I was born on Monday while my father was playing golf. He was always proud to tell me that. My father was a salesman, self-willed and self-willed. My mother was an ingenious home economist and a secret industrialist. I can still see them both dancing on Que Sera Sera through the linoleum floor of our newly built suburban home. They roamed the moon landings, Camelot, free love, and the breaking of the genetic code. From my stairwell between the balustrades, I witnessed the turn of the heel of the gender gap and the “hug and swing” of the Cultural Revolution.
What do you want to be when you grow up, Patricia? That was the $ 64,000 question for my childhood. I always wanted to answer, “How the hell do I know I’m six,” but I held back and smiled as little girls expected. I remember wondering at this curious idea that I could be “whatever I want to be.” How was this possible? I couldn’t control what I ate or wore, or even what time I went to bed. My mother and I were locked in a stubborn struggle for puffy sleeves, floral overalls, and patent leather shoes. How could I dictate my future?
I now realize that asking this question in the late 1960s put me at the top of social change. In 1968, there were 28.7 million women in the workforce, the majority of whom were secretaries, stenographers and typewriters. Most clerks, waitresses, housekeepers and cooks are also women. But young women entered the corporate workforce en masse. They receive higher education and enroll in graduate school at the fastest pace in history, and their expectations for the future change. Suddenly, women were able to pursue careers in business and management like never before.
So, I was a little girl during a dramatic transformation, perfectly captured in the short conversation about mothers having lunch at Macy’s or online at the bakery. Alas, my father treated me no differently than my brothers. A small business owner, he could not see the sex line. The women ran his office and my mother ran his books. I remember him telling me over and over that there was nothing I could do if I decided. His other famous speech was “to find a place in life.” That was important to him. You may not always get what you want — and you may not always want what you get — but my father considered it critical to make your claim in the world and commit to it.
This idea of self-determination was repeated by my Irish grandfather, whom I remember, sitting on the beach at the Warren Hotel in Spring Lake, New Jersey, with a highball, declaring it to be the greatest country in the world. He had no knowledge or care that the drinks brought by the hotel staff actually cost my father money. For his part, my father perpetuated this notion of America as a land of abundance and never told Pop that drinks were not free.
My mother was a housewife. All the mothers of my friends were hosts. They were wonderful women, but I couldn’t imagine making a home and tolerating children like us. So I dreamed of being a diamond dealer like my father’s friend Red Haberman or selling wild boar meat like Neil Darag, his other friend who had the biggest black-and-red truck I’ve ever seen — full of giant boar head side.
I had a brief moment, “I want to be a flight attendant,” which my grandmother from America made me promise never to say again. “You’re telling me you want to be a pilot!” she said with her eyes wide open, my hands gripping my shoulders tightly. The prospect of becoming a business tycoon, an international spy and even an astronaut also arose. There seemed to be absolutely no reason why I could not go where no girl had gone before.
And then there was the year I wanted to be a nun. Beyond the vow of poverty, the dress, the veil and the tunic – I felt I could do it. The idea of sitting around arranged wooden tables and eating Entenmann’s coffee cake was extremely appealing. The nuns in my high school painted a peaceful and promising picture of humanity. It was so different from the horrifying playground at the school “St. Margaret, where I was routinely fired for not liking Bay City rollerblades. “Look, I told you he was a freak,” Diane Cavanagh said as she bounced back with her school pleats swaying on her knees. I didn’t have time for a foreign band with fun pants and socks. I had to understand what I wanted to be.
My cognitive and intellectual development is formed on rainy summer afternoons during the marathon sessions of Candyland Ker and Kerplunk ™, sitting in Indian style on the garage floor. And as I rode my banana-seat bike up and down Sandra Lane, a quiet street tucked away in a small dead-end street in suburban New York, I found myself at the sociopolitical crossroads of America. I was “The Mod Squad” and sugar-free soda. I was Five Easy Pieces, 60 Minutes, Fleetwood Mac and Aretha Franklin. I was deliberate and defiant, unsympathetic and nonconformist, and in every way a child of my age.
I was not aware of everything that was happening in the world at that time, but I knew that there was a terrible war. I remember my grandmother’s neighbor on Long Island and the ominous morning when three men with folded flags climbed the front steps. Their eldest son had just left for Vietnam. His name was John. It was small arms shooting. He was 20 and I can still see his picture on the wall in their living room to the left of the Chinese closet. I never looked at this house the same way again. Years later, I was still thinking about John as I peered through the hedge. What did he want to be when he grew up?
The truth is that life leads us on its path. Robert Burns famously wrote to a mouse:
The best presented schemes of mice and men
You often go wrong,
And leave us nothing but sorrow and pain,
For the promised joy!
You are still blessed, compared to me!
The present only touches you.
The poem is a famous excuse for a mouse whose nest the writer disturbs while plowing fields. Burns ultimately believes that the mouse has an easier life. He lives in the present, while people are a continuum of everything from the past. We are a derivative of our collective consciousness, intended or unintentional. The mouse should never have suffered in the days before the pocket calculator and smartphone. He didn’t struggle with shoulder pads and a disco. He ignored the Cold War, Johnstown, Charles Manson, and Sam’s Son. And amid the turmoil and chaos of the field, the mouse was never asked what it wanted to be.
Now I risk sounding like my six-year-old, who asks my grandmother what it was like to have cars. When she arrived in New York from Ireland, she wasn’t checking a car fax for the best deal with Tesla or waiting for a freshly vacuumed Uber ride to the boarding house. She was just trying to fit seamlessly into Greenhorn’s home life. She was grateful she hadn’t been noticed, and she was relieved she didn’t stand out. At nineteen, I was still deciding on my college major while she was all-in on a transatlantic steamer — hoping the world would be brighter on the other side.
When I look at human existence through her eyes and the sheer weight of these transformational choices that are often made when our backs are against the wall, I realize that they are the most important. My grandmother, my mother, my aunts, and all the women in my younger life did not have the luxury of endless possibilities and gender-neutral aspirations. They were pragmatic humanists and casual feminists who believed, “whatever it is, it will be,” as they methodically cleared the conventions, restrictions, restraints, and heavy clutter of the past. From Feminine Mystique to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo … those were the Days of our lives. We’ve come a long way, honey, haven’t we?