I remember, when I was younger – a teenager, or maybe an undergrad in my early twenties – how my mother and aunts and other women in my family would sit around at family gatherings. They’d sit in the kitchen getting the meal ready or, as the family grew older and the meals became simpler (or when we younger generations just started carrying our weight a bit more), in the living room. They’d talk about their lives, get caught up with each other.
What I remember most are the conversations about health. The struggles with weight, or creaking joints, or thyroid levels that were too high or too low, or the side effects of the new medication some doctor wanted them to try. Obviously these conversations made an impression; I’m still remembering it years later, after all. I wish I had been moved to empathy, but what I remember most was boredom (for some reason boredom is almost physically painful for me), and irritation that they focused so much on their body. I remember thinking at some point that it seemed like all they talked about. I didn’t have many female cousins my own ages at these gatherings (I did have female cousins, but they lived further away, or were a little older than me so were starting their own lives), and I was just old enough that I didn’t feel quite comfortable with my male cousins, or my uncles for that matter. They would be watching football games anyway, which was every bit as boring as the health-talk. (I like sports-stats, but as for following the big game? That’s just not my cup of earl grey.)
So I remember sitting in the room with my aunts and listening to the conversations about their various ailments. It frightened me not because I’d someday get old, but because I thought I would be so focused on my body’s failings, I wouldn’t have room for anything else. Looking back, this seems snobby (and I do hope any female relatives reading this will chalk it up to being a teenager!), but even back then I was a natural academic. I read books and had Ideas with a capital I, and I think that was the level I wanted to engage with people on. Thinking that as I got older, my body would be the only thing I thought about or cared about – that was a scary reality, somehow.
Now that I have another decade under my belt I think I understand it better. When something goes wrong with my body, I often want to talk to someone about it. Not a doctor but a friend, a neighbor, or even one of those same family members I heard trading stories before Thanksgiving Dinner. It’s not so much about practicalities as companionship. Bad health is a scary thing and I want the assurance that other people have gone through this, that I will survive; and even more than that, that I am not alone in my suffering. I want the recognition that it is not just my body that breaks down, that this is the human condition and so I will have company when I suffer.
This reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from The Handmaid’s Tale. This book is set in a dystopian future where women can’t own property or work jobs and where those who are fertile will be passed around to rich, childless couples so they can be bedded by the husband and provide an heir. (Think Sarah and Hagar in the Bible.) Those fertile women, called handmaids, are ostracized from the other women in the world because of the nature of their work, and the story’s protagonist talks about this loneliness:
Rita sees me and nods, whether in greeting or in simple acknowledgment of my presence it’s hard to say, and wipes her floury hands on her apron and rummages in the kitchen drawer for the token book. Frowning, she tears out three tokens and hands them to me. Her face might be kindly if hse would smile. But her frown isn’t personal: it’s the red dress she disapproves of, and what it stands for. She thinks I may be catching, like a disease or any form of bad luck.
Sometimes I listen outside closed doors, a thing I never would have done in the time before. I don’t listen long, because I don’t want to be caught doing it. Once, though, I heard Rita say to Cora that she wouldn’t debase herself like that.
Nobody asking you, Cora said. Anyways, what could you do, supposing?
Go to the Colonies, Rita said. They have the choice.
With the Unwomen, and starve to death and Lord knows that all? said Cora. Catch you.
They were shelling peas; even through the almost-closed door I could hear the light clink of the hard peas falling into the metal bowl. I heard Rita, a grunt or a sigh, of protest or agreement.
Anyways, they’re doing it for us all, said Cora, or so they say. If I hadn’t of got my tubes tied, it could have been me, say I was ten years younger. It’s not that bad. It’s not what you’d call hard work.
Better her than me, Rita said, and I opened the door. Their faces were the way women’s faces are when they’ve been talking about you behind your back and they think you’ve heard: embarrassed, but also a little defiant, as if it were their right. That day, Cora was more pleasant to me than usual, Rita more surly.
Today, despite Rita’s closed face and pressed lips, I would like to stay here, in the kitchen. Cora might come in, from somewhere else in the house, carrying her bottle of lemon oil and her duster, and Rita would make coffee – in the houses of the Commanders there is still real coffee – and he would sit at Rita’s kitchen table, which is not Rita’s any more than my table is mine, and we would talk, about aches and pains, illnesses, our feet, our backs, all the different kinds of mischief that our bodies, like unruly children can get into. We would nod our heads as punctuation to each other’s voices, signaling that yes, we know all about it. We would exchange remedies and try to outdo each other in the recital of our physical miseries; gently we would complain, our voices soft and minor key and mournful as pigeons in the eaves troughs. I know what you’d mean, we’d say. Or, a quaint expression you sometimes hear, still, from older people: I hear where you’re coming from, as if the voice itself were a traveler, arriving from a distant place. Which it would be, which it is.
How I used to despise such talk. Now I long for it. At least it was talk. An exchange, of sorts.
Or we would gossip. The Marthas know things, they talk among themselves, passing the unofficial news from house to house. Like me, they listen at doors, no doubt, and see things even with their eyes averted. I’ve heard them at it sometimes, caught whiffs of their private conversations. Stillborn, it was. Or, Stabbed her with a knitting needle, right in the belly. Jealousy, it must have been, eating her up. Or, tantalizingly, It was toilet cleaner she used. Worked like a charm, though you’d think he’d of tasted it. Must’ve been that drunk; but they found her out all right.
Or I would help Rita making the bread, sinking my hands into that soft resistant warmth which is so much like flesh. I hunger to touch something, other than cloth or wood. I hunger to commit the act of touch
But even if I were to ask, even if I were to violate decorum to that extent, Rita would not allow it. She would be too afraid. The Marthas are not supposed to fraternize with us.
Fraternize means to behave like a brother. Luke told me that. He said there was no corresponding word that meant to behave like a sister. Sororize, it would have to be, he said. From the Latin. He liked knowing about such details. The derivations of words, curious usages. I used to tease him about being pedantic.
I take the tokens from Rita’s outstretched hand. They have pictures on them, of the things they can be exchanged for: twelve eggs, a piece of cheese, a brown things that’s supposed to be a steak. I place them in the zippered pocket in my sleeve, where I keep my pass.
“Tell them fresh, for the eggs,” she says. “Not like last time. And a chicken, tell them, not a hen. Tell them who it’s for and then they won’t mess around.”
“All right,” I say. I don’t smile. Why tempt her to friendship?
This started out with me thinking about health and our conversations about it, but I think it applies to other topics, too. These notes are usually about politics, so I feel this drive to connect it, and I think there is a connection. So often when people talk about politics they don’t really seem that interested in arguments. They want empathy and understanding, and an acknowledgment that this thing that happened is wrong.
Sometimes that thing is the murder of babies, and sometimes it’s women being reduced to breeding-stock. Sometimes it’s the way anyone can be gunned down on the street because we’re so lackadaisical about weapon control, and sometimes it’s how honest, decent people have to be cleared by the government before they can exercise something that was always their right. Sometimes it’s how undocumented immigrants have their families split up, and other times it’s how you can’t even call a crime a crime these days for fear of offending someone. It doesn’t even matter whether these beliefs are factually true – a lot of times what we want when we talk politics is to hear from other people: I hear where you’re coming from, and you’re not the only one who thinks this is messed up.
And sometimes you’re just so tired of feeling unheard, of feeling alone listening at the door, with a skin-tone or accent or political view that makes you the kind of person who isn’t allowed to join that conversation. I get that because I’ve been there. I think most of us have at some time or another. That being heard is important, even if it doesn’t settle things.
I think a big part of the trouble is the internet and our culture generally flattens everything out. We need a space for ideological discussion that is rooted in fact, not in the need to be heard and understood. We need it desperately, because that’s the way good policy decisions have to happen in a democracy. But as individuals, we need to also hear and be heard on a personal level. I think I need to remember that, and realize that sometimes when people are talking about Gosnell, or background checks, or Monsanto, or whatever, they’re really talking about more than just the facts of the case. Just like when my aunts talked about blood pressure and muscle aches with each other, they were probably looking for something beyond what they could have gotten from their doctor.
I don’t know how to balance these two demands, but I have to think recognizing that both needs are at play in these conversations is a good way to start.