When I was growing up I often saw girls wearing Girl Power t-shirts. When I was a young adult women frequently said, “You go, girl” to each other.
Now that I am old we women have something new: Strong Women memes on social media. This is what my search looked like:
These harmless memes wash over me like cheap compliments - self-congratulatory, impersonal, and not rooted in reality. Perhaps you’ve seen one of them - there are many - and many of them end with “type YES if you agree.” Yeah, no. Not typing YES.
Today it really hit me how sexist many of these graphics are.
So I flipped a few of them on their heads, switching female and male words and adding my own images. Suddenly these don’t look so harmless.
Reversed, these feel ugly and even threatening. Sexism goes both ways, and I don’t think it’s cute or useful. And yes, that’s Thomas Jefferson’s face up there on Rosie the Riveter. My apologies to the man.
Originally “published" as an email on January 17, 2000, back when I was newly married, without children, and all but chained to my gift store Tom Foolery.
Let me tell you about my day Saturday. I must record this now because the story is sure to get better with age.
Just before noon, an hour before I was due to be released from my slavery to the store…for the weekend, anyway…a young man walked in to order some engraved glassware for his ushers. I recognized him from an engraving order earlier in the week, when he bought gifts for his groomsmen. “Aren’t you getting married TODAY?” I asked, incredulous. “5:30,” he answered calmly. “Can I pick these up by 3:00?” I called to check, but the engraver wouldn’t be in until 2:30 at least. “Can you guarantee me these will be done by 3:30?” he had the you-know-whats to ask. “Nope,” said I. "We usually require a day, and this is a weekend, which makes it even more unlikely. But if you want to try, we’ll try. Okay, he wanted the glasses.
Fast-forward to 4:00pm. I’m sitting at home by the phone, forced to watch all manner of sports programs while I wait for the call. Even call to check, but the engraver has been delayed getting to the shop. The phone rings. It’s someone from the wedding party, calling to check. I promise to deliver the glasses to the wedding or the reception, and put them near the other gifts or give them to someone in a tuxedo. Did I mention that Gubby is coming over for dinner at 5:00?
The engraver finally calls. I hop in my car, wearing my best jammie pants and Big Dog sweatshirt, and drive across town. After picking up the glasses, I drive through the rain (did I mention the rain?) to my store, where I gift-wrap and label the glasses. Then off again in yet another direction, to the Presbyterian church downtown.
In the car I have rehearsed what I’ll say to him if he is snotty, and enjoy a particularly satisfying reverie in which I scold him for forgetting his ushers until the day of his wedding. Ah, but in retail one seldom says what one really thinks, and besides, he is a nice guy. And most importantly, the wedding is supposed to start any minute, so I’d just be dropping these off and flying home to cook fish.
Next problem: the church is right across the street from Tres Hombres Bar & Grill, and there is NO WAY I’ll get a parking spot near there on a Saturday night with wedding congestion and rain and all. But the Delivery Gods smile on me, and there is a spot RIGHT IN FRONT. Better still, since no wedding in the history of western civilization has ever started on time, I will probably have my choice of penguins to hand the package to. As I run up the steps I think, “This isn’t nearly as bad as I thought.”
NEVER tell yourself that.
I open the door onto a wide entry hall, empty except for the wedding coordinator and some guy in a ski jacket. Beyond the open swinging doors to the cavernous interior the entire bloody congregation AND the penguin party are all LOOKING BACK AT ME. I am instantly reminded of my plaid jammies and my white-socks-with-penny-loafers ensemble, and that I look like a confused homeless person. I head for the guy in the ski jacket and hide behind him, safe from the eyes of the penguins. NOT, however, safe from the eyes of the bride and Daddy, just waiting in the wings for the big entrance. I take her audible gasp to mean, “Oh! the plucky retailer, braving the elements and missing televised golf to deliver $28 worth of afterthought gifts!” I cling to that delusion.
Meanwhile, the ski jacket dude. He seems not to care (notice?) that I am using him as a human shield. He won’t shut up, even as I make every hand signal and grimace I know, short of throttling him, to make him stop talking. After the bride heads for the assembled penguins I stammer an explanation for my intrusion, and ask if he knows the bride or the groom?
“I’m the ja-ni-tor,” he whispers, as if I were slow.
The rest of the story is neither eventful nor important, which implies that the first part of the story was both, and for that I apologize. Speaking of apologies, I’m practicing one for the bride, and I never got a good one from Gubby, who was TWO AND A HALF HOURS LATE for my fish dinner. Next time he’s getting pizza.
I’m continuing to write some family history for my cousin Karen.
As you know, your grandfather Bart and my grandfather Frank worked for the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads. While they didn’t work on any of the same projects, according to my dad, they were sometimes working in the same region on different projects. This was true in the early 1930s, when they were both working in extreme Northern California on what is now Highway 299, which runs from the Nevada border west to the Pacific Ocean at Arcata.
Frank and Gert were living on the Hoopa Reservation, and Bart, whom they hadn’t yet met, was single and working further inland in tiny Salyer. Salyer was probably just a wide spot in the road with a dance hall, and probably some sort of outpost where people could get gasoline, provisions and their mail. Just a guess as it isn’t much different than that now.
But in the summer that your grandmother Patricia was 17 or 18, after she had graduated from high school in Chico, she joined her sister Gert for a stay at their cabin home in Hoopa. They all went to a dance in nearby Salyer, where Patricia met Bart, who soon asked her to marry him.
The cabin in Hoopa was no luxury vacation; there was no indoor running water. There was an outhouse, probably shared with other cabins, and a water source outside, at which they filled up basins or pots for dishes, laundry, or cooking. The women had it rough. Plus, even though it is in a beautiful mountainous region along the Trinity River, the Hoopa Valley gets nearly as hot as the Central Valley in the summer. This was a challenging place and time to live.
I don’t think Gert had any children yet because I think this was maybe 1931. But very soon afterwards her first child, Ann, was born on the Hoopa Reservation. There were complications with the birth and apparently Ann had needed medical care that wasn’t available. Ann has the distinction of being the last caucasian baby allowed to be born on the reservation. In 1934, when my father David was born, Frank had to drive Gert over the mountain and down to Eureka to the hospital, which was over 60 miles on 1930s Depression-era mountain roads. At least it was in June instead of January!
The only thing I remember my grandmother telling me about that time was that Grandpa had made her a wooden sink of sorts for the inside of the cabin. I suppose it must have had a drain to the outside but she didn’t elaborate. She was the envy of the camp because she could haul water inside, heat it on the stove and have a sink for washing INDOORS. I plan not to complain about anything today.
What is the last sound a chicken makes before dawn in the last seconds of her last day on Earth?
It is an age-old question that, sadly, I think I can answer.
She was our last surviving chicken, the others having succumbed to either old age or illness or idiocy or foxes. She may be the only animal in Fooleryland never to have been given a name, so for now let’s call her Chicken Dinner. Through the haze of a deep slumber and a vivid dream I became aware of Chicken Dinner's frantic squawks. In my fitful pre-dawn sleep I finally broke through the surface of the dream with a start and couldn’t decide what was real and what was in my head (this happens constantly). Was the hen in my dream, scratching in the sand at the feet of a character from the TV show “Magnum P.I.,” or was she awake long before daybreak, looking for bugs under my bedroom window?
Eyes open, seeing nothing in the darkness, I listened: nothing. Had I imagined it? I checked the clock - 5:37 a.m. I must have imagined it, because chickens don’t get up that early, do they? Not that I would know; I don’t get up that early either. She must have gotten an early start and run into the fox, right under my bedroom window. Not a feather to be found in the yard, and no one around Fooleryland has seen Chicken Dinner since. Sigh.
Still, it could have been a dream. It makes perfect sense to me that the stuffy futzy character Higgins might demand over and over, with increasing insistency, over the cackling of a deranged hen, “WHAT ABOUT THE HUCKLEBERRIES?”
In the last few years Facebook has reconnected me with my cousin Karen, who, when we were young, moved with her mother across the country. I haven’t really known her since we were children, and so I forgot how much family history she missed. When I began scanning and posting old family photos Karen immediately had questions. “Would you write it down for me?” she wanted to know. What a good idea.
I am starting with Grandma Pierce. This is for Karen and Caitlyn, but I hope people outside of the family find it interesting.
(Ken LaGrone and Gertrude Pierce, late 1940s, Normal St. house, Chico)
This lady is known as Grandma Pierce, although she is technically no one’s grandma and she replaced the original Grandma Pierce. She was born in Germany in the late 1800s, and while she doesn’t look big in her twilight years, my father assures me that as a middle-aged woman she was heavy and strong, with thick arms and legs.
There are facts about Gertrude Pauli Pierce, and there are stories. The stories may be impossible to verify, but as they are far more colorful than the plain unvarnished truth, I’m sharing them with you and letting you sort it all out for yourselves.
Gertrude was married before she came to the United States; I don’t know if her surname was her husband’s or her maiden name. I don’t know anything about him, but I think he may have died in World War I. She had moved from Belgium to England when she answered a newspaper ad for an au pair for five children in Chico, California.
The children were Charles (Charlie, center), Gert (back), Patricia (left), Don (right) and Helen (bottom), in order of birth. In 1921 their mother was killed in a car accident near Vacaville, and their father Arthur Pierce found he needed someone to cook, clean, and raise his children. A poor immigrant from Wales who struggled as a plumber and chicken farmer, Arthur wrote to his well-to-do family in England for help, and they placed an ad on his behalf. Gertrude Pauli answered the ad, the London family members must have interviewed her on Arthur’s behalf, and her passage to the U.S. was paid.
Gertrude was an excellent cook and seamstress, organized, efficient and a seriously hard worker. Besides her household duties she also had to feed and manage a lot of chickens for the family egg business, and she managed her meager household budget and kept food on the table. She was a resilient woman - some would say tough. (In later years my father David remembers seeing her kill chickens without flinching, to feed the family.) This is where the compliments end, however - at least for this period of her life. The Pierce children quickly grew to hate their German au pair. Not only had she replaced their dear mother, but she was also harsh with everyone in the Pierce family except Arthur, and it became clear that she intended to marry him. As Arthur Pierce really had no money to pay Gertrude, her married her out of convenience; love was something he had reserved for his first wife and love of his life, buried in 1921.
Once the ink on the marriage certificate was dry, things got really dicey. The Stepmother, as Gertrude became known, ruled with an iron hand. One by one the Pierce children left home - first Charlie, the oldest, and then Gert, who graduated early from high school and bought a one-way train ticket to San Francisco to go live with the family of her school friend Stella LaGrone. Patricia didn’t let The Stepmother get to her, and for some reason The Stepmother left her alone.
Don ran away from home as a young teen, and ended up lying about his age to join the Navy early. Helen, who had been three when her mother died, bore the brunt of The Stepmother’s cruelty. It is from Helen that most of my information about Grandma Pierce has come.
Helen has said that at first Gertrude tried to please the children, but she hadn’t counted on them being suspicious of her taking their mother’s place, and really still mourning their lost mama. Gertrude took their wariness personally very quickly and turned cold and menacing. Helen describes coming home late from school - a walk of several miles - with a perfectly reasonable excuse, which was met with fury from The Stepmother. Ever after, if Helen was late, she made up a wild story and told it with a straight face, which seemed to placate The Stepmother when the truth would not. Sometimes, just to spite her, Helen would be late for no reason at all and dream up the wildest tale she could, just to see what she could get away with.
This brings up a major theme: veracity. After The Stepmother’s death, Helen learned from Gertrude’s German family that they considered her to be a pathological liar. Among the lies Gertrude had told were that her family were all dead - killed in World War I, which was not at all true. Three of her family visited California in the 1970s - Karl, Irene and Karen, pictured here with Gert (left) and Patricia (middle). Helen began questioning them about things The Stepmother had said, and she was in for a shock. “Oh, Gertrude took that job in a hurry,” they told Helen. “She needed to get out of Europe because she was a German spy in the first world war.” Whether or not this is true, it seems Gertrude was a German sympathizer at least, and possibly a collaborator, living in Belgium. This fit with Helen’s memories of her stepmother lauding Hitler and Nazi Germany, which was a risky stance to take in the U.S. in the 1930s and ‘40s. Helen didn’t stand for any support of the Nazis or antisemitism, and she let The Stepmother know it.
Helen remembers catching The Stepmother in outrageous and completely unnecessary lies, which Gertrude then defended past the point of sanity. It was grimly satisfying to learn that Gertrude’s own siblings thought of her as a pathological liar.
(Arthur and Gertrude, Normal Street house, Chico)
In her declining years, after Grandpa Pierce had died, The Stepmother softened. She was a wonderful grandmother to Ann, David and Ken - especially to David, who shared her love of the farm life and couldn’t wait to come visit her. David remembers her as being fiercely devoted to her husband Arthur.
As an old woman, Gertrude needed Helen’s help and she was grateful for it, even to the point of apologizing for how badly she had treated Helen and the other kids. She willed her Normal Street house and its contents to Helen when she died in Chico in about 1967.
I make myself one cup of coffee five days a week. Not “a coffee” - a mug of Yuban. I don’t drink lattes or anything that ends in “ppucino.” Sodas only at PTO meetings, once a month. It’s not that I’m a Thou Shalt Not purist, because I eat and drink other crap; I’m just too cheap to pay for that stuff, and I know how bad all of those things are for me. Besides, if I’m gonna shell out bucks for beverages I could approximate in my own home, it had better be alcohol in a fancy setting. But. Once a year, in early spring, I take the drive of shame to the McDonalds drive-up window and order this.
A shamrock shake - or, as I prefer to think of it, the Shamerock Shake. Unmistakably green and fluffy in a clear cup - when did THAT happen? - so I can’t pretend it’s an iced tea, to my great shame.
There is nothing about this drink I can defend. Not its ingredients, its purveyor, and certainly not its nutritional value. But I still want one. One.
You might think that with a chip on my shoulder this big I could handle the subsequent walk of shame from my car to the door of my office, but you’d be wrong, because there next to my parking space was a huge pickup, backed into the space, with a man and woman inside. The engine was running. I was suddenly self-conscious of my Shamerock Shake. What if they see me? They’ll KNOW. I should have been wondering why a couple were idling their pickup in the parking lot, watching the doors of the building, and I am wondering that now, but then? Only concerned with juggling my keys and papers and purse and this fluffy green nonsense.
Did you know that when a thick green shake tips over in a purse, some actual liquid seeps out? I didn’t either.
I made it into the building, where I enjoyed my shake, alone, feeling a mixture of guilt and satisfaction. Then I cleaned my purse.
It’s a good thing I won’t eat McRib sandwiches. My purse would not survive.
I’ve seen a lot of things while traveling, but this was a new one on me.
Imagine passengers waiting to board a sold-out flight at a gate that has seats to accommodate maybe a third of them. It’s ten o’clock at night on a drizzly January Sunday in Salt Lake City. Passengers are NOT happy that they have to check their carry-ons, but because it’s winter the suitcases are stuffed past capacity with warm clothes, and the overhead bins can’t handle them all. People are civil but tired.
Finally the gate is opened and the 1st class passengers board, then the special club people and parents of tiny tots, and then the rest of the unwashed masses. That last group definitely includes me. My seat is in the second-to-last row; I have pre-checked my bag because I’ll pay $25 any day to avoid the whole overhead compartment drama. I stand patiently in the 1st class section as anxious people down the aisle ahead of me search for available suitcase space.
Right in front of me, a diminutive Asian-American flight attendant appears, obviously a career veteran, blocking the aisle and holding a round serving tray aloft. A glass of Coke on ice leans precariously as the tray bobs and weaves just in front of me, but the veteran flight attendant never spills a drop. “Wait,” I think, “Beverage service while they’re trying to herd us all on board? Is she crazy?” Then I see who she’s talking to: two middle-aged smug guys who look like they could be college football coaches, giving her their drink orders. They must be complicated drinks because she listens patiently for what seems like forever. Off she hustles to Wish Fulfillment Land, clearing the path for Cattle Class to lumber forward. I can now leave 1st Class.
We cattle settle in as we pretend to listen to admonitions over the PA system: fasten seat belts, secure tray tables, return seat backs to their upright positions, turn off handheld devices, put out that crack pipe, note the exit doors, keep your hands in the cabin at all times, and await further instructions. Something like that, I don’t know.
Meanwhile, in 1st Class, I’m sure the smug boys were figuring out what cocktail number two would be. Wheels up.
Not long ago an old friend asked me a question I had no answer for:
"What do you want to do to make a difference?"
I had no idea.
The list of things a person could do to make a difference is endless. He had clear ideas of what he meant by "make a difference," and I don't yet. But it occurred to me that if I died today, I would want something positive to be said about me, and I actually know what I would want it to be -- the best possible thing I could hope for.