Sammy said she doesn’t like kisses. No kisses and no hugs. She would roll on the floor and wrestle with and jump on top of her dog in between the uncontrollable storms full of accusations that swept us all up like a tsunami above her childhood.
I wasn’t surprised one day when I saw her lying on the new couch, in the new house, beside her brother, her newly adopted cat, one of a pair, asleep on her stomach, the blue sister, who she called Sapphire.
At the sea pool, Sammy digs her toes into the grass, face down on her striped beach towel.
Are you okay, princess? I ask.
She says, Yes, Mummy Two.
Bits of dirt collect in the hollows beneath her ankles. Every time she sighs, another few twigs collect there. She’s still small enough to lie beside me and use my shade, although we’re up on the grass under a tree, near the sand of the beach.
It is mid-September. Further up the grassy slope, a group of bare-chested young men in boxer swimmers sit cradling cold beers or glasses of red wine from a cask, before they run along the wooden perimeter of the pool and jump into the water that is outside the shark-net, then clamber back up the netting to leap in again. They don’t bother us.
She is beside me now, my daughter’s child, and I acknowledge this, sometimes stroking her head with the palm of my hand. Her shoulders are unfleshed and rounded, the firm shoulders of a high wire acrobat, and, for this, she is admired by her brother when he stands below a tree in readiness to help her when her foot is stuck between the trunk and a high branch, his blue school shirt hanging loose over his grey shorts.
With her shoe stuck in the tree, Sammy takes the shape of a gymnast, a renegade one—no professional—with her brown hair hanging loose and free.
Sammy is very beautiful, but who wouldn’t say that? She has teeth that become prominent when she laughs—an open-mouthed generous laugh that comes from deep in her solar plexus. Her teeth capture that laugh and encircle it like a precious gift, unwrap it after a moment into a broad smile. Her softness is significant—her soft hair, thick, mid-brown, full of character; and the softness of her shoulders. There is a delicate boniness to her face: she is cheekbones and eyes and mouth.
But her face is set in place by sheer force of will, by a stubborn internal command. She’s not compliant. I’m not her mother, after all.
Sammy brushes the dirt off her towel, rests her head on her arms. She doesn’t say anything to me, but she knows I am here, a particle of her thoughts. My worrying brain thinks, thinks, and freefalls across the spring fragrances that connect us. She trails behind me, and she’s unpredictable. Her eyes absorb the bright blue or the pale gray of the morning sky—whatever the time of day—repelling darkness, translucent. Sammy is not the clearly drawn profile of a typical five-year-old girl, she is not transparent.
Soon Sammy will go for another swim. To prepare myself, so I will not spend the whole time worrying, I see in my mind in precise detail Sammy swimming across the ocean pool, one paddle after the next, swimming past surf boards, past the sea gulls; she swims the way gulls fly, consistently, steadily, across the vast expanse. She strokes towards the shore with an uneven rhythm in the calm water. She swims very close to the beach. I can see her, the determined chin and the pursed lips.
Just beyond the breakers, her legs fall beneath her, and she walks upright through the waves. Down on the beach, she shakes the water from her arms, from her legs, and with a swift shaking of her head, she whips her hair to the sides and walks to where I am on the grass, spraying me with water.
I stop stroking her hair, and—there—she notices me again, in my own particular body, in her floral swimsuit a pattern similar to mine. She pushes her fingers into the dirt at her sides, and it makes them brown. She is a daredevil.
Watch me! she says. I’m going for a dip.
And she lifts herself from the towel in one sideways, swift action. She is halfway to the water. I sit up and stretch my spine to watch. She hits the water and all her movements slow. She ducks her head under the sea, her whole body now submerged beneath the surface. Her hands pull through the water her feet kicking wildly. She emerges, turns on to her back, floats there with only her little face exposed, struggling to keep her legs stretched out, rather than sinking down beneath her.
The water keeps lifting her and she drifts my way.
And I watch. If I do not watch, what will become of her?
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem