The story of my birth has filled me since I was young enough to comprehend words. My mother loves to tell it; she finds it amusing and, in her perspective, sees the retelling of this event as some kind of affirmation of my entrance into this earth. I see it otherwise.
In 1963, the year of my birth, there was no valid way for doctors to tell the sex of a child. Hospital machinery was not very sophisticated and ultrasound was years away. Women relied on intuition, prayer, and sometimes superstition to detect whether to buy baby clothes in blue or pink. My mother, who had already born three daughters by age 36, was hoping for a boy. So was my father. In the delivery room, high on an epidural and waiting for the arrival of her last child, the male heir to complete the family portrait, my mother listened to her doctor announce my birth. “Ah, yes…this is it, Mrs. P. This one’s a boy for sure. Look at his head, these shoulders…These are quarterback-shoulders if I’ve ever seen them.” This is the line where the story shifts as I wriggled out second later and the doctor could clearly see that I was not male. “Oh…my….it’s another girl! A healthy baby girl!” he said as he plopped my 9 pound, slippery body onto my mother’s chest.
Oddly, and I’ve no idea who took it, there is a picture of this moment, of my first minutes in this world. I am glistening in afterbirth, and crying, umbilical cord still attached; I sit upon my mother’s breasts and she is smiling at the camera, a slight film in her eyes – perhaps tears, perhaps the effects of the pain-killing drugs. I am dark-haired and pudgy, eyes wide shut and mouth open, already trying to defend my assumed shortcomings.
No, I was not a boy, nor a quarterback, but I was assured by my parents that I was indeed: Very welcomed! Very loved! And they were not disappointed that I was girl and the last hope to carry on the family name. Maybe I believed them but I know that story, so often repeated throughout my childhood and even into my adult life, has entered my consciousness, and on some levels I have felt that I was a disappointment, that my parents would have been happier had I been born a male. At times, I have thought the same thing and have felt somewhat like an interloper in the land of women.
Being the last girl, I always longed for a brother, someone to help me make sense of the gaps I felt between the female world and the male. I felt torn to be the “boy” my parents, especially my father, seemed to have wanted, and to be who I really am. I struggled with identity, caught between the football pennants that hung in my bedroom (Did I hang them there? Did my mother? My father?) and the longing to be girly and glamorous like my eldest sisters.
Growing up in a household of women was fascinating and perplexing. My closest sister was two years older than me, but my other sisters, children from my mother’s second marriage, were considerably more mature, and thus presented me with a glimpse into what my future might hold.
I could watch them for hours, curious as to their habits, their talk, the mystery of their teen-age lives that unfolded within the attic room my father built for them. My two eldest sisters where 8 and 6 when I was born, so by the time I was that age, there were enough years between us that I always felt like a child, like an awkward voyeur studying a world full of strange rituals and foreign symbols. Their attic room – which I was only allowed to visit on occasion – was a psychedelic space of black-light posters, bean bag chairs, loud rock music and beauty supplies. They were exotic creatures who would apply make-up, straighten and curl their hair, try on outfits and model before a big date. I watched and wondered. I don’t think I have ever felt their confidence, their inherent power in their “femaleness.”
My oldest sister had a serious boyfriend for most of her high school years and he was always at our house, or pulling up in the driveway in his yellow Beetle and honking the horn for her. That drove my dad wild. But I liked him as he would sometimes talk to me, making me feel special. My sister was madly in love with him, and I recall one summer we headed to the beach, which meant she wouldn’t see him for three weeks, and she was distraught. She sulked in the station wagon all the way to Florida and wrote him love notes with the words ** SOB ** repeatedly scribbled across the page in a shaky hand.
My other older sister was wilder, harder to pin down, harder to completely understand. Sometimes she would resort to play with me, to allow me to be part of her vivid imagination on a Saturday morning. We might watch Soul Train and dance like bodies possessed in the basement rec room. Or she would make up elaborate stories to scare me and my friends. Her imagination was always boundless. But because of her wild streak, she also absorbed the brunt of my father’s wrath, wrath that could be near lethal if he had consumed an excess of martinis. She irritated him in some unknown way, and when he exploded, his shrapnel always hit her the most. She often stood her ground and refused to let him break her, but her spirit was affected and she turned to drugs and late-night excursions to escape the walls of home.
The pictures I hold in my mind are exact and still remind me of how different we all were, we all are. I was the baby, the one who had to be watched, babysat, tolerated; the one who wore all the hand-me-downs and made an easy butt for jokes because I really did not comprehend their world. My oldest sisters were like gazelles, sleek and gorgeous and fast-moving. I wanted nothing more than to be near them, to be like them, to be them. I wanted to be part of their make-up routines and inner jokes, to roll my hair atop my head in an orange juice can, to wear enormous hoop earrings and bell-bottoms so low they showed the crack of my ass. But by the time I reached my teens, they were long gone, off to college and beyond. And our family, our home of fastidious dinners, beach house holidays and Saturday morning cartoons, was shattered, another by-product of my father’s volatile explosions.
I still have some old pictures of my sisters, glossy-haired and smiling, wearing flowered shirts and gazing at the camera with eyes that knew far more than I. I still have the picture of me seconds after being born, too. I look at those images and think about the thoughts behind the faces, the millions of choices we all will make as we move through our lives, and the millions of stories we will hear and share…words that will form, shape and redefine who we are were and who we can be. On occasional birthdays, my mother will recount the story of my birth; I usually tolerate it. Lines are added, lines deleted. I know the story well for the teller remains the same. I, however, am a very different listener.