This Is Not A Game
I am the youngest of five children, four girls and a boy, and was raised in a Catholic family in Minnesota. The sister who's the closest in age to me is six years older, and the eldest is thirteen years older.
And that is just my immediate family. If I count just my mom's side of our extended family, I am the twenty-sixth of twenty-seven grandkids. The age gap was even greater with my cousins: The older ones were having babies before I was born. Some of my cousins attended my parents' wedding. There were always babies around — sometimes there were so many, it seemed they came in bulk, like our family was the Costco of procreation.
As far back as I can remember, it seemed like every weekend my mom pulled the copper dessert mold off the kitchen wall, mixed up some lime Jell-O, shredded some carrots and threw in some pretzels, let it set in the refrigerator, then dragged this inedible blob and my sisters and me to another celebration of some relative's new baby.
The parties were made up of about fifteen women and were a combination of my sisters, aunts, grandma, and cousins. They sat in a big circle on flimsy folding chairs, most of them trying to balance a baby or toddler of their own on their laps while simultaneously gobbling up plates full of "the egg dish," a bready/eggy casserole lathered in cream of mushroom soup. This was the food of choice at every family gathering that started before noon. Cream of mushroom soup, however, was the ingredient of choice for every recipe ever created in the 1960s and '70s, no matter what time the gathering or what the main dish was. I like to think of it as America's binder. And it's a fitting metaphor for baby shower conversations: thick and bland.
I have never been into babies — I didn't and still don't have the mommy gene — yet these women talked of nothing else.
My mother insisted I sit with my cousins and aunts and "visited." I knew that if I defied her I would be denied cake later — there was always cake — so I held up my end of the bargain, traveled from woman to woman, and stood with an awkward anonymity and listened as they talked endlessly to one another about all things infant. Having them, feeding them, changing them. And I really didn't care how they were made or where they came from. Why would I? I was eight. That would be like my wanting to know where vegetables came from. (By the way, until I was nineteen, I thought the answer to that one was "a can.")
And I never bought that stork story. If the stork brought them, surely I would have seen at least one flying around with a baby in its bill at some point in my life. The fact that grown-ups made up that lame story told me that however making babies really happened, it must be too gruesome for a child to be exposed to. Like those creature feature movies on channel 9, that played every Saturday at midnight. I just assumed babies hatched inside huge floral dresses, since every woman in my family seemed to wear one when they were pregnant. I imagined they grew in a way that was so gory and awful that it had to be hidden in a lump under a big Midwestern muumuu. I guess my conclusion came because after me, my mom was done having kids. When I was very small she had a "histo rectum tummy," as I thought it was called, so I never saw her pregnant except in pictures, wearing one of these floral dresses.
To be fair, these ladies occasionally changed the subject to husbands, but that's when they leaned in close to one another and lowered their voices, so I could only catch bits of those conversations. From what I gathered, husbands were always late, very forgetful about where they were, and slept on the couch a lot.
I gathered husbands got in trouble all the time.
I was glad I didn't have one.
When the secret husband talk started, the women didn't want me around anyway. "Why don't you go play outside, Lizzy?" one would say as she patted me on the head. It was the out I was waiting for. I smiled obediently and raced to freedom, staking out a piece of grass to perfect my cartwheels for hours on end, until my mom angrily came and found me. "I told you to visit."
"I tried, but they started whispering about Uncle Bud sleeping in the den again, and I — "
That was when Mom cut me off. She realized where the Uncle Bud conversation probably went, and if I kept talking I might ask for details about Uncle Bud, and that's not something anybody wanted. So she created a necessary diversion, plopped me onto an uncomfortable dining room chair behind this hootenanny of hormones, and rewarded me with a piece of that delicious white sheet cake, the only thing that made these parties bearable for me. I think she figured if she gave me the biggest pink frosting rose, I would forget anything I had heard about Uncle Bud and his boozy love affair. Or was it a love affair with booze? I can't quite remember. But that was okay — I had cake!
See how it worked? I already forgot.
While the cake distracted me, it couldn't make up for the boredom these baby-focused orgies always seemed to offer. So I found ways to stay sane.
Even when I was young I had a vivid imagination, so I was pretty good at entertaining myself. What I was not so good at was navigating the boundaries of appropriate behavior. (There's that ugly word: appropriate.)
My body was like a Slinky: unbelievably flexible. I was a human rubber band. In one of my favorite games, I curled up into a ball, made myself very tiny, and pretended I was invisible. So that's what I did. I sat up, pulled both my legs over my head, and set my cake plate on my chair.
As I sat wrapped around myself on this armless Queen Anne perch, I saw people peering at me. They looked confused. I imagined that was because all they saw was a chair holding a plate with a piece of cake on it and were mesmerized as they watched a disembodied fork spear a bite from the plate, then rise away from the plate, and poof! The cake disappeared from the fork into thin air.
But usually after about three slow bites, my game was shattered. The second Mom spotted me from across the room, she raced over in horror, like I had just reenacted that scene from The Exorcist when Regan walked into the party and peed on the floor. She jolted me out of my fantasy by poking me hard in the ribs, which acted like a pin in a balloon, and I quickly deflated, literally and figuratively, as I sat limply upright and ate my cake like everyone else.
According to Mom, sitting in a sundress on some relative's Broyhill dining room chair while eating cake with both legs wrapped behind my head as I exposed my little girl bits was "unladylike."
It seemed everything I liked was unladylike.
I was an unlady.
From Lizz Free or Die by Lizz Winstead. Copyright 2012 by Lizz Winstead. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.