When I decided to write on this topic, I realized something: men have had far more influence in my life than women have (unless you count my four daughters). But maybe that’s to be expected: we form our identities partly by bouncing off of opposites: women/men, masculine/feminine, young/old, introvert/extrovert, and so on. It could be that our personalities are shaped by the tensions and conflicts in our lives more than by the relationships and events that go smoothly.
And what more basic opposing pair than men versus women? Don’t get me wrong: my mother influenced me more than I’d like to admit (as did our difficult relationship), but when I think of the people who have meant the most to me, it has been the men in my life.
You’d think that the first man I’d name would be my father, but the truth is, I loved my grandfather more than anyone else in the world until the day he died (and even for years afterwards). He died when I was 17 and I don’t think it’s an accident that I got married a scant three years later. I married my first husband partly because he was going to be a minister like my grandfather had been. I even thought it was a sign that we were supposed to get married because his youngest brother’s name was exactly the same as my grandfather’s: Daniel Bruce!
I was a quiet child and my grandfather was the only one who could draw me out. I also had self-esteem issues and my grandfather made me feel special. He encouraged my writing—he was the only one who did; when I was in grade school, he used to pay me one quarter for poems and two for stories. He also answered all my questions about God and religion. He was a scholar, loved to read, had his doctorate of Divinity and knew several languages. When I was little I used to climb on the top of his rolltop desk and watch him write his sermons. I wanted to be just like him.
In those pre-feminist days (for me, that is), it didn’t even occur to me to become a minister myself, so I married one instead. I loved being a minister’s wife, although it was sometimes hard to stand in my husband’s shadow. But I worked with the youth, taught Bible Studies, helped my husband with his schoolwork when he was in seminary and with his sermons when he started preaching. Years later, during my third marriage, I even earned my lay preacher certification and preached in nursing homes and in my church occasionally. My writing specialty was inspirational essays and one of the first articles I ever sold was to a Presbyterian women’s magazine. I felt like I was following in my grandfather’s footsteps.
But one of the last memories I have of my grandfather is of his being furious with me. I was around 15 and visiting him one summer when I decided to take a walk around the small town he lived in. Somehow I ended up at the ballpark and met a boy there. We ended up making out and I was gone so long my grandfather got frantic and went out looking for me. I can’t remember if he saw me with the boy or if he asked me and I told him I had met one, but I do remember his dark eyes flashing and the angry set of his jaw. Somehow that got mixed up with the guilt that I already felt about letting this strange boy kiss me and made me feel even guiltier. I couldn’t seem to shake off the feeling that the first time my grandfather had ever been disappointed in me it had to do with sex. I felt like a marked woman. And it didn’t help when I became sexually active a year later. Or when my grandfather died the year after that.
Somehow, this man’s opinion was so important to me that I still feel ashamed about my youthful “indiscretion.” We never talked about that day in the park; I don’t know if we ever would have, but my grandfather died before I had a chance to make peace with him about it. My mother had plenty of reactions similar to his during my teen-age years, but I never felt guilty about her remarks. Maybe it’s because I’d already decided that I was slutty based on what had happened with my grandfather, so how could her opinion make me feel any worse?
It took me a long time to get over my grandfather’s death. I eventually transferred my affections to my father and he became the most important male in my life (more important than my husbands). But that’s a story for another day.