She was a perfect little girl, or so she tried. Her mother always told her she had dreamed of two daughters but her firstborn was a son. Her mother could only afford two children on her husband’s factory-worker salary. SHE was born. Her second child was her hope. Her fantasized daughter became her mother’s ears and constant companion. Folks told the girl she was going to be a fine little wife. She swept the floor in compliance. In the time and town where she grew up “feminism” was an unknown word. It probably would have been thought to be a medical condition to be treated by a gynecologist, a male gynecologist.
She struggled to be good and thoughtful but really wanted to be pretty and soft. She was fine when her brother told her “she ran like a girl.” It made perfect sense. She could avoid the children’s rough games and never risk bruising her face, so important to girls like her and Marilyn Monroe.
She dreamed of designing beautiful emerald satin gowns like Dinah Shore might wear as she saw “the USA in her Chevrolet.” She played for hours with mysterious treasures from her mother’s cedar hope chest in the basement. Rough grey stone walls created her imaginary castle and the trunk filled with mildewed cloth- ing accessorized her princess soul. Funny latex beach shoes trans- formed into glass slippers. The rubber bathing cap with big floppy flowers magically became her coiffed hair and tiara. The cotton flowered fifties skirt hiked under her arms billowed into her ball gown. Her canine lady-in-waiting sat at her feet. She loved the smell of mildew, lilacs, and the baked goods she stirred with her mother.
She adored the smell of lilacs. She envied her mother’s rectangular glass bottle of lilac water that sat too high on the bathroom shelf. It had a fancy rubber bulb and enchantingly released a cool mist. She was sure it must have come from Paris. She liked to wake early and run alone to the backyard and walk barefoot on the waking dewy grass. She loved the cool touch of spring lilacs on her face. On more than one occasion she ate a blossom, hoping it would make her beautiful on the inside. Her grandmother had told her beauty was only skin deep.
She was Jane in her backyard jungle looking for Tarzan, her furry stuffed monkey held close to her chest as she ruled the wilderness. Tommy, her twenty-pound yellow-striped alley cat, changed to a ferocious but gentle guarding tiger. Neighbors would tell you she played for hours in the backyard. Behind the garage she created a fort with lawn furniture, wooden crates, bottles and cans of grass, dandelions, and rocks. Stuffed animals and hand puppets swaddled in rags slept in cardboard boxes or baskets as she prepared their individual dinners and medicines. Her stuffed monkey often rolled into a ball and tucked under her top as she waited for her Tarzan.
She could not read. Every morning she struggled in Reading Group C just before recess, so if time ran out it didn’t really matter. Every day she was relieved she wasn’t shoved into the slow kids’ classroom at the far end of the hall. Her mind contorted trying to figure out a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y. e short and long of it all confused her. Those letters were clearly the same size in her mind. She was a girl and, like all boys, her brother was smarter. She did wish she could read because there were rumors of women doctors in faraway places, but not her small midwestern town. She fantasized being able to understand. She daydreamed of being a veterinarian. She could heal and care for the animals like she did in Tarzan’s hut. She gave up. She decided the words were simply too big for her girl brain to understand. Besides, she’d never heard of women veterinarians.
On her sick days from school, which were more than the average child’s, her mother would bring out grandmother’s metal cookie canisters filled with hundreds of shiny buttons. Her mind would swirl in a kaleidoscope of color as she sorted and counted the treasures for hours. Often her mother would even let her touch her own jewelry boxes filled with antique pieces, some hand-painted by her great-grandmother. She loved the cool texture of the orange coral necklace. Most of all she loved the pearls. She held them against her face and slipped them around her neck. They dangled on her chest, resting where she imagined her breasts would grow to fill her Maidenform bra.
She loved hot baths and occasionally “borrowed” her mother’s forbidden Jean Nate bubble bath. She always wanted to smell fresh, like flowers. She would soak until her fingers pruned and her mother yelled her supper warnings. Annette Funicello had taught her that being “pretty” attracted the boys, required to “complete” her. Sometimes there were bad boys and men in the neighborhood. She never spoke of the things they did to her. She scrubbed and soaked longer, stole more Jean Nate, and waited for the lilacs to bloom again.
She baked and cooked with her mother and made her father’s egg salad sandwiches for his lunch break from the factory. She scrunched her nose at mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, and cereal with milk. She hated the way they looked. They were all simply too gross. The feat of making egg salad was a meticulous task, constantly guarding her fingers from touching the dreaded mayonnaise. She remembered: “she was going to make a fine little wife.”
Obsessed with infants, she would sit for hours watching and touching visiting babies, and grimace when her mother insisted she go outside and play with other children. She only wanted to be with babies. The fascination increased as she grew.
On a hectic Thanksgiving morning she fell down the narrow basement stairs. The family doctor came with his weathered leather bag and diagnosed a slight concussion and prescribed total bed rest. I think the doctor gave her a shot of some sort, but I was too tired to remember. She slept till the next day. Her empty longing to be a mother intensified. She would not understand the power and meaning of the fall for many years.
Every night she fell asleep after her Lay Me Down to Sleeps and family prayers. The back of her hands would be red and covered with lines of tiny smile imprints just below her knuckles. They were the tracks of her fingernails that tightly gripped and pressed her hands as she prayed hard for a baby. Every evening as her eyes closed she pondered and whispered the same concern. “God, what should I do with this penis?”
In my small town Lutheran Sunday school, teachers told us that when a request is made of their God, he would give one of three responses: Yes, No, or Wait. Twenty-five years later I brought my baby home, disabled and given no hope to ever read, write, or speak. The Sunday School teachers were correct—my Goddess told me, “Wait.” At nearly sixty-six I will never wear green satin gowns but will proudly love the fragrance of lilacs and their touch on my face. Sometimes in my solitude I may slip on my mother’s pearls. Like all men regardless of their gender identity, I will continually wonder, “God, what should I do with this penis?”
Stephen English is an LBGTQ essayist and humorist. He began Words By Friends in Beverly, where he resides with his husband and animal menagerie.