Sunday, October 09, 2005

Us, You, and Me

Yesterday was a long day for me. I am the student representative to my college's Strategic Planning Committee. We had an almost four hour meeting discussing the future of our college and the exciting new, perhaps bold, directions we can take. Afterward, I met my sister and my year-old niece, Tiana. I was taking Tiana to my parents for the break (Reading Days) to give my sister a break and, of course, to spoil my niece. There was another reason for the visit home: my Grammy's birthday would have been this weekend. She died a month ago at eighty-four years old. During the car ride, like a true Gettysburg College student, I was engaged in reflection. As I reflected on my Grammy's life I came to some interesting conclusions.

My Grammy and Papa had a fulfilling, loving, and tumultuous marriage. Shortly after raising five kids, they divorced. They remained friends and even lived together once. When one was in need, the other was always there. My Papa died about fifteen years ago, and my Grammy outlived him by fourteen years. During these fourteen years, she was a very independent woman. Men, or suitors as she called them, would always be after her, but she resisted, and always remained "just friends."

She even had a stalker. We called him Charlie Brown, after the name of a steakhouse where he liked to take her. He would try to reel her in with mention of an expensive steak, unaware that Grammy was a chicken woman. He would anger that she would prefer to spend time with family or friends. After a while, he began to stalk her. He would call and hang up, or just listen to her screaming into the phone. I must tell you, there is nothing like picking up the phone and listening to the asthmatic wheeze of a ninety-year old man. Grammy would scream, "Charlie I know this is you and the police are listening!" Of course, there were no police around.

After some reflection, I came to realize how much Grammy valued her independence. Right from high school, she was whisked into marriage in a time when women took care of the family as if it were their natural calling in life. Papa was a pretty hip man. The neighbors shrieked when he invited a local black family to their upper class neighborhood to play pool in the basement. He was also, in many ways, typical of times. He appreciated a home-cooked dinner. He strove, quite successfully for the Dean Martin coolness. No, he was the Dean Martin coolness. Grammy couldn't swim and she would often fall into the pool. Papa would jump in--pants, shirt, glasses, and of course, cigarette--to get her. He would always surface with Grammy in his arms and the cigarette still puckered between his lips.

Grammy's assertion of independence so late in life is indicative of just how dysfunctional the gender roles that people like Rick Santorum so ardently refer to as "natural" really are. From high school on Grammy's dreams were her husbands', her life was her kids', her sacrifices were for family, and her personal desires were set on the back-burner. She was the feminine mystique.

No wonder Grammy shooed away her suitors, and delighted in her independence. No wonder she valued getting in her car and visiting family, or spending New Years with me (she kept me up until 4 AM! That woman had some stamina). Grammy's story reflects the ills of asking human beings to sacrifice who they are to someone else or something else. Grammy's assertion of independence is striking affirmation of feminist ideals. This is not to say that Grammy's individual happiness was quashed by marriage. However, it is reflective of the inappropriateness of asking one person to bear the burden of taking care of a family, a community.

Families are the most fascinating of human bonds, especially when they are mutually supportive, and foster egalitarian relationships. I have learned from Grammy's life the importance of finding a love that supports the relationship and the needs of those in the relationship, that supports "us", "you", and "me." I have learned the importance of finding a love that supports freedom within the context of deep connection.