse myself. Her tone of ridicule is the tone I most fear from the world at large. I expect that world to tear me up, as my mother


tore into things verbally and physically. I have learned only slowly, over time, that it is not wrong to say what I want, or to care about particular things, or have needs.

I helped my mother put into the trunk of her car the clothes she decided to give away. She took them by herself to the thrift shop. While she was gone, I returned to the basement to pack up Aunt Jessie's silverware and to measure the decorative chest. While downstairs, I also looked around for other mementos of my family I might like to take. This, to me, is a sign that I am more willing than I once was to include evidence of my past life in my present one, to admit that I did not emerge fully grown as myself, but came from this particular family, these parents, whom I have often wished away. In recent years when I have visited my mother, I have usually taken back with me a painting by my father. This time, I had in mind a drawing of a baseball player he did in pastels; two brown bowls, now gathering dust in the basement, that my sister once gave my mother; and a blue and white bowl of my mother's that she thought she had already given me.

When I visit her, my mother is always telling me to take something, anything. She says she wants to simplify her life, that she is going to move into a smaller house soon and she does not need all these things. On this visit, she made her moving seem more imminent than usual. She said she needed to clear out the basement. I should take what I wanted and my sister would rent a truck and take the rest. Therefore, I now considered the bookcases lining the basement walls. All around in the shelves, sticking out from the books, were little white labels I wrote the last time I visited my mother, when she asked me to go through the books and advise her about what to give away and what to keep. Most of these books had been my father's. Many were old books he had bought at flea markets and in used bookstores—labor histories and biographies of American reformers. Some were picture books about artists. There were several nature books, a couple of books about how to raise a dog, two copies of my father's high school yearbook, and a couple of my old college textbooks. My mother had not given away any of the books yet. I thought I would ask the shipper, who would be coming that afternoon, what it would cost to ship the empty bookcases after the books were gone. I was interested in four of the broad sturdy ones.


When my mother came back from her errands, I planned to borrow her car to visit Jessie in the nursing home and say goodbye to her. My mother objected, as she had each time I had gone to see Jessie during this visit. She looked hurt and angry and conveyed to me that she felt my leaving her was wrong. She was my mother. Who was Jessie? Who comes first? she implied. "You don't have to see Jessie," she said. "She calls me about every little thing. She will have you wrapped around her little finger." Since my father died, whenever I have visited my mother, I have also gone to see Jessie, and my mother has never felt comfortable about it. I think that Jessie is a continuation of my father for me. She is also herself and is more direct than my mother, and seeing her is thus a less emotionally fraught experience for me. I am always surprised when other women, like Jessie, are not like my mother. I usually feel something is missing inside of them. I wait for the anger and the hidden meanings that I look for when I am with my mother.

I came back from Jessie's in time to meet with the shipper in the basement to weigh, and get prices on, the items to be sent. I told my mother not to come downstairs. I did not want her to confuse me about my decisions and I felt she should not have to be bothered with this. I then sent off the silver, the chest (which was the size of a small dresser), the baseball player picture, the various bowls, and two small woven rugs that my mother wanted me to take—one my sister had brought back from Mexico, and one that I had previously given my mother. "They will just get worn out if I keep them," she said. I did not entirely understand her comment. Why would the rugs get more worn out in her house than mine? I wondered. Did my mother fear seeing the rugs wear out if she kept them? Were they too delicate for her, or just something extra to worry about? Would she rather I have something special like this? Why waste it on her? I often do not know which of her many possible meanings to pick in interpreting my mother's statements. I do not really know what motivates my mother. To understand her, I have to put much effort into deciphering her actions.

I also got an estimate for shipping the bookcases, along with a small, honey-colored wood desk of my mother's. Rarely used and now in the basement, this desk reminds me very much of my mother because, to me, she has always had it. Wherever we lived, there would be a corner


with her desk in it. My mother would sit there, paying bills or writing a letter, occupied in a way that felt safe to me. She was doing something during which she would not strike out at me, or indicate her unhappiness. Over the years, I have repeatedly asked my mother to hold on to her desk for me and not give it away, but she has never once indicated she comprehends that I might value it because it is hers. She simply says the desk is junk and not worth shipping—that it did not cost much to begin with and the wood and glue are dried out. But I associate it sentimentally with her as I associate the bookshelves with my father.

It seems to me that, in my mother's view, whatever I want to take from her house is the wrong thing. When I ask her for something, as I recently did for a labor movement drawing of my father's, she is suddenly not ready to part with it, although she cannot say so directly. She simply pauses and looks for a long time at the drawing and comments on the trunk it was in and the set of pictures it is part of. When I took the blue and white bowl, she let me know that she really wanted me to take some glass plates that had belonged to my father's mother. When I asked for a silver ring she had offered me years before, she wanted, this time, to keep it where it was, in a flour canister in a kitchen cabinet, along with other pieces of jewelry she values but does not usually wear. In this canister are the jewelry her mother, and my father's mother, once wore, kept safe in this woman's version of a vault.

When I take things from my mother's house, I have to expect that although she has told me to take anything, she will not want to part with her belongings, and she will be unsatisfied with my choices—as if they indicate I am valuing the wrong kinds of things about her. I am speaking not only of taking physical items from my mother's house, of course, but of all the takings—the modelings of oneself after, the ways I have chosen, or not exactly chosen but learned, to be like my mother. There is, I think, an admonition in every exchange between us: "Be like me in this way. Value me for this, but not for that. Do not take my diseases, my woman's ways, but my strengths. Don't take my troubles. Above all, do not take my unhappiness." I have long noticed that my mother never wants to hear that I have troubles, especially emotional troubles. She needs to be the only one to have a problem, or if I have a difficulty, even a cold, she has to have a worse one. I have assumed this


is because she must always be the focus of attention, but it is possible she simply does not want to see her problems reproduced in me.

When I thought about my mother's comments about her desk, I thought about how often when I value something and tell my mother so, she is quick to attack it and devalue it. I usually try to keep what is special to me away from her, and not tell her about it, for fear its specialness will be destroyed by her. It may seem odd, or wrong, that I grant to my mother the power to destroy what is mine. But I think she actually has such power. She has an instinct for the kill. What is odd, it seems to me, is that I keep telling her what matters to me, that I do not keep myself altogether hidden from her. I think that my mother strikes out at things I care about when she feels she is losing me, or losing my attention to her needs—when something else seems to claim me. She also threatens to disappear at those times if she feels I am going to strike back at her and hurt her. I will look into her eyes and feel she is threatening to break up inside and no longer be there. This is camouflage, like animals use in the jungle. I often wonder why my mother is so attacking. I think maybe she feels herself under attack in an inner way and is striking back at those inner forces.

Inner Struggles

My mother often speaks of her mother with love and reverence. I remember after her mother died, she took her mother's bathrobe and kept it in her closet without washing it, so it would still have her mother's smell on it, the gentle scent of her mother's body and of the toiletries she used. Eventually, I got that light blue bathrobe and used it until it wore out. I remember my grandmother as small, lovely, and calm, and as having her own very definite mind. My mother was proud of the distances her mother swam in the ocean during the summers. When I visit my mother, she still takes me back out to the shore to look at the big rock out in the water that her mother used to swim to. We pull up the car and sit and look across the water at the rock and watch as if her mother is still out there swimming.

My sister remembers my grandmother as cold, which, to me, means distant. I know she was strict in terms of household order, like keeping


a clean house and keeping things in their place. I think my mother felt her own mother was highly competent, and that she felt incompetent by comparison, or perhaps because of things her mother said to her. I think my mother wanted to be like her mother and that it was hard for her to be different and, especially, to be less even tempered. I have an image of my mother, when small, being alone with her feelings. Whatever she felt inside may have attacked her, or confused her, and it still does. That is why she attacks and confuses me.

I often think of my mother and me as chicken and egg. I see us in the hospital right after I was born. My mother, then twenty-three years old, is looking at me. She fears being rejected by me, and so she pushes me away, or holds me at a distance, as she was held at a distance. It is not clear to me if she rejects me first, or if I reject her first. I suppose a baby is mostly reacting to her mother, but the infant can be a bundle who evokes fear in the mother. I think my mother was afraid of my needs. She needed someone to take care of her needs. She may have been at a loss when confronted with me, and she may have resented me. This image of me as a baby in the hospital is not just about being an infant, for me, but it summarizes my relationship with my mother over all time. To me, everything in those first few minutes, the pattern, is as it has always been. A central theme of my relationship with my mother is that I feel responsible for her. If she rejects me, I think it is because I have rejected her. Whatever is wrong with her, I feel I have caused it, and that is why she is so angry at me. Maybe some people have a relationship with their mother that changes a great deal over time, but mine has not. I feel there is a force within me that is my mother and has a life of its own and is never resting and often rejecting of me. I talk back to this force to get it to stop attacking me, as my mother, perhaps, talks back to her inner forces.

I think my mother repeatedly tells her internal forces that she is not a bad person, that her actions are justified, that someone else is at fault, that she has been sorely deprived and is frightened, and that she is trying to gain control. I tell my forces, too, that I am not bad, and that I am doing the best I can, against inner odds, to maintain the ways of a normal person, that I am not to be ridiculed or torn into, that it is all right to be vulnerable. In having inner forces to contend with, my mother


and I are alike. In how we deal with these forces, we are different. My mother's solutions to her problems are often external; mine are internal. It seems to me as if my mother lives amidst much self-protective external scaffolding. I have spent much of my life trying to find her inside that scaffolding, which is one reason I am so internal—I keep looking for my missing mother.

I think my mother is missing for me because she deliberately pulls away. She has often told me she thinks it is best not to respond to a child when she calls, or cries, because then the child will always expect you to respond, and you will be controlled by the child and not be free. As an adult, I consciously tell myself to respond as requested, and right away, when others ask something of me, so deeply learned is that other instruction not to respond. My mother often responded differently from what children wanted. She would give a different present, serve a different food, tuck the blanket in a different way than a child asked for, or she would strike out verbally, or with a sudden gesture, or by hitting. I think she wanted to make the difficult need go away. She also wanted us to know who was who—who was the mother, who was the child, who was in charge. I think that a child calling for her mother, or asking her for specific things, or getting upset (I learned to cry and throw tantrums) is trying to take care of her own needs. I know my mother fed and clothed me well. She overfed and overclothed me as the first child. She sang to me in bed at night when I was sick, explained things to me, took me places, made sure I got the kinds of things children need. Yet because she saw my needs as threatening to hers—and, therefore, pulled back or struck out at me—and because she saw herself as less competent than she wished to be, I felt in danger. I still have that sense of being in danger—a sense of terror that I will be hurt by others, or by myself, when I am in need—although I have learned to take care of myself quite well.

My mother seems pained when she tells me about how I learned to tie my own shoes early on, saying to her, "Mommy, let me do it myself." I think she felt pained because I was taking myself away from her. One of my father's paintings shows a mother bending down, encircling a child, tying the child's shoes. When we look at it, my mother tells me I was not like that. She views my father's paintings of mothers holding


infants with a similar discomfort. She has often told me she did not like that early period of dependency of child on mother—and, I think, mother on child—and so she does not like those pictures. I think such a dislike is not unique to her. Many mothers may not like that early period. What is unusual is that my mother says so. In addition to her feelings about dependence, I know my mother did not like being locked into stereotypical ways women were supposed to act and be. She did not want to be a frilly, sweet, little woman who had less stature than others and stayed home and raised kids without going out to work. She was raising children at a time when the women around her were staying home, influenced by a Freudian psychology that my mother did not like, that held mothers responsible for their children's ills and made women feel guilty for their own wants. My mother wanted to go out and work with kids in nursery schools and do creative things with them. That type of work made her happy. I think she was best when she was not around us all the time. The problem was not that she was absent when she was gone, but what happened when she was there.

As much as I have had troubles with my mother, I want the world to be sympathetic to her. My mother's younger sister views my mother kindly. She sees her as a daughter of immigrants who has pulled herself up by her bootstraps and improved herself with formal education, self-education, and an interest in arts and reading. My mother's mother came from Russia, her father from Poland. He was a wholesale fruit dealer. My grandmother took care of the house and children and members of her extended family, was active in a Jewish women's organization, kept kosher, and, unusual for a woman at that time, drove her own car. I sometimes think my mother has traditional expectations about how children should behave toward their parents because of her past. She grew up in a house where her maternal grandmother, who spoke only Russian and Yiddish, lived on the third floor, and in a town where members of her mother's extended family had settled and lived all around. She feels children should still make a place in their homes for their parents and not go too far away from them. I think it is hard for her to experience my living far away, and my not getting along well with her, not only because she worries about what will happen to her when she gets older, but because this is not how it is supposed to be. I sometimes


think she feels disgraced by me because the children of other members of her extended family visit their parents more often and get along better with them.

When my mother's expectations of normal family life are broken, I think she feels lost and unprotected. I know her mother did not live with her, but her mother died in her arms in the bedroom in the house where my mother grew up. When my mother worries about my getting serious physical diseases, it is her mother's diseases she expects I will get. Thus, I expect that too. When I think of my own death, I see my mother's mother dying. I may, indeed, be the mother she once had, who did not help her enough, and who might yet do so. Such expectations of who is supposed to be who, and how we are supposed to act—expectations of continuity—layer over every visit between my mother and me, although we speak of other things, such as what to have for dinner and what to do with items in the basement.

Leaving My Mother's House

After the shipper left, I went with Judith to the grocery store to get supplies for dinner and to the liquor store to get a bottle of wine as a present for my mother. This would be our last dinner together and I wanted it to be special. I also wanted to get cartons from the stores to pack up the books in the basement—to make it easier for my mother to dispose of the books and ship the shelves, since she has bad knees and has trouble bending. When I got back, I unloaded the groceries and went downstairs. For the next hour, Judith and I packed up the books, attaching the labels to the boxes, while my mother prepared dinner. For dinner, we were going to have rice, shrimp, and green peas, and we were all looking forward to it. When the packing was done, I came up to tell my mother we were through. The shrimp was simmering in a frying pan on the stove and smelled good to me. Even the rice smelled good. It was invitingly warm upstairs.

But my mother suddenly became angry. She had been having a drink and reading a newspaper in the living room, but when I entered she stood up, looking at me incredulously. She quickly became enraged, irrational, livid, full of tears, full of sentences no one could talk back to,


speaking her own kind of sense that I am slow at understanding. Who did we think we were? she asked. What were we doing down there? All day, we had been going off by ourselves and telling secrets where she could not hear us. We were plotting to keep her from finding out that we were taking the books off the shelves. Now no one could see them. What if someone wanted to buy the books, how could they know what was there? I only gradually grasped that my mother thought I was taking her books, that I had packed them up to take some of them with me. "But I told you what I was doing," I said. "How can anyone see them if they're in boxes?" Our conversations are often like that. My mother speaks in a rush that keeps me from speaking, and when I speak, she says something seemingly unrelated, and implicitly hostile to me, which is an indirect way of asserting what she needs.

Judith and I went back to the basement and put the books back on the shelves. There were seventeen cartons of them. We put them in their original groupings along with their labels—"Okay to give away." "Save for Mother." "Save for Susan." When I came up to tell my mother the books were now back on the shelves, I expected her to be relieved, but she was tearful and still incensed. She had a martini in her hand—it was not her first—and in the hallway off the living room, she tossed what was left of it at me. Instead, it hit Judith in the face and on the front of her sweater. Judith felt the alcohol sting her face. She turned to me and announced, "I am not staying here tonight."

I went into my mother's study and started packing our suitcases. Judith called a friend of hers who lived nearby to see if we could stay there overnight. We would leave directly for the airport in the morning. My mother became more agitated. She said Judith should not feel offended because the drink was meant for me, and it was almost finished anyway and mostly water. Finally, why didn't I grow up? She said many things I do not remember because she said them sarcastically. I think sarcasm is one way she strikes out. She also cried and wanted me to feel sorry for her, which was painful for me. I know that when her words got to be too much for me, I stood in the corner of her study and put my hands over my ears. Twice, I tried to get out of her study and my mother stood in the doorway, angrily barricading me inside. That was the most disturbing


part for me. I was surprised when I tried to go by her the first time and she did not yield to let me through. I felt that if I had pushed her to make my way out, she would have pushed me back and we would have had a physical fight. I have never bodily fought with my mother or anyone else, and I did not want to start. I saw images of women in movies fighting with each other and I did not want to be like that. I also felt that if it came to a fight, my mother would win. She is bigger than I am, but more importantly, she would fight harder.

I was frightened, both by a past—when my mother was, indeed, much bigger than I was and physically struck out at me—and by the present. I felt held by force, as if I might soon be in physical jeopardy from my mother. I considered calling the police. I felt there was a point beyond which my mother should not go in her actions toward me. But I did not think she had reached that point yet. More than frightened, I was horrified that my mother would be doing this, that we had an audience, that things had gotten this much worse.

I think that my mother barricaded me into her study, and became so desperate, not only because I was leaving her, but also because of all the other people who had previously left—my father, my brother, her mother. A close friend of hers had died recently. That day was, in fact, the anniversary of my father's death. In retrospect, it should not seem strange to me that my mother barricaded me into a room, or that she threw a drink at me. With the drink, I think she wanted to startle me, to wake me up, as from a nightmare. She had to wake someone. Why not me, her oldest daughter, upon whom so much has always rested, so much that is conflictual? If she could not wake me, then at least she could keep me. That my mother did this in the presence of Judith was hard for me to experience. It made it seem especially crazy and definitely wrong. Judith's presence was supposed to keep my mother within bounds, to keep exchanges between us semiformal. But my mother was disregarding Judith. She was treating her as if she was of no value, and as another person to be struck out at. I could not help thinking this disregard had to do with the fact that Judith was a woman. My mother would not have thrown a drink at my sister in the presence of her husband. But then, she would not have thrown a drink at my sister, period.


Still, I think a woman does not provide as strict a sense of personal boundary as a man does. More emotions come out in the presence of women only, flowing across the boundaries.

It seemed to me we were arguing in my mother's study and in the hallway outside it for a long time. I did not want to be hysterical like my mother. I did not want to be saying how awful I felt, and crying, and accusing other people of not growing up. Earlier, when I was in the basement, putting the books back on the shelves, I had heard my mother on the phone talking with the man she is close to about what a terrible thing I had done. She was crying and hysterical. When my mother gets hysterical, I get stoic. I become withdrawn and deliberate. I speak with little affect. I am guarded. I try not to feel. I think a lot. Sometimes my mother has accused me of being cold and calculating, which hurts me because I know I have feelings.

I left my mother's house wishing not to go. I faced a dilemma. On the one hand, I felt I had to leave because Judith, who had had her fill, would not stay, and because my mother had thrown a drink at her. On the other hand, it did not seem right to me to leave my mother prematurely, to hurt her the night before I would be leaving town. I knew that in my experience with my mother, this scene was not unusual. However, my mother did not usually throw her drinks (I did not remember her ever having done so before); she had not barricaded me into a room before; and her disturbances did not normally last this long in such an active way. By now, she usually would have become withdrawn. She would be back into herself, unhappy but no longer striking out. I kept telling myself that people who are victims of violence stay with their attackers when they should not. But I was not sure if I was one of those people, or if I was simply a woman with an upset mother, and this was what happened in families, and you did not just leave.

While I felt that Judith should not have to stay in a house with a woman who had just thrown a drink at her, it was harder for me to see that logic applied to myself. Would I be leaving if my mother had thrown her drink and it had hit only me? I was not sure. I thought my mother might settle down in time and become more peaceful. But what if we stayed, and after we went to sleep, something else happened and I woke up and my mother was like this again? I thought I should not stay


around and find out. Thus, I left without being sure I was right to go, but feeling afraid and that I had no other choice.

I felt terrible leaving my mother. I picked up my suitcase to go out in front of the house and wait for Judith's friend, who was coming to pick us up. As I walked though the living room toward the front door, I passed my mother sitting on the couch. Her male friend had come and was sitting with her, his arm around her. She was crying. He looked at me and said in a tone aimed at shaming me, "How could you." I felt my father would not have said that. He would not have wanted to divide my mother and me further, and although angry, he would have tried to get me to stay. I felt I just had to walk out. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I have left my mother many times, sometimes quietly, sometimes in tears and conflict, but this would be the first time I would leave her in quite this way, so alone, so distressed. Yet always when I leave my mother, it feels like this. Each leaving feels like new, and each is hard for me. Each time, I feel I am not supposed to leave, and that I am making my mother unbearably sad. I feel I will never see her again and that I take her sadness with me and it will haunt me later.

It was dark outside as Judith's friend drove us away. The other houses and the streets outside seemed harsh and cold to me. I felt there was no reason for me to be anywhere else but in my mother's house. Only once before when I visited my mother did I not stay in her house. I stayed in a motel because the house was too full with my sister's family. Given how Judith felt, I feared I might never stay in my mother's house again. I knew I would leave in the morning without calling to say goodbye to my mother.

The saddest thing I felt as I left, however, was that I was leaving, uneaten, the food my mother had prepared for us. The shrimp, rice, and peas were still in their pots on the stove when I walked out the front door. I feared my mother would get mad at them later and throw them out, feeling in them the pain of my going. But perhaps she would put them quietly away, as a normal person might—a person without the kinds of feelings we have, my mother and me. It is hard for me to say that I myself missed not having had that dinner, harder yet to say I miss not having had a relationship with my mother in which she could have made me happy. I usually think of what my mother misses, not what I


miss. I think it is my mother who is most hurt, whose life is most tragic, whom I am most sad for. I do not usually think I miss my mother, but that I miss other women—friends and intimates I know in the present, whom I did not grow up with, who give me a cleaner slate than my mother ever did. These are women who do not respond to me in my mother's hostile ways. Through my relationships with them, I try to find for myself much that was missing in my relationship with my mother. Still, I miss my mother with a sadness that is hard for me to comprehend because my mother's goodness—her generosity, her giving—was so mixed with rage. It is hard to miss someone who hurts you, but I do.

Maybe those mothers exist who serve cookies and are sickeningly sweet to their kids, the good mothers, and the good enough mothers. I had primarily a real mother. I think she gave to me as best she could and that female giving is a complex experience. My mother gave me sorrow and trouble and, eventually, her silver ring. She gave me more anger than I have often known what to do with, and a sense that the world will slight me, and that no one can be trusted, and that something is wrong with me. She taught me how to keep house and to cook, and told me to do the dishes as you go along, and never to leave a milk carton on the table. I learned, from her, to wear sturdy clothes, to be bigger than all the pettiness around me, and to fight back—to be resilient. I learned to be resilient because my mother was, and because she needed me to be that way in relation to her.

My mother, like me, likes to go to the ocean. I like to go because the sea is rough and raging. The turbulence out there is like the turbulence in me, and it reminds me of my mother. She is like that, and she often took us to the shore, as her mother took her and as my sister now takes her three girls. I know some people look at the ocean and see peace and enjoy basking in the sun. I fear the sun. It is too still for me. I like watching a storm and watching the clouds changing. I know that when I meet a woman who hurts me in my mother's familiar ways, I wish to jump in and change, or save, her, and turn her into the mother who loves me unequivocally. I have to remind myself to hold back, to avoid this woman like the plague.


Female Grief And Strength

What makes the sorrow my mother has passed down to me peculiarly female? What makes it not unique to my mother and me? When I came home from that visit with my mother, I stopped to pick up my cats from the woman who was taking care of them. I told her about my experience back East and she told me about recently seeing, on a street corner near her, a mother fighting with her daughter. The mother was swinging her cane at the daughter and yelling at her. The daughter was wrestling with her mother to get the cane away. The daughter, it seemed, had come back to help her mother pack up her furniture and possessions so she could move to a different house. After they had done most of the packing, the mother decided that the daughter was there to steal her things, not to help her. Out on the street, she was swinging her cane and yelling at her daughter that she was a thief. The daughter was trying to stop her mother by wrestling the cane away and arguing with her.

At least we don't fight like that, I thought upon hearing this story. I would rather have my mother throw a drink at me. Nonetheless, I was struck by the fact that I did not have to go very far to find an experience similar to my own, and I was shocked that I had found one so similar. I was also reassured because this other mother and daughter seemed much worse than my mother and me. We would never fight physically and never out on the street. My mother might think I was taking her books, but she would not be as deluded as to think I was stealing all her things. However, I knew she probably had felt I was, and that our situation was much the same as that of the mother and daughter in the street.

In a similar manner, I think that others might view my story of my mother and me with a desire to distance themselves from it. By my story, I mean my tale not only of my mother throwing her drink, or of my taking things from her basement and leaving her, and of her leaving me, but also my general story of the extremeness of my mother's sadness and hostility and my own vulnerability to her, my story of the effects of my mother's inner life on me. This story is more extreme than some others. It is, I think, an illustration of what happens to women in situations


of unusual grief and stress, but it is also an illustration of how female gender may be centered in grief. One of the most difficult things for me about my mother is that, at first glance, and even later, she appears normal, or like others, and like the image of a well-adjusted, congenial woman. She does not speak an unintelligible language, or dress oddly, or look bad, or cry all the time, or swing objects in the air threatening people with them. She is pleasant in appearance, perceptive, emotionally appealing, highly knowledgeable in conversation, dutiful, hardworking, and self-sacrificing for others. She speaks about her good times and suppresses her unhappiness and considers herself lucky compared with others less fortunate—all of which hides, if thinly, the extent to which she is inwardly angry and hurt.

Similarly, I think, women generally hide the extent to which they are different from a happy or well-adjusted image. Women internalize a great deal. I think this is because much of the labor that women do is emotional and because of the subordinate position of women. Women have traditionally had few important external resources (such as armies and brute power), and so we have learned to use internal resources well. We learn to be valuable by taking outer world conditions into ourselves and converting, or improving upon, those conditions. As caretakers of others, for instance, we absorb the hurt and misery others feel and convert these internally into the strength needed to help others. As teachers and as raisers of children, and as intimates of men who die before we do, we invest a great deal of ourselves in others, only to see those others leave us. We are hurt by the world both because we are not men, and thus are viewed as second best, and because we are women, and thus vulnerable. We are hurt because we are an underclass and are exploited without regard for who we are, and because we are expected to be accessible and thus do not develop barriers against being hurt. Often, women are viewed as responsible both for what is wrong with others and for fixing it. On the outside, we often maintain a facade that is reassuring to others who depend on us. Part of being female, I think, is to weather adversity, to persevere despite what is asked of one, because one must. The expectation that women will be strong and will carry a great burden, but not show it, is one reason why a woman who strikes out,


like my mother, is so unsettling. She is showing the strain of what she feels.

Yet I am sure my mother is not alone in her ability to bear a great deal of pain. Women often learn to absorb the injuries, the many small humiliations, the violence against others and themselves that they experience and to ignore these and carry on. We learn not even to realize our discontents with our subordinate status, which is why there is no female revolution. I think that the sadness women feel is often so deep, and its source seemingly so inexplicable, because the injuries done to women are minimized, or are invisible, and because the strength women develop in order to survive obscures the extent of our troubles. When a woman is made fun of as a child because she is a girl (as I know I was), when she learns to view herself as not smart enough or not good enough (as my mother learned), when she must look over her shoulder and see herself as an object to be attacked, when she is addressed disrespectfully, when she must dress like a plaything or a decoration, when she cannot get a job because she is a woman, when her anger is ridiculed and she is not paid for her work, when she hurts for her mother and fears for her daughter—these are only the more visible slights in a long string of experiences in which the subtlest glance of deprecation is extremely hurtful. Women are often depicted as weak when just the opposite is so. I think only very strong individuals could absorb as much pain as women do.[1]

In this vein, I think there was no one life event that caused my mother's sadness, but that her trouble was internal to begin with, and compounded by her experiences, and that her very strength caused confusion. Because she could endure so much, she felt she could bear anything, which was not so. When she broke down, she was disappointed, as was I. She blamed her disappointment on forces outside herself. Yet I felt not that the outer world had let me down, but that my mother had.

I think that women are often like my mother in that we are sad inside beyond telling, hurt beyond consolation, and driven out of our minds. We do not know our own needs and limits, and we are often strong enough to persevere despite much self-denial. We feel alone and deprived,


yet we still do the emotional work expected of us, especially that of caring for others. I think that the pain women feel gets hidden in different ways in each woman. No woman entirely avoids this pain, and women pass it on to each other. It gets passed down especially to girls, who learn to be women in important inner ways from their mothers and from other women. It gets passed on among women each time we teach, and help, one another to bear our respective pains. My mother may have had less protection against her inner sadness than some other women do, and more of a desire for freedom from it, which was why she raged. Her rage has made it hard for me to proceed on the surface as if nothing were wrong with her, or with me, or with a world that looks at both of us and tells us to keep our pain hidden.

With an intensity that I rarely notice because it is second nature to me, my mother has taught me lessons she did not wish to teach about how pernicious, brooding, resentful, and persistent inner female struggles are. I cannot see my mother and not see the female condition. If ever I thought I could overcome what is female in my mother, or in myself, a glance at my relationship with my mother reminds me I cannot. My mother wounded me deeply. I daresay that is what mothers do to their daughters more generally. Such wounding is unavoidable in a world that devalues women, and it is why girls often so need to leave their mothers, which then produces pain for both. Yet oddly, there is nothing sought after more by mother and daughter than to relieve the other of her pain.

I never took the desk or the bookcases from my mother's house. I did not want to take any material item from her that she did not wish me to have. But the items of real value are not material. As I hope my discussion has shown, I think that the very commonplace things in a woman's house are part of a language in which mothers talk to their daughters and let them know about what is important in their lives. I learned from my mother that happiness is a rare experience. I learned from my mother that there is a great deal of pain involved in being female.

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