By Carole Spearin McCauley
This French-Canadian proverb amuses me because it summarizes my life, especially how and why I learned to be a woman, then a lesbian, then a heterosexual.
As immigrants to the Berkshire mills, like Housatonic, Massachusetts, the French-Canadians controlled my early life—until I could escape.
In Quebec my grandparents had created 11 children in a still-tribal society—elders deserved respect and attention, whereas children were more mouths to feed. And girls were servants in a society that believed, more Calvinist than Catholic, “We’re put on earth to atone for the sufferings of Jesus, who died for our sins.” Suffering, especially female hypochondria, was cherished because it became the means to gain attention from a large family—not to mention God.
From my earliest years I considered them mostly crazy, including God. What kind of religion was this for twentiethcentury America? What God would kill his own son? They also frightened me, especially being left alone with my mother during her Elizabeth Barrett Browning “spells” (lie down on sofa; clutch chest; moan, complain)—for five years following goiter surgery. If human-hood is weird, how does anybody become a functional adult woman?
First Sexual Experience
“Sex is God’s joke on human beings.” –Bette Davis
My first sexual experience occurred when I was about three years old. While the women drank tea in the familyhouse dining room, the men, including my father, revved their hormones with beer and whiskey watching TV sports in the living room. One childless uncle repeatedly grabbed and tickled me between his and my legs until I squirmed to pull away in my starched dress, at which all the men laughed heartily. I never saw this uncle grab a boy for “fun.”
No one mentioned how or why babies existed until around a daughter’s age 11, when some mothers told facts about menstruation. Just the facts—minus information about lovemaking, marriage, or other sex. Of course, I’d already seen cats catting and dogs dogging, which showed what happens—but not why. For that, I needed the nude human photos in National Geographic at the Lee library, plus the truly formative experience of my life, which happened when I was eight years old in third grade. This was “attention” from an Irish-Catholic usher, Bill, whom I did not fear because he collected envelopes every Sunday on the girls’ side of the church. Because he also worked Sundays at the Lee news store, I gladly sat on newspaper stacks and free-read the pulp fiction magazines and The New York Times he showed me—instead of attending matinee movies where my parents assumed I was. I may be the only child in Massachusetts who was ruined by The New York Times! Because he was in his 50s and already had three children, including two girls older than I, he obviously knew much about little women. When he sat me on his lap and tickled between my legs on the back-room cot, I responded to his warmth, especially his gray wool suit. Unlike my uncle he never grabbed or forced me. When he reached from behind and massaged my not-yet-formed breasts, he also cigaretteburned the white pique lapel on my (only) good cotton skirtsuit, which I washed off. Considering my hypochondriac parents (who praised themselves, amid yawning complaints, for the basics—food, clothing, “a roof over your head. Do you know children are starving in Africa?”) I—a lonely, only child—responded to Bill’s winter warmth and attention. Mostly a re-grope of my uncle?
I’ve always been tall, pencil-like, with glasses and scant Marilyn Monroe sexual body. No Lolita. After a certain age, the question is not will-she-or-won’t she?—but can-he-or-can’t-he?
The next events would be humorous—if they weren’t pathetic. On several Sundays Bill unzipped his trousers, massaged, and exposed himself to me by dragging out his limp penis—which remained flaccid as a drowned rat corpse I’d seen at Laurel Lake. How can cats and dogs do such stuff to their own kind, although female cats howl, but this guy just can’t make it work? I knew his manipulations applied somehow to making human babies, but it looked so… ineffective (my later adult word, of course). I concluded he was just as dysfunctional as my parents.
Later, as an adult, I realized how fortunate I was—I could have been raped or ripped. At eight years I had no vaginal moisture to facilitate such activities. Anyway, when he left the store in summer (fired? I never learned, except he did try other girls—my friends—who rejected him, not being as lonely as I), I actually missed him! (To show that no good deed goes unpunished, when my parents sold our house, who bought it but Bill’s son, whose eventual widow and sister lived there for the next 50 years.) But Bill definitely ignited me sexually during my checkered stagger toward womanhood and femininity.
“Love is the answer, but while you are waiting for it, sex raises some pretty good questions.” –Woody Allen
Soon I initiated lesbian contact with my best friend during her rare overnights with me. The immature boys in my now fourth-grade class interested me not at all, nor did teenagers or other older men. Grumpy men, like my father, always wanted stuff—meals, shopping, shiny dishes, starched shirts, car collected at garage—whereas I cared about books, writing, ideas, libraries, astronomy conversations, and school, which I hoped would punch my ticket out of this place to college and the Great Outside.
School had rules that I could fathom and obey, whereas home and family were controlled by moody people complaining about everything. Getting chased, knocked down, bullied by neighborhood boys, unless I hid in the school woods, did not improve my attitude. I still have dirt in one knee, ripped, then scarred from being shoved into a marble curb. My mother’s refusal to meet me at school angered me—too much hill for her to climb. Just “run faster”?
SO GLAD that I’ve lived to see bullying and sexual abuse of children now considered crimes for prosecution. And that children deserve respect, kindness, and, oh yes, being listened to—not first blamed—for whatever problems they encounter.
Years later I realized that my yearning, especially for older women including my mother and teachers, was the source of my lesbian hunger and curiosity. In my mid-20s I happily married an older man, lived in Connecticut, worked in a Manhattan bookstore and in publishing. Although afraid from childhood to be a mother, at about age 40 I birthed and raised a lovely, healthy boy who recently married and achieved a job-with-luxuries—salary, health insurance. I’m now a widow.
About the Berkshire French-Canadians: I’ve not only outlived 25 of them (“Living well is the best revenge”?) but do realize that, like Nietzsche, “what didn’t kill me” made me a stronger woman and human being.
“Nothing risqué, nothing gained.” – Alexander Woollcott
Carole has written 12 books. Some medical nonfiction titles are Pregnancy after 35 (Dutton, Pocket Books), Surviving Breast Cancer (Dutton, Bantam Books) and When Your Child Is Afraid (Simon&Schuster). Her novels include mysteries Cold Steal and A Winning Death, published by Women’s Press (UK) and Hilliard&Harris (Maryland). Her stories, poetry, articles, reviews and interviews have appeared in 200 periodicals and anthologies, that include Family Circle, Self, Redbook, National Catholic Reporter, NY Times, America, North American Review and Women:Omen. Her latest publications are online, and her short work has won prizes in seven national or international contests that include Radio Netherlands Worldwide, Writers of the Future (science fiction) and USA Today.