When I was a little girl, and spending summers with my grandparents, the only kids I had to play with were the neighborhood boys. I didn’t mind not having other girls to play with, because I found boys to be far more adventurous and fun. Girls wanted to play things like “school” (I had enough of that August – May) and “shopkeeper” (boring).
Like a lot of my current girlfriends, I was a tomboy.
There was a park behind my grandparent’s house, and that’s where me and the boys would always meet up for a good round of cowboys and Indians (this was the 60’s, after all) or cops and robbers. Sometimes we would pretend the merry-go-round was a pirate ship. Sometimes we would dare each other to run through a red ant hill, barefoot, or play “skydivers” by jumping out of high-flying swings.
There was really only one problem that came up from time to time, and that was when the boys wanted me to be the damsel in distress during one of our games. That usually led to some pretty big arguments and a lot of pushing and shoving, and me finally calling it quits and stomping home while wiping angry tears off my cheeks.
You see, my grandparents didn’t raise me to enjoy playing with dolls (although they indulged me in Barbies and Liddle Kiddles if I wanted). I spent a lot of time on the farm with my grandad, and I was much more interested in non-girlish pursuits. I rode horses, swam in the creek, and helped grandad drive the tractor and feed the cattle. I had very little interest in being “the damsel” when playing with my friends.
Pretending to be a country-western singer with my Yogi Bear guitar.
My grandparents would buy me things like doctor’s and scientist’s kits, toy soldiers, Lincoln Logs and pirate gear. One time my grandad came home with a sheriff’s set, complete with a star-shaped badge and a six gun. I already had the cowboy hat.
These indulgences occasionally caused a dilemma for the boys. I always had the cool toys (and I was a bossy kid), so they often had to give in to my wishes to be the sheriff or Captain Hook, or Al Capone.
But sometimes they didn’t.
One day I showed up in my sheriff’s gear, and they told me to go home unless I was going to play “Victoria” from “The Big Valley”…the pretty blonde female character from the 1960s western. They were going to “rescue” me from the bad guys, they explained.
I wouldn’t comply, so once again I was dismissed. Sent packing, badge, gun, hat and all.
I was pretty glum when I got back to the house, and pouted away the rest of the afternoon, pretending to be a burnt and injured Smokey the Bear cub. The book about Smokey’s early years was one of my favorites. His little paws were burned in a forest fire and bandaged by a nice park ranger. My grandmother gave me socks to stick on my hands, and fed me sandwiches. She always had a way of distracting me when life wasn’t fair and I was mad about it.
Smokey the Bear as an injured cub.
My grandmother, helping me be a monkey.
When my grandad got home that evening, I told him the boys wouldn’t play with me that day because I wouldn’t cooperate in fulfilling the role they wanted to give me.
“I wanted to be the sheriff, or at least Heath (one of Victoria’s brothers), and they told me I had to be Victoria,” I told him.
“You can be anyone you want to be,” he told me. “I’ll take you to the farm tomorrow, and you can be the sheriff all day, over me and all the farmhands.”
And that’s what happened. Whenever I told the young farmhands to “stick ’em up!” they immediately complied, swiftly raising their hands high above their heads. When the lunch break came, a couple of them even let me tie their hands behind their backs and stick them in my jail (the stables inside the barn).
A very early photo of my grandad and I.
One summer day, a couple of years later, one of the boys came over to my grandparents house to help me build a tent out of sheets, lawn chairs and clothespins. Once it was finished, we sat inside in the sweltering heat, wondering what to do next.
“Do you want to play doctor?” he asked.
“Sure!” I answered. “I’ll go get my kit.”
I ran inside to fetch my plastic medical bag, which contained a pretend stethoscope, thermometer, bandages and other doctor-type paraphernalia. When I got back to the tent, he told me I needed to take off my shorts. I was appalled, and I asked him why he would want me to do something so naughty. “So you can be the patient, and I can be the doctor,” he said.
“But I’m the doctor, and you’re the patient,” I said. “This is my doctor kit. But I don’t want you to take your shorts off. That’s not nice.”
“But that’s the way you play doctor,” he explained.
I ordered him out of my tent. I remember feeling embarrassed about the whole thing., and I ran inside to tell my grandmother. She called the boy’s mom and had a few friendly words with her. I thought the matter was settled, but after that, the boys never wanted to play with me again. I was a “tattle-tale”, and I didn’t like playing the roles they had wanted me to play.
As I got older, and hormones started kicking in, I started seeing boys differently. It became important to me that they liked me, not as a playmate, but as a potential girlfriend. I stopped being bossy, and wore lip gloss and put vanilla extract in my hair so it would smell like cotton candy. I flirted.
My life had also changed. I wasn’t able to spend as much time with my grandparents, because summers were spent babysitting my little brother while my parents worked.
My parents were Southern Baptist and very strict. We attended churches that preached the importance of women and girls knowing their place…and that meant “submitting” to men (and boys) and whatever whims they may have.
That was a direct contradiction to the independent concepts about the feminine/masculine roles my grandparents taught me. This new concept confused me for awhile, especially since I wanted the boys to like me. I stopped doing or asking for the things I preferred, and instead went along with whatever boys wanted me to do.
Even if that meant letting them stick their tongue in my mouth, which, at the tender age of 10, made me want to gag.
Eventually I gave in to whatever boys wanted me to do, so that I would be liked and accepted, and would not be abandoned again for not playing my role. Besides, in God’s eyes, they were the ones that ALWAYS wore the badge.
It felt pretty shitty.
But somewhere inside me the lessons my grandparents taught me were still there, and when I left for college, I didn’t leave with the intent of finding a husband (as many of my girlfriends were doing). I left to become a journalist…an occupation that made my grandfather proud. I stopped going to churches that subscribed to the notion that woman were the downfall of mankind.
After a time, I began to remember the voice of my granddad telling me “You don’t have to do what the boys want you to do. You can be the sheriff, the pirate or the doctor”.
Or the woman with the pen and the words.
Regaining my self-esteem has been an uphill battle for most of my life, because the tentacles of patriarchy and misogyny run deep when you’ve spent most of your childhood under an evangelical roof. I have discovered there are still a lot of men who don’t like it unless you play the damsel. They don’t like it if you make more money than they do. They don’t like it when you don’t give in to your “role”, as dictated by society TO THIS DAY.
Despite the fact that women are still not considered equal to men on a societal level, there are a lot of good men out there who have been raised by women like me. I taught my son to see women as equals – not the SAME as men, but NO LESS than men. I raised my daughter to believe she could be and do anything she wanted. My son is a successful electrician who respects women. My daughter is a warrior who delivers babies.
The word “obey” will not be part of the script during my daughter’s upcoming wedding to her fiancé. He is more than fine with that. His parents raised him well, too.
I’m happy my daughter will never experience what I experienced when I was young. Instead, she is confident, speaks her mind, and carries her medical bag with her wherever she goes.
Me? I spend my days writing, making perfumes and art, boxing (a passion I discovered late in life) and practicing yoga. I’ve turned in my Etch-A-Sketch for paintbrushes and my Lincoln Logs for board games, but I still like to build tents. I’ve hung up my hat and turned in my badge, but that doesn’t mean I’m not the sheriff of my own life.
And when I hang out with my guy friends, I never have to be the damsel. I like it that way.
Thank you, Grandad.