Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You

When Ayelet Waldman, author of Bad Mother, recommends a book on motherhood, you can be sure I'll listen. Last month she recommended Amy Bloom's collection of short stories, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, as one of her "three books for a more honest mother's day," and I was reading my copy during the long, long wait at the orthopedist's office for Walker to get the cast off his arm (he was reading a chess book, so we were both happy).

The title story, first in the volume, is the jewel of the collection. It's hard to remember the last time I read something so perfectly shaped and faceted (maybe David Sedaris' essay Laugh, Kookaburra).

The story begins by telling about a person named Jane Spencer who "collects pictures of slim young men" including "a pictorial history of Kevin Bacon, master of the transition from elfin boy to good-looking man without adding bulk or facial hair." Then it turns to what happened "the summer Jessie Spencer turned five, she played Capture the Flag every day with the big boys." The relationship between Jane and Jessie is described as "a mutual admiration society of two smart, strong, blue-eyed women, one five and one thirty-five, both good skaters and good singers and good storytellers."

Jane is proud of her daughter, clearly superior to all the other children at play group, although she "sometimes worried that Jessie was too much of a tomboy." Then came first grade, when Jessie was upset because she was required to use the girls' bathroom, and after that her dismay with the dress for a wedding Jane found for her, "pleased that she'd found something in Jessie's favorite color [navy blue] without a ruffle or a speck of lace."

It's not until driving home from the wedding, to which Jessie wore a boy's navy blazer and gray pants, that "Jane knew she had managed not to see it." Really, though, who would see, in this day and age, that Jessie was anything more than a girl with a mind of her own? I have a daughter who, as a kindergartener, also favored navy blue and refused ruffles or lace. But what has happened to Jane, she thinks, is that being told she has a daughter was a "great joke...oops. Looks like a girl but it's a boy! Sorry. Adjust accordingly."

The rest of the story is about Jane taking Jessie to the "best gender-reassignment surgeon in the world." She compares Jess favorably to the other children there, and herself to the other parents. Looking at "a shellacked glittery girl with a French manicure and pink lipstick" and at his father, who looks like a General, Jane thinks:

This man protected his slight fierce boy, steered him into karate so that he would not be teased, or if teased, could make sure it did not happen twice. Loved that boy, fed him a hot breakfast at four a.m., drove him to tae kwon do tournaments all over Minnesota and then all over the Midwest. They flew to competitions in Los Angeles for ten and eleven, to Boston for under thirteen, then to the National Juniors Competitions, and there are three hundred trophies in their house. That boy is now swinging one small-ankled foot, dangling a pink high-heeled sandal off it and modeling himself not on Mia Hamm or Sally Ride or even Lindsay Davenport (whose dogged, graceless determination to make the most of what she has, to ignore everyone who says that because she doesn't look like a winner she won't ever be one, strikes Jane as an ideal role model for female transsexuals) but on Malibu Barbie. And the General has to love this girl as he loved that boy, or be without."

The story ends with Jane thinking that "she doesn't want her life to contain any more irony than it already does." But as any mother knows, it's not up to her.

What have you seen children do that their mothers never expected?


Amanda said...

Am I understanding this right? The child was going to a gender reassignment surgeon?

Jeanne said...

Amanda, yes. Jessie becomes Jess.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever seen children do what their mothers expected?

Anonymous said...

And, oh -- those do look like good recommendations --

Nymeth said...

I need to read this! I've yet to read any Amy Bloom, but between this and Normal it sounds like she writes about transgender issues with sensitivity and tact.

Jeanne said...

Readersguide, yes I've seen children do what their mothers expect!

Mostly I think they do, which is why other peoples' children can be so irritating--they haven't learned what we expect in terms of the childish behavior we're willing to put up with (for example, I had to tell the first child of some friends of mine that at my house she could NOT walk around with food, because she left chocolate handprints all over a cushioned chair once when they let her wander with a chocolate chip cookie).

This isn't just a book about trangender issues, although that certainly is one test of what you think you're going to get when you become a mother.

One thing my son did that I certainly never expected is that he learned to read numbers before he learned letters, so he and I could look at the exact same sign and get two different sets of information from it--he didn't read the letters, and my eye skips over the numbers. We still sometimes read signs that way.

And as I said in the post, I never expected that the little girl I dressed in pastels and eyelet (to suit her pale coloring, I thought) would grow up to strenuously object to pink and almost anything that looks too feminine. It's just her own taste.

Jodie said...

This sounds really good and I love Amy Bloom. How early can you take your child to a gender reassignment surgeon then?

Care said...

I want to read Amy Bloom, too!

Jeanne said...

Jodie, Jess was college-age when Jane took her. There's an Atlantic article that actually talks about the age (and that Lauren McLaughlin and I discussed in relation to Cycler):

Care, the other stories are interesting, although I didn't think any of them measured up to the title story.

Trapunto said...

I just saw a mother and a whole room full of adults surprised by a child. My nearly-2-year-old niece has a security blanket of which she is angrily possessive. She is the feistiest, strongest-willed child of that age I have ever seen. Her grandma noticed that she had left the blanket behind on the couch and picked it up to use as an afghan as a mischievous joke, so we could watch the reaction when my niece realized she had forgotten her blanket and someone else was using it. She barreled over in what we all thought was a rage, but instead of ripping the blanket off, she clambered up on the couch and threw herself on top of it, and cuddled granny and blanket together.

I know! I know! But you asked!

Jeanne said...

Trapunto, I did ask! I kind of love it when a kid defies expectation and shows that she is her own person, even when it's my expectation that's wrong.