Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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It’s a cold Friday morning, and the sun is just coming up. Shivering beneath my down parka, I climb the high rock wall at the entrance to Vandenberg Air Force Base. My wife and a few others are with me, and in my hand I carry a bottle of blood drawn from my arm last night by a friend. Five days from now the war in Iraq will begin.
As camouflage-clad military police jump from their white cars and rush toward me, I splash my blood over the sign at the base entrance, and my friends, my wife, and I begin to pray: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. . . .”
A couple of years ago, these same words were featured in a TV commercial celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Air Force. While F-16s flew in formation across the screen, a voice intoned, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” At the time my wife and I were in Iraq, in defiance of UN sanctions, to bring medicine to children in hospitals there. On that trip I discovered a deep compassion for a suffering people — and a disdain for the policies of my government.
I am handcuffed as my blood drips from the sign. Within an hour, the blood has been washed off, and I am standing before a federal magistrate, flanked by two airmen armed with rifles. At fifty-three years old, for the first time in my life, I will go to prison, where I will sleep better than I did before taking my stand. Watching news of the bloodshed in Iraq on the prison TV, however, I will wonder if I could have done more.
When I was a teenager, my small-town high school expelled unmarried pregnant students. Our town was said to have the highest per-capita teen-pregnancy rate in the nation. Every year, high-school graduation rates fell because so many pregnant young women were forced to quit school.
In 1973 I became the first pregnant student in my town to be allowed to stay in school. Of course, I had concealed my pregnancy at first. Then, when I was six months pregnant, I’d married my boyfriend. The school had no policy against married pregnant students, so I was allowed to stay.
Staying in school wasn’t easy. My phys-ed teacher believed I should suffer for my “sins.” When I was nine months pregnant, she made me serve as the pin setter for bowling. I wobbled around setting pins upright and toppled over twice.
Shortly before my daughter was born, a student named Laura told me that she too was expecting. She wasn’t married, so the principal planned to expel her.
I immediately went to the principal’s office and plopped down in the chair across from him. My condition clearly made him uncomfortable. I argued that Laura, a straight-A student, deserved to complete school. He seemed uninterested. “I’ll just sit here until you decide,” I said. He looked nervously at my belly, as if I might give birth at any minute. He could see that I wasn’t going anywhere — and that the sexual revolution, so long denied in our school, had finally reached his office.
Laura was allowed to remain in school and graduated with our class.
The anesthesiologist reached for my arm. Only ten years old, I was frightened of what might happen. “Tell me everything you need to do before you do it,” I said.
“Just give me your arm,” he ordered.
“You’re not listening to me!” I jerked my arm back. “Tell me what you’re going to do first!”
The anesthesiologist rolled his eyes and reluctantly explained it to me.
Over the next few years I had to get tough with many doctors and nurses. I hated the way they talked down to me, and I wondered if they treated adults differently.
“How many of you have actually broken bones yourselves?” I said one day to my physical therapists. Only one of them had, and it was just a toe. “Then take my word for it when I say it hurts, or I can’t move it. You can’t treat me like I don’t know how I feel.”
When I was ten, I was fearless.
When I was a teenager, my stepfather was my confidant and my ally against my mother. She had never understood him, certainly not the way I did. She withheld sex from him, and she betrayed me with her emotional abandonment.
That’s how I saw it then — never mind that she single-handedly ran the house, filled our holidays with beauty, worked full time, and got us to school and work with full bellies and clean clothes.
As I matured, I paid a price for the bond I forged with my stepfather. His hugs began to last too long. His body movements became suggestive. His paternal kisses turned sexual.
Years later, after I’d grown up and moved away, he called. “I need to talk to you — about your mother and me,” he said. She was divorcing him.
“I’m listening,” I replied.
“No, not on the phone. I need you to come here,” he begged.
“I have too much homework,” I lied.
“Why did you send me that letter before your wedding,” he asked, “the one that brought all that old stuff up again?”
“You mean the one that asked why you can’t say you’re sorry for molesting me?” For the first time, I’d said it out loud to him.
“God damn it, why do you keep bringing it up?”
“Because you never admit you did anything wrong,” I said. Then I told him I had to go.
My stepfather killed himself a few weeks later, after first taking my mother’s life.
When my son Ben was four years old, he found out about the plight of the Siberian tigers nearing extinction, and he wanted to grow up to “poach the poachers.” He would practice lying in wait behind a bush with his popgun, ready to pounce on anyone who threatened to kill a poor, innocent tiger.
When Ben was entering kindergarten, tennis shoes with flashing lights on them were popular. The week before school started, I took him shopping for new school shoes. The only light-up shoes left at Payless were covered with purple flowers and pink hearts. Ben wanted them. When I explained to him that I was worried he might be teased if he wore them to school, he said, “I’ll just tell the kids they’re my love shoes.” I paid for them, and he walked out of the store, his love shoes lighting his way. Later, his kindergarten teacher told me the other children had accepted his explanation.
When he was a freshman in high school, Ben went out for cross-country track. The coach trained the team hard enough to cause an epidemic of shin splints and kicked boys off the team for the smallest infractions. Before the final race, Ben took a week off from training to try to heal his shin splints. The coach scratched him from the race as punishment for not training harder. The day of the race Ben begged her to reconsider, but she just smiled her laconic grin and triumphantly shook her head. When the starting gun exploded and the pack began to leave, Ben looked at me almost apologetically and took off after them.
Ben placed high enough to win his first medal. I think his teammates were more proud of him for having defied their coach’s unreasonable demand. The coach ended up taking Ben’s medal away from him, but that only inflamed his passion to fight injustice.
Ben is now a freshman in college. He is no longer interested in saving Siberian tigers, wearing love shoes, or running races. His focus now is peace in the Middle East. I worry that he will move to Israel, and I know my stubborn protests will not prevent him. He will pack a suitcase and leave, and I will be left behind with my admiration and my fear.
San Diego, California
I wasn’t a cute, lovable child. Even as a young girl, I knew that beautiful people were treated better.
When I was seven, my adoptive mother sent me to a convent boarding school, a regimented world where no one dared challenge authority. Nurse Halby was the guardian of our sixteen-bed dorm room. She hated children like me: hair never in place, asymmetrical features, no important lineage or gifts. She never missed a chance to call us “ugly,” “evil,” or “possessed.”
Each night at lights-out Nurse Halby cooed to her favorites and spat insults at those she disliked. One night, not satisfied with the affection we had shown her, she wailed, “No one loves Nurse Halby!”
Fifteen girls — both the loved and the unloved — emptied out of their beds to hug and kiss the beast. Only I remained behind. Before the swarm dispersed, Nurse Halby noticed me. “Oh, so Grace is the only one who does not love Nurse Halby?” she snarled.
I felt alone and abandoned. But to those fifteen other children I became a giant that day.
In the early sixties, my family lived in Alabama, the “Heart of Dixie,” or so the state motto says. I was taught to take pride in the fact that our city did not fall to the Union Army during the Civil War: General Lee may have surrendered, but we never did.
One evening my father came home from work at the meatpacking plant and announced that there was to be a cross-burning in our neighborhood that night. A white man from out of town had brought his black wife to live here, and the Ku Klux Klan would not stand for such an affront.
After we’d finished our supper, Dad took down his shotgun and gave it a cleaning. Mom pitched a fit. She didn’t think Dad should be involved with this mess; after all, he was a married man with a family. Dad left her crying on the porch as he climbed in his old Dodge pickup and drove off.
Dad came home the next morning after the sun had risen, tired and bleary-eyed. Mom clucked around him like a hen over a lost chick, but pride sparkled in her hazel eyes.
There had been no cross-burning the night before, because my father had spent a sleepless night sitting on a porch and waiting, shotgun across his lap, beside a man he didn’t know, to face a flock of cowards wearing sheets whom he knew far too well.
Daniel H. Harris
At the age of nine, I should have been used to the sound of a child crying from a spanking, slapping, or beating; my older sister and brother and I had all been abused. But this time it was my two-year-old sister wailing. I ran to the kitchen to find my father lifting her into the air by her arm and hitting her.
“Stop it!” I shouted, knowing I was going to get it. And I did. But something had changed. After he was done hitting me, I turned to my father and screamed, “Get out of my face!” That triggered another spanking. I didn’t care. I’d lost my fear, and he knew it.
Afterward, as I lay in my bed crying, my older sister continued to do her homework, my mom kept her nose in a book, and my brother stayed in his room. I felt despair that I was the only one who had come to my sister’s defense, but elation that I’d finally stood up to my dad. My little sister never got spanked like that again.
Kings Beach, California
My girlfriend and I had come to visit my mother on the farm where she rents a house. We were strolling around the property when the farmer rode up on his tractor, and my mother introduced us as “my oldest daughter, Dietlind, and her friend Michelle.” It bothered me that she introduced Michelle as my “friend.” We lived together and were planning a commitment ceremony.
Later I overheard my mom tell a friend on the phone that I was visiting with my “roommate.” I decided it was time to say something.
Confronting my mother was hard. I love her and didn’t want to hurt her. Neither my parents nor my sisters are uptight about my being gay. We’re all open-minded liberals. So what was my mother trying to hide?
At first she talked about nontraditional relationships being hard to define. She and her boyfriend, Lincoln, had a ten-year, committed, long-distance relationship. Both my sisters lived with their boyfriends. Only my father had a traditional marriage. Maybe her reference to Michelle as my “roommate” had been caused by the limitations of language, the lack of good terms for such relationships.
I agreed, but I pressed on, asking whether the same “limitations” would have applied if Michelle were a man. My mother finally conceded that because she didn’t know how other people might feel about my being gay, she was protecting both me and them. This made me feel as if I had to hide a part of myself in order to be accepted.
More than terminology was at stake. If I kissed Michelle or held her hand, I risked making people uncomfortable. I even risked our safety. But when I used language to obscure the nature of my relationship, I compromised myself. I wanted my mom to call Michelle what she was: my girlfriend.
San Francisco, California
© Daniel J. Hoffman
In 1970, eighteen and pregnant, I left my middle-class home to move in with my drugged-out boyfriend, Jack, and his hard-drinking father, Ed. Jack was an artist, eccentric and angry. I tiptoed around him, telling myself I was the only one who could see the real Jack. I looked forward to his cousin Dorothy’s upcoming visit. I fantasized that she’d become my friend and we would bake bread and discuss books together.
The night Dorothy arrived, I folded clothes in the living room while she did whiskey shots at the kitchen table with Jack and Ed. An approaching storm had made the men grumpy and restless. Despite the bad weather, Dorothy insisted, “We’re going out tomorrow morning, God damn it! I didn’t come to hang out with a couple of pussies!”
Later Dorothy came into the living room, brushed the folded clothes onto the floor, and plopped down on the sofa. “I’ve met girls like you,” she slurred. “Pretty little milquetoast, scared-of-life ass kissers.” She put her hand to her cheek and blinked melodramatically. “ ‘Oh no, I’m pregnant! Won’t somebody take care of me?’ ”
My loving, middle-class childhood hadn’t prepared me for this. After she’d staggered off, I sat there shaking. Where was the fearless defiance I’d shown my parents? Didn’t I love myself or my baby enough to make a fresh start? I could have taken Jack’s car keys and been in Portland in three hours. The YWCA there took in pregnant teens. Would anyone even notice I’d gone?
I hated Dorothy for what she’d said. I hated myself even more for believing it.
It was my mother’s third visit to the emergency room for alcohol overdose.
“What day is it?” she said thickly. “These doctors have been asking me.” Her lips were flaky, swollen, and purple. How many times can I do this? I wondered.
The next day, when I returned to the hospital to visit her, I found her giggling with my grandmother and aunt. At the end of my visit, my mother asked me to bring her some clothes from home. I reluctantly agreed. I felt as if I were helping her kill herself, and she was laughing in my face. She was going to die a horrible death, like most alcoholics. She’d watched her lover die that way a year before.
When I brought the clothes, I told her that I wasn’t going to do anything else for her. “I’m not going to help you ignore what’s going on. I’m not going to watch you die,” I said.
My sister took it from there, asking, “How can you do this to your grandchildren?” As I listened to her berate our mother, I began to regret what I’d said. I realized that watching a parent die is something most children do eventually. My mother just happened to be dying of alcoholism. Whether I approved or not, I could still love her and be with her.
I chose to be my mother’s daughter for the rest of my life. When she died in her sleep, I felt more awe than anger, more gratitude than grief.
I teach college freshman composition classes, and every semester a handful of young men write papers about how abortion should be outlawed. Forty percent of American women have had at least one abortion, and half my students are women, but not one of them will speak out in her own defense because, well, there’s an unspoken rule that you must not speak positively about your abortion. You may not talk about it afterward unless you are riddled with guilt and shame over what you have done. And that’s a rule I’d like to break right now.
The fact is, I didn’t want a baby at eighteen; I wanted to go to college. And after college, at twenty-four, I wanted to live as independently as possible. Also, I didn’t want my child to suffer beatings at the hand of an overworked unwed mother, as I had.
I know which students have gotten pregnant each semester. They are the loud, outspoken young women who go quiet when the young men start ranting about those dumb, heartless women who have abortions once a week. They are the straight-A students who miss class and come back quietly, ghostlike, and then a few weeks later surpass their previous achievements, because a new lease on life always seems to follow the little death.
I let them write papers about it on the side, papers their classmates will never see. They thank me for not being judgmental. I tell them that, ironically, abortion makes you want to have children someday and have them well. They ask me if it gets better. I say it does, but you never get to speak.
I made it all the way to thirty-three before my son was born. I was thirty-five when my daughter was born last December. Both times I remained pregnant only after my husband and I had decided we were ready and able. What could be more life-affirming than that?
When my sister Karen and I were in our twenties, our parents divorced. Our father started dating Jane, whom my sister didn’t like. He and Jane married and this year celebrated their nineteenth anniversary. Despite years of invitations and shared holidays, Karen had long since stopped speaking to them.
My two middle-aged uncles and my ninety-five-year-old grandmother do not speak either. One uncle ended his relationship with his mother because she gossiped about him. The other stopped communicating because he didn’t receive some furniture he’d been promised when she moved into a convalescent home.
From family members like these I’ve learned the difference between taking a stand and self-righteous pride.
When I came out as a bisexual, my friends and family were supportive, but I got flak from my lesbian friends, who were suspicious of my “bi” status and believed I would pass as straight. Such lack of faith stung, particularly coming from women I saw as allies.
In 1997 my partner, Kent, and I decided to have a commitment ceremony instead of a marriage, as a show of solidarity with our lesbian and gay friends who were legally denied the marriage option. Besides, I might just as easily have chosen a woman to spend my life with, and I wanted to honor that part of myself. These days, however, when I tell people about our decision not to legally marry, I don’t always come out as bi. Sometimes I refer to Kent as my “husband.”
Recently I was interviewing a gay friend for the local paper. I asked him to “tone down” some of his answers, thinking my editor wouldn’t be comfortable with them. I thought I was protecting my friend. In retrospect, I realize I was protecting myself from scrutiny and protecting my editor and the paper’s conservative readers from a gay man who delights in his identity.
When I was nineteen, my boyfriend, Carl, showed up with a live rabbit in a burlap bag. He yanked it from the bag, dangled it by the ears, and took it outside to butcher. I pleaded with him not to kill the animal, but he did it anyway. At that moment I vowed that I would never again eat another living creature.
A couple of years ago I saw Carl and mentioned that I still don’t eat meat. He didn’t know what I was talking about. Even after I told him the story of the rabbit, he didn’t remember. The rabbit that still haunts me was to him merely lunch.
As a student nurse at a state mental hospital, I met Sandy, a patient who talked back to the orderlies, struggled against the pills forced down her throat, and wore the brightest clothes from the community clothes closet. Now fourteen, Sandy had been committed by her parents for rebellious behavior and sexual acting out at the age of eleven.
One afternoon, I was playing cards with Sandy. I told her we could play until 3 P.M., when I had to leave. She was winning when, at 2:30, the nurse in charge announced that the card game was over. She told me I needed to circulate and not let Sandy monopolize my time. “Give me the cards,” the nurse ordered.
I surrendered mine, but Sandy stuffed hers down her dress and screamed at me, “You said until three!” I apologized, but it made no difference. The nurse summoned the orderlies, and Sandy jumped up, pulled her Kotex napkin out of her pants, and slapped me across the face with it. I touched my cheek and found blood on my fingers.
While two big orderlies dragged Sandy into solitary confinement, the nurse told me to wash my face and lectured me about getting too friendly with the patients. I could hear Sandy screaming, still in possession of her winning hand.
I wanted to stand on a table and yell, “Get out of here! Run for your lives!” Instead I circulated among the other patients, wishing I had the courage to question the rules.
As the oldest of six, I took care of my siblings while my mother worked. I yearned for peace and quiet and couldn’t wait to escape the chaos of our household. At school I avoided conflict by never taking sides and was popular with all factions. I remained cautiously neutral even after I became an adult.
I now live in a senior development, where I’m friendly with my neighbors and don’t discuss sensitive subjects for fear of causing an argument. But yesterday, when my neighbor Ben said, “What do you think about all those homos waiting to get married?” I felt the heat rise in my face. After all those years of not taking sides, I knew I was about to speak up. I calmly told him it didn’t bother me.
“Don’t you think it’s disgusting to picture two men or two women together in bed?” he asked.
Restraining an impulse to kick over his walker, I said, “I can think of a few heterosexuals I would hate to picture in bed.”
Although my mother was essentially a good parent, I remember unhappily how she used to make fun of my difficult-to-manage thatch of hair. “You look like the Wicked Witch of the West,” she’d tell me, laughing. Other times, when I was taking a bath, she would make what she thought were droll observations about my short legs, or how my thighs rubbed together.
Thirteen was an especially awkward age for me. I was a big, awkward, buck-toothed girl, and a sensitive one, too, starved for the compliments that my beautiful, slender cousin seemed to attract so effortlessly. My grandmother, visiting from Florida, described my cousin as graceful, “like a gazelle.” I craved to hear from her how pretty I was. Instead she looked me over and lightheartedly called me “large.”
Recently my mother and I had a long talk; mostly I talked, and she listened. I told her how much it had hurt me when Grandmother had said I was “large,” and how her own remarks about my physical shortcomings had demoralized me over the years. When I had finished, my mother seemed to understand. I had finally straightened her out, and it felt good.
The other night, my husband and I took my mother out to dinner. In the car on the way home, he and I were teasing each other about our drinking habits. “I can have two drinks a day,” I joked. “My doctor said so.”
With a lilt in her voice, my mother chimed in from the back seat: “That’s because he saw how large you are.”
When Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004, he relied on me for small things, but he was still as stubborn as he’d always been. The first time he fell, he grumbled that he could get up on his own. The next day, he fell two more times, but he kept repeating his mantra of “Let me do it myself.”
“You can’t do this anymore, Dad!” I said. “You’re not strong enough!” The tension continued to build until we both retreated. I slipped into the back bedroom to call his doctor. “I don’t know what to do,” I told her. She assured me that it was time for me to make decisions for him, that he needed my help.
I went back into the kitchen, prepared to confront Dad. He was sitting at the table, reading the newspaper, his usual distraction. Our eyes met, and I knew something had changed. Exhausted by our struggle, we had both given in. That night he let me help him undress and get into bed.
Before starting eighth grade in 1959, I cleaned my closet of clothes I’d outgrown, donating them to our town’s social-service agency. Mother cautioned me that if I ever saw another girl wearing my old clothes, I shouldn’t say anything.
On the first day of school a skinny new girl was wearing my favorite blue gingham dress.
“Who’s that girl?” I asked a friend.
“I don’t know. She must be new.”
“Did you see her dress?” I said.
“Yeah, what about it?”
I remembered my mother’s instruction just in time. “Oh, nothing. I just like it.”
The new girl was shy and didn’t fit in. One day, she started sobbing, “Nobody likes me.” The popular girls, shocked at the outburst, told her not to cry and assured her she was OK. For a fleeting moment she wasn’t an outcast.
After the others had left, I asked her name.
“Myra,” she said.
“I’ll be your friend,” I told her, and I walked home with her after school.
On the way we stopped at a small restaurant. I followed Myra to the kitchen in back, where she introduced me to her mother, a short, fat woman sitting on a stool and peeling a mountain of potatoes. Myra’s mother wiped her forehead and smiled, saying she was happy Myra had a friend. Then she handed Myra a paper bag, and we left.
Their apartment was just down the street. The rickety back stairs smelled of dirt and beer and onions, and I worried they wouldn’t support our weight. The place Myra called home was just one shabby room with a small alcove where her mother slept. Myra slept on the couch and kept her clothes in a cardboard box. She opened the paper bag and offered me a stale dinner roll.
As my friendship with Myra grew, my other friends treated me as if I’d contracted a contagious disease. My best friend told me that if I didn’t hang around Myra so much, we could still be friends. The rejection hurt, but I wouldn’t dump Myra. She looked up to me, and I didn’t have to compete with her or pretend to be someone I wasn’t.
When Myra and her mother moved on, I didn’t go back to my old friends. I just found new outcasts.
In the early 1970s I was living in New York City. One day I was talking with a friend who complained about his “Jew landlord.”
I was shocked and didn’t know how to respond at first. If I said something, I risked alienating my friend. If I said nothing, however, I’d be betraying my principles.
My impulse was to accuse him of being an anti-Semite. But remembering my nonviolence training from the civil-rights movement, I chose to oppose the sin, not the sinner. “What does your landlord’s being a Jew have to do with his being a bad landlord?” I asked.
My friend looked sternly at me and frowned. I waited, anticipating the worst. Then his brow relaxed, and he said, “Damn! I never thought of it like that.”
As a child I lived in fear of my mother’s disapproval. She kept her children in line by humiliating us, mimicking our facial expressions, and criticizing our interests.
What I didn’t realize then was that my mother, too, knew humiliation. She had been raised on a modest farm and had simple tastes. My city-bred father was sophisticated by comparison, and my mother quickly learned to disguise her humble roots. Her once-loved mandolin was consigned to the attic, and she took up the piano. When she modeled a new coat, my father criticized her choice, insisting she return it for a better one.
As I got older I went on being the good daughter, deferring to my mother’s judgment. When I admired a painting in a shop, she said, “Oh, you wouldn’t want that.” I would have enjoyed it, but I said nothing. It wasn’t until I went to school in another state that I developed my own tastes.
After Dad died, I suggested to Mother that we spruce up the dark kitchen in our family’s lakeside cottage, and she grudgingly agreed. We drove to the five-and-ten store, where I showed her some red-and-white-checked contact paper that I thought would lighten up the backsplash.
“You have cheap taste,” she replied scathingly.
I went on shopping, keeping my distance from her. When she asked why I wouldn’t join her on the checkout line, I told her, “You insulted me.” We rode home in silence and made no further reference to the argument for the rest of the vacation.
Later that summer I returned to the cottage and was astounded to find the checked contact paper covering not just the backsplash but the countertops too. The effect was bright and charming. By standing up for myself, I had helped her reclaim her roots.
One afternoon I told my mother I needed a ride to soccer practice. Just home from work, she was racing to make dinner and got angry at me for springing my request on her at the last minute. My father, tired of seeing his wife overworked, yelled that I shouldn’t expect my mother to pick me up and drop me off whenever I pleased. I hollered back that I could get to practice myself.
“How?” my father said.
My father pointed out that the field was three miles away and I would be late.
“Then I’ll run!”
I grabbed my cleats and took off. My dad got in the car and trailed me.
For all my athleticism, I was not a runner. I jogged, weaving down the sidewalk and up and over three monster hills, sobbing the whole way. I would show him. When a concerned motorist, seeing a man in a car tailing a crying girl, stopped to ask if I was all right, I blubbered, “I’m fine. He’s my father.”
Finally the field came into sight, but there wasn’t a soul on it. Then I remembered: the practice location had been changed — to the field next to our house.
My father offered me a ride. I accepted, meekly, but felt victorious. I had done it.
Los Angeles, California
In the early sixties, before there was an Environmental Protection Agency, before there was an Earth Day, there were gypsy moths. Every six or seven years infestations of gypsy moths threatened the oaks and maples that shaded our New Jersey town. The town council considered an aerial spraying of Sevin to kill the moth larvae.
My mother had read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and was repulsed by the thought of chemicals sprayed not just on the gypsy-moth caterpillars but on songbirds, butterflies, and people. She organized a town forum with presentations from both sides. Chemical-industry experts spoke about Sevin’s safety, quoting studies that showed the low risk of cancer and birth defects. Then the antispray spokesman pointed out that the manufacturers did most of their own testing. He said that exposure to Sevin had been linked to suppressed immune systems, reproductive problems, and cancer.
The town voted not to spray.
My mother struggled with alcoholism, and it sometimes limited her effectiveness in the world, but not on that occasion.
I recently visited my hometown for the first time in many years. A couple of the oaks in my old yard had been taken down, perhaps victims of the gypsy moths, but most of the oak trees in that town are still standing, forty years later.
My father beat me for many years when I was a teen, and no one defended me. One night after supper, he started to strike my twelve-year-old brother, Max. I stood up and told my father that if he ever hit my brother again, I would kill him.
I never saw my father hit my brother again, though he continued to hit me. Knowing I’d saved Max from my fate made me feel strong and proud.
Our father is now an old man. One night Max and I were reminiscing, and I told him how I’d stopped our father from physically abusing him. Max laughed and said, “He hit me for years.”
Brooklyn, New York
In 1984 I took a low-paying but challenging job in a Seattle youth shelter. A likable African American man named Mark worked there too. He mixed well with the kids — perhaps too well, bumming cigarettes and borrowing money from them. The kids treated him more like a peer than an authority figure.
When Mark couldn’t get the kids to lend him money anymore, he came to me. I loaned him ten dollars, which he promised to pay back right away. Weeks passed, and he kept putting me off. My attitude toward him soured. Finally I’d had enough. I demanded my money. He told me he had the money at home. “Fine,” I said. “I’ll drive you there to get it.”
When we got to his house, Mark thanked me for the ride and introduced me to his wife and children. As his family looked on, he apologetically offered me five dollars, saying that was all he had; he would pay the rest later. I took the money and left, but once back in my car I began to feel uncomfortable. Here was a man struggling to preserve a small measure of dignity, and I’d just humiliated him in front of his children for five dollars.
© Matt Kollasch
I was a Democrat when I met my husband, and after ten years of marriage I’m still a Democrat, but it hasn’t always been easy.
My husband is a Republican, and although he’s strongly pro-choice, he is derisive of most Democrats and Democratic causes. Over the years I had grown to fear my husband’s criticisms, and my support for Democratic causes waned. It reached the point where I wouldn’t talk politics with friends or neighbors unless I knew they agreed with me.
That changed last April after I came home from the March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C. I was incredibly moved by the experience, though I knew I probably wouldn’t follow up my beliefs with actions.
Then my husband ordered me to remove the “Women for Kerry” sticker from my shirt, telling me he was offended that I was even thinking of voting for Kerry.
“I am going to vote for Kerry,” I informed him.
After that incident, I wrote an article about the march for Planned Parenthood. I signed petitions and wrote letters to the editor and even won a position on my hometown newspaper’s community advisory board. Today my first opinion piece, supporting lesbian parents, was published. Next to the article are my name and photograph, for thousands to see.
Dina Haines Appleby
Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
The year I graduated from Ohio State University, our commencement speaker was President George W. Bush. I felt compelled to let the world know that I did not approve of the university’s choice of speakers, so I e-mailed everyone I knew, telling them I wanted to protest.
A few days later, forty fellow protesters and I discussed plans. We decided on a quiet, peaceful, self-explanatory gesture: when Bush was introduced, we would all stand and turn our backs on him.
We organized a website (TurnYourBackonBush.com), passed out flyers, chalked sidewalks, and sent e-mails. Graduation rehearsal was abuzz with whispered rumors about the protest. Then we were informed that this ceremony was not meant to be a political forum, and that anyone standing up during the president’s speech would be arrested and prevented from graduating.
Realizing this was a violation of my First Amendment rights, I called several lawyers, who were sympathetic and agreed the school was making an empty threat. But how could I convince everyone else?
The next morning lines were long; metal detectors hummed; snipers looked down from the roofs. When the president stepped up on the podium, I stood, heart pounding, and turned my back. I felt alone and tried to tune out the cheering.
I wasn’t handcuffed or forcibly removed. After the speech, I collected my diploma. Later I learned that only three other graduates had turned their backs, in a stadium of sixty thousand.
New York, New York
During my years as an alcohol-and-drug counselor and psychologist, I had many clients who felt significant guilt over the actions of others. As I read L.B.’s contribution to the September 2005 Readers Write on “Taking a Stand,” it occurred to me that she might be feeling guilty about her stepfather’s decision to kill her mother and himself. I hope she is not.
I am sure L.B. has at least thought that her mother might still be alive had she not chosen that particular time to confront her stepfather. Second-guessing oneself in such a situation is quite natural, especially after years of maintaining the family “secret” no matter what the emotional cost. But I want to assure L.B. that what happened is in no way her fault. It was her stepfather’s choice.