Saturday, November 12, 2011

Day 555: American Girl

Do you ever find yourself in a situation that makes you ask yourself, how in the hell did I get here? To be honest, I'm in that place all the time. I was definitely asking myself that question yesterday as I tried to wade through the chaos of American Girl Place with Lenny and my mom. Dear God, what a zoo. Though not as interminable of a zoo as I expected, it was still a place I never imagined to be.

See, American Girl Place is really not a Katy Jacob kind of place. I never liked dolls as a kid--well, not baby dolls or little girl dolls, anyway. I was very girly for a few years, when I was six or seven, and I wore patent leather shoes and dresses all the time. But I didn't really PLAY girly. Maybe because my only sibling was an older brother, who knows, but I liked to play energetic little kid games, get lost in my own imagination out in the yard. Then for years I was a tomboy to the extreme. I wore the same ratty sweatpants all the time. I wished I had a boy's name. I had James Worthy and Gary Fencik and Walter Payton posters all over my walls (come to think of it, that doesn't signify tomboyism really, at least not in Chicago). Once in sixth grade my best friend put makeup on me before school and dressed me in a skirt, just like I was a doll. I went to school and boys told me I looked pretty in a surprised voice, and I chased them around the classroom threatening to fight them because it pissed me off so much.

I guess the moral of the story is I ended up somewhere in between. That's a nice perk of being female--you get to try on all kinds of gender roles, and none of it really sticks to you in a negative way--or at least it didn't for me. I think it's very different for boys, who seemingly are always supposed to act like one very specific type of boy--tough, athletic, smart, whatever it is--as long as it isn't girly. Luckily for me--the girl who never cries, who isn't very emotional or sentimental (or at least who wasn't those things before having cancer as a young mother)--married a man who is kind of in between himself. If I can't cry, Gabe can. While he gets wistful and misty-eyed in front of the kids,I can roll my eyes and tell him to get it together. If there's ever a chick flick I want to see, which is a rare occasion indeed, he will go see it with me--because he actually really likes chick flicks. So at the end of the day we seem to cover all the bases, and as parents, I think we show our kids that there are a lot of different ways to be male, or female. You can be bald and beautiful, right? Case in point.

But somehow, some way, we ended up with these gendered little kids. Now Lenny loves to just be a kid--she'll put on a cute little skirt outfit, as she did this morning, and proceed to roll around in the mud, throwing a nerf football through a basketball hoop. She doesn't mind being the only girl at the pirate-themed birthday party. But in other ways, her girliness just confounds me. She's had a few crushes in her not quite six years, and she gets all bashful and bats her eyes and does crazy girly flirty things that I swear to God I've never done in my life, so I know she didn't learn that from me. Just ask her dad, or anyone else I've ever dated. Flirting, what's that? Why would I do that? Augie's such a boy that Gabe even wonders what his deal is. He greets you by screaming: "I WILL SHARK ATTACK YOU!!" and shows affection by punching or kicking. He was pretending that his plastic cup was a BIG DIGGER this morning at breakfast. He's devious and insane (OK, he probably got the deviousness from me). He throws everything--EVERYTHING. He will be sweet and nurturing to his baby doll until something distracts him and he throws her across the room. But not so with Lenny. She just LOVES stuffed animals, and dolls. So I guess that's how I ended up at American Girl place yesterday.

Well, that's only part of the story, actually. My mom has always loved dolls, and she never got to share that with me since I couldn't care less about them. I guess it skipped a generation. She's been waiting five years (give or take thirty) to go to that damn store. So I gave in, made some reservations for tea for the three of us, since I had the day off yesterday. Lenny and my mom were in doll heaven, and I have to say it wasn't as insufferable as I expected. It's always fun to be downtown in the winter, to be amongst all the people doing early Christmas shopping. I can't personally get excited about all the accessories and hairstyles and everything but I could appreciate how much Lenny loved it. Tea was actually pretty good. And Lenny has been attached to her Josefina doll for the last 24 hours. She gave her a birthday party, sang her to sleep, fed her.

The only dolls I ever played with were Barbie dolls, which I loved. Barbie and her friends were teenagers, however. They went to school, drove, worked, went on dates, had sex even (though there was only one Ken so I always made sure he just had one girlfriend--I guess I believed in that message early). I don't know what it says about me that I liked to play those games, but I never liked to pretend to be someone's mother. I don't think it says much, actually. Just like I don't think it warped my sense of self or my body image to play with Barbie. Yes, I get that her dimensions are humanly impossible. But so what? She isn't human. She's a doll. I didn't expect to look like her--she was 12 inches tall and made of plastic, after all. I didn't expect for men to wear permanently sewn-on underwear for that matter either. Suspension of disbelief, people.

So I love that Lenny is so into this doll, though I had real reservations about it. God help me, but my child picked the one historical doll who has the following small detail to her story: her mother has just died, and she spends much of the first several books mourning this fact. Lenny picked the doll for one reason: she is from New Mexico, which is where Lenny's favorite teacher at Montessori was from (she was only there for one year; she left to move to DC with her boyfriend and Lenny still really misses her). The doll also has very beautiful hair and clothes. But still--I had to have this hard conversation with Lenny in the middle of American girl place. Lenny, Josefina's mother is dead, you know, and they talk about that in the book. Is that going to bother you? No, mom. Well, I'm not going to let you read that first book until you're older. We'll pick a different one for now, but let's go check out all the other dolls, ok? I was trying to get her to like the ones from New Orleans that have awesome costumes, the Native American doll, the red-haired, brown-eyed look alike doll. Nothing doing; it was Josefina or nothing. I talked to Lenny about the death thing one more time and she said: "Mom, my Josefina's mother isn't dead. That's in the book. She's not dead because I'm this Josefina's mother."

Well, OK then. But how is that for cancer creeping into the most unlikely places? Let's hope Josefina's mother got shot in a conflict with Americanos or something, lest they give her some mysterious illness that my kid will interpret as cancer. Jesus Maria.

I have to admit that I got a little sentimental yesterday. Not normal-person sentimental, but Katy-sentimental. That just means I thought about things, not that I teared up or anything. I thought about doing this girls-only outing with my mother and my daughter. I wondered if I would ever have the opportunity to do something like that, if I will live to see Lenny reach her maturity, to see her get married or start a family. I know that she might never get married, might never start a family, and that's fine. It's the timeline of it all that was getting to me. When Lenny was four months old, my mom's mom died. We spent a decent amount of time in Lenny's newborn life visiting the hospital, and I know how much it lifted my grandma's spirits to see Lenny. A month or so after Lenny was born we took her to visit my grandma, when she was still well, and she told me this: "I like Lenny. I like her eyes." Now, of course you're supposed to like your great-grandchildren. But you aren't required to see them as people, separate from anyone else, at that age. She did see her that way, though. And I still regret that we never took that four-generation picture of Lenny, me, my mom and my grandma when my grandma was healthy, rather than when she was in the hospital. When we had the opportunity, it didn't seem necessary. Oh, how you never know the things you don't know. You know, it would be interesting to post a picture of my grandma in her youth on here. With my hair naturally curly, I look almost exactly like her; especially since I usually wear her costume-jewelry earrings.

So I think about these things, about what is in store for me, about what I will witness and what I might miss, in the back of my mind while living this full and busy life. I think about how I got to be the kind of woman I am today, and I wonder what kind of woman that really is. Sometimes I wonder how I walked around bald for all those months like it was nothing. Sometimes I wonder how I got to be that person who gave herself a terrible burn with an iron when she was 19 (until a few years ago you could still see a perfect pink iron-sized triangle covering most of the inside of my forearm when I went out in the sun) and took care of the dressings myself. I lived with my mom in her apartment that summer and she tried to change them for me, gingerly dabbing at them, being careful not to hurt me. That's not going to cut it, mom, I told her, and I gritted my teeth, took a cloth and scrubbed as hard a I could, knowing the shock would literally change my body temperature (there's cancer, and there's being temporarily disabled and being unable to walk, there's having epilepsy--and then there's just the thought of being a burn victim, which is one of the only things left that scares the shit out of me). How did I get to be that essentially modest person who nonetheless has posted online pictures of herself half naked and bald with a map drawn in sharpie all over her torso?

Who knows how any one of us becomes ourselves. It's quite a process, a lifelong one, literally. The interesting thing about being a parent is that you get to witness that process from the very beginning. And sometimes, you want to throw up your hands and say, what's the use of trying? Because you know that nothing you did made your kids who they are--there's some aspect of things that is always what it is, that never changes. But all those things about seeing the newness of life through someone else's eyes--it's all true. It's surprising every time, amazing every time. Life is so mundane with small children, and so astounding too. I still get that wistfulness around teenagers, or any young people who are just beginning to become the young adult versions of themselves. I'm sure there are other 36 year-olds who feel that way too, because they are thinking back on their own youth, full of nostalgia and regret. For me, it's all just nostalgia in reverse--will I get to see my kids when they're that age, when they're working through the awkwardness and the rebellion? None of us knows the answer to such questions, and I'm aware of that. But some of us have more reason to ask those questions, and that's just the truth.

Sometimes I am inclined to give myself a huge high five for deciding to have kids when I did. If my life had been different and I had been with the right man, I would have had kids earlier, at 25, or 27. I felt old having my first child at 30, since my parents were done having kids when they were only 24. And yet, I was the first of my friends to have kids. We were so unbelievably clueless, and we didn't have anyone our age to turn to for advice. We didn't have hand me downs, or cousins to introduce to the baby; we didn't know anyone outside of my mom who could babysit, and I'm not lying when I say that neither of us had ever changed a diaper (I always babysat for potty-trained kids). Gabe wanted to wait, I told him that wasn't going to happen. And now we know that if we had waited, it would have been too late. Though I'm sure I could technically still have kids since I have freakishly normal cycles for the first time in 25 years, it's a terrible idea, fraught with dreadful potential outcomes related to hormone fluctuations, changes in the breasts, potential latent chemo side effects. We're done, no matter whether Gabe gets that damn vasectomy or not. I'm over the idea that I don't want him to do it, over the concept that I might die and he should be able to have kids with someone else. The latter is still true, but he is a big boy, so he can make that decision for himself, and I can see that now. I can't feel someone else's reverse regret for him, after all. I've got enough of my own backwards emotions.

Because I am not so good at expressing emotions (I do better with thoughts)--I'm going to post some poems again. I find myself rambling here, not saying what I set out to say. I wrote the first one for Lenny when she was nine months old. I wrote the second one years ago, when I was 19 or 20, for my mom and my grandma (when my grandma died I edited the line about her death). I don't think these are particularly good poems in any technical sense, but they're probably closer to what this American girl intended to say when she sat down at the computer on this beautiful November afternoon. The years just pass and pass, but my mind retains these same thoughts, these identical reflections, as if everything just happened or hasn't happened yet. So enjoy, or ignore, but here are some of those thoughts:

First Winter

No one ever told you what lies beneath
the most beautiful days.

In the whole of your life
no one ever told you about the
heavy sharpness of white lace ice,
the glare in your eyes that you will miss after the melt,
the implied noise just before the branches crack,
the danger and perfection all mixed together.

Remember that I will always remember your tiny hand
curling up to a soft white leaf, which cracked and fell at your touch.

If I could, I’d give you this gift,
this day, a postcard you are too young to receive.
I’d vanish into you
so you could see how you smiled.

Understanding Women

I don't know how to explain it.
I've been told so many times that
crocheting is easy. You see,
these pot holders, these slippers--
they practically make themselves.
So why does the yarn do nothing in my hands?
Why, in my mind, is there only
a blunt hook, awkward fingers, endless string?

My grandmother tried in vain to teach me
her various arts. What could any of us expect?
My mother, her own daughter, can barely thread a needle.
Instead, when she gets nervous, she attacks.
Everything--the floors, the windows, the car, the damn laundry.
Some women cope by being obsessively productive.
In spite of everything, I know
there is at least bravery in that.

And when I am older and times are still so hard,
I know that I won't find consolation
in quilting or making rag rugs.
I don't have any idea how to stitch together
every piece of our female lives:

What we have grown out of,
what we like to feel, what we think is pretty,
what we'd like to forget, what we include in order to remember.
I'm not a good plumber.
I don't understand carpentry. I hate to dust.

My grandmother is gone, my mother will be one day.
All I will be able to do then is what we have always done:
Survive, and keep their names.
I will only have the ability
to look at the furniture, hand-stripped down,
run my fingers across impeccable wood,
fold the quilts delicately, try to match
the million-colored rugs to each room, and remember.

We are all good at something,
and we all have our ways of trying not to die.
I wrote this for you.


  1. I will cherish yesterday and the post you made today until I am indeed gone.
    But you and Lenny will go on.

  2. Just to clarify the record... I may enjoy a chick flick more than most guys but that doesn't mean I *really* like chick flicks. At least not more than a good space opera.

    It always blows my mind to read your poetry here. It's like staring into your eyes and seeing a piece of your soul solidified. You'd think as your husband I would have seen your whole extensive collection! So I appreciate these gifts you give out to me and the world piecemeal.

  3. Beautiful post, Katy. I often like to think of the linkage between women and their daughters, grand-daughters, etc. as the continuation of a single journey. You've captured that really poignantly in your prose AND poetry here. Also, BTW, I will totally join you next time you go to American Girl Place. Did you know there's a Rebecca doll from the Lower East Side?