There are no stars out tonight
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.
—Hart Crane, from “My Grandmother’s Love Letters”
Passing a storefront window a few weeks ago, I glimpsed my face in the reflection and was surprised to see a family resemblance I’ve never noticed before. I look like my maternal grandmother, Agnes.
Maybe it’s the estrogen therapy, which, in addition to certain other physical changes, can redistribute facial fat and soften the skin, making one’s face appear more feminine.
Or maybe it’s just age. When young, my grandmother was a beautiful southern belle from Georgia, but I only remember her when she was older, closer to the age I am now.
Whatever the reason, I can’t help but smile over this newfound resemblance. It pleases me to think that maybe I’m growing into her loveliness.
With my father off at sea in the Navy much of the time, she helped raise my sister and me. We grew up in her house along with our mom, our grandfather and a couple of goofy uncles.
I have beloved memories of them all: my grandfather teaching me how to draw cartoons; my Uncle Dick teaching me how to cheat at Monopoly; and my Uncle Jack, the beatnik artist whose studio was in our basement and whose paintings gave me both a love of art and a source of income (I charged my friends a quarter each to see Jack’s many canvases of nudes.)
But my most beloved childhood memories are of my grandmother—the taste of her cooking; the sight of her coming home from her job at the bakery down the street; the songs she loved—Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Old Rugged Cross” was one of her favorites and is still one of mine.
The harshest word I ever heard in that house was the sound of her scolding my beatnik uncle: “If you don’t shave off that darned goatee, I am going to make you start paying rent!” (People yelled at Jack with the same stern voice they usually reserved for yelling at me. How cool was that?)
And she loved taking us into New York City. We’d take the train to the Jersey City waterfront and the ferry across the Hudson to Lower Manhattan. As a little boy I would go out on deck beside her and watch Gotham loom before us as I stood clinging to her hips. Those maternal hips. I’ll never forget those hips.
This maternal thing seems strong in me.
When my first child was born, I felt intense envy for his mother’s physical bond to our new son before he was even born.
Freud talks about penis envy — which is the stupidest idea ever had by a brilliant man. (He concludes that because female psychology is based on envy, women are incapable of a sense of justice. QED, right? RBG anyone? It’s hard not to suspect that Freud arrived at this misogynistic conclusion first and then conveniently “discovered” a psychological rationale for it.)
I suffered from womb envy. I craved that immediate, unmediated physical connection to my child. When his mother and I split up years later (by which time we’d had our second son), I took custody of our two boys. I couldn’t bear the thought of them growing up without me. Or me without them.
When I was a single parent, my second oldest son — as sweet and as terrible a boy as ever walked the earth — brought me home a Mother’s Day gift from school. You could hear me swoon.
As teenagers, the kids would sometimes come home with their dates after a movie or a dance and I’d be up cooking them some elaborate late night snack — some mac and cheese or nachos or a couple of burgers. We joked that I wasn’t their father; I was their Italian grandmother.
Many a truth…
This maternal thing may be as close as I can come to defining what seems feminine in my nature. My mom was a little wild and loved having fun, and I loved her dearly. But she was not terribly maternal. I got that in abundance from my grandmother.
A few months ago I came out confidentially to a dear friend, and when I told her I was going on estrogen therapy, she jokingly asked if I wanted breasts.
“Breasts? No, not so much. Hips. Give me hips. I want some hips.”
• Jane Hale spent her first 69 years writing as Jim. She is a longtime Juneau resident. “Coming Out” is a biweekly column. It appears on the Empire’s Neighbors page.