Gender Identity - a Humorous Look at Coming of Age in the 50's
Life is never easy, even when it's easy - and it's even harder when it's hard. Especially troublesome are those pesky life transition periods - those times in between times - childhood to adolescence - adolescence to adult hood - adulthood to senior-dom ...and beyond. But we're a tough species and we cope - often with mechanisms that are creative and age-specific. Young adults seem to pierce or tattoo parts of themselves or else they shave, color, or grow their hair in ways that no one before them has seemed to think of. Forty-somethings throw off their old career for a new one or start a new business. Often, they’re noted for having affairs with things – cars, sailboats, and all too often, other people’s spouses. Seniors might join the Peace Corp, or the Casino Corp, or start an ostrich farm. Coping wears many hats throughout our lives. For me, the first mechanism I remember kicking in was baseball, and I know exactly when it started.
It was Thanksgiving, 1956. The family had gathered at Aunt Marion's and Uncle Bob's house as usual. And, as was also usual, the platter of turkey was being passed around the table to the accompaniment of clanging silver spoons on the good china while a chorus of voices echoes with refrains of "Please pass the yams" and "Send the olives this way please, yeah, the black ones." Some years, our particular family repertoire include the reassuring strains of "Don't be silly Marion, the white meat isn't dry at all." ("Can you pass the gravy please?")
The Thanksgiving that began my obsession with baseball was no different than any other Thanksgiving. Dinner ended, and the women of the family all helped clear the scraggly remnants of poor Tom's bones while they tried to figure out what to do with the more plentiful remains of melting lime jello mold whose orange shredded carrots were now losing their battle to stay suspended in the gelatinous green. As the woman readied the dishes for their first plunge into Aunt Marion's fancy new Westinghouse dishwasher, the men in the family were losing no time in the dining room throwing off the white linen tablecloth, folding up the green protective pad underneath it (Keep that pad on the table if you're going to play cards Bob) replacing the felt protective pad, and slapping down every last piece of change from their pockets
It was the men’s annual preparation to worship and pay tithes at the altar of the god of Sheepshead - Milwaukee's own favorite card game. Meanwhile, with the dishes well underway and the kitchen countertops all clean, the women of the family cloistered themselves in the newly built, sunken turquoise family room addition. In other years, my cousin Joan and I would have slipped away to play Chinese checkers or listen to Elvis records up in her room - the room with teen-themed wallpaper patterned with images of indoor roller skates and roller rink scenes. (It was the most beautiful wallpaper I had ever seen.)
But Joan was fifteen now and not much interested in playing checkers with an eleven year old. Besides, her newest boyfriend, Dean, had just come to pick her up for a date. And so after dinner, I was left to fend for myself. My mother must have sensed I was somewhat at a loss as to how to occupy my time because she patted the empty space on the couch suggesting I join her and my aunts. I did so, dutifully. After a few brief mentions as to how tall I was becoming and the proverbial inquires as to how school was going, the talk suddenly seemed to shift to “women’s stuff.” I could tell it was going to be “women’s stuff” by the noticeable drop in the volume of the entire conversation. Somehow my aunts must have thought that their husbands in the dining room would be able to hear them over shouts of, “Ante up.” “He blitzed.” “I’ve got Schnider.” “Marion, we need more beer up here.” I was thankful my mom and Aunts were whispering, however, because it made it easier for me to miss some of the details of Aunt Evie’s hot flashes after her hysterectomy and a discussion of which cousin hadn’t started her period yet. By the time they got around to talking about so-and-so having a 14 hour labor and a breech baby or something, I asked to be excused.
I was on my way to Joan’s room to play some of her 45s when I decided to stop off in the dining room and take a peek at my dad’s Sheepshead hand. Walking into that room that now smelled of Camel cigarettes, spilt Schlitz beer, Ma Baenesh herring and Thuringer summer sausage was like taking a breath of fresh air. My eleven year-old mind made an instant connection between these scents and an over-riding aura of joking, laughing, and reckless abandon. There was no talk of blood or pain here, there were no “tsks, tsks” or statements of, “How awful,” here, and so, for the rest of the evening, I stayed right there with my dad, my uncles, and the Sheepshead game.
When it was time to leave, my mom, as usual, had to stop into Aunt Marion’s powder room to comb her hair and freshen her lipstick. As my dad and I waited, I could visualize my mother standing in front of the bathroom mirror in her tight skirt, girdle underneath, with nylons held up by garters that I knew later would leave pink indentations in her thighs. Her new black patent leather spiked heels might have been kicked off for a moment’s relief while she sprayed on one last spritz of “White Shoulders” perfume, which, I knew from experience would soon nauseate my dad and me on the impending car ride home.
It was on that evening that my own definition of femininity coalesced and I was beginning to think I didn’t want any part of it.
For Christmas that year, I found myself asking for a baseball bat, (preferably a Louisville Slugger), a nice softball, and a pair of boy’s racing ice skates. I got the bat and ball, but not the racers. Instead, I received a sparkling pair of white figure skates. Surprisingly, it was my dad who balked at the racing skates. I was somewhat relieved, however, because racers only came in black, and I wasn’t quite brave enough to cross the boy/girl skate color barrier as yet.
After Christmas vacation was over, Sister Mary Theresa started a “Charm Class” after school for all the girls. Word was that the title of the club was actually a cover-up for what really boiled down to a sneaky way of informing us as to which nun was the keeper of the feminine protection in case of an emergency and how to discreetly ask for the Kotex without the boys knowing. I decided not to go to Charm class.
I spent that winter and spring in fervent prayer invoking God to “please, please, please” not make those two budding areas on my chest grow any bigger than they were now. If faith could move mountains, I reasoned, surely God could stop what seemed like two mountains erupting before my very eyes. Nevertheless, my mom made me buy a training bra. I refused to wear that contraption without my Carter undershirt over it. That way the boys would never be able to see all the hooks and clasps through my white cotton uniform blouses.
By the summer of 1957, the Milwaukee County Stadium became my refuge. It started in spring when I began reading every book I could about baseball. I wished fervently that girls were allowed to become bat boys. My friend Mary and I started listening to Earl Gillespie’s broadcasts of the Milwaukee Braves games on the radio that summer. We found out how to order bleacher tickets by ourselves and how to take the Stadium bus on Saturday or Sunday to watch the Braves in action. Even though Mary was two years older than I, she never talked about all that female stuff. She was Chinese, and her family owned the laundry across the street. I thought it might be the Chinese way not talk about personal things, but I really didn’t care what the reason was. Her reticence to discuss such matters suited me just fine.
Even before we started attending the Braves’ game, we knew the whole starting lineup. We’d buy lots of bubble gum with Tops baseball cards inside. The boys in our neighborhood would memorize all the statistics on the back of the cards. Mary and I, however, were mostly interested in the pictures on the front. I personally thought first baseman, Joe Adcock and shortstop Johnny Logan were the cutest. Mary preferred third baseman, Eddy Mathews. I think it was his brown eyes.
We did a lot of scrimping to save up the $0.75 for bleacher tickets and the $0.50 for the bus ride to and from each game. We’d pack a cooler of ice with Grampa Graf’s root beer along with a couple of salami sandwiches. We probably went to at least one weekend game every time the Braves were in town that summer. Our focus became less and less on the players on the field when the boys in the bleachers started throwing popcorn on our heads from the rows above. As the summer wore on, our hearts skipped a beat every time Jim and Dennis walked us out to the parking lot and then waved goofy good-byes from their bus going south as it passed our bus headed east.
My dad and I spent a lot of time discussing the Braves and the Yankees and who would be going to the World Series that fall. It was a lot better than talking to Mom and running the risk that we’d have a conversation similar to the one at Marion’s house the previous Thanksgiving.
"As the summer wore on, our hearts skipped a beat every time Jim and Dennis walked us out to the parking lot..."
The next summer Mary had to work full time to help out her family. She was only fourteen, but somehow had a permit to work at the drugstore on Farewell Avenue across the street from my apartment building. We weren’t able to get to many more baseball games that summer, and I lost my Milwaukee Braves cap down at McKinley beach. Somehow, the paperboy who delivered our Milwaukee Journal seemed to be occupying a lot of my thoughts. Each afternoon, I would be sure to be outside in my cutest shorts at about 3:30 when he delivered the papers on his red bike with chrome fenders. I loved that bike; it was different than all the other boys and much easier to keep track of around the neighborhood. I tried my hand at flirting, but somehow it ended up with me kicking the back tire under the chrome fender. Our paperboy, Michael, now had two less spokes and he wasn’t very happy. That was the end of any relationship that could have budded. I tried going to a baseball game that weekend by myself, but it wasn’t much fun anymore.
Summers came and went. My cousin Joan finished college at UW-M, married and started a family not far from her mother’s house, the one with the roller-rink wallpaper. Mary got a job that she loved at the telephone company downtown close to the gas company with the flashing blue weather flame. We never did go to any more baseball games. After college, I started dating a young man who made me think that God often knows exactly what He’s doing when he doesn’t answer fervent prayers of pre-adolescents. We married not long after and moved to Minnesota. Four years later, the birth of our baby girl, led me to re-examine the whole feminine mystique and how women relate to each other and especially how mothers and daughters relate to each other. The unknown answer to the question of how our own mother-daughter relationship would evolve obsessed me for a short time until this little person became more important to me than any fear or insecurity that would enter my life from that time on.
As my daughter grew and entered adolescence, I noticed that she didn’t need to use the baseball anesthetic to transition to womanhood as I did. Maybe it was because all the moms she knew could wear jeans anywhere they wanted and didn’t have to be confined to tight skirts and girdles. Maybe it was because had she wanted racing skates, no one would have balked. Maybe it was because now the women in the family were starting to ask for help in the kitchen and demanding to be part of the Thanksgiving Sheepshead’s games.
The issues my daughter faces, however, might be more subtle and perhaps more complicated and sometimes I wish she had her own version of a Milwaukee Stadium to cope.
As for me, several years ago, I noticed my renewed interest in America's former favorite past time, baseball. The yearning hit me at a shower I was having for my friend who was marrying for a second time. As I brought the coffee out to the table in the screen house that was decorated with pink crepe paper and those three dimensional white wedding bells, my women friends were deep into a discussion of (you guessed it) hot flashes and the advisability of estrogen replacement therapy. Suddenly, that old familiar feeling swept over me as it had at Thanksgiving some forty years ago. I fervently tried to change the conversation to something I could handle like crime in the cities or social injustice in Central America, but it was useless. I was grateful the coffee pot needed refilling! As I walked into the house, I noticed that my friend's intended husband had slipped into the living room. He had come to pick her up. Not wanting to disturb the party, Ted took the liberty of turning on the TV. The screen now drew me as if it were a magnet. Some sandy haired young journalist was talking about baseball and happened to mention the Milwaukee Brewers no less! The Brewers! Milwaukee! The former Milwaukee Braves! My Braves! Walking into that room was like taking a breath of fresh air. I could feel the old baseball coping thing kick in once again. I mentioned to Ted how I knew the whole Braves line-up from the 50's and he was impressed. Being a Milwaukee transplant himself, he asked if I remember what position Joe Adcock played “back in the day”. “Of course I knew! First base, number nine,” I boasted. Ted was impressed. I started talking about pitchers Warren Spahn and Lou Burdett and asked Ted if he'd like a beer and some Ma Baenesh herring. “Yeah, I found some at Rainbow, right here in Minnesota. Come on let’s sit down.” (The women, I knew, would be just fine by themselves out in the screen house).
For a while after that shower, I thought I might want to buy some season’s tickets to the Twins game, and renew my old passion for baseball. But I realized that age is inversely proportional to how we perceive time. The older you become, the faster time zips by and sitting through 9 innings waiting for a score didn't seem exactly appealing to me anymore. Maybe coping mechanisms are age specific. Eventually, my new transition ending up involving more drastic measures like selling my house in MN, buying an RV, and heading out to California where writing essays about baseball and Milwaukee and Aunt Marion and Uncle Bob's Thanskgivings is doing its best to get me to usher me into the next phase of life. But maybe I better check out those Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim just in case.