What is a woman's story? What makes her the person she has become? To me, a woman's story is not a line that goes from Point A to Point B, zigging and zagging along the way, although it can often seem that way. I think it is something greater. It is a cloth woven of teaching and experience. It is a tapestry embroidered with the hands of many different dreams, beliefs, and opinions. And each woman's is different.
Along my path, who has helped direct the weaving and embroidering of my cloth? My life, my story, my essence, is the result of the influences of many other people, both male and female. I have been taught things that I still hold close to my heart and things that I have dropped by the wayside. I have learned from the joys and sorrows of others, storing the pieces of their lives in the depths of my heart and mind. And this has all shaped the person that I have become, the person who is still, I hope, growing and evolving.
Although she was only a part of my life for a short seven years, my mother and her life still influence me. She moved to this country with her husband and children after a failed revolution in her home country made life unsafe for them. She gave birth to her last child, me, after being in her new country for less than three years. As a child, I always knew that she was unhappy. I didn't know why. But I knew that my father was someone I both loved and feared. She probably felt the same way. At least the fear part.
My father, in his kinder and more nurturing moments, always encouraged me to be smart and do well in school. He already had two pretty daughters, so this ugly duckling was apparently destined to be the smart one. Even after he went to prison for my mother's death, the few letters that I received from him stressed that I should be a good girl and learn well. Fairly early, my feet were set on this path.
After time spent in an orphanage along with my sister Liz, fate and distant family brought us to the Denver area. While I had always thought that my mother didn't love me, I never felt that she actually hated me. That was what I got from my guardian's wife, Alice. The physical and emotional/mental abuse was designed to break my spirit, and in many ways it did. I bear the physical and mental scars to this day. Instead of being regarded as a bright little girl, I was the human refuse that had been forced upon her. She fairly quickly turned Liz over to her mother, no relation to us whatsoever, and I followed quite some time later.
While I was with Alice, I learned a deeper fear than I had ever known. Her tongue and her beatings were vicious, and her temperament was wholly unpredictable. It was impossible to learn how to behave while I lived with her. An action that resulted in a beating would convince me to change my behavior the next time I was in a similar situation. My attempts to change my behavior and avoid her fury made no difference. The beatings and humiliation would occur again and again. When I was playing next door and skinned a knee, my friend's mother insisted on putting a bandage on it for me. This resulted in my being beaten for trying to get attention. A week or two later, and another skinned knee. I went about my solitary play because I didn't want to get beaten for trying to get attention. Instead, I ended up being beaten for being too dumb to come in out of the rain. From her, I learned the fear of not pleasing others and the consequences that might be involved. I learned that others' happiness was more important than my own.
Gram grew up without a mother; her mother died along with the twins she was carrying in 1908 when Gram was not yet two years old. Although her beloved father was very progressive in some ways (for example, having her read aloud from books that he picked because they had been banned by the Catholic Church), he was very much a traditionalist in other ways. When she begged to have her long hair cut short for comfort, he wouldn't hear of it. Ladies let their hair grow long. When he came home from work to find that she had raided her piggy bank and gone to the barber for a short haircut, he didn't speak to her for several days. And when she discovered that she had a love as well as a talent for making hats, she told him that she wanted to be a milliner. Again, he was furious. A lady did not work outside the home. She gave up her hope of a career, but never forgot it. She told me of her squashed dreams many years after. From her I learned that the world and its expectations and assigned roles weren't always fair, and that regrets and longing can live with us forever.
In addition to these and other women that I have known well, there is a parade of other women and other experiences that have shaped me. When it struck me one day, several years after my father's death, that his less than five years of punishment for killing my mother was terribly short and terribly unfair, a sad and burning thought took hold of me. According to the law, a woman's death only warranted a short prison sentence. After all, my thoughts seemed to taunt me, they saw her as only a woman.
Now, I've never considered myself as a feminist or any other similar label. But I have a great sense of fairness. A woman, a man, a child - all have worth. A person who ends their spouse's life violently shouldn't pay for their crime based on some set of variables like a sliding scale. The life of a mother is of no less value than that of her husband who works as a janitor, and his is of no less value than that of a bus driver or school teacher or politician or doctor, no matter what their gender. A woman who is raped does not deserve to be killed for shaming her family. A girl should not find it impossible to get an education because she has to miss one week of school each month since she has no access to hygiene products. A person should not have their private life legislated by others. I could go on, but I think I've made my point.
These and so many other ideas, feelings, and experiences contribute to the weave of my life's fabric. They aren't all my stories, but they are all stories that color my life's tapestry. They are they colors of sadness, love, fear, hope, anger, shame, and so many other things that make us human. They change us as well as changing with us. And the becoming, the story, becomes a part of the greater fabric of humanity. May your colors never dim, and may they always shine for you.
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