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.
Photo courtesy Pixabay
I have always despised smoking and loved smokers. That’s where the action is, at a party. Outside with the smokers, even when you’re not smoking a cigarette, like me. In fact, my first stab at writing a memoir was titled “Not Smoking.”
My parents (one mom, an original father, an eventual dad) smoked with the abandon of people who took up the habit long before the surgeon general’s warning went on the packets. My childhood was spent choking my way through a hazy scrim of tobacco smoke, complaining and whining with every breath.
When I was eleven, I spent a year removing my parents’ cigarettes from the pack, drawing a red line round the midpoint of each cigarette with a red felt tip, and carefully returning them to the package. I did this to entire cartons of cigarettes for most of a year in order to keep my parents from smoking down into the dangerous second half of the cigarette (something I saw on a PSA, I’m sure). My dad smoked them down anyway, but Mom trained herself to only ever smoke half a cigarette in deference to my concerns.
It was inconceivable that I would ever smoke.
We’d left Arkansas shortly before my thirteenth birthday and moved to a log cabin on a ranger station in Montana. It was almost as rustic as it sounds, aside from the electricity and indoor plumbing. The name “Gallatin” will be overly used in this forthcoming sentence, because we lived in the Gallatin Valley carved by the Gallatin River through the Gallatin Range, named after Albert Gallatin, who was the longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury, and let’s just top this all off with the fact that I went to school in Gallatin Gateway. My sister went to school in Bozeman.
I don’t quite understand what had happened to us in Montana. In Arkansas, we were academically gifted girls who sang in the choir and had boyfriends. At age twelve, I’d been attending high school in Booneville, because it started in seventh grade. I was an odd one who only ever had one friend at a time, and counted myself lucky to have that one. My sister actually ran in cliques. She’d always included me in Arkansas.
Montana was a social challenge for both of us, since we lived an hour’s bus ride from our respective schools. She went to the bus stop later than I did, and was dropped off earlier. I was the first stop, out there in the icy darkness before 7am, and also the last dropped off. I assumed this was because the bus driver, like almost everyone else at Gateway, hated me. I had left Booneville High behind for a K through 8 grade school, and I did not fit in.
My sister wasn’t having much more luck. After a little recon, it became clear to her that even though we were “good kids” with excellent grades and definite nerd-like qualities, the only social group we stood a chance with in Bozeman was the hoods. You know, the heads, the stoners, the greasers, whatever you called them in your hometown back in the olden days. They were the hoods in Bozeman, Montana.
To be a hood, you had to smoke.
My sister had run away for a short time (I was in eighth grade, she must have been in tenth). She hitchhiked to Minneapolis and stayed with a friend from her junior high years. She returned a smoker. I wasn’t, so we stole a pack of Benson & Hedges 100s from the refrigerator shelf where my parents stored their signature smokes and went down to crouch on the riverbank.
She coached me in the fine art of inhaling. I would draw deeply, filling my mouth with the foul, forbidden smoke. “Like this?”
“No, you have to inhale it in,” she’d say.
The smoke would come out of my mouth and make my eyes water. I’d give it another try. “Am I doing it now?”
She would study me and shake her head. “You have to breathe it.”
I had no idea how to do that, which makes no sense because it was just breathing. I knew how to breathe. I kept trying.
Eventually, it was too cold down by the river. But my sister could drive. My parents had graduated from the VW Microbus to a pair of VW Beetles. One was a bright orange Super Beetle, and that was our parents’ car. The other was older, with a dull red paint job, and that was the one we could drive the twenty miles to Bozeman whenever we wanted to.
You might wonder why a pair of wayward sisters aged fourteen and sixteen were allowed to drive into a college town, basically at will. I can’t answer that for you. I wonder myself. There were absolutely no parameters put on our behavior by my parents, other than not bothering them.
Our father might try to be stern with us at our mother’s behest—in fact, that was why my sister ran away, because he’d yelled at her for something. Her running away ended his attempts to restore some order to our adolescence. So, it was my mother who made the rules. And her rule was, there were no rules. We could wear what we wanted, eat what we wanted, read what we wanted, go where we wanted. Or not! Mom didn’t care, as long as we didn’t involve her.
If we drove to Bozeman and came home at three in the morning, she did not care. If we received terrible grades, she did not care. If we skipped school but were clever enough to forge our own attendance excuses, she did not care. Even if I misbehaved at school badly enough to involve a call home, she didn’t care, unless it somehow embarrassed her, in which case I heard about it. But if we argued, and the noise from that impinged on our mother’s mental airspace, then all holy hell would rain down. We learned to argue in whispers.
My sister drove us to Bozeman often. My family was broke as usual, but we would always have a little babysitting money. We knew how to make that last.
We dragged Main, because even with the gas crisis, we were in a VW Bug and it basically ran on air. We went to Sambo’s for coffee (“Ask Me About The Tiger Club!”) because coffee cost a dime. We sat there for hours, taking up a four-top for a twenty cent tab. We went to midnight movies, even though I often fell asleep because I was a growing child. We sat at the Western Café so she could ogle her crush, who worked there as a busboy (his name was Bob, he had a sheepskin coat and a gurgling laugh, and when he pierced her ears with a needle and dental floss, she fainted).
And we went to the Student Union Building (the SUB we called it) at Montana State University. The SUB was in a basement. It held pool tables, bowling lanes, and an enormous commons that had a fantastic jukebox. It was the jukebox we loved. We only played two songs, “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder, and “Reeling in the Years” by Steely Dan. There must have been a serious sound system involved, because you could hear the two glorious guitars dueling their way from speaker to speaker in the latter.
(put in your earbuds and crank the volume for maximum enjoyment and hearing damage)
Here, finally, I finally smoked my first cigarette. The pilfered Benson & Hedges 100. It went down easy. I was instantly cool. Inhaling was just breathing, after all. I laughed, I gestured, I casually tapped off my ash. When I’d smoked a respectable amount, I stubbed it out like a pro. I felt unbelievably sophisticated.
And then, I became incredibly sick.
This was floor-tilting-vertigo, stomach-roiling, green-at-the-gills-nauseated sick. I was definitely going to throw up. Soon. I lurched up from the table and off to the bathroom, where I opened the door on a nightmarish scene of diarrhea overflow that sent me reeling back out. I staggered to the bathrooms by the bowling lanes, barely making it to a toilet to avoid creating my own nightmarish bathroom scene.
I returned to the table, pale and trembling. My sister was concerned. She got me a Coke, I think. After an hour of sipping and shaking I was fine, but it was a difficult hour. After that, my sister and I understood that I would have to earn my hood status another way. Smoking was off the table. Thankfully, my ability to drink an entire Colt 45 40-ouncer in one night did the trick.
It wasn’t smoking, but it would have to do.
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
I’ve committed a few instances of physical assault in my life, but just a precious few. Here’s one of those instances.
I’ve written before about my years in Montana, specifically those spent living on the Squaw Creek Ranger Station. I have to (again) point out that this is no longer the name of a ranger station, and for this, we can all be grateful. But that’s what it was called in 1973 when I lived there. As recently as when this article was published, people still remembered “Squaw Creek Station,” but when I visited in the spring of 2011, I found a deserted accumulation of log buildings and some other name on the sign.
The station was 20 miles from Bozeman. It was only eight miles to the closest town of Gallatin Gateway, where I went to school. I had to ride a bus to get there, and I was the first picked up and the last dropped off on a route that took us from one farm or ranch to another. I rode that bus for an hour each way, each day, and met the bus at 6:50 AM in all kinds of weather. They don’t close for storms in rural Montana. Storms just come with the territory. But I had a down jacket and a wool hat, so I never got frostbite.
We were isolated on the ranger station. In particular, I was isolated. I didn’t exactly fit in at Gallatin Gateway Elementary, a place where I became very, very mean in retaliation for the bullying I endured on the daily. There was no place for me in the social order of that tiny town. My parents were educated liberals, and I freely (loudly, repeatedly) espoused the beliefs they’d instilled in me, so even my teacher loathed me. In that school of 80 kids (K through 8), I was the foreign body that did not belong. I felt it keenly.
My sister was less isolated by virtue of being older. She went to high school in Bozeman, which is only 12 miles away from Gateway, but maybe 20 years ahead in attitudes and thinking. That meant my sister had town friends who lived in ranch homes with multiple bedrooms and multiple bathrooms. My sister’s friends’ parents taught at the university, or owned car dealerships, or drove long distance truck routes. Her friends often skied on the weekends, so they might have gone past the ranger station on their way to the Big Sky ski resort. When they rode home with her on the bus to spend the night, they brought little patterned suitcases full of cute pajamas, Bonnie Bell 10.0.6 facial scrub, sometimes a favored bed pillow.
I found my sister’s friends to be irresistibly glamorous.
My sister’s friend Jenna was coming over for the weekend. Jenna had a few remarkable attributes. She was even meaner than I was. Her house was huge (I think her dad was a trucker). Her hair, which appeared to be naturally white blonde, was close cropped, even shorter than a pixie. It was almost a crew cut.
This was a remarkably badass hairstyle to be rocking in 1973. Most of us were growing our hair as long as we possibly could and parting it down the middle, which was a difficult style for me to wear because I have an asymmetrical face and a long, very prominent nose, so I hacked away with cuticle scissors to create some bangs to lessen the starkness and called it good.
Jenna’s hair was professionally cut at a salon (I think we still called them beauty parlors back then). Along with her remarkabe hairstyle, she had a sense of humor that was almost as mean as mine. I’m sure when we got together, it was a battle of teenaged wits, like the Sharks vs the Jets but with verbal knives. As a ferociously unhappy adolescent, I always looked forward to Jenna’s visits. On this particular weekend, we had something else to anticipate.
Todd Rundgren was going to be on Midnight Special that week.
Now, for those of you who don’t know, Midnight Special was a big deal in the early seventies. Appearing on it was a badge of honor that meant you’d arrived, so I’m sure it was something special for the performers. But for the television audience, it was a chance to see performances by bands that might never come through your area (though a surprising amount of bands did come through, because Bozeman is a college town).
The week’s lineup would be announced in my brother’s Rolling Stone, which was another highlight for us rural kids living out in the middle of nowhere. And if the band or the performer was exciting enough, I would make the effort to stay up until midnight, which was HUGE for me because I loved to sleep. Sleep has always been one of my favorite pastimes, seriously, because I could escape whatever social hellhole I was living in and dream of something better.
So I’m saying, it had to be a big deal for me to make it until 1 AM, even on a weekend.
Todd Rundgren was a big deal.
I’ve written about this before. My older brother, sister and I were odd kids in our own special ways. I was just too tall and weird and had far too large a nose for Montana. I mean, I understand that now, due to visiting Pendleton, Oregon. There is a way women are supposed to be in cowboy country, which is trim and perky and small in body, facial features, and attitude. Think of barrel racers. There is just nothing trim or perky or small about me, and I doubt there ever has been. I’m built more along the lushly overgrown model. There’s not a lot of demand for pre-Raphaelite women in the world of rodeos and stock auctions.
I didn’t understand this at 12 and 13. In Arkansas I’d been considered smart, pretty, and talented, but when we moved to Montana I was moved over into the category of aberrant freak. Same me, same nose, same build, different surroundings. I leaned into it hard. They wanted a freak, they got one.
But I was just part of the problem. My brother was extremely obese by the standards of the day, though he was not at all near the weights I see on TV these days. People just weren’t fat back then, they simply were not fat. So Montana was hell for him, too. My sister appeared the most normal, but she was fighting an internal war on a hellscape that’s not my place to write about. She might have looked fine, but she really wasn’t. So we escaped our lives as best we could. One of those ways was music.
We were an extremely musical family. Steve could play the guitar, and we could all sing, and boy did we. We listened to albums until they wore out, singing along with all the lyrics, guitar solos, horn parts, even the violins. If there was a note to hit, we hit it. We learned record after record verbatim, and some of them still sit in my hind brain, a full library of songs ready to be triggered by two opening notes.
I knew every note, skip, intake of breath on Something/Anything. Even when I didn’t like a song (Black Mariah) I learned it. I studied the lyrics sheets, read and reread the liner notes, and looked carefully at the two photos of Todd on the covers. I felt I knew Todd Rundgren, and I was thrilled to finally see him perform.
The anticipation was high. I’m sure I preplayed my favorite tracks for Jenna, monopolizing her in the way of a socially starved younger sister. She probably got the whole tour of my favorite Todd songs.
We also had pops that night. Not sodas or Cokes or soft drinks (did anyone anywhere ever actually call them soft drinks?) We had pops.
That was a special treat laid in for the overnight visitor to the ranger station.
It was a big deal to have pop in my household, growing up, because it was considered a treat. My mother carefully rationed all treats including our pop consumption, and really made an occasion of getting a pop.
I have sense memories of hot weather, my brother and sister and I in the back seat of a large car, the glare of a prairie summer. We went somewhere in the tiny town of Claremont, South Dakota, and there was an old cooler-type machine where I put in my nickel, and lifted the lid, and wrested out one bottle of pop. The bottles were reused, so sometimes my bottle showed a lot of wear, but occasionally it was pristine. I got a strawberry Crush, and those bottles were quite textured. As I popped off the cap on a built-in bottle opener on the side of the cooler, I loved that satisfying plink. My brother and sister did the same, and I have no idea what they drank, only that it wasn’t Crush.
This was pop (not soda, never soda) in my childhood. A big treat. A special trip. Destination, selection, and anticipation.
So we’d all have our pops, yes? And then I would take a sip, and the double blast of carbonation and chemical flavors would swarm up into my palate and drill right up into my brain. I’d think I was going to die. My brother and sister watched patiently while I tried to drink it, knowing I’d hand it off after a few sips because I literally could not make myself finish this weird explosion of sugar, metal, and fizz.
The truth is, I hate pop. I hated it then, and I hate it now. But there were years when I tried to enjoy what everyone else was enjoying, and that evening in Montana was one of those occasions.
For the watching of Midnight Special, I had a can of cheap orange pop.
So there we were in front of the television, in a state of high anticipation. Me, my sister, and Jenna, and whatever pop Mom had let us purchase. I was practically levitating with anticipation.
And here came Todd at the piano, with his sweet long face, crooked teeth, and feathers artistically arranged around his eyes and shoulders and, well, everywhere.
Jenna’s reaction was immediate. “Oh my God,” she said while laughing at me. “Look at him. He’s a faggot. He’s such a faggot. I can’t believe what a faggot he is. Look at that faggot.”
She might have said more, but she was cut short because as soon as she started in on my feather-festooned idol, I put my thumb over the opening of my pop can and started shaking. A stark wall of fury slammed down inside me. Yes, I was furious at her insults, because one, he looked beautiful, and two, I loved David Bowie and Marc Bolan and a whole crew of gender benders, but anger was beside the point.
This was Todd Rundgren.
I removed my thumb and sprayed her top to bottom with sticky orange pop. The look on her face.
It was wonderful.
What came after was perhaps less wonderful. There was pop all over everywhere, not just on Jenna, and my sister was upset, and Jenna was absolutely stunned. I of course had to apologize and clean up all that pop. She took a shower and put on her pajamas. We probably washed her clothes. I’m sure it was a long night.
But I have never enjoyed another pop quite as much as I enjoyed that one.
Here’s another performance by Todd. It’s supposed to be the first one of the evening, but I don’t think it was. I sure didn’t see it that night. Maybe my mother made us turn off the TV after my pop assault of Jenna, or maybe this was a different episode of Midnight Special. I just saw it last week, 48 years later at this link in (of course) Rolling Stone.
Enjoy. Todd on Midnight Special
It’s a lonely place where I stand with Springsteen. It’s difficult, not enjoying an American musical icon.
I was reminded of this when I left an offhand Facebook comment about a Bruce Springsteen concert that broke some kind length record. Hours and hours of the Boss, and my comment was, “I’m sorry, but this is my worst nightmare.” Another person left another, “I know, right?” kind of comment below me with one of those out-sized Facebook emojis or stickers or whatever they are. Another commenter rushed in to scold us both for even commenting ,as clearly we are part of what’s broken in America, pointing out that the “If you can’t say something nice” mentality that used to govern all areas of discourse is gone, and even though it never existed, it’s our fault. She and the other commenter commenced rolling around in one of those comment fights where neither person is right. I just rolled my eyes and remembered why offhand Facebook comments are usually a bad idea.
I remember when my brother brought home “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.”
I didn’t know exactly where Asbury Park, NJ, was, to be honest (I was thirteen and living on a ranger station). New Jersey was not a real place to me, but I assumed it had something to do with New York. New York in the 1970s was notoriously dangerous, gritty, and fascinating to a girl living in the clear mountain air of Montana. And I knew the record (yes, an LP) was something strange and different. The raw tumble of his sorrowful voice, the sheer velocity (stuff came out of him in a torrent), the complexity of the lyrics set against such unadorned production. I listened to it on the headphones a few times, trying to puzzle it out. Then I put it back on the shelf and went back to Todd Rundgren and Cat Stevens.
The Pointer Sisters, and their beautiful single “Fire.” Though it was the Pointer Sisters I was noticing, Bruce was an aside. “Did you know,” my fellow highschoolers would say, “That’s a Bruce Springsteen song?” No, I hadn’t known that. Somehow, my older brother arranged to play me his version–maybe it was a B-side and he sent me a single, because we lived in different states, but I heard it. It was okay. I love to mimic people, and Bruce sang “Fiiiiire” like he was from Alabama, not New Jersey. The best part of his version, for me, was singing along in that twangy, hokey way. But I liked this version so much more.
I’m on Fire – 1984. This was a Bruce I understood, a taciturn, blue collar Bruce with axle grease under his fingernail. I loved the song the first time I heard it, though how it made it to popular radio in 1984, I’ll never understand. This is a cowboy song, with the low-range, giddyup phrasing, the sorrowful class-difference theme, the lonesome whoo-hoos taking you down a highway and far away from that beautiful, tempting, lonely wife. It’s a Johnny Cash song. And the video? When Bruce rolls out from under that car?
This remains my favorite Bruce Springsteen song of all time.
The other song he released in 1984–the song that made his career–was also a favorite, because you could kind of dance to it. And in the video, you can see Bruce kind of dancing to it.
Like, is that really dancing? Does it matter when he looks so cute? And Clarence Clemens? And Courtney Cox in her sneakers? A moment in music history, and I loved it.
Lake Oswego is beautiful little Oregon town that remains oh-so-exclusive and clannish. The big draw in LO is not the lake, which is crowded and somewhat polluted. It’s the schools, which crank out well-educated children. If they could build walls around it, they would, but instead they erect a barrier of class, inflated property values and income. And that’s fine, really, the rich people have to live somewhere and I understand that rubbing elbows with people like me, who shop at the Grocery Outlet, is something they’d rather not do. But this was where Julianne Phillips came from. And Bruce seems like the kind of guy who forgets his deodorant, who wears his socks several days in a row, who says “ain’t.”
Now, I don’t know Bruce. But Bruce Springsteen was a kind of man I recognized. He would have been part of my social group in 1974; tough boys and tougher girls shouldering their way through adolescence in Bozeman, Montana. When my parents moved us there, I’m sure they had no idea that Montana would take my sister and I, who had been high-achieving, activities-involved honor students in Arkansas, and turn us into tough, scruffy hoods. It was a socially polarized place. We were outsiders who had no chance of breaking in. We frizzed our hair, patched our jeans and fell in with a crowd of tough boys who would grow up to become garbage men and auto mechanics.
He would have been there with us, part a group of brothers who all wore sheepskin-lined jackets, who stole their cigarettes, got drunk on cheap beer, wired together some heap that was never insured or street legal, and spent their weekend days working in gas stations and their weekend nights at keggers. It was a time of drinking, drugs, basement apartments, rusty trailers and junkyards. Bruce would have fit right in, right up until his musical genius lifted him up and away.
That’s why I knew his marriage to Julianne would never last. I knew they would fail in some painful, class-based way. But she inspired the most beautiful song he ever wrote, in my opinion, a song that gives me shivers because it’s an ode to the part of a woman she keeps to herself.
Bruce Springsteen is a musical icon. I recognize his genius, his longevity, his importance. He has good politics and bedroom eyes. Bruce Springsteen has released almost 300 songs in his long career.
And I only love four of them.