One summer when I was a teenager and working as a lifeguard, there came a day, for reasons I sort of remember, that my mother and I left the house together and set out walking. I think my mother was running an errand to the store. I was headed to my job, maybe catching a bus? That kind of sounds right. We never went places together, almost never, just the two of us, and that alone might have made the occasion memorable.
My parents were two generations older than me, old enough to be my grandparents; conservative and “religious” on top of that. It’s true that I talked with my mother at home, or tried to, but we didn’t have a lot in common, and frankly, the talking devolved too often into her concerns. I was largely working things out for myself, facing problems both outside the house and inside it alone. By that point in time, I had something of a double life, with plenty going on my mother knew nothing about and didn’t want to know about. This was not my ally and I knew that young. Still, she was my mother.
After adolescence, I had started to attract attention from the opposite sex – boys I mean – which I liked. This too, was largely something I handled alone. I don’t think my mother had any idea how sexually oriented the world was then (didn’t want to know), or the kinds of people and situations that were a regular part of my life as an attractive teenage girl.
On the day in point, I was wearing my lifeguard one-piece swim suit with shorts over it, standard guard attire. The two of us walked past the public tennis courts, where a group of men were playing. One of them casually said words to the effect of “isn’t that a fine one.” I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly till his buddy immediately answered, “You aren’t going to do much better.” I was shocked. Flattered. Embarrassed.
These were grown-up men. I was not interested in grown-up men and typically shied away when older men made plays for me. Further, I could not believe men would talk like this, as if we were not real people who could hear them, let alone say this about a girl in front of her clearly mature mother. My mother, who HAD to have heard the men’s comments, said nothing, did not even look at me, or them.
I was somewhat used to getting sexually-toned attention but NOT in front of my mother, nothing so overt. That part made it mortifying – somehow I knew it was better my mother did NOT really know how men responded to me – I sensed she wouldn’t like it and consider me to blame. Adding to the convolution, I picked up on resentment – she certainly worked overtime trying to squelch me in general and this arena – garnering male attention – seemed like more of the same. The fact that any part of me was flattered by the men’s words, well, you’ll have to forgive teenaged me. I wanted and needed validation I wasn’t getting elsewhere, not that I entirely grasped that then.
I expected something from my mother. A word to ME at least. She wasn’t the sort to take up on my behalf, and holler something back at these men, that I knew. She acted like nothing happened. I took her lead and said nothing, certainly not a word to these unknown men, and nothing to my mother either. We walked on, my mother in her usual back-straight posture, looking straight ahead. If I was a betting woman, I’d imagine the incident was quickly pushed aside and soon forgotten. Me, it burned into memory.