We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.
Way back in 1962, Helen Gurley Brown wrote a book of advice for single women, encouraging them to become financially independent and to experience sexual relationships before or without marriage. Sex and the Single Girl was seen by some as a precursor to the Women’s Lib movement, but many women vehemently dispute that view, considering it pop culture rather than a valid contribution to the academic discourse on feminism. But I can tell you firsthand that the feminist articles and books published back then, such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and the translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, meant nothing to colored girls coming of age in South Minneapolis.
Those books, which focused on the academics of feminism, were not written with the everyday woman in mind. But when my sister and I read Sex and the Single Girl shortly after it came out, we thought we had found the ticket out of the mold of tradition our mothers and grandmothers were locked into. True, the book didn’t say anything about dark skin or kinky hair, but it was easy to transfer much of the author’s advice to our lives.
I was in my late teens and had just become a young mother when Sex and the Single Girl came out, and unfortunately I was forced to place my infant son in foster care. I wanted more for him than the life of poverty that teen and single mothers tend to fall into. Gurley Brown said, “No one likes a poor girl. She’s a drag!” Her warning caused me to believe that if I wore the right clothes and makeup and found the right job, I might attract a man of means, while maintaining a certain level of independence.
I used the fourteen months that Stevie was in foster care to work two part-time jobs and complete a secretarial course. The small paycheck and tips I earned cleaning rooms in a University Avenue motel allowed me to buy a couple of expensive dresses and pairs of stiletto heels so that I could look like the expert I had become at demonstrating a line of high-end cosmetics to rich white women and their friends in their large, well-furnished homes in Kenwood and Edina. They seemed to think it added to their prestige to have a pretty young colored girl showing them how to apply their makeup while another served tea and little sandwiches and their afternoon martinis. But it was hard not to notice that the hostesses almost always set me and my products up where my back faced their china cabinet, or that they closed their bedroom door if they escorted me to the bathroom before I left their home and threw a sidelong glance at my purse when I came out. I had no intention of ever walking away with anything I hadn’t earned, but I knew better than to voice my indignation about these experiences. I enjoyed the work and I needed the money. I am equally certain that the hostesses never noticed the acknowledgment the maid and I shared, a brief nod and almost invisible eye rolls and shakes of our heads because of their antics.
By the time little Stevie came to live with me, my view of what was beautiful had changed. Colored had changed to Black—and Black had become beautiful. I had begun to feel pride in my naturalness, and I wanted to emulate Cicely Tyson, who had made the short, well-trimmed Afro famous when she starred with George C. Scott in a short-lived cops and robbers television series, East Side/West Side. I moved to the East Coast and put my secretarial skills to use, landing a good enough job to take care of myself and my son. I let my straightened hair revert to its natural state and traded in my form-fitting dresses and heels for sandals and flowing dresses and dashikis, fashions that combined traditional Africa with America.
I met my husband in Boston and quickly learned that Helen Gurley Brown had told only part of the story. Indeed, my husband’s pockets were deeper than mine, but he was mean as a snake. His drug addiction eventually sunk us into the very poverty that I had feared. I was afraid to come home, sure that my family would shame me for having let my marriage fail. In my mother’s world, the world of the 1950s, a failed marriage was always the woman’s fault. If your husband beat you, it was because you baited him. If he didn’t come home at night, it was because you “drove him into the arms of another woman.” If he failed to put food on the table, well, that was somehow the woman’s fault too. But after ten years of living in terror, I finally gave in and returned home to Mama and Minneapolis.
For the next few years I enjoyed a bond with a peer group of young single moms like myself. We got together a couple of times a week in each other’s homes or at the neighborhood park so our kids could play together while we gossiped and talked about kids, exes, and our current loves—or the lack of romance in our lives. It was interesting to me that those women, from a variety of racial and economic backgrounds, told similar stories of how their involvements with Mr. Wrong had started and ended. Whether we sat around a picnic table at Whittier Park, at Linda’s dining room table admiring old photos of her immigrant Norwegian grandparents, or on my back porch late at night with a bottle of wine welcoming a new woman into the group, the stories were the same: the violent husband, the exciting bad boy who took off when he found out she was pregnant, the passive woman who had suffered incest as a child, the woman who had been left behind after putting her husband through school.
When my kids reached adolescence, I decided it was time to start dating again. And because of stories I heard from my friends coupled with my own experiences, I began to think that maybe Helen Gurley Brown’s book needed an update. Sex and the Single Mom would include two new chapters: one on child care for the dating mom and another on how to deal with children who don’t think their mother should be dating.
IT WAS UNUSUAL to find all five of my teenagers at home at the same time. But if they knew I was going out, they would all magically appear shortly before my date was due to arrive. When he stepped into the apartment, the kids put him through awesome scrutiny, ten eyes looking him up and down with intense disapproval.
It was easy to tell what they thought of my companions. If they didn’t like a guy, they would sit in stony silence, barely looking up from the TV. If they liked him, they went out of their way to insult him in order to run him off before they had a chance to get attached to him. Like the time I went out with Jim Stanke. After introducing him to the kids, I left him standing by the door and excused myself to take one last look in the mirror before we left. As I started back toward the living room, I caught a glimpse of Tania circling around him, hands on her hips. I stepped up my pace but I wasn’t quick enough. I got to the room just in time to hear her say, “My mom said your name is Jim Stanke. Well I think your name is really Jim Stinky, cuz you stink. Pee-yew!”
“I’ll talk to you later, young lady,” I warned my child as I rushed Jim out the door to safety.
If I stayed out too late, the kids would wait up for me. My attempts to slip in quietly never succeeded, I was never spared their five-part chorus:
“Mom, where’d you find him?!”
“He’s too tall!”
“He’s too short!”
Each verse ended with their voices in a unified chorus. “Ick!”
On the rare occasion when a man dared to face my brood a second time, my eldest, Stevie, would stand directly in front of him in battle stance—feet spread apart, youthful muscles flexed. Then lowering his deep voice several octaves, he would look at the poor guy as though he could see right through him. Then he would pop the question: “What are your intentions toward my mother?”
In an effort to avoid the constant threats and embarrassment, I started sneaking out to meet my dates just like I did when I was a teenager. I just didn’t know what else to do. On the one hand, it didn’t feel right to keep bringing strange men around my kids. But on the other hand, they were growing up and would soon be leaving home to pursue their own lives. It wasn’t fair for them to expect me to spend the rest of my life alone.
I found the solution the morning after my second—and final—date with a very nice man with whom I had stayed out past the curfew my five young parents had issued. Motivated by guilt, I treated the kids to a big breakfast that featured everyone’s favorite: scrambled eggs, hash browns, toast, and hot sausage for Stevie; Froot Loops for Ebony; French toast for Julian; and waffles topped with whipped cream for Tania. Still, they complained loudly, each child finding something wrong with what they saw on their plate. My oldest daughter, Iris, who had gone goth and changed her name to Athena, sat at the table, arms folded tightly across her chest and fixed me with a surly glare while her blueberry pancakes got cold. Finally, she said:
“I bet you think I’m a good girl when you’re not home. Well, I’m not!”
Then the others chimed in:
“I ain’t either!”
“Me too!” exclaimed sixteen-year-old Julian, adding that if I ever dared to get married again, he would leave home.
Their message was clear, but I refused to be intimidated. My thoughts turned to a recent conversation when they had been making fun of people who struggle with obesity. I remembered talking with them about prejudice and how unkind their attitudes were, explaining that it’s because of such bigotry that our people have suffered for four hundred years.
As I looked around the table at each angry face, I suddenly knew what to do. I would use my children’s bias against them. I stood up and walked to the head of the table and looked each of them in the eye one by one, then declared in a clear voice, full of authority:
“If y’all don’t straighten up, I’m gonna marry a fat man.”
The kitchen grew quiet as the kids stared at me in amazement. Then, one by one, they picked up their forks and dug in.
WE TWENTYSOMETHINGS of the 1960s are grandmothers now, and many of us are single again. I think it’s time for another sequel. Sex and the Single Grandma will have three new chapters. One will be on how to deal with adult kids who still don’t want to share your affection. The second will be on how to handle grandchildren who think you’re too old to be dating. And the third will be on internet dating.
I joined the internet bandwagon after two of my friends met the loves of their aging lives that way. One of the great things about internet dating is that you can carry on a correspondence with a guy until you feel comfortable enough to meet him in person. It’s almost like old-fashioned letter writing, except that sitting down with a pen, stationery, and a stamp was much cheaper than the monthly fees to the phone company, your internet provider, and the dating service.
I’ve avoided some potentially uncomfortable situations by dragging correspondence on for a while. Like the guy who sent me a chapter of his novel-in-progress after we’d been emailing for a few weeks. His protagonist, a Mr. George W. Bush, was chosen by God to save the world, and it turned out that the man was a self-appointed evangelizer, committed to using any venue he could find, even dating services, to win converts to the altar of Bush. Amen! Yecch!
Then there was the one who claimed frequent bouts of amnesia, leaving me to wonder if his claim was really a safety net in case he didn’t like the women he met through the service, or if he was conveniently forgetting that he had a wife and children.
Not all of my internet dating experiences were weird. I developed an affectionate though short-lived friendship with an attractive Italian who didn’t reveal any insanities or ulterior motives like so many of the white men who made it clear that they just wanted to see if it’s different with a black woman.
After a couple of coffee and dinner dates and good conversations, I invited Mr. Italy over one Saturday evening. I tried to be subtle when telling my kids they didn’t need to call or stop by that night. But apparently I wasn’t subtle enough. Stevie has always been a master of timing. When he was a teenager, he always showed up at dinnertime, no matter where he was coming from or what time dinner was ready, and he showed up right on time that night. He gave Mr. Italy the requisite hate stare, glanced disgustedly at the wine glasses on the flower- and candle-laden table I had set, and then planted a scornful gaze at the black chiffon pajama suit I was wearing.
He moved toward my bedroom and asked me to follow. Once inside, he closed the door. “Mom, what are you doing? Who is that guy?” my inquisitor demanded, taking in the intoxicating music, red roses, and candles that surrounded my bed. I responded with a wily grin. Wasn’t it obvious what I was doing? He touched the gauzy fabric of my low-cut tunic top and then said in a sincere tone, full of concern, “Why don’t you dress like Granny?” My grin changed to a belly laugh as I imagined myself trying to pull off this mad seduction in one of my eighty-three-year-old mother’s polyester pantsuits and sensible shoes. I assured my well-meaning son that I’d be just fine and sent him on his way.
The next day Mr. Italy and I decided to catch an afternoon movie at the Mall of America. We arrived early, having gotten the times mixed up, so we purchased our tickets and took off for a walk around the mall in order to kill time.
There we were, strolling along hand in hand, feeling all dewy and fresh when I looked up and saw my daughter and my two preadolescent grandkids walking toward us. I panicked and let go of Mr. Italy’s hand, but it was too late—I was busted. Iris made an attempt to greet us warmly, but the suspicion in her eyes came through anyway. My grandson, who is taller than I am now, adopted a stance similar to that of his uncle, and before my daughter could stop him he said, “Grandma, aren’t you a little old to be acting like this?”
Embarrassed, Iris attempted to shuffle the kids away, but I heard my granddaughter ask in a stage whisper, “Mom, do you think old people do . . . you know . . . that???”
Mr. Italy and I shared a knowing smile. If I could have answered my granddaughter, I would have told her some of the benefits of age and experience. I would have quoted Helen Gurley Brown one last time. I would have said, “Oh my foes and oh, my friends—the results.”