When Katrina sent me this writing prompt, “The Rocket,” my mind went right to “Crotch Rocket.” This vulgar little term was stuck in my head from my few experiences with men and motorcycles, but did I actually know what it meant? I had to ask my friend Daniel, who thoughtfully provided the following information:
I don’t like Harleys because they’re loud. Also, since I know/care nothing about bikes, zero zip nada, the photos in this post are simply photos that appealed to me. There may be Harleys here. Please don’t point this out! Because I don’t care!
And now, on to Men and Motorcycles.
There are motorcycle people, and not-motorcycle people. In general, I would put my family in the not-motorcycle category, with one notable exception.
When it comes to men and motorcycles, I don’t actually know if my dad ever had a bike. He was young and adventurous when he married my mom and took on us kids (also naive, obviously). A motorcycle seems like something he might have tried, maybe while he was in the Air Force, hanging around with Gary and Crazy Charlie. He’s gone, now, so I can’t ask him.
My older brother would sometimes muse about getting a motorcycle. I inwardly cringed at the idea and tried to steer the subject elsewhere. Brother Steve was an artist, writer, and musician. His fine motor skills were exquisite, but his gross motor skills were lacking. He also had terrible vision with poor depth perception. I worried about him driving. He’s gone too, and I’m glad my time with him wasn’t shortened by any ill-conceived motorcycle doings.
Brother Steve’s talk of getting a bike was probably spurred by envy of our younger brother, who was seventeen years younger than Steve and the exception in the family, as far as motorcycles go. Tall, alternately brooding and sardonic, a former water polo goalkeeper, voted “Most Rebellious” in his graduating class—riding a motorcycle suited my younger brother. He had two BMW K75 sport touring models, a K75c and a K75s. He was easy on a bike, and he definitely looked the part wearing leathers.
He lived in Seattle and I live in Portland. Very early one Saturday morning, I heard a symphony of rumbles, and then a knock on my front door. I opened it. There he stood with three or four of his friends. “We’re on our way to (somewhere) on our bikes, and I wondered if you could make us some breakfast.”
Well of course I could make them some breakfast.
That morning, my sleepy daughters tumbled out of their rooms to find their uncle and his handsome, scruffy friends occupying the breakfast bar, while I filled their coffee cups and poured them OJ and heaped their plates with toast and eggs and every last scrap of breakfast meat I could find in my fridge.
This is just one of the mythic memories my daughters have of my younger brother in his motorcycle years. Imagine, a young uncle you don’t see very often, just showing up at the Bainbridge Bakery with his bike and his beard and his deep, booming voice. For a while, he had a girlfriend who rode her own bike, which seemed even more exotic and interesting.
He eventually got married (not to the bike girl) (she was not that interesting, aside from the bike) and had a family. The BMW sat in his garage, not running, for a few years. I’m not sure how long he kept it there on the off chance that he’d be able to ride it again. I’m pretty sure he sold it. He is a family man, after all.
That leaves us womenfolk. I have no idea whether or not my mother ever got on a motorcycle, and as far as I know, my sister hasn’t had too many motorcycle adventures. But me? Well, I have, but just a few. Here are my adventures with motorcycles and men.
In seventh grade I had a boyfriend named James. He was sixteen, and I met him at my older sister’s birthday party. We probably connected during Spin the Bottle or some such game.
His black-rimmed glasses weren’t appealing to me and his face and hair were always oily. But I liked riding behind him on his motorcycle, my arms wrapped around his sweaty young torso, cruising the crumbling streets of Booneville, Arkansas. Neither of us ever wore a helmet.
If this was dangerous, I was oblivious. I was only twelve years old.
James gave me my first kiss. Much like him, it was rather sweaty and damp. I tried to enter into the spirit of the thing, but he told me, “You kiss too hard.” This was excellent feedback, and I have passed it along to various men over the years. Kiss with the lips. Kiss softly.
James was my boyfriend for only a few weeks before my older sister decided she liked him. I like to say, “My older sister helped herself to my first boyfriend,” but that really isn’t true. For one thing, he wasn’t my first boyfriend. And for another, I gratefully handed him over.
French kisses were far…too…much for my young self.
I was a senior in high school when a young man named Richard moved to Yakima. He was tall and nice looking, and wore a green army surplus coat and rode a motorcycle. He spoke with erudition and dsiplayed intellectual curiosity, which were punishable offenses in our school. He suffered instantaneous social rejection. That meant he had to hang out with us weird kids.
In addition to being socially unclassifiable, Richard was funny and surprisingly charming for a teenaged boy. The girls in our group were all a-flutter, except for me. I was taken. I lived with my boyfriend at the time, pretending to be married so the school wouldn’t call Social Services on us. Richard was intrigued that we were married and appalled by our financial situation (we lived on air). It was so different from his own comfortable life. We must have seemed exotic.
He’d ride his motorcycle over, park it on the walkway in front of our one bedroom apartment, settle onto our vinyl-covered couch and question our ability to survive. He sort of couldn’t get enough of it. He might have been my only friend who had the good sense to question how the hell I found myself in this situation.
Once his morbid interest in our poverty was indulged for the day, he would steer the conversation to his other topic of interest—World War II. Richard and my pseudo-teen-husband Phil both knew a lot about WWII, but Phil liked Patton, not Himmler. Three of his four grandparents were Jewish. He wasn’t a fan of the Nazis.
Richard was! He returned over and over to Nazi Germany’s military tactics. One day he said something like, “You can’t help but admire Goring’s strategy…”
I interrupted him. “Oh, I can. I certainly can help but admire his strategy.”
Richard didn’t understand my life, and I couldn’t really understand his. His father was the president of a local bank. His family home was all French doors and urn-filled patios, tucked into a charming neighborhood on the other end of Yakima Avenue. Richard’s room was hung with motorcycle posters, model airplanes—probably Messerschmitts—and his shelves were full of books about WWII. How had such a conventional family produced such an odd son?
He had an older brother who seemed more, well, let’s just say normal. Richard brought him to one of our weird kid parties. He looked like a darker, more attractive version of Richard. He probably didn’t know what to make of Richard’s oddball friends, WWII fixation, and love of motorcycles.
Richard tried again and again to get me on the back of that bike. He took all the other girls in the group out on rides. The experience left them breathless. Occasionally, it left Richard breathless, too, because sometimes they didn’t understand how to lean with the curves (I’ll just say it, Bev made him wreck his bike, I’m sorry Bev, but you’re no longer with us so this can’t embarrass you).
I’d learned how to lean into curves behind James, but I had zero interest in riding on the back of another teenage boy’s motorcycle. I had, well, adult responsibilities: cats, and a fake husband, and I had to finish high school in one piece so we could move somewhere else where he could find a job. Living on air can only work for so long.
Phil finally drove to Portland to work at a brake shop. This left me on my own for my last term at Eisenhower. I didn’t have a phone, and there had been fractures in my friend group, so most of the time it was just me and the cats. I liked it when Richard showed up, which he did more and more after Phil left town. Sometimes, he even took me out for coffee; I drove, he paid.
“It’s too bad you’re married,” he said in a booth at Sambo’s (or maybe it was Denny’s). “Because if you weren’t, we could hang out.”
I was confused. “But we are hanging out.”
He said something halting about how much he liked me, like, really liked me. I said something dismissive and ended that part of the conversation.
I should have recognized the signs.
One Saturday Richard came by, as he so often did. I’d gone into the bathroom (which was off the bedroom) to tend to the cat box. I’m not sure why he decided to press his case while I was sifting turds out of cat litter, but he sauntered into the bedroom, stretched out on my bed with his hands behind his head, and announced, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you and I had an affair one day.”
I stood up, pointed to the door with my litter sifter, and said, “Get out.”
This isn’t the end of the story. A week or two later, I opened my front door and he stood there, helmet in hand, looking absolutely wrecked. “I’m an idiot, I’m sorry,” he said. Of course I forgave him, but things were never the same after that. I’d crushed the hopes of a teenage boy. He had to gather his dignity around him and carry on. That required a certain distance on both our parts.
We graduated and went our separate ways. I have no idea if Richard became more conventional, or if he’s living in Northern Idaho with like-minded admirers of Nazi military strategy. Wherever he is, I hope he has a better motorcycle, instead of that teenage boy’s crotch rocket. Like, say, a BMW.
That’s German, right?
As an adult, I dated one man who had a motorcycle. Just one. I wrote about him (briefly) in Shopping at the Used Man Store.
Some years ago, I went out with a man who lived up in Washington. He rode a Gold Wing, and he was incredibly funny in an entirely inappropriate way. Every weekend, we found somewhere to go. These trips flowed like long shots in movies, smooth and unbroken and entertaining. We saw each other for an entire summer of jaunts, and the ease with which we traveled together disguised the fact that we had almost nothing in common. We were both funny and tall, and that was the sum of what you could call compatibility. In case you think I exaggerate, he ripped the sleeves off his shirts, chain-smoked, enjoyed Larry the Cable Guy, and collected coffee mugs from all the events he attended for his sobriety program. But the travel was fantastic.
This doesn’t give you all the details. Like, how M and I were fixed up by one of my nearest and dearest friends, who lived in Tacoma. She and her then-boyfriend hosted a dinner at their house, and introduced me to their friend, and we really hit it off to the point where our second date was a weekend at the Oregon coast.
Which we would travel to via motorcycle.
On the freeway.
I was really excited about this trip, almost as excited as I was terrified. He must have left his house (160 miles north of me) very early, because he showed up at my house mid-morning, bearing leathers. The leathers were for me.
Yes, I wore the leathers. He sort of strapped me into chaps and zipped me into this enormous black leather coat. Does that sound sexy? It was not. I felt overwhelmed and immobile in all this leather, like Ralphie’s younger brother in A Christmas Story.
We went outside and he stashed my weekend supplies in his luggage compartments, put a helmet on my head (I had terrible hair for the entire time we dated), and steadied the bike while I climbed on. This was, well, managed with as much dignity as possible.
I asked about the route. In my imagination, we would travel some picturesque and nonexistent alternate route that didn’t have any cars on it, or any semi trucks. But he told me we would get on 217 and take it up to the junction with Highway 26, where we would take the long, wide ramp to the west, and continue on to the beach.
I thought this was fine, actually. St. Vincent Hospital is right there at the nexus of 217 and 26, where I’d recently had surgery, so they’d have my medical records and DNR and the like for when I arrived at their emergency room after a fiery crash while merging onto 26.
I braced for it. It had been a fine life. And who needed both legs, anyway?
We took the ramp, joined up with 26, and headed for Seaside. We reached it with no fiery crashes and all limbs attached. The thing about a Gold Wing is, it’s roomy and comfortable and quiet. This is why Harley riders despise Gold Wing riders. But it suited me just fine.
We had a perfectly nice weekend, with time on the bike leading me to mental exploration of Keats’ theory of negative capability: holding in my head the opposing ideas of, “This is so much fun!” and, “I’m going to die!” without seeking resolution.
When I returned home, I was SO GLAD that both my legs came with me! I knew that eventually, if we kept seeing each other, they wouldn’t. But I’d have fun until then!
This trip kicked off a summer of motorcycle jaunts. My knees got a bit stiff on the longer trips, but if I had knees, it meant I still had legs. I liked smelling the vegetation as we rode along, and making the peace sign to the other bikes (that is the one job of the rider and I wasn’t very good at it but I tried). The helmet was wired for sound, so I could hear Paul Simon singing about Graceland, or the acoustic Scorpions, just fine. And after every single trip, I quietly marveled that I hadn’t lost a leg. I hadn’t even lost an arm!
September came. The change of weather brought a change of heart. I could feel him pulling back. I was too, though I’m not sure he understood that. He was getting ready to leave the country on an extended business trip, and I was so ready for him to go. This was fun and all, the bike and his humor and the strange world of recovery culture I’d sampled that summer. But I wanted to get back to my real life.
I suggested we have a conversation.
So, we got on the phone to to have the conversation. I let him talk. He explained that he wanted to keep seeing me when he could, but he also wanted to start seeing people up north, because they could watch TV together during the week. He mentioned that quite specifically. Watching TV during the week (see: Larry the Cable Guy).
I told him it was fine if he wanted to see other people (obviously, he already was), but I just wanted to be done. No continuing to see each other “when we could.” Which was okay, I reassured him, there were no hard feelings. I liked him, but we were too ill-matched for anything serious (see: shirt sleeves torn off). I didn’t say that last part out loud.
My exact words were, “Let’s just call it a summer.”
He started crying. He didn’t want to let me go, blah blah blah, oh the drama (see: in recovery). He asked for a night to think it over. I saw no point, but fine. I slept poorly that night, and of course he called me the next morning, still in tears, to say he couldn’t date only me.
I told him well, that’s that.
So, my summer on the Gold Wing ended. I would miss those trips, and I would miss him (see: funny and tall). But at the back of my mind, despite the anxious grief that always overtook me when a relationship ended, I was relieved. Very relieved.
I still had all my limbs. And still do, to this day.
It was time to leave Edina behind. After an adoption and a bankruptcy, we moved to Arkansas so my new father could start a Forest Service internship. Its office was based in Booneville, a tiny town up in the lush, swampy, humid northwest corner of Arkansas. We arrived in Booneville as a legal family, a strange little family in a strange little town.
Dad went to work in the Ouachita National Forest. The rest of us spent our days in the falling-down farmhouse I’ve written about before. When we arrived, that house had no air conditioner. It was only May, but it was always hot, day and night. One hundred plus degrees, one hundred percent humidity. We went to school during the week, but on the weekend, we lay limp and gasping, dying fish on the battered linoleum of the living room floor.
My pregnant mother was disgusted. She’d hoped to inch us up the social ladder with a better address in Edina. Perhaps she thought we’d do our part and take up tennis and the like. But we were pallid indoor creatures who were no help at all. Still, this was next level torpid. She couldn’t even rouse her daughters for housework. She used all the weapons in her motherly arsenal to motivate us; rage, accusation, guilt, shame. Nothing could budge us.
One afternoon, we finally heard it on the roof. A patter, then a smatter, then a steady thrumming. Could it be? We rose to our feet, weak from inactivity, and emerged from the rotten shell of that rotten little house. We turned our chalky faces to the sky. It was raining.
Thunder rocked the earth, lightning split the sky, and our mother shouted a warning. But thunder and lightning belonged to Thor, and so did we. We were children of the North.
Well, not such children. My brother was sixteen, my sister thirteen, and I was eleven. We had lost the grace of childhood and become ungainly in our bodies. But there we were, leaping and waving, soaking and spinning, and laughing, all three of us, dancing in the southern downpour.
As a Northerner, how do you prepare for the South’s summer heat? You can’t. You can’t even describe it, through you try. Deliquescent, you might say, or oppressive. You struggle through the heavy air like one of those dreams where you’re trying to run. You don’t roast in Southern heat. You drown. It was like living in a terrarium.
But we were children, and children adjust. We more or less acclimated in the weeks before summer. In the early mornings, before the heat became unbearable, my sister and I found a pocket of time in which we could explore this strange new landscape.
We made strange Northern noises as we padded down red clay roads under overhanging trees that resonated with the songs of frogs, insects, and unfamiliar birds. We kept to the center, where we could see the telltale SSS of snakes as they crossed the road, the black scuttle of hairy tarantulas as they went about their scary business.
Within walking distance of our house, we came upon a still river, so dark and green that its depths were impossible to perceive. What was it called? We had no idea. It was just there. Was it shallow? Was it deep? Most importantly, were there snakes?
With great trepidation, we tiptoed across a concrete bridge that had no guardrails. We leaned towards each other, too frightened to shriek. It seemed to me that the viscous green water, thick as mud, would rise up over its sides and claim us, suck us down into the Arkansas waters, leaving behind no trace.
Within a few months, we were used to this different world. We made friends with neighbors who had horses and a private lake. We would modulate our voices to be heard over that symphony of flying, hopping, slithering, scuttling life. We would run across that concrete bridge without fear, without even thinking.
We wouldn’t even sweat.
No one would ever have accused us kids of being athletic, but water tends to be forgiving of that. We could splash and bob and shriek, practice our shitty crawls and pointless breaststrokes. Swimming in Arkansas gave us a break from the heat and boredom of our tiny town, and removed some of the awkwardness of our growing, graceless bodies.
As a forester, Dad had access to key information for water safety, like when a swimming hole had last been sprayed for copperheads. Once he’d decided the chance of poisonous snakebite was low, he’d pack up us three older kids in our family’s VW van and head for Jack Creek. Mom stayed home with the new air conditioner and the even newer baby brother.
Jack Creek was a pretty place. A diagonal upthrust of rock defined the swimming hole, and provided a place for the more daring to jump. Kids would scale the rocks, edge out, and plunge into what must have been the only water deep enough to safely enter.
How did they keep from breaking their necks?
Sister and I stuck to the still green waters. We would have done that without our mother’s warnings not to break our necks. I was cautious by nature, always watching for the S-shaped ripple of a swimming snake. We didn’t break our necks by jumping in, and we never got bit by snakes. Once, when we were sort of wallowing at the edge of the creekbed, a crawfish bit my sister in the butt. That was the extent of our misadventures with wildlife.
I would have lived at Jack Creek if I could. Swimming there gave us some low-key time with just our dad. He understood parts of parenting that our mother didn’t, like the fact that we needed to go outside once in a while. We would never jump off cliffs, but we needed nature, even if we stuck to the shady spots, muddy banks, and shallow waters.
I remember swimming at a lake in Arkansas. I thought it was called Green Lake, but I can’t find a lake by that name near Booneville out there on the Internet. My sister thinks it was a reservoir, but I remember seeing fish, and going out on a boat with a friend of the family’s who was fishing. Are there a lot of fish in reservoirs? I have no idea.
Anyway, if you’re reading this and you know what lake it was, leave a comment.
Because Arkansas is mild in the winter, and hot all the rest of the year, we went fairly often, but never often enough. We adored this lake. It had a sandy shore and trees nearby, offering shade if the heat became too much. There were picnic tables and a sense of social possibility. I was eleven when we moved to Arkansas and only twelve when we left, but adolescence was bearing down on my sister and me. There were boys at that lake, including those blonde and handsome Daffron/Daphren brothers.
One weekend, Mom and Dad had gone somewhere for the weekend—probably Fort Smith—leaving my sister and I in charge of our baby brother. Our older brother was away at college by this point. I was 12, which means my brother was a year old. Yes, we were all quite young to be left alone for a weekend, but my sister had been babysitting me since she was five and I was three, so we were used to it.
Anne and Tom—friends of my parents—knew we were home alone that weekend. They had possibly been enlisted to check in on us. Anne called and said Tom had the idea to take us to the lake. Would we like go to the lake with them? Oh, we wanted to go! But we couldn’t figure out how to handle a one year-old. Could we bring his playpen? Would it fit in their car? Would he be okay while we swam? Would Mom be mad?
My sister called them back and said we couldn’t go after all.
When my parents came home, we told them all about our almost-trip to the lake and our oh-so-mature decision not to go. We were pretty proud of ourselves, but I watched my mother’s face harden as we talked. Mom was stony and disapproving.
She finally said, “You know why Tom wanted to take you to the lake, don’t you?”
No, I didn’t. To have fun, maybe?
She hissed, “He wanted to see you in your swimsuits.”
The way she said it. I felt soiled and somehow responsible. That’s what happens to girls as we reach maturity milestones that trigger male interest. We blame ourselves for anything creepy.
As it turns out, that was the last opportunity we had to go to the lake. We moved to Montana soon after. There was nowhere safe to swim out at the Ranger Station. That didn’t stop me from testing the waters.
I would step into the churning, icy flow of the Gallatin River, hoping to make it to a rock before my feet froze. I was young and lonely and bored, and there was nothing else to do. Why not risk my life?
There was no swimming in that river. I missed those Arkansas waters, warm, lazy and green, my sister beside me, my dad watching to keep us safe.
I recently read this feature in the New Yorker about how there was a huge drop in the ages at which girls all over the world went into puberty during the pandemic.
This is a deep dive into the science of puberty, with an equally deep consideration of the emotional and social consequences of entering it early. It got me thinking about my own entrance into puberty. I knew I came to womanhood early in far too many ways, but I never actually thought about the biological side of it. I have tracked how I was pushed into premature adulthood by family pressures, but Nature had a hand in it, too.
In my childhood experience, boys were not interested in girls. They were interested in boy things, boy pastimes, boy games. Girls were beside the point. When boys started to notice girls, it was because of our parts.
I didn’t like being noticed for my parts.
I was a tall girl with subcutaneous body fat, so I began to develop in the fourth grade. So I was nine. I remember exactly where I was, what I was doing, and what I was wearing when this was pointed out to me. I was playing outside with two neighborhood boys. I had on a navy blue sweater dress with a tan striped collar, a hand-me-down from my sister.
It was complicated playing with boys and climbing trees in a dress, but this was after school, and in those days, in the Midwest at least, girls were not allowed to wear pants of any kind to school. So while playing, I did what I could to observe the forms of modesty, which was (I assume) the entire point of making girls wear dresses; to make us be careful and modest.
That day, one of the boys said to me with a little sneer in his voice, “You need a bra.” I looked down to see what he was talking about. Yes, there was something there, on my chest. Possibly those bumps were breasts. I didn’t want them, I didn’t need them, so I ignored them. But boys didn’t. That day of play was ruined, and I went home feeling shame and confusion.
I immediately told my mother what had happened, because I told her everything. She took me to be fitted for a training bra. From what I can tell, this particular garment has passed into the ether of outdated ideas, replaced by the bralette or the sports bra, so let me describe it for you.
The training bra was a flimsy little apparatus built along the lines of an actual bra, but without a support function. It was intended to get a girl used to the idea of a bra. She would learn to fasten the hooks, adjust the straps, and live with the protrusion of a small rosette trim between her nonexistent breasts.
In the literature of the training bra, there are two kinds of girls. One longs for the training bra. She thinks it is the prettiest thing in the world. She can’t wait for her dainty bra straps to show. She knows if the rosette shows, her top is too tight. Her bra is a rite of passage, a lacy privilege. She feels celebrated.
And then, there are girls like me, as illustrated by the New Yorker piece.
In Judy Blume’s 1970 young-adult novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” which has served as a puberty handbook of sorts for generations of girls, a character named Laura Danker looms awkwardly on the periphery. Laura is studious, very shy, and very tall. When the eleven-year-old narrator of the book, Margaret Simon, sees Laura on the first day of school, she mistakes her for a teacher, not a fellow sixth grader. “You could see the outline of her bra through her blouse and you could also tell from the front that it wasn’t the smallest size,” Margaret observes. “She sat down alone and didn’t talk to anyone.” … Laura’s body commands a chaotic attention from her peers: by turns affronted and leering, repelled and keenly envious. Her body provokes their imagination, then serves to corroborate whatever they might imagine. Laura belongs nowhere: a head taller than all the boys, arms crossed over her chest, feeling the shame and confusion of the eleven-year-old she is but does not look like.
As I recall, Margaret liked getting her training bra. My own appointment in the lingerie department of a large store was a humiliating debacle, because you’re not supposed to spill out of a training bra. I was already past the training stage. My mother, unsure of what to do, simply left without buying me anything.
That was fine with me. I wanted nothing to do with such a confining contraption. I went back to ignoring the entire issue of breasts, even though the boys didn’t.
Coming of age is tricky and difficult. Some children seem to sprint gracefully into it like gazelles, but those are outward appearances. Internal realities are probably different.
My own experience was not graceful. I became the focus of unwanted attention and there was no taking it off me. My bodily privacy had been violated by early development. This wasn’t fair. I was a child, surrounded by other children. They were allowed to live their lives as kids, unencumbered in a particular way I was not. I felt confusion and shame. Shame, because that’s the backbone of how girls are socialized, and confusion, because even then, I knew I hadn’t chosen early puberty or the assumption of maturity it thrust upon me.
This bit of the New Yorker article spoke to me, even though it is specific to Black girls, who tend to go into puberty early.
A 2017 report from the Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality studied the impact of “adultification,” a phenomenon in which children are socialized to act older than they are, and in which Black kids, specifically, are perceived as “less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers”—less in need, or less deserving, of the kinds of protections that childhood confers.
At age ten, grown men began flirting with me. I remember one in particular. I was sitting on the dryer in our sunny utility porch in Rapid City, holding court during an afternoon potluck. I thought it was my superior wit engaging the attention of this man in his twenties. I was a sharp, sarcastic kid, there is no doubt about it. But more likely, it was the allure of a very tall, very young girl with pretty eyes and the clear beginnings of a womanly body.
At the end of fifth grade, we moved to Arkansas. The South declares open season on girls at an early age. We lived way out of town on a farm, and my neighboring-farm boyfriend was a perfect gentleman, but puberty had arrived. My father finally made my mother understand that she had to do something about the bra issue.
Of course, she told me that. “Your dad told me you needed to start wearing a bra.” There was a note of derision in how she said it. Again, I felt the shame.
I’ve thought about this too much. There was nothing creepy about him saying this. He was pointing out the very obvious facts of the situation my mother and I were ignoring. But he’d only been my dad since I was nine. In certain ways, my new father was much better at parenting than my mother. He had a Midwestern Minnesota handle on what childhood should include for children, and the stages we would be going through as we left it. But I was eleven, and scalded by embarrassment.
Why did my mom even tell me it was Dad, anyway? Wasn’t that the creepy part of it? Her telling me? Maybe she knew how resistant I was to the contraption, and she wanted backup.
At any rate, she brought home what she thought would fit, and I wore it.
I also started my period that year at age eleven. I understood the first morning I woke up in a bloody bed that childhood was over for me.
I started high school at age 12, because you started high school in seventh grade in Booneville. I was sent to the principal’s office for wearing shorts under my skirts. I thought this was a solution to the problems caused by not being able to wear pants to school, but it was explained to me that it made me less modest.
As a young lady, it was my job to keep my knees together. I was threatened with a “whupping” should it happen again. Yes, you still got whupped by the principal in 1972. And of course, I kept wearing shorts under my skirts because I found this all absolutely ridiculous.
This was the South. Boys came knocking, but I was not as mature as my body. This attention was disconcerting, sometimes even frightening because it did not come from boys my age. The boys I liked in my class (Melvin, Todd, Bruce) were way shorter than me. In the sixth grade, I was 5’5” and they were nowhere near that. Especially Todd, the class clown, who was hilarious but really short. And that was okay, because it was easier for me to garner no attention, than to garner the kind of attention I was too young to want.
This is an excerpt from the article, quoting a woman named Megan Gray, who went into puberty at age eight. “When you’re shamed at a young age for a sexuality that you don’t even have, I think it inhibits you from developing a sexuality. I began to associate people seeing me in a sexual way, or even as attractive, as a negative. At the same time, when you’re entering that age, you do want people to like you. And you want to like other people. There was that constant tension of, you know, liking is good, but attraction is bad, even if, on a rational level, I understood that wasn’t true. That contradiction started very young.”
The best word to describe my feelings for boys at this time was, longing. I was longing for boys. I enjoyed this feeling, but preferred that the boys in question not be real. Teen idols fit in nicely, because you could long for them without any complications or expectations. You could practice safely. This also coincided with the growth of deeply imaginative play for me and my sister, in which my characters were always male. I felt safer when I pretended to be male. My own precipitous puberty and unwelcome sexuality were held at bay while playing at being a boy. Somehow, this allowed me to recover my bodily privacy.
But sometimes, I longed for real boys.
My family lived in Booneville, and Tommy and Floyd Daphren, or maybe it was Daffron, I don’t remember, lived in a neighboring town. They both had very wavy blonde hair down to their shoulders. I think Floyd was fifteen and Tommy was seventeen. My sister and I encountered them at the lake.
Tommy was tall and silent and stunningly handsome to my 12 year-old eyes. Just looking at him struck me dumb. I mean, he wore his hair parted down the middle. Floyd was smaller and funnier and should therefore have been my type, but my heart longed for Tommy. I was possessed with the idea of wearing his FFA jacket (dark blue corduroy trucker style with a big FFA emblem on the back and his name embroidered over the left chest pocket, if you’ve never seen one).
I did manage to chat him up at a dance. I found myself standing next to him, and cracked his stunning but rather blank façade of beauty with wisecracks. Humor was a start, but I already understood that if I wanted a boy like this, an older boy, some sort of physical contact would be involved. I was only twelve, but if we hadn’t left Arkansas, I might have been able to land him.
My parents hated Arkansas. As kids, we were happy there, academically successful, socially accepted. My older brother was possibly less enamored of the place than my sister and me, but he’d won a scholarship to art school in Minneapolis, so he went back first. My liberal parents were desperate to go back North, so we left Arkansas for Montana. Was that supposed to be an improvement? Rural Montana? Was that a hotbed of liberal thought in 1973?
We stopped in Minneapolis to see my father’s family on the way. My great-grandfather Otto took one look at me and exclaimed, “What? You’re not married yet?” I said, “Grandpa! I’m twelve!” The house erupted in laughter. As my adoptive great-grandfather, he could be forgiven for not keeping track of my age.
I finished coming of age in Montana, a gorgeous, isolated combination of natural paradise and traumatic hellhole where my young life went completely off track.
To quote the New Yorker:
The stigma of early development in girls is particularly painful because, in some cases, it may perpetuate a vicious cycle. An article published in the Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, in May, found that early puberty put girls at higher risk for obesity, type-2 diabetes, breast cancer, and heart disease along with “depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and antisocial behaviors,” “earlier onset of sexual activity, higher number of sexual partners, and higher likelihood of substance use, delinquency, and low academic achievement.” The journal Hormones and Behavior, in 2013, argued that “early maturing girls are at unique risk for psychopathology.” A Pediatrics article titled “Early Puberty, Negative Peer Influence, and Problem Behaviors in Adolescent Girls,” from 2013, stated, “Early timing of puberty and affiliation with deviant friends are associated with higher levels of delinquent and aggressive behavior. Early-maturing adolescents tend to affiliate with more-deviant peers and appear more susceptible to negative peer influences.”
This photo was taken five or six years after the first photo in this post.
At fourteen, I was drinking heavily and sexually active. At fifteen, I left home.
When I consider my life, my misspent youth, I have failed to consider biology and generational trauma. I have thought too much about the emotional factors involved in this (see my last blog post), and not enough about the other factors.
I inherited much of my biology from my mother. It’s more than just the look of our bodies, so similar that you’d be forgiven for mistaking us for each other from behind. It’s more than the lipedema, it’s more than our wonky foreguts. If you just looked at us together, you would see it.
Mom hurtled into life. She grew up very fast, but to me, she seemed happy about it. According to family lore, she actually wanted to grow up faster than she did. She wanted to marry a sailor named Red at age fifteen, but was forbidden to do so by her parents. He was banished from the premises, so my mother married another sailor named Burl and had my older brother at seventeen.
The seeds for this were planted by her early development. She was four years younger than her sister, but taller than her by age twelve. This was exceedingly rare in the 1950s, a child who looked like a grown woman. My mother tagged along with the older kids like I did, but my sister is only two years older than me. What did it mean to my mother, to be running with the sixteen year-olds when she was twelve? Why was she allowed to go at life so early? And how could she let me do the same, when she knew where it could lead?
Oh Mom, I am trying so hard to understand.
Maybe the New Yorker can help.
A tall, developed ten-year-old who has reached menarche may not be chronologically older than a petite, flat-chested ten-year-old who has not—but she is, in a real sense, physically and even experientially older. Adults and other children will almost inevitably relate to the girl differently—and not necessarily even in a sexualized way, although that is of grave concern; but intellectually, socially, emotionally. They may have advanced expectations of her, and she may strive to meet those expectations or fail to, and, either way, that cycle of stimulus and response is determining her place in her social milieu, conjuring a mirror in which she sees herself, and wiring her brain in configurations that subtly differ from those of her average-developing peers. Nature begets nurture. For this girl, the hands of the clock simply go faster.
I tried to shield my own girls from this fate. I tried too hard. I wanted my girls to be children, not women. I hid my beautiful, bountiful mixed-race daughters out here in a White suburb, where they went untouched by the pencil-necked White boys. As a result, my girls didn’t understand their own beauty. I hope they can forgive me for that. For the most part, I think they have.
My daughters and I were texting the other day, as we do most days, on and off, all day long. I told them I was doing a deep dive into the music of our past. I texted, “I only have one question. How did we all survive the Fiona Apple “Tidal” CD? It’s like stepping onto a loopy dangerous adolescent carousel ride. Brilliant, but Jesus.”
This led to a declaration that “Being virgins in adolescence saved us,” from one daughter. Then, of sex in your teens, I said, “It is an unnecessary complication.” The girls tapped their little “HaHa” icons onto the corner of this text, because of course a mother would say this. But I stand by it. It is too much, too soon.
Biology is inevitable. I couldn’t stop it for my daughters, but I could extend the protections of childhood to their young selves while their minds and emotions caught up with their bodies. Or maybe I overprotected them.
Maybe I hurt them in other ways. Maybe I always did everything wrong.
I’m sure of only one thing.
All quotes are from Annals of Medicine – Why More and More Girls Are Hitting Puberty Early: A pandemic-era rise in early puberty may help physicians to better understand its causes. By Jessica Winter, published October 27, 2022, © 2022 Condé Nast, all rights reserved