|BWS Stories - "Mrs. Brown You've Got A Lovely Daughter"...Stories About Mom|
"Mrs. Brown You've Got A Lovely Daughter"...Stories About Mom - My Mother, the Feminist
Teresa Herlinger is a freelance copyeditor and writer living in Portland, Oregon. She has published stories from her colorful childhood in The Christian Science Monitor and The Litchfield Review. She also took First Place in the Oregon Writers Colony 2005 writing contest in nonfiction. E-mail: email@example.com
My Mother, the FeministThe 70s may have been the decade of bra-burning, but one July day in 1973, when I was 11 years old, my mother staged a protest all her own.
Mostly, I remember the heat-sticking my hands out the car window, trying to capture the last cool breeze of the morning as we drove to Franklin Park to play tennis. Arriving at the court, we split up for doubles-Mom and I would play against Dad and my eight-year-old brother, Glenn. Back then, we often played tennis on a Saturday, seeking out the shadiest court if it was hot. But on that day, we arrived late in the morning, and though the court was surrounded by trees, nothing shielded us from the sun's direct hit. We were like eggs on a griddle. By noon, the sun had baked the asphalt court until the soles of our feet burned if we stood for too long.
As the game wore on, Mom and I were really cooking. I don't mean we were winning-I mean I could feel a hot spot on top of my head where the sun beat down on it like it would burn right through to my brain. With my t-shirt and shorts sticking to me like tape, I just wanted to finish the game and go run through the sprinkler in our front yard, or stick my face over it, even if it stung, just to feel cool again. Mom squinted in the bright sun. I could see a long stain down the side of her sleeveless white tennis dress every time she returned serve.
When it was time to switch sides, we stopped for a water break-finally! Glenn poured half of his over his head. Mom and I wiped our faces off with a towel, and Dad took off his brown knit tennis shirt, soaked completely through, and tossed it on the bench. Then we walked back onto the court, only Mom didn't move.
"Well..." she said to Dad, slowly, like she meant business, "if you're going to do that, maybe I'll just take off my dress."
My father chuckled, but I could see he was nervous. "C'mon, honey," he said, waving her back to the court with his racket. "Let's just finish out the set."
But Mom wasn't through yet-oh, no. She was just warming up.
"It's not fair you should be able to take off your shirt when you're hot, just because you're a man," she said calmly-way too calmly.
Mom was the only one I knew who could say something like that without a trace of whine, just defiance with a hint of disdain. As I danced around to keep my feet from burning, the tension rose between my parents like heat waves off the asphalt.
Just when I thought the world's longest moment couldn't get any longer, another couple arrived at the empty court beside us, and unsheathed their rackets at the bench on the far end. They had their backs to us.
Great, I thought, just when Mom's switching into high gear.
But my rather eccentric, Eastern European mom, with her exotic accent and movie star good looks, was about to trump even her own most dramatic moment. Setting her racket down on the bench behind her, Mom undid the top two buttons of her tennis dress-not in a sexy way or anything, just deliberate, like a threat. The temperature must have hit 100 about then because I suddenly felt faint-and desperate. I looked at Glenn, Glenn looked at Dad, and Dad tried to act like this wasn't happening. In fact, he ignored her completely, leaning over his knees in a tennis player's stance, and waited for her to rejoin the game.
All I could do was cover my eyes and pray she was bluffing. Please, please don't let her do this, I begged anyone who was listening. We're in public! But then I heard Glenn let out a three-syllable wail-"Mo-o-om!"-and I looked up in time to see a flash of white fly over Mom's head and land in a heap at her feet. There she stood, her tall, Ingrid Bergman figure clad in only a beige bra, matching nylon briefs, ankle socks, and tennis shoes. Then, as though she did this every day, she picked up her racket, strode back onto the court, took two balls from my hand and prepared to serve.
There was nowhere to hide. This was our family, my mom, standing practically naked in a public place in the midday sun. I couldn't look at her; I couldn't look at the other couple (But I could just imagine their discussion on the way home!). Instead, lips squeezed together tight and eyes open wide, I beamed my loudest expression across the net at Dad. It said, "Do something, please, before she draws a crowd!"
Dad was no fool-he knew when he was beaten. He also knew there was only one thing that could get her to put her dress back on, and yelling at her was definitely not it. He just sighed and walked back to the bench, picked up his sweaty, crumpled tennis shirt, and put it back on. "Satisfied?" he asked. Mom, by way of an answer, handed the balls back to me, walked over to the little white heap, and in a few moments, everyone was dressed and back on the court. And, in the way our family does so well, we played out the set as though nothing had ever happened.
In the same year when Billie Jean King beat Bobbie Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes on national TV, my mother scored a small victory of her own on a tennis court in Tacoma, Washington. Though I was mortified by the spectacle she made, and thankful only two strangers were there to see it, something else burned in my chest that day besides humiliation and 100-degree heat-pride. With one radical act, Mom had leveled the playing field, asserting her right to be just as cool as Dad on a hot summer day.
Sometimes there are things worth being embarrassed about, principles worth making a fool of oneself for. When the right moment comes, you make the statement with whatever tools you have, in any way that will be heard. We heard my mother that day, loud and clear. I doubt any of us will ever forget.