“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.”Margery Williams, the Velveteen Rabbit
My memoir, HEART OF THIS FAMILY – Lessons in Down Syndrome and Love, will be available for purchase in August of this year. And while I knew “it takes a village to raise a child,” I had no idea the same would be true to write a book! But indeed it does.
In the process of writing my memoir, I was forced to take a hard look at my younger self. Leah Lax’s book UNCOVERED – How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, helped me ponder a Big Question: How did the expectations and cultural norms for women in the latter part of the 20th century work to silence me? Although parts of our personal experiences differ in significant ways, I felt we also shared much – including our search for the person we were meant to be – our truest self, the one we buried deep and cast aside as we acquiesced to a patriarchal-normed society. In one of the early chapters of HEART OF THIS FAMILY, witness my choice to muzzle myself when Steve’s dad arrives home from work one day in 1970 with some unexpected news.
“I’ve been waiting for the right time to tell you this,” he said after the boys were all in bed. “I’ve applied for a job in the sociology department at the State University of New York, at Stony Brook, Long Island.”
“What! Really?” My jaw dropped. “But that’s a long way from here! We’d have to move…leave Marshfield!”
Roger put one arm around my shoulders. I stiffened. He removed his arm. “This is a great opportunity for me.”
Everything in me was protesting but I didn’t say, What about me?! The feminist movement had yet to touch me. I saw my role as a traditional wife and mother. And I was not accustomed to arguing with Roger when it came to his work life. My tiny salary certainly didn’t pay the bills. Our family’s well-being completely depended on Roger’s income and his trajectory, or at least that’s what I believed. What I said was, “I see.”
“The Stony Brook campus is fairly new,” continued Roger. “It’s developing a good reputation and attracting a lot of talented people.” His voice rose with excitement. “And I really want to work in higher education, and get on a tenure track.”
“I should know more about the Stony Brook job before long. They’re arranging a visit for me.” He yawned. “It’s been a long day. I think I’ll head up to bed. Are you coming?”
I watched him go and remained on the couch, too dazed to move. Finally, I pushed myself up, walked into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and grabbed a beer. Great! Great for you! But you never asked me if I wanted to move. I kicked the enameled door shut.
I yanked the tab and took a huge gulp. You never asked me if I wanted to leave my job and my hometown and my best friend.
I wiped my eyes with the back of one hand and sat back down on the couch, hard. You never asked me how moving might impact our sons.
I tipped the can back and drained the contents. You never asked me a single question.
I ended up falling asleep on the couch.
Twenty-five years later, in 1995, my battle to be heard continues. In this excerpt I’ve just competed my first year as principal of a small K-8 school in rural Vermont. I’ve brought the names of two candidates to fill a staff opening for the following school year to a school board meeting. One a female, (Cathy) has been working in the school and has established a successful working relationship with students. The other, a young male, fresh out of college, has just completed his student teaching at a near-by high school. The board chair, (Hutch) asks for my recommendation.
I offered my observations and told the board why I believed Cathy to be the best fit for the job, stressing the importance of continuity. But Hutch surprised me by refusing to accept my recommendation. He wanted to wait until Superintendent Hull arrived. I sat stunned. This hire was my responsibility, not Dr. Hull’s.
I remembered several weeks earlier when a friend told me about a comment he’d overheard Hutch make at party they’d both attended.
Hutch had stated he was determined to “…rid my school of lesbians.” I’d tried to dismiss the comment as gossip. But now, knowing Hutch was well aware of Cathy’s sexual orientation as well as mine, a cold lump settled in my stomach. I could feel the jurisdiction which came with my position eroding like the banks of a swollen river.
When Dr. Hull finally arrived at the meeting, Hutch tilted back in his chair and raised the faded visor of his ever-present cap.
“Linda has nominated two finalists to the board. And although she prefers Cathy,” Hutch scratched the stubble on his chin, “I think we need more men in the school. I propose we hire the young guy.”
My shoulders slumped with resignation. I knew his decision had nothing to do with the best interests of the students or teachers. Dr. Hull nodded his agreement. How could this be happening? Again?
The meeting ended around midnight, and the minute I was home I fell into bed empty and numb. Once again, I’d been rendered powerless, my voice silenced by the patriarchy. This tape was a familiar one: a doctor calling my son a mongoloid idiot; a husband keeping information from me; a school official deciding how Steve’s needs could best be met. Now a superintendent and a school board chair telling me whom to hire.
Gratitude to Leah Lax for reading my manuscript, helping me learn more about myself and contributing the blurb below which is on the back cover of HEART OF THE THIS FAMILY.
“This is a rare tale well told of a woman determined to both mother her son well and to live her own life and love honestly – as honestly as he did.”Leah Lax – Author of Uncovered – How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home