November 29, 2005

being a lady

Something Sartorias wrote today reminded me of a small incident last week. One perk to visiting my parents or my uncle is the chance to reconnect with my grandparents, by hearing stories or using things they owned. So last week,I was browsing through my mom's baby book one day, looking for the family chart that shows my great-grandparents and a few of their parents (as far back as we know; I'll never do any further geneological research because of the overwhelming likelihood that records either weren't kept or were destroyed in wars and other upheavals.) In the 'A Message to My Daughter' section, my grandmother had written, "I always hoped you would be a young lady by the time you reached 11 years of age," and I thought to myself, "I have no idea what that means." No ball playing in the house? No belching in public? No inadvertent displays of underwear? Wearing gloves and hats? And why the fixed deadline?

I asked my mom, and she has no idea either - in fact, as soon as I started to ask the question, she said "I have no idea either," before I could even finish asking, so apparently it's something that's been puzzling her too. (Just for context, my grandmother was born in 1912 and my mom on Pearl Harbor Day, so consciousness raising came along only after my mother was grown and married. Like her mother, she would have grown up wearing gloves and hats and rigid undergarments.

I left most of the above as a comment to Sartorias, and she guessed that above all, it meant being nice and conforming. This would make sense, especially given that blending in was a way to minimize the anti-Semitism still around then.

I think it might largely have been about her perception of femininity. I always found it ironic that my grandmother used to scold me for not wearing enough jewelry and makeup, given that she was becoming an adult during the flapper era, and her grandmother would probably have yelled at her for wearing rouge or lipstick. She also used to complain that my hair "just hangs there and doesn't do anything. (At this point, I usually was envisioning it learning to sit up and beg.) In her defense, none of this was mean scolding, and she never tried at all to restrict my interests to traditional girl-things.

In the 80s, when she'd see me wearing, say, one earring or a cut-up sweatshirt, she'd just ask, "Is that what they're wearing?" and seemed perfectly happy as long as it was. So maybe this was all about her vision of womanhood. Maybe I was more of a tomboy, at least in appearance, than she wanted me to be, or maybe she was trying to make sure I got as much attention from men as she seems to have enjoyed in her youth. That turned out not to be a problem by the time I got to college, but she wouldn't have realized that going to engineering school is a much better way to get masculine attention than dressing in the height of fashion or wearing lipstick and pearls. (It's also a much better way to get the kind of attention I wanted, or to get attention from the kind of men I wanted.) Anyway, I wish I could ask her. I don't know whether or not she thought my mother became enough of a lady, or whether later decades made her revalue ladyhood, but I do know her children's happiness was a top priority for her until she died, so I suspect her goal for my mother was something she thought would give mom a better life. And whether she ever despaired of my grooming, when I graduated college, she sent me a note so proud that I still have it.

Posted by dichroic at November 29, 2005 12:51 PM

Count among your blessings the fact that you knew your grandmother as an adult. I suspect my grandmother would have assumed that we all knew best because we were Americans and because we were educated. She never could have envisioned my being a college graduate.

Posted by: l-empress at November 29, 2005 08:34 PM
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