I am a woman. Always have been; had no choice in the matter. My fetus did not grow external gonads.
At birth, how was I to know that I would never really be alone? No; wherever I would be, go, or do, there would always be a man in the room.
The first man in the room was late.
He was sitting at a bar, drinking, on a Friday night – shirking the very responsibility for which any woman in his position, at least in those days, would have immediately jumped to respond. He was an obstetrician. He was my mother’s doctor. And, he was definitely On Call.
When the phone reached him, he likely chuckled with the bartender about cervical dilation and other, baser aspects of the female anatomy over which he claimed domain. And, he probably ordered another beer. After all, who was this infant to proclaim any birth rite at prime time on a Friday night in April? It was pouring rain. Time out.
Back in labor and delivery, my mother was practicing female obedience. No woman, in the history of the world, did this better. I was crowning, and the nurses, frantic to enact their version of submission, pecked about, insisting that the doctor would be there “any minute”. To my mother, the directive was unanimous: “Just hold ON!”
So, my mother obeyed the nurses, who were obeying the doctor, who was calling for shots by now in the bar. And, she held a birthing baby in her vagina until it felt certain her entire body would explode. The man was not yet present in the room but, at that interminable moment, he was everywhere. He was squeezing my mother’s abdomen, suffocating me, and holding lit matches to every nurse in the wing. What a masterful grasp wielded that drunken sailor on such a wet and inconvenient night.
When he finally appeared, as doctor, the gurney carrying my mother and me was propelled so fast down the hallway toward delivery that it nearly toppled and, at about 8:45 pm (well after the downbeat), the next baby girl was finally permitted entry into the world. Through the caul that draped my soaking face, I screamed bloody, spitting murder at the man in the room.
The second man in the room was just returning from work.
He was my father.
To hear him tell it, I would be the embodiment of his every gift…a “born” artist and musician, a singer like him, his – for all practical purposes – first-born child. He would hold me with tender arms and soft hands, feed me, sing to me. I would love him with my whole heart. He would go to work, come home, bring the money with him, count it on the kitchen table, and share with me a teaspoon of his hot tea with milk and sugar.
On his day off, he would come and go as he pleased. And, he would take me with him. I would sit in the car, singing to myself, while he did what he had to do inside the store or the other man’s house. He would eat his supper after dark, make his lunch, go to bed, and get up before everybody else in the house was even awake to walk to work. He owned his own barber shop, made his own hours and, when his day was over, he was done.
Mom’s day was never done. She’d stay up til after midnight, finishing the sewing that needed to be ready by the next day’s pick up, and get up before we would in the morning to prepare our breakfast, shrieking us awake so that we’d be ready for school before she was nearly late for work.
On the weekends, not otherwise pulling a shift at the machine shop, she’d run the sweeper and dust around us as we tried to practice our piano lesson or read. On Sunday, she’d get us ready for morning worship at the Gospel Hall and we’d all go, to spend most of the day there listening to: men. Mom finally took her nap, on Sunday afternoon, while Dad would spend the afternoon chewing on a toothpick seated on a park bench watching us pet the small animals at the zoo.
The third man in the room reached puberty when I was almost a toddler. He was my elder brother.
A very ripe 11 at my birth, he had been the only child for those first ten precocious years, surrounded by adoring adults substituting for the father who was not yet there. I was an intrusion, a stray dog, a reluctant pet, an object of derision. I was in the spot reserved for him, and this was not to be.
My brother would manifest as the man in the room for the rest of my life in that house. He would ride his bike wherever he pleased, growing to be an active teen with the capacity to socially organize and initiate all manner of events in the basement, where he held court. I grew, too, but the playpen that corralled me was the only point of view from which I could define the world. He was, when not placed in my exclusive care, always outside of the box – and, ever-present, in the room.
If there were rules, they never applied to him; if there was law, he learned to rule it. When I came of age, he dictated to my parents just what the outside world was all about and, in spite of my creative gifts clearly matching or surpassing his, my choices were decreed: for the daughter, there would be no further education. Doctorate degrees were there for the men to take; girls should get a job, learn to cook, and prepare for the husband God had in mind.
God, on the other hand, frightfully busy making more men and the women intended to serve them, tried to present the man for me on more than one occasion. In the first offering, there were other men with power in their laps who determined that the man God had clearly chosen for me should stay away. Because they were in a position to claim their dictates as from God directly, the fact that they weren’t listening to what I was hearing seemed to have no bearing on the outcome God intended. I just chalked it up to the men themselves, and peered at them, from across the room.
From that point forward, the man in the room took many forms. He was a boss, or a hired hand, or a curious customer, or a band mate. And, I was ready to pass his test. When I graduated to the ranks of professional, Union card carrying musician, he became the Maestro – an object of my adoration. If I couldn’t please God anymore, then perhaps I could revere the baton in his hand.
The man is still there. He still waits to tell me when to speak, when to act, and when to acquiesce. He decides my value. He directs my course. He expects me to be there when he needs me, and to disappear when the time is right. He may not have any idea how much power he holds because, to him, he is just in his world – the world he inherited from his mother’s womb.
He’d best preserve that power for as long as he remains strong; a world without a woman in it would change his forever.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo
2013 all rights reserved. Thank you, sir.