When I was a little girl running loose with my cousin in the dusty streets of the village where my grandparents had a house and a name and a presence and a history, we would often, on our perambulations, come across those ubiquitous black-kerchiefed old women of Eastern Europe – sitting out in the thick summer shade cast by ancient lindens and the little twisted trees which would drop crabapples onto the ground in their season, on rickety benches knocked together out on the street in front of their houses, whiling away the hours. The old women who knew everything, and everybody, so long as it pertained to their own little world right there on the village road. They’d look up, bright-eyed and curious like ancient birds watching the world go by, and they would call out to us as we whizzed past on our bikes,
“Whose girls are you?”
In the village where our grandparents’ name was known, we were the daughters’ daughters. Both of us grandkids wore surnames which were not recognised in that context, which were not legal tender there. Our lineage – the one that was accepted here, understood here, valued here – lay in the grandparents who owned the village house a little way down the road.
So that was the identity we claimed. For those women, in that moment. Because *it answered their question*. No other reply would have served. In that village, our true parentage aside, we were our grandparents’ “girls”.
It served a purpose. The old biddies were happy to be able to classify us, and as for us we were able to escape without having to explain ourselves away at length in terms that they would have neither understood not wanted to explore.
The answer to that question – “Whose girls are you?” – was different even back in those days, given a different context. It would depend on who wanted to know. And over the years that have passed the answers have changed constantly. For a while she and I “belonged” to our schools, to our universities, to our friends. Then we became our husbands’ “girls” and partners. In her case, if not my own, it morphed even further and she became her children’s. We both, over the years, “belonged” to animals we have loved – today I am my cats’ “girl”, and if anyone doubts that they should have been there this morning when I woke up, late, and opened my eyes to two black-and-white cat faces inches away from my own on the bed – and an instant stereo purr the moment I actually lifted my eyelids and locked eyes with them both. “Hi, Mom. Wake up. We want you. Breakfast?”
(I muttered something about them having already been fed – my early-rising husband would usually have been up for HOURS by this time and they damn well get stuff down their gullets long before I wake up – but I was given to understand that this was supremely irrelevant. He was not the one they were talking to now. I was. And they were inquiring about breakfast.)
We get tagged by other things, too – possessions, ideas, tools. I am Microsoft’s “girl”, if you want, simply because Windows was the OS I kind of cut my teeth on when it came to computers – I don’t, and have never, owned a Mac and it would be a steep learning curve if I did, and I am freely admitting I have neither the drive nor the energy to learn something like Linux from scratch at this late stage. I am literature’s “girl”, because I own THOUSANDS of books, because I write them, because I am constantly cohabiting with annoying characters who won’t leave the inside of my head. I am the stars’ “girl” because I believe in them. I am the California redwoods’ “girl”, because I fell in love with them and a part of my soul will belong to them forever more. I am the “girl” of this whole wide wonderful world which is my heritage as a human being, and the things which hurt it hurt me also.
I am, in the end and finally, my own at last.
And that is not an easy statement, or lightly made. What I mean by that is that I am aware of the strings that tie me to that which surrounds me, and I understand how context affects that belonging (I learned that lesson young, on the streets of that childhood village). And where all this has taken me, in the end, is to a place where I am starting to understand myself, who I really am, and who and what is at the core of me as the anchor of my own existence and identity.
And whose are you?…