Author: paigejohnson Page 4 of 7

Crying Next to Pretty Mom at Soccer

I started crying at my son’s soccer game yesterday. Not rocking back and forth blubbering, and not silent-hiccup sobbing, just a sort of leaky-eyed thing in the second half. Only one other mom saw, and of course it had to be the really pretty one who probably looks great when she cries. The one that looks like Lauren Graham when she was skinny on The Gilmore Girls. Our sons’ team was losing, and I’d been perfectly fine a few minutes before, so of course she put her (perfectly manicured) hand on me gently and said, “Oh, don’t take it so hard! That penalty kick wasn’t even his fault, this ref is crazy!”

I didn’t even know there had been a penalty kick against my son, because I’m the mom who knows nothing about soccer except that you’re supposed to kick it into the net. I thought the ref blew his whistle to keep up morale, or to signal that they were all doing great and it was time for a five-second break. He seems to blow it all the time for no discernible reason, so this was a valid conclusion.

Seeing my confusion, and more tears go down my cheeks, pretty mom changed tactics and went with, “Or… is it allergies? Are you okay?” I could see it dawn on her that this was something deeper; maybe I had recently lost a friend. A friend who played soccer, perhaps, making it all just too painful. I saw the wheels turning in her mind and the thinly veiled look that said she’d just caught a whiff of my crazy, and, wanting to reassure her, I nodded at the field and said, “They’re just so great, aren’t they? These kids?”

I assumed she’d know what I meant. Sort of. She was a mom of a thirteen year-old, too, who is every bit as smart and handsome and awkward and darling and goofy as mine, and I thought she would get it. But I was, admittedly, sort of PMS-ey and she was probably at whatever time in a woman’s cycle makes you your most confident, capable and logical self, so she did what anyone would do: she said, “Um, yeah, they’re awesome!” And then she pretended to be doing something very important on her phone.

She doesn’t have older kids, though, so besides being very not PMS-ey, she also doesn’t know what I know about thirteen-year-olds: in a few short months, you can’t protect them from anything, and they are leaving soon. Right now they are all limbs and they leave stinky socks everywhere and have rather bad skin, but mostly their lives are okay. They may not be the popular kid, but they have friends and they do fine in school and you can buy them Clearasil. But by this time next year they will be in high school.

And here is the thing about high school: it’s real life, with just as many disappointments and figurative land-mines to navigate. There are teachers who will dislike your kid for no reason, and think they are lying when they say they are late because they stopped to help someone pick up their books–you want to call up the teacher, but you can’t. There are teachers who will yell at your kid for asking too many questions, and then tell them later, you should have asked–you want to intervene, but you can’t. There are friends who will suddenly be mean for no reason, for weeks, and break your kid’s heart–you want to call them up and say what the heck, but you can’t. There are assistant principals who will give your kid a uniform slip on Halloween for her Robin Hood costume when the tunic went all the way to her knees, but not write up the seniors being playboy bunnies in shorty skirts and fishnet tights–you want to slap them upside the head but you can’t.

There are pop-quizzes on material that hasn’t been covered, creepy boys who walk right up to the line of harassment but only cross it with their big toe, and bottom-lockers that force your kid to crouch beneath a much larger one under someone who has no intention of hurrying even a little–you want to fix these problems but you can’t, it’s high school. There are people who disagree with your kid’s views because they are not what theirs are, and then call your child intolerant–you want to enlighten them, but you can’t–it’s not your fight.

Despite all the John Hughes movies that taught my generation that high school is strange and surreal but it all works out in the end and the pretty girl falls for the nerdy guy or vice versa, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes all the hard work doesn’t pay off. Sometimes the teacher is just mean. Sometimes it doesn’t all make sense in the end; Molly Ringwald doesn’t get asked to prom and has to just go with that weird guy who was probably gay and not hot at all, but a good friend.

And there’s nothing you can do about it. You are Sampson without his hair; your hands are tied, you are rendered powerless, because it’s high school and you have to let go. Which is good and right: our job is to help them grow up from home, not jump into their lives at school. We pick them up and brush them off and send them back out there like Rocky Balboa’s coach, whose name I would know if I cared about sports at all.

Which brings me back to soccer, and the game that had nothing to do with the tears. It was about seeing my eighth grader out there laughing with his teammates as he played–and doing this weird floppy thing he does lately when he runs–and knowing it’s all ending soon. This darling awkward phase when he’s still a kid and I’m fairly involved in his life, even if I don’t know what a penalty kick is. (They seem to call penalties when any player falls down now? But isn’t that part of the game? Occasional falling?)

High school is around the corner and that goes in the blink of an eye. One minute you are wondering where to drop off your freshman and the very next second he is looking at colleges, talking about majoring in international relations. Boom. Childhood over. So of course I cried a little. It was like the time my daughter sent off for caterpillars, and we got to see them (Wanda, Trixie, Tracy and Glen) right on the cusp of turning into butterflies. The kids on that filed were short and tall and heavy and skinny and all kinds of awkward; one the size of a fourth-grader and one with a beard, but all of them wonderful. Mine in particular, as I’m sure all parents think. They’re all the kindest, funniest, smartest kid in the world, and pretty mom is just going to have to cut me some slack. “Hold on to this,” I want to tell her. “This is it. This moment, despite the dirty socks left on the floor and the forgotten social studies work sheet. It was boring anyway. But this, this is awesome. Don’t blink.”




There’s This Purse

There was this purse I saw, and I thought it could change my life, and maybe it will. I’m not usually a purse person, possibly because of my grandmother on my mother’s side. My relationship with her was not ideal, and her purses were horrible.

She was prickly. Not abusive or even mean, just prickly. She’d visit and bring you a present, but tell you how you should be grateful for it. She’d send twenty-five bucks for your birthday, but the card said to be sure to let her know what you spent it on, and don’t squander it away. When I was a senior in high school, she praised me for my nearly straight-As report card, and then told me to be careful because I was getting chunky. (I weighed 119 pounds at the time.) She once voiced relief that my sister was attending the Naval Academy for college because maybe among so many men, she’d find a husband who would overlook “all those awful freckles.”

I don’t know what dysfunction in her own upbringing caused her to lace her compliments with criticism, but I know this: her purses were awful. There was a big cream-colored one I remember from my childhood, not so much ivory colored as pale mustard, with black buckles. There was a black monstrosity that was her every-day purse, covered in something dark and shiny that was peeling off in places, revealing something like cardboard underneath. And her “nice purse,”  the giant white one she carried in her old age, made of vinyl that she said looked like “kid skin,” which made me think somewhere out there existed purses made of children. They were all horrible, and not for lack of money, since one thing my grandmother did very well was invest. She read the Wall Street Journal Every Day and had done well for herself, but carried purses that would not sell at any thrift store, anywhere.

The handles of my grandmother’s purses were too short to wear over her shoulder, so she wore them over her left arm, resting in the crook of her elbow, rendering that arm T-rex-like and useless, with the hand sticking up idly, Monty-Burns style. Her purses were spacious, and she took pride in showing you how they held her wallet, her checkbook, a small pack of tissues and her glasses with room to spare. Enough for a mid-size Buick.

So I tried, my entire life, to carry as little as possible in the smallest bag possible. In high school I carried a tiny wallet and a lip gloss in a bag the size of a sandwich bag, with the enviable GUESS triangle on it. In college I went all student-scholar, with only a backpack, except at night when I would cram some cash in my pockets (if I went out at all).  The diaper-bag years of my late twenties and thirties offered a respite, because a diaper bag screams THIS IS TEMPORARY I HAVE A BABY, but still, even my diaper bag was a a plain brown backpack. And when the kids were all old enough to carry their own stupid sippy cup, I got something called a mini-crossbody, a tiny little thing that says See? I don’t even need a purse anymore!

But last week I saw this purse. I was not shopping for purses, but that day I believe my car keys and phone were sticking precariously out of the shallow pockets on the back of my pants, making my butt look the size of Mrs. Doubtfire’s, and my wallet was tucked under my arm so I wouldn’t have to carry it, giving me a lop-sided gait as I shopped. The purse was in a shoe store, where I was waiting for daughter-one to try on ten pairs of Sperrys that all looked the same, so I had time to wander and browse. And there it was, beckoning me to come forward and touch it’s buttery softness.

It was small, as “bags” go (bags, I have learned, being different from purses), but large enough to hold a wallet and an i-pad, or a tattered copy of the short stories of Edna Ferber. The leather was real and soft, but not floppy and flimsy, and it smelled like libraries and tobacco and nostalgia; like Indiana Jones. There was a pocket on the front perfect for a phone, but not so perfect that it seemed to scream phone pocket, so you wouldn’t have to dig in the main compartment and fish out your phone in the grocery check-out line when you heard a text come in from a child at home, who asked you if he could use the creme brulee torch to melt a plastic bottle into a Frisbee. (This really happened.)

The closure at the top of the bag was one of those discreet, magnetic button thingies that manages to close the whole bag while also providing instant-open technology, should you want to fish out a lip gloss as you pull into the parking lot at soccer practice and see that your son’s assistant coach is a guy you haven’t seen in twenty-five years, who sat in front of you in high school civics class and doodled pictures of famous athletes in his spiral. (This really happened. His favorite was John Elway.)  There was even a little lip stick pocket at the top, near the magnetic button thingy, so the lip stick would nearly leap into your hand in such I-forgot-makeup-today emergencies. And the magnetic button thingy then closes with a quiet little thud that says, “I got this.”

I don’t know enough about fashion to say if the purse was tailored or preppy (is that the same thing now?) or vintage-like or contemporary, but it spoke to me. Possibly, it had an urban-cowboy vibe, appealing to the dichotomy of my Colorado roots and current city of dwelling. It was simple and streamlined and sleek, with no tassels or buckles or nonsense, and the strap was long enough to carry over the shoulder with the bag resting in the little niche where your waist goes in, instead of banging against the hip. No T-rex arms or Monty Burns hands. And the best part: the bottom of the bag was a slender, banana-shaped wedge, making the bag stand up alone when you set it down. Holy crap.

I did not buy the bag. I had an impressionable teenage girl with me, who has a propensity to let money burn a hole in her pocket, and the bag was not cheap. It was not really even reasonable, though purse-people would probably disagree. I cradled it lovingly, and put it back, and I have thought about it for weeks. But today is my 45th birthday, and because I do not have to pick up a child anywhere after school or make dinner, I am going to go see if it is still there, and I am going to buy it. When I get it home, I’m going to lovingly load it up with my wallet and a lip-stick and a collection of short stories by some bad-ass female writer like Edna Ferber. I will be gentle with the purse, but not too gentle, because this purse can take it. If Amelia Earhart was a suburban mom, she’d have this purse. Or Meg Ryan, when she was a super-cute bookstore owner in You’ve Got Mail. Or if Indiana Jones had a daughter who had four kids, she’d have this purse.

It is time for me to let go of some stuff, like my grudge against purses, and my grandmother. It is time for me to embrace who I am, which is someone who needs a purse smaller than a suitcase for an international flight, but larger than a snack-sized sandwich bag.  I love that this purse looks good, but more than that I love that it feels right and smells good and holds exactly what I want and can stand alone when I need it to, which, it occurs to me, are some things I love about my husband. But about this purse: I think it could change my life. I think it could be one thing that is exactly what I want, when life is unpredictable and sometimes harder than you thought, and I think it could remind me that I am exactly me, not more and not less, but very capable. I just hope it is still there. Wish me luck.



If (for girls)

If you can do what others don’t do, and not do what they do,

and be confident that you did what’s best for you;

If you can be kind when it is difficult, and humble even when you’re proud,

and know when to stand up for yourself, too;

If you can love when you don’t like, and give when you are weary, but know when to  walk

away and not give anymore,

If you can be at peace with your whole self, and grateful for what God gave you,

and make His work a service and not a chore;

If you can be stylish and yet modest, light-hearted but not empty-headed,

not caring too much if others think you’re odd,

If you can see that beautiful people are the ones who smile and laugh,

and be fun-loving but in a way that pleases God;

If you can grieve when sadness is called for, but pick yourself up when it’s done,

not wallow in the sadness or despair,

If you can reach out a hand to others when they’re flailing or in pain, not being pulled in,

but showing that you care;

If you can win and be humble in winning, lose and be gracious in loss,

seek beauty and goodness when others seek darker things,

If you can hope when it seems hopeless, have faith when the path is unclear, and

go to sleep and see what tomorrow brings;

If you can recognize when hard work is the only route to take,

and do the work with tired and blistered hands,

and keep on working hard when you really want to quit,

and build your life on rocks instead of sand,

If you can turn away from the superficial, put aside temptation,

and see the difference between a pebble and a pearl,

Then yours is the world and all that is in it,

and what’s more, you’ll be a woman, my girl!


Being Tommy Lee Jones

It seems to me that motherhood is cool again. Mommyhood’s day has arrived, and it is cool as long as you have the right accessories. There are blogs and vlogs and articles and whole books about mom-ing (not to be confused with motherhood, which is not the same thing). Cool moms are in the movies, cool moms are writing blogs, cool moms are starting their own companies that sell cool mom stuff. Celebrities, being humans, keep reproducing, and we see and hear about their offspring when they are small. Somehow, without wanting to or meaning to, I have absorbed knowledge of celebrities’ kids’ names, from Lourdes and Apple and Coco down to North and Saint West. I don’t even want to know these names, but I do. Having babies and being cool and stylish and thin is in.

We don’t hear much about celebrities’ kids once they have turned seven or eight. Having older kids is not as cool; they are not an adorable accessory anymore. Moms of babies can write about the challenges of those early years; lack of sleep, schedules and napping and tantrums, and the cute stuff (first day of kindergarten, first tooth fairy visit, first disastrous birthday party) with a “we’re all in this together” voice, and it sells. If you slim back down after the baby and your nursery is cool and your diaper bag is cool and–this is key– you put up with the not-so-fun stuff, like tantrums and melt downs, with patience and humor and wine then you are a cool mom. A middle aged woman in size 12 jeans writing about parenting teens? Not so much.

Forty may be the new thirty, but forty-seven is just forty-seven, nothing cool about it. And fifty-two? Forget it. Not only does your body betray you in countless tiny ways, your children become complicated people with un-cute problems. Plus they do not let you dress them. The clothes they wear are not what you would have chosen for them, and their rooms are not cute, particularly if they are boys. Their smiles–at least the ones directed at you–can be as rare as a lunar eclipse, and when they are sad, you cannot make it better. It is not in your power; do not even try.

The moms who find beauty and joy in parenting teens are such superheroes, such workers of magic, there ought to be thousands of blogs and vlogs and books and articles devoted to them, too. I sort of want to write one; I sort of want the world to see the imperfect coolness of my life. These beautiful kids that are smart and funny, with razor-sharp wit (and stubble), and that one time I found the self-control to just listen when they unloaded about stress, and did not point out that sometimes their own choices cause them stress. That’s right: I just listened; it was damn-near heroic.

Or I could write about the cool accessories (trappings?) of my life: my repainted kitchen, done on a budget, the flea-market find that is now a nightstand, the grilled cauliflower we had last night that blew my mind. But something happens in your forties: you grow up even more. You no longer want to be the one raising her hand in the front row, waving it in the teacher’s face to say I know! I know! Or, in this case, I’m cool! I’m cool! Maybe it’s fatigue. Maybe all of our energy is devoted to the parenting itself. Just this week my teens have mentioned things going on in their friends’ lives: stress, cyber-bullying, sexual harassment, cheating, death of a family member, alcoholism, an eating disorder, gender-confusion, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. And that doesn’t even include the more subtle things we must diagnose and help with as parents: spiritual development, character development, work habits, nutrition, etc. So yeah, those years when I had four kids under the age of six were a little hard sometimes, but they were so cute, and there were answers. There was Curious George and cherry popsicles, reading stories in a homemade fort, taking nature walks and napping in a quilt. When they were sad, sleep was almost always the answer, or maybe just a graham cracker. And whatever the problem was the stakes were not very high.

But now are the years when we must put on armor, not to protect ourselves from our teens but to stand in front of them and jump into oncoming arrows. When you have success at teaching them something, or when you see the fruits of your efforts in a teenager who refuses to cheat, is kind to the friendless, a good listener, a hard worker or a healthy eater, it is a glorious thing. The clouds part and the sun comes through and you rip the armor off for a moment, hair blowing in the wind, and you give your mighty, barbaric yawp–or you smile a private smile and make their favorite dinner. But then you put the armor back on because here come the mortar shells and arrows again, and they will not relent and you must fight them, fight them, silently and without seeming to intrude. It is a delicate dance and you must dance, dance and never tire, never give up and never rest, except to sleep. When they are grown and you look back and see those cute blogs and articles about organizing Legos and outgrowing naps, you’ll be like a grizzled, used-to-be-handsome General having a look at new recruits; you’ll be Tommy Lee Jones, chuckling. You remember that, and it was awesome, and so simple. But your smile is tight and wistful, because you know the road ahead is wonderful and terrible and difficult and glorious and you wouldn’t change a thing.





Poem-in-my-forties 1

A toddler in a red jacket bends

down to pick something up in the street,

wind blown hair hiding her face, his face, I cannot tell.

The mother tugs hard on the little hand, come on, her lips say,

the child’s wrist and body follow with one backwards glance at the wanted thing.


The little red jacket stays with me, familiar, though I don’t think any of you had one. I do

remember a small purple sweater, an orange windbreaker, a green raincoat, but

the red jacket is all of them

all of you

trailing behind me to pick up a rock, a bottle cap, a feather,

my lips saying Come on, the light is changing, a car might come.


I failed to see, she fails to see

the wind-blown hair as magic, the

whole moment magic, the

little red jacket sacred; the scarf or the jewel in a Vermeer.


She is thinking of laundry and how dinner

will not make itself and the chaos

of bedtime before rest

But I watch, unseen, behind a rain-smeared windshield, the beauty

pinning me to my seat, helpless and heavy-limbed

with memories.

Bad Hair and Blueberry Muffins

I was in seventh grade. I had glasses and braces and hair that did not confine itself to looking bad once in a while, but betrayed me daily and especially if there were school pictures, a birthday party or school dance. I’d always had disappointing hair; I have memories of getting home permanents as young as six years old in order to “give my hair a little life,” as my mom said. I wanted curly ponytails like Cindy Brady and instead I looked a little like Bobby. But seventh grade was the year I really felt my hair’s deficiencies, the year I began to panic with the thought that this bad hair thing might be a permanent situation. In retrospect, it wasn’t as bad as I imagined, as those sort of things never are, but at the time I thought I had nearly the worst hair in the world, almost as bad as Shannon Fitzer, class weirdo, and that was her own fault because she never washed hers. Or maybe she had a disorder that caused her hair follicles to produce a hundred times more oil than the average person, I don’t know, but it was limp with grease and an indeterminate shade of brownish-gray, even though we were twelve.

My own hair was blond, which, in the eighties, was like hitting the lottery. But my good luck ended there: it grew outward instead of down, it was oily at the scalp even though I washed it nightly, and it was dry everywhere else, maybe because I washed it nightly. My mom said it was “fine and silky,” which was eupha-mom-stic; it was just thin. My mom’s Southern friend Shirley, who was stuck in a mid-western town but was basically a character in a Tennessee Williams play, once told me, “Sweetheart, that hair of yours ain’t never gonna listen; you’d  best just chop it off.” The hairdresser who tried to put something like an up-do  in my short hair for the eighth grade dance stepped back to appraise her work and said, “I put enough hairspray in there to hold a few small dogs on your head. If that doesn’t work, nothing will.”  My date–my first date ever, if you could call it that–gingerly touched my head, as you would a porcupine, and laughed so hard he had to hold on to the banister, until my dad shot him a look that silenced him so severely he was unable to put on my corsage, and it was a wrist corsage. My mom had to do it for him.

In early high school, my hair was even shorter, a style they were still calling a Dorothy Hamill, which is designed to make your hair stack up in the back and look thick. I did not have the high cheekbones and turned-up-nose to pull this off, but it was stylish enough, and daring enough–most girls stuck safely to long hair and teased up bangs–that I got by. My self-esteem didn’t suffer too badly, in fact that short hair may have boosted my confidence into the realm of “cool.” I was edgy. I was different. I had short hair and took art classes, wrote for the school literary journal and adopted the cool indifference of a girl who is not like all the other girls, though of course I was. (As a side note, my fifteen-year-old son recently said, “I can’t stand it when girls try super hard to be all edgy and “different,” they’re all, like, “I’m so different, I wear Converse to prom!” But really they’re like everyone else.” And I thought: crap. I was one of those girls…”)

The thing is, despite the stacked-up cut, it took a lot of hairspray to keep my hair looking like Dorothy’s, and mine never flew gracefully around behind me when I skated on the town lake. It clung to my head like the helmet that it was in the winter, and in the summer it plastered itself to my cheeks in surrender. My sister called it ‘Shawn Cassidy hair” and warned against it, though she was a fan of the Hardy Boys reruns and I believe her first crush was on Parker Stevenson. When my hair went limp, she would flash her eyes at my head and say “Da-doo run-run,” and I’d run for a can of Finesse. If I used a curling iron and turned my hair under, I could make it look a little like Valerie Bertinelli’s on One Day at a Time, or Mindy in that one season where she briefly had hers cut short and Mork made that joke about a human Q-tip.

So I eventually got fed up. The Dorothy Hamill wedge wasn’t working for me anymore; I tried to grow it to my shoulders or at least into a sleek bob, but the awkward in-between stage was always too much for me. Friends wasn’t on yet so Rachel hadn’t shown us all how to grow out our hair gracefully, and layers weren’t a thing. I’d chop it back off, cry a little and start over.

On one particularly bad day in about 1988 I was so distraught that my mom found me in my room crying while reading a book for English class, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. Like so many high school reading list books, it was overtly depressing and upsetting and not remotely related to anything we were studying in any other part of school. The book involves war, depression, mental illness, prostitution, and a lot of death–perfect for a teenager, yes?–and and the teacher had told us was satire, which was “the smartest kind of humor.” There was nothing funny about this book, but I was crying about my hair: there was a party later that evening and my hair looked terrible. Fresh from a bad cut by the only barber in town (yes, barber),  limp with humidity and orange-ish because a friend had mistakenly told me that you could put QT in your hair and sit for a few hours in the sun for natural looking highlights. It must’ve been bad because my mom took one look at my tear-stained face and said, “The book?” I shook my head no and she looked sympathetic and said only, “Oh. The hair, then.”

She didn’t say it wasn’t that bad. She didn’t say what my dad said, which was something along the lines of “Suck it up. Be happy you have hair at all.” She just took my hand and pulled me off of my yellow flowered bedspread and to the kitchen, and placed a metal bowl in front of me and her copy of the Better Homes and Gardens cook book, which she just called “Betterhomes.” I rolled my eyes, but the well worn binding and the red and white checkered cover were comforting:  it was already working. I made blueberry muffins. The blueberries were going to go bad anyway, my mom said to convince me, because I’d rather have drown my sorrows in a pan of brownies, or one of those snack n’ cakes that came with its own little pan. But those berries were round and firm, and the resulting muffins were perfect. The crumb was more firm than cake but less dense than bread, they had just a hint of both lemon and almond, and they crackled on top with a sprinkling of demerara sugar. I know you’re not supposed to teach your children emotional eating, and muffins are not health food, but this wasn’t about eating, it was about creating. She had me make the muffins, like she always did when I had a bad case of the blues.

It’s not the food, it’s the stepping out of yourself. The focusing on something other than self pity, and producing something beautiful that also happens to double as breakfast the next morning. Something that makes everyone happy, and fills the house with an endorphin-raising aroma. At some point my mom said something about me being beautiful, and that we are not defined by our hair, but mainly she just told me to put on some happy music and make muffins. It was a gentle “get over yourself” disguised as part benign chore, part sympathy. Really it was the same thing my father was saying, but with–literally–a spoonful of sugar. Happily, my hair got slightly better in my twenties, I am not sure why, and even better when I had several children and my veins were coursing with all those hormones that are supposed to make your hair terrible. The hormones figured they couldn’t make it much worse, the only thing to do was make it better. It’s actually pretty thick now, though I still have to keep it short because when I grow it out, I look like someone in an ad for Prozac, or the “before” version of someone getting Queer-Eyed. And even if I still had bad hair, I wouldn’t care nearly so much. I’m older, wiser, and much, much less focused on myself. For example, I don’t think I remembered to put on make up today. But one of my daughters, though she is beautiful, has  hair that is fine and slippery and rarely does what is asked of it, and the great sadness of her childhood has been her “skinny” ponytails. I tell her that this, too, shall pass. Or not. And that she is gorgeous and no one else is noticing this, and it does not define her. And even in the dead of winter, I keep a lot of blueberries on hand.

True Grit

The Holiday Season is here, and the T.V networks are trying to work in a few feel good movies now and then, squeezed in between bad sit-coms and perverse cop shows. Last week an obscure cable channel aired Gone With the Wind and I caught the end while sewing on a stubborn cub scout patch (I Sold Popcorn 2014!!).

My favorite scene in Gone With the Wind is where Scarlet must deliver Melanie’s baby, alone, while Atlanta is burning outside. It is one of the first scenes where we see Scarlet begin to transform from a shallow girl who does not even dress herself, let alone do hard work, into the woman who swears, with her dirty fist in the air, never to go hungry again.

I say it is my favorite scene; really it is just the one I remember the most. I first saw the movie in Mrs. Shiplett’s seventh grade classroom, because she deemed it a worthy and accurate portrayal of the Civil War, and because she had a lot of papers to grade. When the little slave girl says she ain’t never delivered no babies, so Scarlet does it herself, I had the epiphany that childbirth must be difficult and terrifying and dirty  and—because everyone was so happy when the baby girl was born—wonderful, and I remember realizing that Scarlet was changing, that she was different. You had to kind of respect Scarlet after that; she’d just rolled up her sleeves and done what had to be done.

The novel was the quintessential best seller and the movie won Best Picture in 1939, and we’ve been comparing every heroine to Scarlet ever since. Perhaps because she was not perfect, but man was she strong when it counted. Strength has been a common denominator in literary heroines, going all the way back to Medea and Antigone and Lady Macbeth and all the others I can’t quite remember. But of course none of them were good or pure. Purity of heart is something we say we want to strive for, but the good characters are always a little boring. Jo March and Elizabeth Bennett were cool; Melanie was a little boring. We’d rather watch someone a little more sinful; a little more human.

Maybe this explains why, for all the reverence that Catholics have for the Virgin Mary, we forget to think of her as fully human. True, she is the only person other than her son to be born without sin, but her son was divine, and Mary was not. She was simply human, like you or me or the lady next door. Byzantine and Renaissance art is partly to blame: she is always pictured in a gauzy blue veil, looking passively down at her hands. In the Byzantine renderings, she looks angry or kind of queasy, and in later WEstern art she looks pure, and bored, and boring. And in her most famous scene ever, so to speak, when she gives birth to the savior of the world in a stable, it is warm and inviting, she is clean and dry and looks like a pretty on-looker.

Anyone who has ever had a baby or worked on a farm knows that childbirth is not tidy. And to give birth in a stable, realistically, would be cold, dirty, and frightening. It may even have smelled bad. Surely it smelled bad. Bethlehem was crowded! The stable wasn’t being cleaned hourly, and there were animals in there. Then there’s the pain of it: perhaps Mary was spared the actual pain of childbirth because she had no original sin,  but even if she felt no physical pain, it would have been a messy, exhausting, bewildering affair, with only Joseph to cut the cord and clean up and help. (Imagine—to be chosen to cut the umbilical cord of the Son of God himself!) Yet Mary did it, because God asked her to and she looked straight through her fear and said, “Yes.” And all the other famous lines of all the other heroines in the world pale in compression.

Maybe she did wear a blue veil. I suspect that when she covered her head, it was with some neutral color, and that when she gave birth to Christ, her hair was messy. We make her look beautiful in the Christmas cards out of respect, and that’s as it should be. But I like thinking of Mary looking up, not passively down at her hands. I think she had a sparkle in her eye that puts Vivian Leigh’s to shame, and a spirit in her heart that makes all the other heroines I’ve ever read about seem dull. I know she had no sin, but I think she was just as fun as Jo March and Lizzy Bennett and Anne Shirley, and that like all of them, she changed into something stronger. Though her heart was pure the whole time, I like knowing that she went from a frightened teenager, who was surely scorned by some who knew her, to a mother who gave birth in a cave next to farm animals, only to watch her baby son grow up to be rejected and crucified, to the Queen of Heaven, with one foot on a serpent, a crown on her head and her eyes on fire with love for the world.

I will try to remember it this season, when my reality isn’t what I want pictured on the Christmas card. I want the cookies baked and the children in matching outfits, with homework all done and the house perfect and myself with not a hair out of place. Though I will never, ever be sinless, I will try to remember that real heroes get past the mess and the fear and the imperfection, and see only God’s will. They’re dirty sometimes;  mud on their faces, hair flying wild. I will try to remember that if I fail, I can try again. I can change, and grow, and become the woman God wants me to be, dirty hands and messy hair and all. All I really have to do this season is say yes to God. Where there’s His will, there is a way, and it is always perfect.

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