Monday, August 09, 2010

When I was a Boy

Much of my childhood was spent trolling the streets, yards and forgotten meadows of our neighborhood with my all-boy posse. Being the only girl, I enjoyed a certain status, as if I had finagled my way past the velvet ropes into an exclusive night club. Instead of sipping champagne and dancing, we drank strawberry Quik, ate Oreos and rode bikes.

I’m not sure what prompted me to rebel against the “rules” of my gender. All I know is I enjoyed living without the limitations that came with pink cotton, white lace, and the very real fear that my underwear were showing when I climbed trees.

From what I gathered, being a girl meant staying on the sidelines, riding a bike with a basket and tassels, and being afraid of rain.

My older brother, Andy, --the lone male child out of five -- aided and abetted my quest to be a boy. He embraced my masculine traits and shunned the feminine ones. If I skinned my knee and cried, he would say, “Quit acting like a girl’.” When my bat connected with the tattered softball and sent it flying over the pitcher’s head, across the dirt road and into the neighbor’s lily of the valley patch, he’d yell “Atta boy, Betsy,” as I rounded first base.

I don’t blame my brother, really, for making lemonade with the lemon life had handed him. The day I was born, he cried upon learning that he had a new baby sister rather than--as he had been promised-- a long awaited brother. As the story goes, my father, perhaps weary of estrogen himself, or merely empathetic, cried right along with him.

I made up for my apparent shortcomings-- that's code for lack of a penis-- with fervor. I built up my already prominent muscles, by attaching a rope to a bucket, putting a cement block into the bucket, then pulling it up, one flight, to my back porch from the ground below.

I was always chosen early for games of British Bulldog because I could run fast and I wasn’t afraid to tackle. I also wasn’t afraid of the “snake pit” behind our house, where we gathered up handfuls of sleepy garter snakes to taunt our mothers and sisters with.

Like a domestic dog that tries to disguise its tame, coddled scent by rolling in scat, the unpleasant, musky smell of the snakes on my hands made me feel wild, dangerous, and, yes, masculine.

My summer uniform consisted of cutoff jeans, tube socks and Chuck Taylors. Like any swindler, I had an alias: “Boobless Bobby Brown.”

In my prime I could pee standing up, a trick I saved for special occasions. I stood beside my best friends Richie, Eric and David, in the back yard, giggling and straining to produce an arcing stream rather than a rushing waterfall. Either way, I belonged.

I have no memories of my parents disapproving of my behavior.(They never saw the standing pee trick.) I never really considered what they thought of my quirks until the day I shared my gender bending past with a friend who looked increasingly shocked until she finally said, “Was your mother ever... you know... worried about you?”

My mom already had three girls. She didn't really care how I chose to dress-- even when I was sent home from the local pool for swimming in cut-off shorts. She never forced me to wear dresses (well, except for that one time). She bought me a pair of chunky Buster Brown’s for boys, once when we went back- to -school shopping. I wore them on a trip to New York City and was elated when the door man at the Statler Hilton called me “young man” as he scolded me for pushing too many, okay all, of the buttons in the elevator.

My aversion to all things traditionally feminine succumbed to puberty. My indifference started to waver one summer at the seashore when I was 12 and became hopelessly smitten with a friend’s older brother. He had sand-colored curls and sea-blue eyes. The muscles in his tanned shoulders rippled like wind on water when he threw a Frisbee.

He invited me to come with him to spy on a pretty girl he had spotted up the beach. Crushed, I went with him. When the girl of his dreams came into view-- tanned, bikini clad and languid on a beach towel-- I saw everything I was not but could vaguely imagine being, one day. My body was betraying me.

Today, that little boy I once was, has gone underground. I have paid money to have my eyebrows shaped and my toenails painted. I own a push -up bra (still kind of boobless) and wear fitted shirts with low -cut necklines. I wore earrings under my crash helmet, while competing in the Olympics.

I occasionally wear shoes that you can’t run or climb trees in, and I’ve been known to tell my daughters I can't roll down the hill with them because it makes me dizzy and I don't feel like getting cut grass in my hair.

Yet the boy still lurks inside me. I saw him reflected in my brother’s tear-filled eyes when he-- now a justice of the peace-- presided over my wedding. (I'm still not sure whether the tears were caused by nostalgia or the sight of his little brother in a wedding dress.)

And the boy surfaced one day about eight years ago when, hugely pregnant with my first daughter, I waddled past the neighborhood small-engine repair garage, a place I had frequented as a child:

“Hey Bobby,” Grub, the mechanic, called out, chuckling.

I blushed. I had been caught, red handed, acting like a girl.

This post was inspired by the nonsense being written about a particular little girl who likes to wear boy's clothes. The title of this post was lifted from my favorite Dar Williams song, a song I still cannot hear without getting full body chills.

The image is Esther, age 4, a tough girl in a princess dress.


Liz said...

I love this post -- thanks for sharing your "boyhood" days. Kudos to your mom for letting you be who you wanted to be! I'm not sure I could have been as relaxed about it, but reading this story inspires me.

mooserbeans said...

Way to go! I get so angry about all of the nasty things being said about how that certian girls dresses. One of my cousins insisted on dressinglike a boy and being called Joe for an entire year. It did not harm her one bit. Childhood is for free expression. I wish I could have my youngest daughter's "to hell with convention" attitude. Really the problem is the closeminded adults.
By the way, I was the little girl in the princess dress, but now you can get me out of jeans or shorts:)

Stephanie said...

Hey Betsey,
I think it's awesome that you are sharing this. People are so afraid of allowing children be who they want to be. I always used to tell my mom that I wished I was a boy, because boys, my brother, got to do way more than I ever could. Of course, he was older, but still he had it different. I was more protected. Thanks for sharing.

Liz said...

Oh, thank you...

Worse even than those lambasting girls for dressing or acting like boys (who can often be brushed off with a negligant wave and liberal application of the word "tomboy,") are the people who freak out at the reverse situation...

My two-year-old son completely worships his big sister. Of course he wants to wear her sparkly plastic jewelry. Of course he wants me to put her pink flowery hair clips in his hair. Of course he wants to shuffle around the playroom in her plastic princess slippers.

He also likes dinosaurs and superheroes -- in which he is also copying his otherwise princess-obsessed big sister.

Entirely too soon, they'll be allowing the media and their peers to dictate what they can and cannot like or wear. Why would I bring that pressure to bear any earlier?

Anonymous said...

Glad to be part of the posse. I was patiently waiting for a "Bob Shaw" reference!

JediMom said...

Oh I love the picture! I also can relate to all the boy things. I stopped wearing dresses around 1st grade except for those dorky uniform skirts and when my mom would force me into one and didn't really enjoy wearing them again until oh Junior Prom. LOL. I loved to climb trees and was crushed when my mom forgot I had Star Wars toys and gave them to my nephew, whose dog ate them. I also had the Ranch Barbie, the one with a brown pickup and horse trailer with the horses and my mom made karate outfits for her and Ken also!
I was terrifed when I had my daughter, I had no idea what to do with a girl, and am still more comfortable being one of the boys.
I think it's nuts when people are upset about what a girl or boy wears!

Anna said...

wonderful piece, Betsy. I was a boy - and sometimes stood up to pee - until around 12 too!

Kate said...

I found your site from Servant To a King. I love it. I’m going to poke around a little bit, but don’t worry I’ll put everything back where I found it!!

-alex said...

Hi Betsy,

This was a lovely trip down memory lane. I was also a tomboy, but my mom made me put on shirts after I turned 5.

I was never probably as buff a boy as you were, since I was a skinny, uncoordinated weakling. I also hung out with my brother. (He also got gypped; two older sisters and me, his little sister.)

I love Dar Williams and I thought immediately of her when I read your post title.

Emma said...

We must have had the same childhood. My proudest day was when an adult mistook me for a boy, i think i was about 10 years old at the time. I remember being so disappointed when i reached the age of keeping my shirt on, in about 6th grade, instead of being able to play Tarzan with the boys. I'm still a bit of a tomboy, so it amazes me at how very girly my own daughter is. But i never discourage her from playing in the dirt, climbing, being 'rough' and rowdy. Kids need to be kids, they grow up quick enough.

Great post! And great photo to go with it.

Brooke G. said...

WHAT A POST! I loved this... all of it. Your writing always jars me - in a good way.

Don't you think those years of your youth shaped you into the person you are today?

Hmmm - and my word verfication is - riponair

Which for some reason seems so appropriate for this post :D

Betsy said...

riponair: I like that, Brooke G. Air ripening is the only way to go. Fresh air, that is.

Living Down Under said...

What a beautiful post Betsy. Your writing is poetic.

Steph said...

There's nothing wrong with being a tomboy.... :)

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this the first time and again today!