This post is the third in a series about my family’s favored maxims and their place in the matrix that shaped my sense of self. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a maxim as a brief statement of a general truth, principle, or rule for behavior. My family had scores of them in addition to the very confusing rules of Catholicism. I still hear the maxims daily though all my family have passed on. This is the nature of the matrix.
Sometime in the Summer of 1970, my mother took my “Pocket Holy Family” and buried it underneath the For Sale sign on our house in order to super-fuel her prayers for a quick sale. I was praying just as hard that nobody would ever buy the house and we could stay there forever. We moved a month or so after I’d started first grade, and despite my parents’ promises, the last time I ever saw anybody from that neighborhood, including my best friend Stevie, was through the car window and my tears. All the kids lined Barrcrest Lane waving to us as we drove away. I couldn’t wave goodbye because I was holding the bowl with my goldfish in it, and water was splashing out.
The youngest child in my new neighborhood lived next-door. She was four years older than I and called by the same first name. In short order the older kids tolerated me as their mascot. I became “Little Trish” to my neighbor’s “Big Trish” once they’d sussed out that I was a girl and my name was not Jimmy John as I’d told them. My mother had given me away early on by bellowing “Tricia!” into the woods and shouting at my new friends, “Tell my daughter to come home right this minute!” They didn’t seem to care much that I’d deceived them, but I felt angry and humiliated.
I trailed the older kids in their various innocent and not-so-innocent adventures. Terry and Rusty gave up trying to teach me to make that eardrum-shattering whistle where you blow between your tongue and teeth, but Big Trish and Lisa taught me the blow-through-your-thumbs kind that sounds like owls or wind in the rafters. With that kind, you can change the pitches by the way you move your fingers, and we all had special calls for each other. They also taught me the not-really-a-whistle piercing shriek you can make when you stretch a piece of fresh grass between your thumbs and blow. It made my mother crazy, and I did it a lot. It wasn’t whistling and she couldn’t punish me for it. Sweet rebellion.
My grandfather was the first person to teach me to whistle. The purse-your-lips, make-a-tune kind of whistle. He could sound like birds and make melodies of songs I knew. He had a special whistle he’d use to summon me, and I still hear it whenever I think of him. On rainy days at his huge apartment building, we’d whistle while we rode the elevator up and down the twelve floors and walk the endless carpeted hallways, for it often fell to him to keep me entertained while my mother and grandmother shopped for clothes or went to lunch. We never whistled when the women were around.
Though my family functioned overtly as an old-fashioned patriarchy, the women of the family were the true controllers, especially when it came to child-rearing. As the only child of the extended family, I was the convergence point of a great deal of opinion about proper formation. How I should dress, speak, behave, play, and think were discussed and frequently adjudicated. Whenever I was caught whistling by my mother, uncle, grandmother, or great-aunties, cautionary voices would silence me with this:
Whistling girls and crowing hens never will come to any good end.
Strangely, even my grandfather would say it sometimes. All the variants of this rhyme seem to derive from a Scottish proverb whose earliest recorded version was by J. Kelly in 1721: A crooning cow, a crowing Hen and a whistling Maid boded never luck to a house. The common British version goes, A whistling woman and a crowing hen are neither fit for God nor men. It’s curious that the version my family latched onto wasn’t the British one with the God part as might be expected from an Irish Catholic family, but the Americanized one. This one is actually darker in its determinism. In the Scottish original, if you whistle, you merely bring bad luck upon the house. In the British version, you’ve got a big problem, but it’s only with God and men. In this American version you yourself are definitely doomed.
Lest you’re unfamiliar with farm animal sounds, crooning is the Scottish word for a bull’s bellowing, and crowing is a rooster’s squawking. We associate these sounds exclusively with the male sexes. Whistling is, stereotypically, the domain of boys and men. The maxim suggests that a female making these sounds upsets the natural order of things and must end badly. We all know, however, that girls whistle. Google clued me in that cows also croon, and it’s not so unusual for hens to crow. That information would have been useful to me as a child.
It’s no great leap to assume that those who perpetuated this maxim were farmers who knew this. Why get judgy about it? Sigh.There’s hundreds of essays about male hegemony and I’ve no interest in adding mine to the pile of better ones. The natural order of things, according to the males who define and reify it, is that females ought to just go about their male-prescribed female business softly mooing and gently cluck-clucking, and never ever whistling. Or else.
I chose to reflect about this maxim because its lasting emotional charge for me is more deeply tangled than having my young self’s song silenced. I learned early in life there was little that made me happy that didn’t come companioned with guilt, threat, or punishment, and a lot of confusion. Whistling is an example. I grew up as the object of a variety of family battles for control. One of these battles was my refusal to behave like a girl. I note here that I have revised this essay dozens of times over the past two weeks and still can’t express what I wish, but I have pummeled it so close to extinction that I’m posting it anyway. I hope it might capture something of the negative charge this old maxim still triggers and the tangled hold my family matrix still has on me in many ways.
I loved that my grandfather encouraged my whistling just as I loved that my father bought me a toy train and taught me how to throw a proper football pass. That I was permitted, for a time, to defy the tyranny of the feminine forces molding me against my will helped keep some spark in my soul alive. Why? I was a girl who from the beginning of self-awareness felt that I was a boy. Technically, that’s not true. At the very beginning, I thought I was a dog, but my alarmed parents broke me of that before I was three. I grew up in a time when “gender identity” was not in the common parlance, and in a culture in which pushing the boundaries of gender roles too far was so transgressive as to be nearly unmentionable. In my family, the term “tomboy” was a slur.
I grew up living a double-life, as I know many children did. I was a boy living in a girl’s body in a time when there was exactly nothing to be done about it as far as I knew. The concept that there was an in-between place (non-binary) was beyond my radar. There was nothing on television that I had access to, no internet, no library books and not even any words I knew that would have let me explain myself to someone or search a card catalog. I was far luckier than the girls who were living in boy’s bodies; for them, the backlash of their transgressiveness was far more severe. For all sorts of twisted reasons,”sissy” had (and still does) more intense repercussions than “tomboy” did.
The women in my family, my uncle, and all my teachers had strong and consistent opinions about my deportment as a female. I was fortunate that my grandfather and father (though never my uncle) offered some gender-bending leeway for a time when I was young. Though my grandfather’s was limited to the whistling, my father’s was significant. Until I turned twelve, in fact, I somewhat functioned as his son, at least when we were apart from the women. Instead of my name, he called me “Hot Shot,” consistently defying my mother’s years-long insistence that he call me “Princess.” We bowled and body-surfed and watched football together. He introduced me to beer and bought me boy’s toys and shoes and clothing and athletic gear that I hid as best I could from my mother. He encouraged my competitive swimming and taught me stereotypically boy-things until my mother put an end to whatever they were. I know he was always disappointed that I wanted nothing to do with the hunting he enjoyed.
On the opposite side, as the daughter of the family, my mother’s goal was to make me feminine. She forced me into dresses and girl shoes and pink flowered pajamas with ruffles, and required me to play with dolls, which I hated. Almost daily, she made me balance a stack of books on my head and walk with a light step so I would, “stop walking like a truck driver.” She set up play times with selected girls with whom she hoped I’d become friends. These were disastrous and embarrassing because the girls wanted to play Barbies and Suzy Homemaker and I wanted to play Superheroes and build forts in the woods. Whether because my mother had been a ballerina or because she hoped it would make me graceful and feminine, I had ballet lessons every day for three years starting at age six, then weekly for another four years. She allowed me to stop when I agreed to begin ballroom dancing, a different sort of torture. And her gender training extended to other lessons as well. Whenever I would provide examples to her of any of these things, she taught me that men do not love women who are: too sensitive, too smart, too passionate, or too strong. My grandmother and my uncle agreed with her. And so did my great-aunties. When I was older, I argued that Louise and Bessie, my great-aunties were all of these things men don’t love. And I was reminded that neither of them ever married.
Needless to say, because I hung out with a lot of boys, and because I whistled with my grandfather and did a lot of “boy” stuff with my father, I was often in trouble for my behavior at my all-girls school and with the women at home. At school, I had little recourse but to be penitent and mend my unnatural ways. At home, I always hoped for some backup. Occasionally, if things got very out of hand, if they were present, one of the men might attempt a peacemaking effort. I do recall hearing them say frequently, “For God’s sake, leave the child alone!” Sometimes it was enough to provide a brief respite, but the issue would always be taken up again later when I was alone.
When I was being verbally excoriated or punished for doing something specific that my grandfather or father had condoned and one of them was around, I’d call for them to defend me. When caught directly in the crossfire, they would inevitably cave in and uphold what was deemed appropriate for a girl. I might get a gentler punishment because of their colluding role, but the toys or clothes would be given away, and the rules re-established with more severe consequences for future infractions set into place. I learned to package up any feelings of betrayal and confusion about behavioral double-standards because usually at some point afterward Grampa or Dad would wink at me surreptitiously, letting me know that we’d secretly continue our games. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I was the one taking all the risks in this very strange life situation.
Nobody ever openly engaged in explicit discussion or argument about what would now be termed my “gender identity, ” and nobody ever asked me how I felt about any of this. It was taken for granted I was a girl and that with time and the proper training I would think, dress, and behave like a feminine one without argument. The battles were all about nit-picky things like whistling or whether it was acceptable for a girl to wear denim (no) or play certain games. Over time, I became savvy about flying under the matriarchal radar, and I stopped arguing about why it mattered if a girl whistled or preferred climbing trees to playing with dolls, and why I was allowed to to do things with my dad and grandfather that were verboten when the women in my family were around. I just did them in secret. It added a mix of guilt and shame and confusion to the happiness, but it was better than nothing.
When I was twelve, everything went upside down. Part of the “everything” was that my body changed and it became a lot more challenging to be a boy in the ways I had been. There’s more story to tell that isn’t for this essay. Suffice to say that beginning at twelve, I gradually caved in to the matriarchal forces.
A few years before she died in 2015, I was sitting at a restaurant with my mother. She took a sip of her wine, looked at me appraisingly and said, “It took a long time to break you. I worked so hard to teach you to be a girl. I had almost given up, but you finally came around. It took you long enough.” She shook her head, and then she smiled. I could write a book about the history and hurt packed into that utterance. In her mind, my mother had offered me a backhanded compliment at the same time as congratulating herself upon her own successful parenting. When I got home later that night, I was sick to my stomach.
By the time I started high school, I considered myself a young woman. Not a feminine one, never that. I was more a funky, creative, and athletic one. I had not forgotten my boy self, but had put him aside the way a young adult might keep a beloved but outgrown stuffed animal tucked out of the way behind some books on a low shelf. Through many subsequent self-reinventions, I stayed a woman, still mostly trapped in the matrix I was raised in.
Gradually, all sorts of things started breaking through the tightly knotted threads of the Family/Church/School matrix I’d been raised in, and I realized, painfully slowly, that there was a whole different reality out there offering me a way of being myself that had not existed when I was growing up. I found myself taking my boy-self off the shelf occasionally and getting re-aquainted. It has been a long journey that continues today. Like any journey, some paths on it have been deeply painful, some fraught with doubt, fear, and confusion, and some traveled with laughter and dancing joy.
Today I identify openly as queer. I changed my name a few years ago to a gender neutral one I chose for specific reasons, and I use they/their/them pronouns. It frustrates me that people always assume I am a woman even if they don’t know my name. I haven’t yet figured this out. Perhaps it is that I don’t make an effort to dress in stereotypical male clothing, or that I am short, or lack facial hair, or that the years of training in physical carriage my mother put me through somehow created a feminine aura. The experience has made me more sensitive to my assumptions about others. Every once in a while I allow myself a moment to wonder how my family would react if I had come out to them. A moment is enough; the nausea comes quickly.
One of the early outward expressions I made to acknowledge my queerness to myself was cut my hair short. Not a radical move, but significant to me. When my mother saw me with my new haircut her words of greeting to me were: “Are you trying to make yourself ugly? Are you trying to look like a man?” I knew better than to rise to her bait on this one, so I said nothing out loud.
Inside, I said, “Yes, Mom, I am.” And I whistled my happy tune. This “girl” came to a good end.
An interesting bit about crowing hens, sex and spontaneous transition...extracted from reliable internet sites on poultry raising. In all-female flocks, or flocks in which the ratio of females to males is greater than 10:1, one hen can take on male characteristics and become the “protector” of the rest of the flock. A hen who’s left ovary has fails and consequently has elevated testosterone levels in her body, will physically transform to take on male characteristics. She will grow a larger comb, longer waddles, male-patterned plumage, and spurs, and she will also develop aggressive rooster behaviors.