As the creator of "Cathy," Cathy Guisewite found her way into the hearts of readers more than forty years ago, and has been there ever since. Her hilarious and deeply relatable look at the challenges of womanhood in a changing world became a cultural touchstone for women everywhere. Now Guisewite returns with her signature wit and warmth in this debut essay collection about another time of big transition, when everything starts changing and disappearing without permission: aging parents, aging children, aging self stuck in the middle.
With her uniquely wry and funny admissions and insights, Guisewite unearths the humor and horror of everything from the mundane (trying to introduce her parents to TiVo and facing four decades' worth of unorganized photos) to the profound (finding a purpose post-retirement, helping parents downsize their lives, and declaring freedrom from all those things that hold us back). No longer confined to the limits of four comic panels, Guisewite holds out her hand in prose form and becomes a reassuring companion for those on the threshold of "what happens next." Heartfelt and humane and always cathartic, Fifty Things That Aren't My Fault is ideal reading for mothers, daughters, and anyone who is caught somewhere in between.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Cathy Guisewite
I’m standing in the doorway of my closet, on the threshold of What Happens Next, clutching my last shred of personal power: a great big black trash bag into which I want to dump all my clothes.
I don’t mean “Ha-ha, nothing fits.” I mean nothing fits. This is worse than the hot pink bikini that destroyed my twenties in a fluorescent bulb-lit dressing room in a Royal Oak, Michigan, mall. Worse than the blue jeans that broke my heart in my thirties in a charming Santa Barbara denim shop stacked to the hand-hewn rafters with jeans for every female body in the universe except mine. Worse than the go-everywhere black dress upon which I spent a car payment in my forties that never went anywhere because the only time I ever got it zipped was five minutes before handing my Visa card to the hip L.A. salesperson who told me how hot I looked in it.
This is worse than all that. This is my whole life not fitting. My days are too short, my lists are too long. People aren’t where they’re supposed to be. Everything’s changing without my permission. Children are moving away, friends moving on, loved ones leaving the earth, muscles and skin tone not even pausing to wave farewell before deserting me—and after all I’ve done for them. Just when I think I can’t possibly stand one more goodbye, something or someone I thought would be here forever isn’t.
Everyone I know is in some version of a great big life shift. Right in the middle of people and things that are changing and disappearing way too fast. An unrequested rearrangement of everything in our personal worlds—as if there isn’t enough that feels out of our control right now in the big world. It’s unsettling and unnerving. And scary. Impossible to be everything to everyone, to reconcile all that’s different, and to keep track of ourselves along that way.
I grip the trash bag. I have an overwhelming, exhilarating need to get rid of things before any more leave on their own.
I stopped my life’s work of drawing a comic strip after thirty-four years when the first rumbles of big change in my own life made it impossible for me to hold the pen. My daughter was starting her senior year of high school and I panicked that her childhood was ending before I’d had a chance to be a mom. I wanted, for once in my life, to get to be a full-time mom like the new stay-at-home superstar moms I read about in magazines and also, if I’m completely honest, like the old-school housewife moms I watched on TV when I was growing up. I wanted to get to feel what it was like to make tomato soup in the middle of the day.
That same year, my parents were both approaching their nineties, and I also wanted, for once in my life, to get to be a full-time adult daughter like the patient, loving daughters I read about in books. Graciously, selflessly helping Mom and Dad glide into their twilight years.
None of this has gone as planned.
I became a full-time mom at the very moment my daughter decided to reject all input from anyone over age thirty.
I became a full-time daughter the moment my parents announced they would barricade the front door if I tried to bring in anyone or anything to assist them.
I got older, which I hadn’t factored in, and became even more obnoxious and belligerent than my child or my parents, incapable of even committing to exercising five minutes a day.
I thought that when I quit my job, the pace of all the change would slow down. But it didn’t. It sped up. Before I knew it, the year zoomed by, my daughter turned nineteen and moved to college, my parents turned ninety, and I turned into a bicoastal hoverer. Commuting between generations. Back and forth between Florida and California so often now, I spend the first few minutes of each morning trying to guess which coast I’m on before I open my eyes.
Which is why I’m standing here right now. Trash bag held high. I can control nothing else, but I can control this. I will stuff life as I knew it into this bag and get rid of it. All of it.
The delusional clothes . . . the useless beauty products . . . the plastic food containers with no lids. I will move on to the file cabinets . . . the bathroom cupboard . . . the storage room. I will shred and dump! Delete! Declutter! I will be a role model of clarity. I will do it for my family. I will do it for me. Create a future with absolutely nothing hot pink and strappy holding me back.
I open the garbage bag to stuff in my first triumphant “OUT!”
I reach into the closet and pull out a frayed T-shirt I haven’t worn since 1982.
I study it in my hand.
I think how cute it would look paired with an oversize linen shirt, beaded belt, and suede ankle boots. I remember seeing a kicky messenger bag online somewhere with tassels the exact same shade of teal as the faded flower logo on the right sleeve.
I refold the shirt and lay it back on the shelf.
I close the garbage bag.
I march into the kitchen and sit at the table. So many thoughts are stacking up in my head. Big changes . . . little tassels . . . hanging on . . . letting go . . .
I open my laptop to start typing.
Before I can unload the closets, I have to get rid of some of these words.
Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault
Am I allowed to eat a noodle? I stare at the menu on the wall behind the takeout counter and try to remember.
It used to be so simple.
Noodles were good because they were comfort food.
Then noodles were bad because they were fattening.
Then noodles were good because they were “pasta.”
Then noodles were bad because they were carbohydrates.
Then noodles were good because they were fiber.
Then noodles were bad because they were gluten.
Then noodles were good because they were “pho.”
Then noodles were bad because they were high glycemic.
Then noodles were good because they were comfort food.
Then what? I have six months of unread healthy-lifestyle magazines on my kitchen counter, which puts me six months behind on where the noodle stands.
Paralyzed at the takeout window.
I turn to the line of impatient people behind me and blurt out the one and only thing I am completely sure of at this moment in my grown-up life:
“It’s not my fault!”
Decades of fighting for emancipation from all sorts of things, and this is possibly the most liberating moment of all. I repeat it with more volume in case the irritated people toward the back of the line didn’t hear. Also, honestly, I just want to feel the words come out of my mouth again.
“It’s not my fault!”
The man behind me sighs, loud and exasperated. I turn and look him in the eye. Right in his scowling, unadorned male eye. Not one moment of his morning was spent on eyeliner like mine was, I note. No eye shadow, no mascara, no fine-line filler, no under-eye concealer. I look further. No eyebrow shaping no eyebrow tinting no pore minimizer no foundation no bronzer no blush no Botox no blow-dry no straightener no curling iron no root dye no wispy layers no highlights no ear jewelry chosen to match his outfit.
I stop at his neck. No need to move on to his outfit. In four seconds, I’ve already calculated that if I add up the hours, days, weeks, and years of his life starting from when he didn’t play dress-up at age three like I did until this moment in this line at this takeout counter, he’s had approximately eighteen thousand extra hours of time on earth to do all sorts of things that I haven’t. All of that is also not my fault.
“IT’S NOT MY FAULT!” I proclaim even louder, right at his non-lip-lined, non-lipsticked, non-lip-plumped lips.
He glares and takes a step backward. I turn back to the cashier, place a non-noodle order, and strut down the counter to pay.
Life is just different for girls.
Life is more time consuming.
Life is more complicated.
Life is overflowing with expectations and obligations that use up our time, energy, and spirit and leave us feeling exhausted, insecure, and alone.
And I Have Had It.
I dig through my ten-pound purse for my two-pound wallet.
It’s not my fault that my wallet contains one credit card and nineteen bonus club cards to stores in which I could get a discount if I could ever find the card.
Not my fault I have to carry the bonus club cards in my wallet because I didn’t get my phone number registered to the accounts.
Not my fault that when I try to register my phone number to the accounts, I’m told my user name already has a membership associated with it and that I have to enter the password, which I don’t remember and didn’t write down for fear of identity theft.
Not my fault that I haven’t reset my passwords, because that would involve checking my email to get the reset codes, and when I check my email, I have to face the little bold print on the upper right of the screen that says I have 7038 emails I haven’t answered.
The disgruntled gentleman who was behind me in the ordering line is now behind me in the paying line. I feel his eyes boring into me, his ungroomed eyebrows raised at the spectacle of the insides of my wallet and purse, which are dumped on the Pay Here counter. Again, I slowly turn to face him. His flat one-ounce, bonus-club-card-free wallet is gripped in his unmanicured fingers like a manly badge of superiority. Membership badge to a detail-free club to which a girl will never belong.
“IT’S NOT MY FAULT!!” I roar.
I drive home with the windows of self-righteousness wide open. I breathe in the possibility of innocence. Big, freeing gulps of it. I barrel past mini-mall eateries and jammed parking lots, a Los Angeles suburb full of people hungry for dinner and a taste of what just happened to me in the takeout line.
What just happened was the opposite of who I am.
I am from Dayton, Ohio, and Midland, Michigan: I apologize for holding up lines. I don’t scream in public or at strangers.
I am my mother’s daughter: I take personal responsibility for everything and everyone on the planet. I look for those I can help, not those I can blame.
I am a member of my generation: I proudly own all my life choices.
I’m of all that—the Midwest’s gracious values plus Mom’s deep sense of responsibility plus my generation’s triumphant empowerment. I’m courteous, compassionate, and personally accountable for every speck of everything.
But not today.
“IT’S NOT MY FAULT I WAS RAISED TO THINK EVERYTHING IS MY FAULT!” I yell out my wide-open window.
I barrel down the road toward home, indignation rising up in me, soaring, pouring out of me like lyrics of the perfect songs I can never find on the car radio.
“It’s not my fault I can never find songs on the car radio because I haven’t had three hours to learn how to program the simplified digitized car radio menu screen!”
I’m on fire.
“It’s not my fault I just paid someone to make me a sandwich because it’s become too complicated to buy a loaf of bread!”
“Not my fault I drove to the takeout place in sweat pants because all my blue jeans hurt!”
“Not my fault the sweat pants also hurt because someone decided women’s workout wear should be clingy and sexy to show off the hot ‘after’ body, not the non-hot, actually-needs-to-work-out ‘before’ body!”
“Not my fault that women’s magazines have covers declaring we should embrace our beautiful natural curves, and sixteen articles inside on how to get skinny—and that even if I’m over it, I still need to spend hours and hours navigating the hypocrisy for my daughter!”
“Not my fault I can’t call my daughter on the $700 phone I bought her to discuss it because ‘voice is over’!”
“Not my fault that the man behind me at the takeout place will never understand because he never had to navigate any of the body issue contradictions for himself or his son!”
“Not my fault I’m thinking about that man again!”
It’s all right there as I scan the memory of him and imagine the different universes in which he and I live. The million tiny things between us that use up women’s waking hours, leaving us frustrated and frazzled, holding hands with frozen donuts at 11:00 p.m.
Men are the same size all day. They don’t have pre-breakfast, post-lunch, mid-afternoon, and after-dinner bodies requiring different wardrobes for each part of the day and phase of the moon.
Men are the same height all day. All the pants in a man’s closet are the same length because all the heels of their shoes are the same height. Men don’t spend one speck of their lives deciding how tall they’ll be before they commit to buying or hemming their pants. They don’t need six different styles of black pants in four different lengths to go with nine different heel heights of black shoes for fourteen different types of occasions.
Men are the same shape all day. They don’t need to decide which direction to mold which body parts before they put on clothes.
Men are the same age all day. Their faces are their faces.
When a man needs a white shirt, he buys a white shirt. A woman does a three-mall, six-department, two-hundred-style-fabric-cut-size-price-manufacturer, multi-dressing-room search. Ditto underwear. Ditto T-shirts. Ditto jeans. Ditto sweaters. Ditto socks. Ditto shoes. Ditto workout wear.
Ditto the worst of the worst . . .
When a man needs a swimsuit, he simply grabs trunks his size off the rack. A woman dives into the deep end, the vortex of insecurity. Eleven and a half months of dynamic, twenty-first-century female confidence building, all undone by a one-second peek at our beautiful natural curves in eleven inches of spandex under a fluorescent dressing room bulb.
It’s not my fault we’re still supposed to stuff ourselves into someone else’s version of what we should be because there are zero realistic alternatives!
IT’S NOT MY FAULT THAT THINGS THAT SHOULDN’T MATTER STILL MATTER, AND THAT EVEN THOUGH I HELPED PIONEER A GENERATION TO THINK COMPLETELY DIFFERENTLY, I’VE SOMEHOW RAISED A DAUGHTER WHO SOBS IN THE SWIMWEAR DEPARTMENT DRESSING ROOM JUST LIKE I DID—WITH ME STANDING RIGHT BESIDE HER!—HER SELF-ESTEEM CONSTRICTED BY A WHOLE NEW WORLD OF SASSY LITTLE STRAPS!
I turn down the wrong street on purpose so it will take me longer to get home.
There are support groups for the big problems. Unequal pay, unjust treatment, unfair practices, global inequality. Harassment. There are politicians, movements, organizations, public forums. There’s honor in raising one’s voice about the big problems.
There’s no honor in mentioning what happened last night with nine “100 Calorie Packs” of Mini Oreos. No one to put into perspective the thousand extra pressures, time saps, and mini confidence wreckers that added up all day and left me feeling so exhausted and useless and small at 9:00 p.m. and then so huge at 9:06 p.m. No sympathy for the minuscule things that prevent me from doing the big things. That stop me from getting through the next five minutes.
I remember the thrill of being a twenty-two-year-old new working woman in my first advertising job. Ecstatic that I had a job, the respect of my coworkers, and the blessing of the world to succeed in ways my mom never dreamed possible. I remember the morning of a big meeting when I couldn’t get my “fat” skirt buttoned. Couldn’t get anything buttoned. Nothing fit except my bathrobe. All of life out there for me to conquer, and I had to call in sick because I literally couldn’t walk out the front door.
I remember my insecurities being so ingrained that I parked across the street from a party and watched what other women were wearing before I was brave enough to leave my car and walk in myself. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Because it was yesterday. For all that’s changed in me over the years, so much of the ridiculousness is still there. Stuck on my DNA like the frosting swirls on a Hostess CupCake.
It’s not my fault that when the doors of possibility for women opened, the role models got so incredible and the comparisons became so impossible. Suddenly women weren’t just getting jobs. They were becoming dynamic career women, financial wizards, nurturing homemakers, enlightened involved parents, environmental activists, community leaders, self-assured, self-expressed, self-supporting global change makers, loving equal partners, weekend yoga instructors, online entrepreneurs—and size 5’s all at once. When the message is that all women can do anything, it’s hard not to get the feeling that all the other women are doing something and I alone am stuck in the same old ruts.
It’s not my fault that even guilt has too many options. I used to eat a muffin and have calorie guilt. Now I have calorie guilt, carbohydrate guilt, fat guilt, sugar guilt, gluten guilt, nonorganic blueberry guilt, manufacturing process pollution guilt, non-biodegradable-wrapper guilt, carbon footprint guilt. Nine entire guilt categories per muffin. Multiply that over the whole food chain.
Not my fault that I carry all the new guilts on top of all the old guilts. Bulk guilt. Multigenerational guilt. I bring a pre-thank-you hostess gift to the dinner party. I send a thank-you text when I get home. I write an email thank-you the next morning in which I say a proper thank-you note will follow. I search for paper upon which to compose the proper note and a pretty thank-you card into which to tuck it. I hunt for a postage stamp with a design element that coordinates with the pen color, which matches the lining of the envelope. Violet. No. Plum. No. Eggplant. No.
My skirts button now, but I can no longer leave home for fear of how long it will take me to express gratitude if someone does something nice for me.
I turn down another wrong street on purpose.
It’s not my fault I have bonus guilt. I had the amazing platform of an internationally syndicated comic strip, which some people said I should have used to voice triumphant stories of unwavering feminism, but which I instead used to voice the insecurities, relationship frustrations, mother-daughter angst, career grief, and food blunders under which so many of our triumphant dreams get squashed. Some people thought my work reinforced the negative stereotype of women being obsessed with shopping, weight, and love, but it wasn’t my fault we still live in a world which partly judges women by what we wear, how much we weigh, and whether or not and who or how we love. Not my fault that with every glorious new possibility for women came an extra sense of isolation when we not only couldn’t keep up but were told we shouldn’t talk about the things that held us back.
Many days I wanted to say, Hey, it was kind of humiliating to admit what I did in the comic strip today, but this is the truth of what’s tangling everything up for a lot of us, and it makes us feel even more alone because we’re not supposed to admit we’re vulnerable to any of it! You only looked at the subject matter but didn’t notice the small personal victory that wresting with the subject matter included! My message was meant to be one of compassion and hope! The powerful female spirit rising above the muck!
I spent days researching the fashion trends of the season, for instance—how women are portrayed, the convoluted sexism sold in women’s magazines that’s billed as “fearless fashion.” Images like that of a sultry executive leaning against her desk in a one-button blazer with nothing on under it (“This season’s feminine touch!”) undermining decades of efforts for women to not be viewed as sex objects in the workplace and inviting confusion at best and sexual harassment at worst. I would try to sum up days of research and perspective and the real-life experience of living in this culture into four tiny newspaper comic strip boxes with a bit of hope in the last panel . . . and would be heartbroken sometimes, honestly, when some people would say, “There she goes, writing about shopping again.”
I wanted to write notes to all the people who were unhappy with my work and explain myself. I wanted to write notes to all the people who were happy with my work and tell them how deeply grateful I was that they let me know I wasn’t alone.
I still owe all those notes. Thousands of them. It’s all on the list.
It’s not my fault I just ate my whole sandwich at the last stoplight out of self-pity.
Not my fault I’m circling completely different neighborhoods now.
Nor that I’ve started yelling out the open window again.
“It’s not my fault I could have had a nice dinner with friends tonight but turned down the invitation because I’m eight hundred episodes behind in my television watching and can’t hold my own in dinner party conversations anymore!”
“Not my fault the headlines were so depressing this morning, the only way I could reclaim some personal power was to go online and buy another pair of shoes!”
“Not my fault that all the time I’ve gained from owning a smartphone has been lost searching for my smartphone!”
“Not my fault that my selfies no longer resemble myself!”
“Not my fault I still pay monthly dues to a gym I haven’t gone to in a year because I’m too embarrassed to call and cancel my membership!”
“Not my fault I keep running out of color ink when I only print in black!”
“Not my fault I look completely different in the store mirror than the home mirror!”
“Not my fault that when I open my mouth to say something to my child, my mother’s voice comes out!”
“Not my fault that even after all the times my heart’s been broken, I can still be seduced by the promises of hair products!”
“Not my fault I can summon the energy to run to the kitchen and make a hot fudge sundae, but not the energy to strike even one yoga pose during a commercial break!”
“Not my fault I used up another half hour of my life last week trying to figure out which pack of plain white paper to buy!”
“Not my fault I have so many passwords in my brain, I can’t remember the names of friends!”
“Not my fault that I can go so quickly from restorative meditation to shrieking at a voice on an automated answering system!”
“Not my fault that no matter how many times I’ve repeated yesterday, I believe with all my heart that I will be completely different today!”
“Not my fault that every now and then, the most positive thing I do for myself is rip up all the affirmations stuck on the front of my file cabinet!”
“Not my fault that almost every time I’ve listened to my body, it’s told me to do the wrong thing!”
“Not my fault that now that everything has a link to more information, I never, ever feel I’ve finished anything!”
“Not my fault that my ego soared just long enough to convince me I’d remember what was on the fifteen full memory cards I tossed in my desk drawer without labeling!”
“Not my fault I can’t share my dreams with friends because they’ll ask how it’s going and expect me to have made progress!”
“Not my fault it seems best to skip the positive self-image books at this point and simply start shutting my eyes in the shower!”
“Not my fault that I believe my wants and needs are more deeply understood by Amazon Prime than by 99 percent of the men I ever dated!”
“Not my fault that some days, even with all I know and have done, I still measure my self-worth in fat grams.”
But not today.
I’ve been driving in circles for an hour, and now I’m heading down my street, a changed woman. I’ve breathed in the possibility of innocence, great big gulps of it, and I feel good.
I pull up to the garage that’s too full of stuff for a car to ever fit in it. I squirt anti-bac on my hands and breath spray in my mouth so my dog won’t notice I ate a sandwich without giving him the chance to beg for a piece.
I open the front door. Am tackled by the dog. My life is exactly as I left it an hour ago, but it feels completely different. I drove an hour and ten miles out of my way to get to back where I belong—to a place of perspective, freedom from the past, and renewed belief in myself.
I look at the handsome four-legged guy who’s waited so long for me to return, and say the one and only thing I am completely sure of at this moment in my grown-up life:
“It’s not my fault the fastest way back to me was to take the really long way home.”
Why There’s a Lifeless Body in Dressing Room Number Two
This is being written from a four-foot-by-four-foot dressing room in a Top 10 Sporting Goods store. Not written, actually. I’m dictating it to my iPhone, as I only have the use of one finger to press the little microphone icon. The rest of me is trapped in a sports bra. Not the Sexy Sports Bra of my daughter’s world. This is a normal sports bra made for normal women.
These could be my Last Words. My Audio Goodbye—just in case this is the day I actually die of strangulation from underwear. On the odd chance that my sole beneficiary, my nineteen-year-old Sexy Sports Bra Princess, doesn’t pluck the iPhone from my dead hand and sell it on Craigslist without even listening to my big speech, I’m leaving this for someone else to hear.
I’ve been stuck in this sports bra for seventeen minutes. Have contorted my body every way possible to get out of it. Tried to wrench it upward, tug it downward, pry it away from my crushed rib cage.
The bra is now lodged halfway between my chest and my chin, with my left arm and hand squashed flat under it. The lower half of my right arm is sticking up out of the neck hole, which is how I got to the microphone icon—by bending over and poking at my purse on the floor with the index finger of my right hand until the phone fell out and I could jab the screen.
Before I black out, I need to be heard. More pressing than the primal urge to scream for help is the primal urge to explain why it’s a size L in which I’m stuck. This is not the classic “If I must die, please, God, let them find my lifeless body wearing an S.” Or even the “Let the paramedics all be men, because humiliating though it will be for them to find me like this, at least they won’t peek at my size tag.” This is more urgent than all that.
I’m trapped in an L, not an S, because I couldn’t stretch the size S wide enough to get it over my head. I couldn’t have stretched it wide enough to get it over my daughter’s old American Girl doll head. The S sports bra is not made for any female, plastic or otherwise. The L barely got over my shoulders, then sprang back around my chest like a rubber tourniquet, where it will apparently stay until it’s removed by the surgical scissors of whoever finds me passed out on the Gatorade logo that’s embedded in the linoleum floor of this dinky room. I’m briefly bizarrely cheered by the fact that if someone bothered to embed a Gatorade logo in the linoleum, it must mean they planned for people, like me, to be upside down in underwear staring at the floor while speaking Last Words into an iPhone. I’m not the only one!
The cheer ends. Of course I’m not the only one. If a small person can’t get into an S and a small person can’t get out of an L, what are 99 percent of the world’s women, who are medium to extra large, supposed to do? This is why I have to speak up before my battery or I expire.
There are at least six hundred sports bras in this store—proud symbols of athletic emancipation, opening a universe of sports and exercise to women because we’re finally supposed to be comfortable doing sports and exercising when we wear one of these. This is what we come to buy when we’re committing to feeling good about ourselves. But as far as I can tell from the times I’ve shopped for one, every sports bra is only going to make the woman who tries it on feel horrible about herself.
I want to scream, but in my current condition, how much do I really want anyone to come running? I want to rally like-minded women to protest with me . . . but my kindred spirits are all stuck in their own individual four-by-four Top 10 Sporting Goods dressing rooms, trapped just like me in underwear that was supposed to set us free that we can’t get out of. Part of a huge, liberated, utterly immobile group, each member of which feels completely, half-nakedly alone.
I stare down at the Gatorade logo. It’s making me thirsty. Also it’s reminding me how much I wish I’d used the ladies’ room before I came in here. I remember the Top 10 corporate policy of “restrooms for employees only” from a previous unhappy visit. I start calculating if there’s any chance I could escape the sports bra, get dressed, apply for a job, and get hired in the next three minutes so I could qualify to use their bathroom. Frustration rises like the tide, a giant wave of discomfort and injustice rushing over . . .
I instantly regret using a water metaphor. As so often happens in the crusade for change, the urgency of the greater cause is washed away by the urgency of the needs of the moment. More water imagery. Fewer minutes remaining of anything good happening in this room. I give one last panicked, futile squirm, after which I vow to not move one muscle until I’m hopefully unconscious for the rest of the day.
I think of our foremothers in their laced-up corsets. I think of the centuries of underwear injustices, of athletics that were so out of reach they weren’t even a dream; of the millions of strong, defiant female voices that never had a chance to be heard because women couldn’t even imagine speaking up about such a thing. I think of my frostbitten ancestors, trudging to the outhouse in ankle-length bloomers and non-sports corsets in the middle of winter. I think of all the areas of life that appear to have been transformed for women, but with innovations that missed the mark just enough to leave us stifled in new and different ways. I think of how far we’ve come only to be stuck where I am right now. Mobilized but paralyzed, incensed but silenced. Incarcerated a mile away from a public ladies’ room by a puny chartreuse sports bra.
One day, I promise, someone will go to all the women’s dressing rooms, gather up the cell phones of my generation and transcribe our voice memos. And then, finally, we’ll have ourselves a real revolution.
“Want me to drive?”
“Sure!” I say as brightly as possible through a jaw spasmed shut in horror.
It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon and we’re starting from the safest possible place—a carport wide open on three sides with a nice long driveway that leads to a quiet residential street.
Still . . .
I get in the passenger seat and shove it as far back as it will go so I won’t be crushed when the nine airbags deploy. Strap on the seat belt. Calculate how my arms can shield my face from shattering glass without being lacerated themselves. Legs better off bent? No. Straight ahead. No. Bent. No. One bent, one straight, giving a fifty-fifty chance of needing only a cast, not a wheelchair, after our half-mile drive to the market. I’m gripping the inside of the door so tightly, I might self-inflict a stress fracture before she even gets the car out of the carport.
“WHAT?” She snaps her head toward me, glaring.
“You lurched!” I snap back.
“I lurched because you screamed!”
“I screamed because you lurched!”
“Do you want to drive?”
“No! I want you to drive! You’re doing a great . . . AACK!”
“You lurched again!”
“Do you want to drive?”
She slams the gearshift to P.
So far we’ve moved twelve inches and I’ve aged eleven years. I try to uncurl the clenched fingers of one hand with the paralyzed fingers of the other, assessing damage. I’m not being self-absorbed here. If I’m injured, there will be no one to take care of her. Just like strapping the oxygen mask on myself first on the airplane.
“No!” I say. “I want you to drive! You’re doing a great job!”
I turn to give my “great driver” the visual of my reassuring face to go with my perky words of encouragement, but I don’t see the driver. My seat is shoved so far back and hers is shoved so far forward that when I turn, all I see is the back of her headrest.
“Um . . . aren’t you sitting a little far forward to be safe?”
I hear the oh-so-familiar Big Frustrated Exhale. “Do you want to drive?” she asks.
“No! I want you to drive! You’re doing a great job!”
“Here! Go ahead!” She tries to yank the key out of the ignition without turning off the motor. “Want to trade places?!”
“No! I do NOT want to trade places!”
“Yes, you do. You want to trade places.”
“No, I don’t!”
“Yes, you do!”
WE ALREADY TRADED PLACES!!!
I didn’t need to scream that last one out loud. Mom knows as well as I do where we currently sit.
Mom. Yes. It’s not my teenage daughter at the wheel. It’s my beloved mother. I’m in Florida for one of my many new regular visits to “see how everyone’s doing,” and right now I’m seeing how Mom’s doing. Mom, who safely drove me from birth to 2013. Who drove me through blizzards to get to birthday parties and piano lessons. Who drove me through thunder and lightning to compare thirty different pairs of black open-toed pumps at twelve different shoe stores at three different malls. Who braved icy roads in the middle of the night for emergency chocolate supplies to fix my broken heart. Mom, who drove me to every “first,” her eyes all watery and blurred with panic and pride—first day of school, first sleepaway camp, first dance.
She never got a scratch on the car. Never lost her way. Not even when I was the one with tears—weeping in the passenger seat that life was over because an eighth-grade girl was mean to me, wailing that I couldn’t go to school because my hair looked stupid. Not even when I was sulking and silent and Mom had to read all the road signs in my teenage mind . . .
Mom was always the expert: judging when to veer around an emotional pileup, when to go slowly over every bit of buckled ego, when to do a U-turn and point us toward the nearest Dairy Queen.
The truth is, I was never safer than when Mom was behind the wheel. I was free to tell her anything when we were on those drives, just the two of us. I could confess all my secrets and share every dream in the sanctuary of Mom’s passenger seat.
She steered me safely through it all. Then she steered me right into my life’s work. I started working as an advertising copywriter in Detroit after college and was already quite successful by the time I was twenty-five. Mom, a picture of reserve, had always taught me to keep my feelings private, and there was a lot to feel confused about in those years. I was trying to live up to two role models—the homemaking Betty Crocker of my youth and the liberated Betty Friedan of my future.
Heeding Mom’s advice, I didn’t talk to friends about the angst of feeling stuck in the middle. Instead, I wrote in my diary and ate. I gained forty pounds with one Betty’s Triple Chocolate Fudge Cake Mix while trying to digest the other Betty’s Feminine Mystique. Frustrated by the Bettys, I sought clarity and guidance from M&M’s. Ultimately, I summed up my confusion in crumb- and candy-covered scribbled drawings which I sent home to Mom in letters to let her know I was coping without sharing my feelings with anyone.
In spite of a lifetime of teaching me to keep things private, not to mention the fact that I didn’t know how to draw, Mom insisted that these humiliating scribbles should be published for millions of people to enjoy. She researched comic strip syndicates at the library and announced she was going to send my “drawings” in to someone with a nice note from Mom if I didn’t. Just to make her not do that, I mailed some to Universal Press Syndicate, the first name on the list she’d typed for me. Within days they sent me a contract to draw Cathy for the rest of my life along with a note saying they were sure I’d learn how to draw if I had to do it 365 days a year.
I loved my advertising career and it was crazy to think I could support myself being a cartoonist, so I kept both jobs for a year and a half, working all day on one job and most of the night on the other, until I was finally exhausted enough to quit one of them.
Mom was clear which one it should be. She said I should leave what was safe and secure and leap into the impossible. Women were just starting to have the chance to try anything and be anyone, and Mom cheered me on to do it all, to see how far I could go.
Even when I decided to go three thousand miles away from her. When I was thirty, Mom did half the driving during the five-day trek that brought me California. It had been two years since I’d left my advertising job to do the comic strip full-time, and I was feeling brave enough to also leave everything else that was so safe. A beautiful home, a boyfriend, friends, family, the Midwest—none of it could compete with the lure of the rest of the world. Newspapers and magazines were full of stories of women who were doing things that used to be impossible, and emboldened by Mom, I couldn’t wait to try it all, completely by myself.
Mom helped me squash my drawing supplies and half of my closet into my two-seater sports car. I made a bed for my sixty-pound dog on top of everything we’d piled behind the two seats, and Mom lovingly pointed the three of us toward the complete unknown.
“I’m helping you go as far away from me as you can get,” Mom joked as we pulled out of my cozy neighborhood in suburban Detroit and headed for Los Angeles, “without having to jump in the ocean and start swimming.” I didn’t see the irony in the fact that I was launching my triumphant cross-country quest for independence with Mom nine inches away in the driver’s seat.
I also didn’t see what Mom surely saw down the road. She had to know with each passing mile that she was driving me farther away from the hope that I’d ever live near Dad and her as a grown-up, of having grandchildren close by, of family Sunday dinners at their house. We went through Illinois . . . Oklahoma . . . New Mexico . . . all the pages of the AAA TripTik, with me so excited about what might lie ahead and Mom so aware of what I was leaving behind. She still did it—rock solid behind the wheel, driving for days across America with love, enthusiasm, and the pure motherly joy of helping her girl go chase her dream.
That’s what a great driver Mom was. That’s how safe I was with her behind the wheel . . . right up until a few years ago, when without so much as a blinker to warn us, we changed lanes in the middle of life.
Every visit home since, the shift has been different. Mom has seemed slightly smaller and slower behind the wheel, and I’ve sat up straighter and been more alert. This visit, I’m bolt upright, in a full body clench—able to only make one-syllable yelps or those little stifled sounds that used to come from the bottom of Mom’s heart when I was young and at the wheel and she was teaching me to drive. As we sit here twelve inches out of her carport, it’s painful to see how far we’ve come.
I wanted to drive with Mom today so I could “assess her competence.” In spite of how cheerfully I’ve reassured her what a great driver she is, she knows she’s being assessed and I know she knows she’s being assessed and it’s possibly added a bit of tension to the trip to . . .
“CONCRETE STANCHION ONE INCH FROM THE RIGHT FRONT BUMPER!!!”
“Do you want to drive?!”
“No. Sorry, Mom. You’re doing a great job.”
“Would you like me to go back in the house and get your father and have him drive?”
This snaps me out of my reverie. My ninety-year-old mom is a little bit lurchy now, but my ninety-year-old dad has much, much more going for him behind the wheel: spinal stenosis, macular degeneration, double hip replacements, arthritic knees, and occasional episodes of briefly passing out.
“Let’s not get Dad.”
Mom completes her backup. Turns around and aims for the neighbor’s yard. I do my best to pretend I’m relaxing in what is the perfect metaphor for my place in life right now: the passenger seat. The place that used to be so safe but isn’t anymore. The position from which I see everything, try to direct everything, and can control absolutely nothing. The position from which I’m doing the exact same thing in opposite directions: trying to help my own nineteen-year-old daughter get safely on the road of life and trying to gently steer my ninety-year-old parents safely off of it.
I’m equally worried for all of them, and they’re equally as belligerent as each other. Nineteen- and ninety-year-old versions of the exact same need for independence, the exact same belief that they have it all under control. Nineteen- and ninety-year-old versions of the exact same rejection of my opinions and advice. For this tiny window of time, I’m the powerfully powerless guardian of them all.
All I can do is be grateful for the brave mom who got me here. Say my prayers for what will be. Position my brain away from the airbags and buckle up.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I'm not sure which I did more of while reading this wonderful book: chuckle out loud or wipe away tears. It helps, I suppose, that I was a huge fan of the author's long-running "Cathy" comic strip. Perhaps more important, while I'm older than she is by nine years, I, too, was a champion of the feminist movement (still am, as is she) and was for a time sandwiched in between parents and a daughter, all of whom were growing old, and up, way too fast. Sadly, my parents are gone now - and my daughter has become the "stuff" inside the Oreo of life, caught between a grown daughter of her own and her aging parents (which, Lord help us, means me and my husband). In any event, oh, how I can relate - and I'm quite sure all but teenybopper females will do so as well. These essays were written, Guisewite says, at a time when she's trying to "declutter" her own life (hmmm, I'm pretty sure that's a word that passed through our daughter's lips last time she popped in for a visit). Feminist though she may be, Guisewite admits to feeling torn between Betty Crocker and Betty Friedan (conjuring up decades-ago memories of whipping up a casserole for my family to eat while I attended a Gloria Steinem lecture). I choked with laughter - and frustration - as she recounted getting "stuck" in a sports bra; as a gym newbie, I can tell you it's not fun (though worse, perhaps, is the embarrassment over having to call someone to your rescue). And before I caved and joined the gym, I, too, resisted the call to exercise, rationalizing that "I exercised yesterday and I don't look any different." There are far too many other shared feelings and experiences to mention here (especially since I don't want to spoil the fun for other readers). In the end, she sums up the dilemma we're in perfectly: "My whole generation is reeling from the stunning truth - that we, who are way too young and hip to ever look or act old, are not too young to pass away." Aha - maybe that's why I glance proudly at the year-old Aristocat tattoo on the top of my flip-flop clad foot as I open the morning newspaper first to the obituaries pages. Torn indeed! In short, I love, love, love this book - highly recommended. Many thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for the opportunity to read and review an advance copy.