My Aunt Lucille embodied the rage of women of her generation, the Greatest Generation. She wanted more. She wanted to be more. But she felt obligated to wear the straitjacket handed out to women after the War
It was an act of patriotism to don that jacket—to acknowledge the sacrifice and pain men had suffered during the Depression and then on the front lines of the war—to show one’s commitment to returning to normal.
It was a desperate attempt to invent normal—a normal that had no room for the traumatic memories of economic humiliation followed by the spiritual devastation of being in combat.
And so many women, like my Aunt Lucille, donned the straitjacket and seethed at the constraint of being a homemaker in a home that was defined by neatly folded linens in the linen closet, dinners served on time, a sparkling clean house, and well-behaved daughters.
Aunt Lucille did not wear the straitjacket well. She carried an armory of rage and resentment within it and lobbed emotional grenades when the constraint became too painful.
The one I remember the most was Thanksgiving at her house in 1960. There were eight of us. My cousin Patty (her daughter and only child) and I were gleeful because it was my brothers’ turn to do the dishes. But then my aunt sent my brothers out to play and my cousin and I into the kitchen.
The counters were stacked with gravy-smeared dinner dishes, salad plates, water and wine glasses and coffee cups, desert plates, plates for dinner rolls at each place setting, serving utensils, silverware that ranged from salad forks to butter knives to desert spoons and forks.
A roasting pan with partially gelled turkey grease along with pans that had been used to boil the potatoes, green beans, and brussel sprouts covered the stove. Beaters from the electric hand mixer, whipped potatoes stuck to them, lay in the pan that had been used to boil the potatoes.
And then there were the leftovers that covered the kitchen table that had to be transferred to storage containers, thus liberating serving dishes that would be added to the graveyard of the dinner we had just consumed.
My aunt did not have an automatic dishwasher.
Patty and I were pissed. We protested. It wasn’t fair. It was my brothers’ turn to do the dishes. “You may as well get used to this,” Aunt Lucille said. “This is what your life is going to be about,” then left to have cocktails with my parents and her husband in the living room.
Patty and I sat cross-armed at the kitchen table seething with impotent rage. Then finally got up and disappeared all remnants of the Thanksgiving dinner the eight of us had just consumed.
We were eleven. It was our rite of passage into womanhood. One in which boys and men had privilege without accountability and girls and women swallowed their rage and covered it with a commitment to duty.
That’s what happens when commitment to “normal” covers trauma and spiritual pain. For a woman to challenge that, to claim the right to her own self, was to threaten what held together the rickety foundation on which “normal” was built.
Any woman who did was a fucking bitch.
Along came Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. AOC.
With impenetrable fierceness and articulation, AOC named the privileges men such as Rep. Ted Yoho have claimed as their birthright: misogyny, racism, protection from anything that might reveal a world that does not conform to the one that plants them without merit or accountability as its center.
She threw “fucking bitch” into the dustbin filled with tiny-hearted men where it belongs. With a flourish of his sword, Zorro left his mark of Z behind to show he had been there. With the power of her words, she left the mark of AOC on Reps. Ted Yoho and Kevin McCarthy as they sputtered and bumbled their attempts to regain control of the universe that had just been decimated.
I have struggled for years to believe and feel in my DNA what Alexandra Ocasio Cortez said with an eloquence and fierceness that parted the air in the chamber of the House and revealed the polite rudeness of the words of Reps. Ted Yoho and Kevin McCarthy. Her colleagues stepped into the parted air and cleared it forever from the toxic cloud of privilege that grants the right to demean and demonize the other.
There was neither rage nor impotence in their words.
Dreams come to me at significant times. My Aunt Lucille died in 1974 from breast cancer. About a year later she appeared to me in a dream in which she asked me to feel how cancer had eroded her pelvic bones. “Don’t let this happen to you,” she said.
The women’s movement was flourishing with rage at the time so I thought she meant don’t let men do this to you. Years later I realized she meant don’t let impotent rage do this to you.
Two days after AOC’s speech, I dreamed that I was backstage at a play. The lead was pregnant and giving birth in between acts (dreams have a logic of their own). She gave birth to a girl. She and her husband looked at me and said they would name her after me, Lucile—with one l.
Lucille is my middle name. I don’t know why my parents did that, given that my aunt didn’t include my mother’s name when naming her daughter. Perhaps it was my mother’s subservience to her dominating older sister.
I’ve always wondered about my middle name. It came from a woman who lived life so darkly. And yet it means light. Lucille means light. In the dream I thought about telling the new parents that I spelled my name with two ls, but then tried on “Lucile.”
I woke understanding that something in me had been reborn in the dream. Somehow letting go of that extra l let light through my aunt’s darkness and disappeared the straitjacket she had tried to bequeath me.
I am quite worried and scared by what is happening in my country right now. The very worst of white male privilege, power without accountability or merit, is embodied in the man in the White House. It’s clear how damaging and destructive it is.
AOC and her colleagues are our hope for leading us out of this dark wasteland. Lucile, my new voice, rises with them.