Authors: Shere Hite
My grandmother had a ritual she followed every night to get ready for bed. Standing in the bathroom, she would take off her clothes while running the bath water, the door open. (Why did she leave the door open? Because the bathroom was so small? Because, with it closed, she felt claustrophobic? Lonely? Maybe with it open, she could keep more of an eye on me.) Then, seeming not too agile (due to her heavy weight), she would manage to get into the tub, filled only with about ten centimetres of water, and wash. After the bath, she would stand by the sink, cover her body with scented dusting powder, then let her hair down. Sometimes she brushed it one hundred strokes over her head, bending over. When she did this, she presented me with a full view of her buttocks and hips. After this, she
would pull one of her pale pastel nylon nightgowns over her head, and put cream on her face.
When I saw my grandmother’s big, hulking nude shape – for she was very heavy – emerge from the tub or stand by the sink, I didn’t identify it as beautiful, but ugly or fascinatingly ugly, perhaps. Why? Was I influenced by seeing perfume ads with thin women at the drugstore? I didn’t like her large abdomen, thighs and pendulous breasts. Why? After all, my grandmother’s body – though only later did I realize it – being the shape it was, looked much like the
with its pendulous breasts and large powerful buttocks.
I felt odd looking at her nude hips. If she were standing in the bathroom naked, getting ready for bed, I felt I shouldn’t look. But I couldn’t help staring at her exposed flesh. Her skin was a lovely pale colour. I wondered with fascination how she was made. She was bigger than life, even more so when she was nude before me. I felt she was raw when I would see her like that – an animal. I felt strange when her fat pink-white flesh quivered. Also, her physical strength and size were intimidating to me. Since, in our life together, she sometimes slapped me or made rough motions as if to push me, I was also always a little on the look-out for her displeasure. She appeared four times taller than I was, even taller than my grandfather.
Although she never seemed to feel uncomfortable or self-conscious when nude around me, I felt shy if nude around her. Is it because a child has so little privacy? Because adults bathe you and touch you as if your body were theirs, you were their property, something to be
washed and fed? Her body was so different from mine, and was the only other female body I had ever seen nude. Her body’s crevices seemed secret and forbidden. I could not even begin to imagine that children had come out of her stomach. Of course I never saw her vulva or personal parts, though I did see once in a while, a little grey bristly pubic hair there. I was afraid to peer, or ask for permission to look closer. Did I even think of this consciously?
Perhaps I didn’t like her nakedness, her hips, and breasts, because she herself didn’t like them, or even like or respect her body very much. Perhaps she thought it was ‘less nice’ than spiritual things, which were ‘good’, the body being ‘animal’. She resented her body, and wanted to deny its needs and identity. Or maybe, as a child, I simply failed to understand her.
I suppose a nude body inevitably looks vulnerable compared to one dressed or covered. The soft parts, her nipples or her belly, appeared fragile and pale and not very muscular, though her legs and arms were. She felt her best feature was her ankles (thin and elegant). All her life, she spent the little luxury money she had on hosiery: this is what she always asked for as her Christmas and birthday presents. The stockings she liked were skin tone beige, and she wore them suspended from the garter straps on her girdle when she went out. At home, under a housedress, she hitched them in 1920s-style, twisting the tops tight and knotting them.
At night, after the hair-brushing ritual, she would come to my bedroom, and we would kneel together on the floor to say our prayers.
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Why all this talk of death before sleeping? Every night we got down on our knees by the bed, with me reciting these lines, which were also hung hand-embroidered in a white frame above my bed on the wall
There was a period of time when things were very bad, when my grandmother seemed to become very unhappy. I wrote in my diary:
I fear you. I fear you with the totality of every breath that’s in me. You are an absolute dictator. I am a caged animal with you, wary, watching every movement you make, understanding every word, every silence, every change in breathing almost before you make them, always ready to run or jockey for self-protection.
But I have made my peace: I asked myself if to die mattered, and decided to die could not be worse, I could transcend death, should it be necessary. It is not the most important thing after all; what really matters is to make something of life, if at all possible.
Shouldn’t people have noticed there was a problem, and done something to help me? Were they all, especially those at church, hypocrites? But then, I didn’t tell anyone. There didn’t seem to be anyone I could tell It would have seemed disloyal. But in ninth grade, when I was about twelve, I did tell someone. I asked the Dean of Women at school to help me. Trembling and
ashamed, early in the morning before the first bell rang for classes, I entered her office and stammered to her, ‘I’m afraid at home.’ This perfectly coiffed matron was visibly unsettled. Horrified, she became very impatient, and, trying to leave the room, pronounced curtly, ‘Well, what do you want me to do about it?’ I felt deeply ashamed and stupid, ‘I don’t know …’
She was angry I had told her. I hadn’t expected that. She had seemed so warm that day she had given a speech of welcome to all of us, the new freshman girls, saying how she was our school mother, and wanted to help us. With her and the school we would grow up to become young women. I began to see that she wanted to preside over the ‘right kind of girls’, ones with social status, not girls who had problems at home. Family troubles would seem lower class, and might rub off on her. I realized that the richer girls had been the ones (so far) asked to join the Student Council and Principal’s Student Advisory Committee, as well as certain clubs. But how could the school tell so easily which part of town we lived in, and how much money our parents had, I wondered.
Strangely, even in the midst of my grandmother’s outbursts towards me, my inner happiness continued. I remember the large trees, their green leaves in summer, the grass and how it smelled (especially after mowing the lawn), the rabbits, so many squirrels and birds – and my black dog with the curly hair – what we ate for
dinner (the fried chicken on Sundays), breakfast (cod-liver oil, followed by oatmeal, or fried leftover oatmeal with Karo syrup), the fudge on Saturdays. Playing with the electric train at Christmas, the way it smelled. Orange pop coming out of my nose when I drank it too fast one hot day, sitting on the front steps while the bus passed by and everyone watched with curiosity.
But, one night when I was lying in bed, supposed to be sleeping – my grandmother had whipped me that day in the yard with branches she tore off the spiraea bushes, great slashing whips that cut through the air (but looked more violent than they felt, I just felt humiliated wondering if the neighbours were looking through their windows) – I got up and stole out of the house. I went to stay with my grandfather.
Still, I sympathized with her, despite her terrorizing me, because I knew she was trapped. My entrapment was temporary, physical; hers was mental and cosmic. For ever.
When my grandparents separated, my grandmother desperately lacked a supportive social life. She tried to find it at church. But to fit in, you had to be married – not divorced. Even thirty-five years of marriage didn’t count! Divorce meant you weren’t normal!
She lacked single woman chums. The church wasn’t exactly a magnet for unmarried mothers. My grandmother surely agreed that something was wrong with her for not being married, even though she insisted that it was my grandfather’s fault, that he had done
something evil and immoral by leaving the marriage. She clearly had been displeased with him for some time, but I think she felt she couldn’t exist alone, as a single woman. Also, she felt divorce was a sin and not recognized by the church, so in her mind she wasn’t really divorced.
She had worked hard, helped build up the business by answering the telephone and making my grandfather’s appointments. ‘I put this house together from an old barn’ she’d say, and even suffered his mother’s hostility to her – all of these things, I’m sure, true – so she felt it wasn’t fair that she couldn’t enjoy more of the rewards. The problem, however, was an inadequate society which did not give women more liberty and more rewards – and not my grandfather
, who was actually a warm and humane man.
Pity. But don’t I sound like so many of the women of my generation, women in my own research, describing their mothers in the 1950s? This is so different from how women tend to describe their mothers now. Curiously, when I have described my biological mother here, as opposed to my grandmother-mother, it is in more positive terms. Strange. Is this just a case of absence makes the heart grow fonder? True, I liked my mother. I didn’t dislike her for leaving, and found her fascinating – though I had no desire to live with her. On the other hand, I
my grandmother, I empathized intensely with her problems, and would have done anything to help her. I did what I could, I listened, and stayed with her for as long as I could, even when it hurt me. I think my grandfather understood this about me
more than anyone else, since he may have done the same thing. And here I am still loyal to her today, by telling her side of the story more sympathetically than I might.
Once, when my grandmother was younger, she told my Aunt Cecile, ‘You’ll never know what I had to do last night.’ There had been a big row, as arguments were called, the night before. Then, when the children woke up, things had been restored to normal – except for my grandmother confiding this sentence to her younger daughter, implying that she had done something sexual and ‘terrible’ to make peace, something not allowed to be spoken.
I wonder if my aunt felt guilty, that her mother somehow
to do it for her, to keep the family together? Did she and her sister (my mother) and her brother talk about it together that night in bed? All three of the children slept in the one room which I later had all to myself. A little later, my grandmother put Jack, their brother, in the ‘small room’, the sewing room, and the two girls stayed together in the larger bedroom. It must have been tough in the 1930s, the five of them cramped into a four-room house. A small house with one bathroom, to which the door didn’t shut properly, since it had been painted too often.
I was physically very active. I loved playing outside, and every day, sunshine or snowstorm, for years, I walked seven miles to school, and then back. Later I got a bicycle and was thrilled when I learned to ride it. With
it, I was free. I could go anywhere I wanted. It was a blue and white Schwinn. It was my friend.
It wasn’t easy to learn to ride. Probably I was too small for the model I was given at first. The idea was: ‘she’ll grow into it.’ But gradually, as I got a little bigger, I taught myself to ride it. I managed, bit by bit, to stay up on it, without falling over. First I was able to keep the bike going for a few seconds, then more, then more. Finally, I could ride clear across our porch! Soon I progressed to the sidewalk. After that it was easy. Before this, I used to roller-skate on the sidewalk, and I still have the scars in my knees to show it! It was bumpy, but the skating was delicious.
I was living at my mother’s on Doniphan Street at the time. The only help any adult gave me was to take me to the sidewalk at the top of the steep hill, sit me on it and say, ‘There! Now ride!’ with a mean, malicious glint. I was terrified, so I never asked for help again. I was in terror that they would come out when I was practising on the porch and make fun of me, or force me to go down the hill. The same things happened to me when, as an adult, I was learning to ski in Switzerland.
I used to go on my bike to the Saturday morning movies downtown. They were at an old theatre which let kids in for ten pop bottle tops, or 14¢. The films were ancient cowboy movies with Roy Rogers, Tom Mix and others. But I liked them. The heroes were very active, and cowboy times were not out of human memory then in St Joseph, so the characters seemed very real. The horses, the outdoors, the trees, the hills and the small
houses on the big landscapes, with lots of life lived outdoors was all familiar.
The only thing I could never get used to was that when the hero, like Roy Rogers, was in the final fight with the ‘bad guys’ – Dale, his girlfriend, always close – had to just stand there looking agitated. Clearly she could have picked up a pan or a brick and hit the bad guy over the head. After all, she was a good cowgirl, smart, active and forceful. They never showed her cooking in the kitchen (there was Gaby, a man, for that). Dale was one of those who rode the range and kept the ranch together. But she wasn’t allowed to fight. The whole audience of kids always went wild at those scenes, screaming at her to ‘Do something, Dale! Hit him from behind, Dale.’ But she never did.
At least once a month there would be a birthday party at one of my schoolmates’ houses.
Day-of-the-week underpants were popular presents at these birthday parties. A high point of every party was the gift-unwrapping spectacle. As everyone came in, they put their present in a pile with the others, and then after the cake, the birthday celebrant sat in front of all the presents, the guests all around on the floor watching, and she opened them all. At some point, at every party, there were squeals of laughter, as one box (or more) turned out to be underpants.
I remember being confused and shocked about these underpants. First, I was shocked. I had been taught never to show my underpants. Why were we doing it
here? How was I supposed to react? On the other hand, they were adorable, feminine and colourful. I liked the texture of the satiny materials. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought it was obscene to give a present like that to an unsuspecting girl to open, and suddenly display them to everyone watching. It was as if she were standing there forced to expose her privacy. But everyone else thought it was fine, and laughed, so I guessed it was OK too. After all, someone’s parent had bought them. I was also envious of the attention the ‘birthday girl’ would get at such a moment. I wished someone would give me day-of-the-week underpants.