Thursday, April 14, 2005

Empty Lunchbox

I was six years old in 1978 when I was given my first metal lunchbox, a smart aluminum case with a red plastic handle, a silver latch, and colorful Peanuts cartoon characters painted on the sides.  While Linus tended his blanket and Charlie gripped his football, Lucy spent her enameled life marching in ceaseless circles around the box, picketing for something called "Women's LIB."

“Lib” was a confusing word for a first grader, so much shorter and easier to sound out than the counter-intuitive "wimin," yet so much less familiar in meaning.  Though proud to be the owner of a big-kid lunchbox, I spent the first week of school baffled about that word.  Shy in the midst of the cafeteria hubbub, I'd sit silently rolling it around my tongue. I'd scroll through my mental glossary, trying out “lib” next to “hop” and “spot” and “sam” and “ham,” without getting even a glimmer of recognition.

Finally, I asked my mother about it.  She explained that "lib" was short for liberation.  Women's lib meant that I could do anything.  Unlike unlucky little girls born before me, I could overcome the limits of my sex.  True, lunchbox Lucy wore a dress, but it was colored blue.  Together we were charged to stride forth freely, oblivious to the flapping of our skirts.

For over two decades, I clung to that promise. I balanced every frill and ruffle with a mortarboard and tassle.  Through prom nights and true love and a classic white wedding, I never wavered in my determination to buck the status I was born with.  Eventually I earned three degrees and found success in a man's profession.

I did not exactly live my life in drag.  I always knew that to pick up Lucy's picket meant managing to be a wife and mother while also pursuing a serious career.  I promised myself that I'd try for a baby as soon as I turned 30 and sure enough I did.  Still, deep down, I felt that I could have enjoyed life as a man and a father with far greater ease than I could as myself.

My first suspicions about that strange word lib faded completely from mind until about the time of my third miscarriage.  Only then, as my plans failed again and my body spewed out my dreams, did I start to grasp that I'd gotten things a bit mixed up.  I began to feel that the sum of my life made me less than, not more than, a woman.

As I clicked through the unabridged dictionary of my adult mind, women's lib began to take on new meaning.  I suddenly understood first hand that liberation from sexism need not and should not imply elimination of the female sex. There were crucial things I wanted to do because of, not in spite of, my female status.

My grief for those three spirits lost mingles now with another sadness. By some cruel accident of fate, the womanhood I so long sought to overcome has instead eluded me.

Somewhere, that lunchbox lies empty and dented, much like me.  Still, Lucy continues ceaselessly with her cheerful circumnavigations.  I think, now, as I gather my strength, and promise my husband that we'll try once more, that I'll link Lucy's arm again.  This time, though, I'll hum a lullaby as she chants.