This is the story of how my mother and father raised me to be a sissy.
In the 1950s when I was a grade-school kid, my father was a heavy equipment mechanic with lots of hair on his chest and a blue-collar fondness for spending much of his time out in the garage. I remember the time I walked out there and found him sewing a hole in one of his overalls. Until then, I has assumed that sewing was something only girls and women did.
“How come you’re sewing your overalls, Dad? Shouldn’t Mom be doing that?”
“Well, son, they’re my overalls so they’re my responsibility,” he answered. “Besides, I already know how to sew.”
“Where’d you learn that?” My voice indicated that I thought the person responsible for teaching him this skill should be boiled in oil for violating some basic law of nature.
“In the Army,” he said. “Everybody learned a little basic sewing so he could take care of himself out in the field.” My father paused, this former paratrooper who’d fought Hitler in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, and then said something that has stuck with me ever since. “The Army didn’t want a bunch of sissies running around out there. You know, men who can’t take care of themselves.”
I’d never heard the word sissy used this way before, to mean someone who lacked domestic skills, such as knowing how to sew. It was one more brick in a perspective that has become lifelong.
Along with my father’s matter-of-fact contribution to answering the question, “What Is a Man?,” my mother was working her own avant-garde action against the domesticity of the 1950s. Mom hated housework and never really believed that she was the Designated Drudge in our male-dominated family (father and three sons—I was the youngest). She insisted that each of us boys learn how to iron by the age of 7, then she put us in charge of our own clothes. “You want them ironed, iron them yourselves. If you don’t want to iron them, then wear them wrinkled. It’s your choice.”
Then she went a step further. Having rid herself of the dubious responsibility of ironing her able-bodied sons’ clothes, she made us an offer we didn’t often refuse: “If any of you want to make quick money, I will pay you 5 cents apiece for each shirt or skirt, and 10 cents for each pair of pants you iron that are not yours. If you don’t want to iron, fine. If you do, I’ll pay you on the spot.”
The thought of being able to pull a few shirts from the laundry basket and earn 30 or 50 cents for a few minutes’ work appealed to us. And because we all hated ironing, we learned to iron quickly and well. When we had nothing better to do or needed some quick cash, Mom’s offer was always sitting there, heaped high in a plastic laundry basket.
We also traded off washing dishes. Mom cleaned up after breakfast and lunch, but we three sons each washed the dinner dishes for a week, then took two weeks off.
We hated it, this 30- or 40-minute nightly interruption, punctuated by the teasing of the brothers whose turn it wasn’t. “Dee-shuzz! Dee-shuzz!” they’d taunt, buzzing around the condemned one’s head like manic wasps. Pleas to my mother to relieve us of our misery were met with mirth. “Is there a tattoo on my forehead that says, ‘She Who Does the Dishes?’ I don’t believe so.”
From Sunday night to Saturday night one of us would toil at the piles of dirty plates and crusty pans. We were told that short of a compound skull fracture or life-threatening illness, there was no way out of our obligation. So we bowed to the inevitable and each developed shortcuts for collecting, washing, rinsing and stacking dishes in the least possible time. Sentenced to wash, we each resolved to wash well and fast.
By the time each of us was 8, we had learned how to cook our own bacon-and-egg breakfast, make a simple lunch, iron shirts and pants, crudely patch a tear in our clothing with a needle and thread, and clean a dinner table in three minutes. These skills joined all the others we were learning, such as reading, writing, yard work and simple car maintenance, as the basis for later independence.
As we grew up, the three of us would compare notes about guys we knew in school who didn’t have a clue about such elementary things as fixing themselves a meal or how to press a shirt before a hot date. The gist of their complaints was that Mom or some other essential female had failed them by not being around to perform these tasks at crucial times.
Our questions as to whether they had ever thought of learning how to do these things for themselves were met with the same look of incomprehension one sees in the eyes of a cow. Then, after their synapses resumed firing, they’d ask, “What, and do sissy work?”
It dawned on us then that Mom and Dad’s definition of a sissy did not square with the rest of the world’s. And since our friends represented a far bigger portion of the world than my folks, perhaps they were right when they declared that my parents were raising their boys to be sissies.
After all, did we not fit the world’s definition of a sissy to a T? Sissy: A boy who can cook and clean for himself when his Mommy’s not around.