The uniform for All Saint Elementary School crossed at the chest, the thick straps of the jumper pressed our overly-starched white blouses against little girl undershirts. Shoes were polished to a military shine, socks had to be white, preferably ankle socks, as knee highs were definitely high school garb. Hair was neat, off our faces and pinned back. Even with all that appearance mandate, I still managed to arrive at the front doors carved with a crucifix looking a mess. My blouse was untucked on one side, my straps fell off my shoulders, one ankle sock shimmied down into my oxford and planted itself firmly in my instep and caused me to limp. Mother braided my hair into face-tearing braids but spirals of curls jumped out along the sides, threatening to unravel her sailor-knot secure labor. The nuns pounced on me the way they would the errant boys, "Tuck in your shirt, pull up your socks. You look like a gypsy." Mother too, scooping handfuls of vaseline she plastered my hair to my forehead until my crown shone like a crystal ball. She yanked down my blouse. She too scolded, "You look like a gypsy." Except her declaration was in Arabic and sound much more damning.
Little did they know, or did they, that gypsy sounded appealing to me, much more attractive that a good Catholic girl. And while calling me that should have engendered some shame, it only increased my sense of rebellion. The gypsies I knew from television and movies were dangerous women with moles and thick eyeliner. They wore large earrings and decorative scarves, sashes hung off their waists and they could pull a knife out as quickly as any man. They had fire and defiance and they didn't wear shoes and so didn't have to worry about drooping socks. They peered at you with one eye, cocked their chin up and scared the shit out of little girls.
Saturday afternoon family theater on Channel Two out of Pittsburgh offered swashbucklers and gladiator films. Both of my parents worked at our store and so we cleaned the house with these movies in the background. While I waxed the kitchen I saw Errol Flynn's Robin Hood enough times to know the dialogue almost as well as I knew my rosary. Rather than see myself as Maid Marian becoming enlightened by Robin's tour of Sherwood Forest's homeless, I fancied myself one of the Merry Men, a female Will Scarlett, the younger member of the men who loved cool clothes and played a lute. He sat up in the trees above the others, the merriest of men.
I had to create my own female heroes who appealed to me. No Guinevere, no Ophelia, I wanted to be a female Captain Blood, like Anne Bonny, jumping up on tables, flailing the sword like any good pirate, pulling the expensive necklace from the chest of a girly-girl princess. Words like "argggh, me hardies, and scourge" emanated from my mouth. The life of an adventuress. Of course I knew that stealing was a sin, but I comforted myself by knowing all the chests of gold would be divided among the poor.
My attraction to these s/heroes came from two impressions: one they were fiercely independent and didn't have to answer to nuns, parents and teachers. The other was they got to wear pant...all the time. My school uniform and church dresses matched my sisters' school uniform and church dresses. We had play clothes which we wore to work in the house and the garden but rarely off the property. Dresses to girl scout meetings, dresses to church picnics; dresses to relatives' houses. We often stood at the edge of an event overdressed and prettified while other kids kicked balls to each other and yelled with their mouths full of hot dog.
So I imagined that when I grew up, my choice of career, lifestyle and location would depend entirely on if I would be able to dress like a pirate, a gypsy, or even better, Penny from Sky King http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sky_King. Penny, the niece of the hero of the television series was a young girl who raced airplanes and helped her uncle catch bad guys. She wore slacks, had her hair in a pony tail and flew the plane Song Bird as well as anyone. Every week I gazed at Penny with envy. She seemed young, but didn't go to school, she was beautiful but didn't wear makeup. Although she was a pilot she dressed like a cowgirl: hat back on her head with a string underneath her chin, a shirt with decorative piping, pants and boots. She had the life.
Now I know that a lot of little girls of my time had the same dream. Dump the dresses. In the seventies, slacks at work created a fuss in the corporate world. It was debated everywhere: on the news, in boardrooms, it traveled the road of human rights: California passed a law in 1995 that allowed women to wear pants to work. 1995. hm. So history itself caught up to my dream. I didn't have to be Penny, or Amelia, or Anne Bonny to wear pants. On the other hand, the wardrobe wasn't the only quality that made these women so attractive. Arrgh. Maybe it wasn't the pants after all. They navigated the world of men without being patronized or shamed. No one said, "you look like a gypsy."
When I grew up, I would be a firebrand, a wild cat, someone to reckon with.My gender wouldn't matter, no one would even say "little lady" to me; they would just move out of the way. Move out of the way, fellas. It was a good fantasy one that allowed me to grow up with muscles and brains. But most of all presence. Undeniable.
I catch myself in this dream all the time: I am flying high in Song Bird, soaring through the clouds above the trouble below; within thirty minutes, I am catching the bad guys, who by the way, were rich and then I could distribute their wealth to the poor. Who would be grateful and make me their s/hero. It's a complicated job description but it's one made just for me. All I have to do is pull on my boots and jeans and I'm ready to go.
Causes Elmaz Abinader Supports