My father bristles whenever his sister points out that my being the only girl of his four children means that I grew up in a ‘male-oriented’ household. But Aunt Alice has some hard evidence on her side. As an eleven-year old kid on a family camping trip, I frustrated all of my mother’s attempts to make me accept that I was indeed a girl. I covertly strewed a twisted trail of training bra mementos at campsites across the country. You’re welcome, Ohio, Wisconsin and Wyoming. My reasoning being that I couldn’t wear it if I didn’t have it, an anti-Hansel & Gretel logic: no one was going back for these bread crumbs, especially not in a lumbering 1986 Buick station wagon pointed firmly West and stuffed to the blue plush brim with tents and packs and kids.
Somewhere between the Badlands and the Grand Tetons, Dad, a Marine major at the time, was pressed into an emergency campfire service of delivering the dreaded “bra talk”. It was brief and brutal but effective: I subsequently wore them. No more pre-pubescent lingerie went missing in action that summer, despite my deeply-held belief that I didn’t want to do anything the boys didn’t.
Dad inevitably interprets Aunt Alice’s observation of the male-centric O’Brien childhood as an accusation. “But I built her a dollhouse,” Dad always indignantly protests in his still-Boston brogue, “I never built her brothers a dollhouse!”
This is true. It’s a beautiful dollhouse, with shingles on the roof, delicate detailed wallpaper and flower boxes beneath the window panes. I cherish it. What I can’t seem to make him understand is that the boyish side of my girlhood helped make me into the woman I am today. All the practical jokes, the pistol practice in sand pits, the poker nights replete with a rudimentary introduction to cheating at cards, and the countless WWII and John Wayne movies: these are good things. They are recounted by me in my more nostalgic moments, just as nodding asleep by a campfire with Dad pointing out the constellations is remembered in my more tender.
Nowadays, Dad talks of his imminent old age. He is fond of insisting that he did the best he could. Today, I am a grown woman who enjoys her makeup and pretty high-heeled shoes–and even her bras. Perhaps I would have less of a potty mouth if there had been more plastic sherbet-colored ponies and tutus in my childhood. I don’t know. But I feel the need to convince my father–for this, I do believe– that being included as one of the boys was far more precious to me than being kept from that lively brotherhood. Given the affection with which I will always regard my growing up, and given how much I adore my father for his role in it, I wouldn’t trade a second of it for all the sands at Iwo Jima. And you can even tell John Wayne I said so.
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