“I bet you’re the kind of girl who doesn’t really get a long with other girls.” He said it so coolly that my high-school self immediately knew the correct answer. “Oh yeah, all my best friends are boys,” I said obligingly. That wasn’t even remotely true but even my then-self knew that we women are supposed borrow a friend’s lipstick in the bathroom and then use that same shade to mark her man in the bedroom. I added, “I’m not crazy like those other girls.” What I meant, of course, was that I was low-maintenance (lie), no-drama (lie) and that I’d be comfortable with burping, farting and sex jokes (lies, all of it!).The boy in question was a crush and I wanted to impress him, even if it meant throwing another girl – or my gender entirely – under the bus. Indeed all my best friends were then, and are still now, girls. Not that I don’t love and adore the men in my life but so much of my life revolves around my sisters, those who share my DNA and those who don’t.
How do you ask for help when you don’t even know what it is you need? Tarragon chicken, roasted potatoes, green beans almondine, three different kinds of pie – she didn’t say anything as she placed dish after dish of lavish food on the tables, which was for the best as even if she had asked what I wanted, I would not have been able to answer her. When we decided to have a funeral for a baby no one knew in a place where no one knew us – grief makes familiars of us all – we hadn’t exactly thought out the details. Just making the arrangements to transfer our daughter’s body from the hospital to the funeral parlor proved enormous – in a strange trick of fate the State sent us her death certificate months before we got her birth certificate and we were left explaining over and over again how someone who hadn’t been born had died. So the fact that all our families were going to need to be fed after the funeral? Too enormous to comprehend. But there was Mandy, hand on her own pregnant stomach, dishing out not just food but a funerary feast. She stepped so lightly that I couldn’t even remember the moment that she had stepped in and carried my pain in her hands, just as adeptly as she carried the platter of crudities. Women carry so much more than babies.
How do you start a conversation that ends with “and now I have to go to court in another state to testify against him”?Melissa seemed to understand my inability to explain the reason I showed up unannounced at her door one day with my baby under one arm and a stack of legal documents under the other and instead watched quietly as our sons played and I filled out the forms outlining my case against my ex-boyfriend. Forms that I had tried to fill out for a solid week but every time I opened the packet in my silent home I was suffocated by all the things I couldn’t say but had to write. How do you write something you’ve never even admitted to yourself much less said out loud? It starts with not being alone. Even if she didn’t understand the haunted look in my eyes or the triplicate copies of pages that began “Under penalty of law…” she understood my need for company. Women hear so much more than what is spoken.
How do you talk about a nightmare? When the need to speak finally came, the story pressed behind my lips and I could no more hold it back than hold back vomit, Erika listened. She knew him in a way I hadn’t and that gave me the context with which to frame my own experience, her faith in my version of the events – a first. Then came Laura who let me call her every day, sometimes many times a day,to recount one more memory I’d pushed away. The memories felt endless, my need to purge insatiable and yet she never flinched from the torrent. For months she listened. And then came all the girls – some of you girls, even – to wrap me in the protection of their stories and their arms. Girls who called when they heard a news story about sexual assault, to see if I was okay. Girls who called to ask if they were going to be okay. Girls who said they could talk about their stories because I could talk about mine. Women say so much more than what is spoken.
How do you say “I’m sad when I have every reason to be happy”? Weddings and baby showers. Births and deaths. Beauty and trauma. The large moments of our lives are emotionally etched into our being but what of all the myriad small moments? The day-to-day monotony, sometimes punctuated by a burst of rapid-fire baby giggles, sometimes overwhelmed by a string of gray days: Even though I am surrounded by tiny people – whom I deeply love – I have never known such loneliness as I have as a young mother. And just when I think I am about to go mad from the incessant irrational whining, Sam and Debbie show up at my door. They come bearing gourmet cheesecake (just because) to feed my stomach and stories to feed my soul. Women feed so much more than hunger.
How do you learn to accept your faults? “Charlotte, sit down. We’re done with our workout.” “Girl, get over yourself.” “You have gotten too thin.” And even a stage-whispered, “You have camel toe! Fix it!!” Over the years, Allison, Megan and Krista, always just a hysterical text message away, have done so much more than keeping me from dropping the weight bar on myself. They rein me in, theyground me, they correct me and through it all they still love me. I am stronger because they do not treat me like shattered glass. Women temper so much more than tantrums.
How do you comprehend the eternal? Three years old, her large brown doll eyes welled up. Three is too young to understand death much less such an untimely death. I was 20 when my baby sister died – an entire lifetime apart from three – and yet I could barely wrap my mind around the fact that a person who is here one moment can be so utterly gone the very next. I watched my next-youngest sister Kathryn climb up the stool to sit on the kitchen counter so she could be eye level with her sisters, aunts, friends, her grieving mother. Taking all of us adults in, she stared solemnly, already forgetting the sister she barely knew. But some things run deeper than mere memory. Shared things like grief. Things like a tiny hand on my arm and then a tiny head on my shoulder as she sobbed. These were not crocodile nears nor were they shed out of fear or exhaustion or hunger, no she cried for one simple reason: the rest of us were crying and she cried with us, her heart-broken with ours. Even at three, women cry so much more than tears.
Women get a lot of bad press – if you believe the media, we’re catty, gossipy, back-stabbing competitive b*tches. The Real Housewives of Wherever is pretty much based on this premise. Sometimes in our pettier moments we may even believe it ourselves, fearing other women’s successes, glorying in their failures. And gossiping about all of it. But we forget: This sisterhood – this is what we lose when make it about comparing waistlines, jobs or children, when we reduce the complexity of our relationships to the span of our thighs or the label on our bag, when we compete for things we’ve already lost. These “mom-petitors”, “”skinny bitches”, “drama queens” and fashionista social climbers – these are not the women I know. In the end, women are so much more than we give ourselves credit for. Women have the power to be angels.
I want to take this time to thank all the amazing, talented, big-hearted, beautiful inside-and-out women in my life – those I mentioned here and the many many more I didn’t have room to name. While it isn’t always rainbows and unicorns and PMS parties, the good I have received from you far outweighs the negative. If I had that high-school conversation to do over again I would say how proud I am to have such strong connections with so many strong women.
How about you – who have been the influential women in your life? Do you consider yourself someone who gets along more easily with men or women? Or both, equally? Men, do you feel totally left out yet? (Don’t worry – when it gets close to Father’s Day, I’m going to write an Ode to the Gents;))