The Woodpecker on the Telephone Pole

Most mornings, since spring has begun appearing, I hear the Morse-code-like tapping of a woodpecker on the pole that delivers us phone and Internet services as I go to the mailbox to retrieve my New York Times.

My grandmother, who was born in 1889, wanted to be a telegrapher. She wanted to be the one who tapped out messages to send and interpret the tap-tap-tap of the messages received so she could deliver messages—personal and newsworthy. I think she wanted to be connected to the world outside the small one she inhabited in the town in Oklahoma that had grown from a village of tents and dirt roads into one of houses and sidewalks and streets from the time she moved there as a five-year old until she married my grandfather.

She married at 19. She looked around at her options, decided there were too many children still at home (she was the oldest of nine) for her to get educated as a telegrapher, and so married my grandfather—who was considered quite the catch.

My grandfather was a good provider, taught Sunday School, everyone loved him—and he was a womanizer and molested me and who knows who else. His middle son was also a child molester. He molested me and who knows who else.

I, of course, kept the secret from the family for nearly 30 years, until I told my mother when I was 40. She believed me, felt terrible that I hadn’t been protected—that she hadn’t protected me—but said she could forgive my grandfather because my grandmother had stopped having sex with him.

I suspect that if she could have heard herself, she would have been appalled. But, I think the really deep need to believe that the old stories will keep you safe prevailed with her.

What I came to call the family recipe—that girls and women are the sacrificial lambs on the altar of family stability—is the old story that prevailed with the women in my family. It is a story that has power because it is also one that has prevailed culturally.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about that story is what it does to marriage and family. It reduces them to a trap for women. More than one woman has chewed off her arm to release herself from that trap.

What I like most about Nora Ephron is that she believed in romance and love and wanting to marry and being married—and advised Wellesley graduates:

Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.

Here’s a link to the full address, you won’t regret reading it:

I am distressed that a woman named Susan Patton, a 1977 Princeton graduate, is distorting the very real desire to be connected, to be married, to have a partner, is reducing it to the old story. If that’s what you want, she says, you need to compromise your self, because love and marriage and family is about competition for the good catch:

“If you spend the first 10 years out of college focused entirely on building your career, when you finally get around to looking for a husband you’ll be in your 30s, competing with women in their 20s. That’s not a competition in which you’re likely to fare well.”

Here’s the link to the editorial in which her quote appears. You might regret reading it:

(I saw her interviewed by Mika Brzezinski on Morning Joe and found myself shouting at the TV, “MIKA. GET THE FUCK OUT OF THAT BOY’S CLUB BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE.” I often find myself shouting at Mika to get out before it’s too late.)

Marriage isn’t about finding the good catch. As the dad says in Juno, to paraphrase, it’s about finding someone that thinks the sun shines out your ass.

It took me three times to find the right match. Finding someone who is as smart as I am and more important, who isn’t afraid that I’m smart. A man whose emotional intelligence matches his intellect. And perhaps most important, a man who doesn’t believe in the sacrificial lamb myth. He almost knocked me off my feet when he said to me, just as we were getting to know each other, “You’re really good at nurturing, but maybe that’s not what you do best.”

I’ve written about this before—how difficult it is for me that my mother died while there was a chasm between us. We had always managed to bridge it before. But I think it is only now that I have been able to understand just how great the chasm is between marriage and family as a trap and marriage and family as a nourishing home.

I so wanted my mother to come with me when I decided that I could not sacrifice myself to family peace. But she died before she could. I’d like to think that had she had more time—time in which the struggle to breathe was not a breath-by-breath struggle—she would have come with me. I’ll never know and I miss so much what we missed.

At first, I wondered when I heard that woodpecker on the telephone pole, whether he’s pecking away to find insects. Wondering if it is for naught—do insects reside in a telephone pole?

And then recently, it flashed across my mind that maybe it’s my grandmother tap-tap-tapping away to send me a message that all is right with the world. That the matriarch of the family finally understands and sends me her blessing through Morse code.

And that my mother sends hers as well.

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