Last night I fell down a rabbit hole on Medium (usually it’s Wikipedia) and found a list of writing prompts that friend-of-a-friend Nicole Zhu used in order to keep up a daily habit of writing. Between sometimes writing here on this blog but mostly posting on my work Tumblr and a mandate to write for my day job, I don’t think the world needs more of my words. But I felt inspired by the prompts and realized I don’t sit down and reflect as often as I used to, because the explosion of social platforms means I do my sharing in pieces, in snapshots or Snapchats rather than wordier reflections.
Anyway. I have kept up this blog and its previous incarnations for all these years, so I might as well take some of the prompts and give them a whirl every once in a while, eh? It’s certainly something to do when I am avoiding doing other tedious things, like paying the bills or whatever. [Clears throat.] With that, here’s a musing on female role models.
Let’s get this part of out of the way: My most influential role model, female or not, is my mom. My mom is pure love. She makes me feel safe always. “Listen to me and you can’t go wrong,” my mom says, confident in her wisdom. And she’s right. She is unapologetic about who she is, realistic about the world and her confidence gives me confidence. We laugh about inappropriate topics, since she shares a subversive, macabre humor. We cry together because we wear our hearts on our sleeves (unapologetically). We never want to stop exploring, a value she instilled in me long ago. She told me as a child, “Never live your life for someone else’s gaze,” a lesson that shaped me. She also explained to me when I was quite young the quiet cruelties of being a person of color in a pasty white St. Louis suburb, making it easier for me when I did feel different.
It took awhile before I found other female role models. I grew up surrounded by boys. My only sibling is a brother. My childhood memories of Roger are of our forceful physical fights (I learned how to always go for his nuts when kicking or punching), building homegrown skateboarding ramps on our driveway and buying Fun Dip in between innings at his little league baseball games. My entire neighborhood peer group was also made up of boys; in the four houses closest to mine were each kids in my grade, and all those kids were boys: Ryan, Craig, Tommy and Craig. We waited for the bus together each morning. After school, thanks to huge fenceless yards, we stayed outside playing until dark almost every night. We built forts, played Ghost in the Graveyard and Kick the Can, or wandered to the neighborhood creek where the rocks were jagged and the water could start rushing dangerously quickly when it rained.
So my closest female relationships didn’t really come together until 5th or 6th grade, when I formed a bond with a fellow subversive — Jes Ingram. I remember going to Jes’ house to play Sim City (which might have been V1), sleepovers watching/reciting Ace Ventura Pet Detective word-for-word and hanging out around her house with her older sister, Jenny. I think she was my first female role model besides my mom. Jenny never passed on words of wisdom in the way moms do, but instead led by example. Jenny was class president and much-admired and beautiful but effortlessly so. Unlike the other popular girls who spent a lot of time primping for boys or to pickup boys at the mall (yes my middle school friends did that back then), Jenny was ‘whatever’ about her place in the preteen hierarchy, and even cooler for it. She seemed to have deep, authentic friendships, which in 7th grade felt sorta hard to come by. But mainly I looked up to Jenny because I find being bored pretty much anathema to existence, and Jenny was never boring. She has so much personality that it oozes from her like the cheese of a four-cheese grilled cheese sandwich. Jenny’s Personality and her personality are innate and not replicable, but for acolytes like me, thankfully she read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies and listened to a lot of music, so at least through all that time with the Ingram’s I got to be inculcated with her cultural influences. (And her sister Jes’s, of course, who I will always trust implicitly.)
I’ve seen a lot of movies in which young protagonists are somehow let down by their role models in the end. But some 20 years after first looking up to Jenny, I can report that she has only exceeded my stratospheric assessment of her.
Last year, Jenny learned she had breast cancer. She’s sadly not my first friend to fight cancer at a young age, but she’s fought it with the most humor and moxie. (Because, of course.) A few days ago, she lost her boobies, as she decided that getting a double mastectomy was the best way to prevent a recurrence. She’s been chronicling her journey on her blog, appropriately titled “Check Those Titties.” Reading it regularly has reminded me of many things (to check my titties, for one), but also how exceptional she is. And that maybe I should reflect and write about these personal memories, because it’s a way to thank people like her, to whom I’m eternally grateful.