Then came the last present, always a sad moment. The presents always looked like there were more of them before than after opening. And, opening the last present was anticlimactic because for me, the excitement was in the anticipation and the unwrapping.
I took a deep breath and dove in. It was bound to be a good one, because the others were (except for the underwear). Maybe this would be the best one of all (though the slide projector would be hard to beat). The wrapping paper was red with little green Christmas trees and white Santas. I picked up the present and shook it. It rattled like there was metal inside. Then I tore into it, tossing the paper over my shoulder.
It was a Junior American Tool Chest. The lid sported a drawing of a bright-eyed, blond boy in bib-overalls and a plaid shirt. He had a cowlick and straight white teeth. He looked like most of the boys in my sixth-grade class. He was smiling as though somebody had just given him a shiny new quarter. I opened the lid and stared at a hammer, screwdriver and little saw.
What? Why would someone give me a tool set? I’m a girl. I feigned delight, but when no one was looking, I ran to my room and hid it under the bed.
It wasn’t that I was girly to the extreme. Mom said none of us girls were ever interested in baby dolls. Yet my favorite toy was the one I’d received on my birthday, a doll with black hair, a wedding dress and veil. I thought she was beautiful and named her Ruth, after my mother.
It’s true we had a racer car that Dad had built out of plywood. It had a primitive steering wheel attached to a rope mechanism and my sisters and I had to push it to make it go. It had no brakes. A boy’s toy, for sure, but I didn’t mind because I got to show it off to the neighbor kids as my sisters and I wheeled it up and down the sidewalk.
But, a tool set? What was Dad – I mean Santa – thinking? Now, I’ll admit, it must have been hard for him to live with three daughters; maybe he’d wanted a boy. But, did he not realize the confusion and shame he caused by giving me what was obviously a boy’s toy? I was confused enough already. In my class, we were learning about reproduction in visits (segregated by gender, of course) from some woman from Social Services. I’d started my period and was working up the courage to let my mother know I needed a training bra.
The week after Christmas, friends of my parents visited. They had a girl my age, Barbara. While we were playing in my room, Barbara nosed around under my bed and spotted the tool set.
“Wow! That’s really neat!”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. Can I see it?”
I sized her up to make sure she wasn’t teasing me, then crawled under the bed and dragged out the toolbox. Barbara picked up the hammer, ooh-ed and ah-ed and then said, “You’re lucky. I wish I had one of these.”
After that, I felt a little better, but not enough to remove the toolbox from its hiding place. The gift of shame remained there until the following Thanksgiving when we hauled a bag of old toys to the Marines’ Toys for Tots drop-off at the gas station on the corner, I’d slipped the tool kit into the bag and hoped my parents wouldn’t notice.
I’ll admit I’d been tempted to play with it a few times, but I couldn’t. I was a girl, and girls just didn’t use hammers and screwdrivers and saws. They just didn’t!
Sure, sometimes I was curious about dad’s old wooden workbench in the basement, where he spent most of his free time (when he wasn’t in the garage working on the car). I took my broken toys to him to fix and I liked to watch him putter around. He was okay with me watching as long as I didn’t bother him with questions. Sometimes, he’d clamp things in an iron vise, take a length of lead solder, and get out his soldering gun. I can still smell the burning lead.
When I was 13, Dad bought my sisters and me a slot car racing set for Christmas and set it up on our homemade ping-pong table. I loved operating the controls to make my car go fast on the straightaways. Dad played with it far more than I did. By then, my sisters, 16 and 18, were more interested in proms than toys. For me, it was a guilty pleasure.
So, while I liked Dad’s workbench and the racing car set, it didn’t mean I wasn’t a real girl. It’s just that in the pre-Women’s Liberation 1960s, the lines between boys’ and girls’ toys (and lots of other things) were set in stone. For example, in eighth grade, I had to take Home Ec, while the boys had Shop. I hated Home Ec. The teacher sat her favorites at the front tables and the rest of us at the loser tables in the back. We baked cookies, we planned meals, we sewed an apron. The teacher, obviously too lazy to teach us to put in a zipper, made us construct shifts – sleeveless, shapeless dresses – basically two pieces of fabric sewn together – that you pulled on over your head.
Sometimes I wondered what the boys were making in shop class, but never enough to push it. I just shrugged my shoulders and went back to trying to sew the damn facing into the ugly formless shift I vowed never to be seen in.
Gender roles imprinted upon my psyche some fifty years ago remain. It’s taken me a lifetime to try and transcend them. And, when a woman close to my age tried her damnedest but was not elected President, I came to understand that we still haven’t overcome a series of Byzantine rules about what girls can and can’t do.
Author’s Comment: I admire writers who can remember their childhoods enough to write about them; something I thought I could never do. Perhaps thinking about my past was too painful – my parents are gone and I’m estranged from my sisters. Or, maybe it was because it would involve facing the fact that I really am getting older. A couple of years ago, I started remembering things from my childhood and decided to write about them. “But, I’m a Girl” started out as a reflection on gender roles in the 1950s and 60s, but after the 2016 election, the piece took on new significance for me because it hit home that we still have a ways to go.