My grandmother’s profound gift was to dare to believe that, perhaps, there was nothing she couldn’t do just because she was a girl.
This is a far more difficult gift to arrive at than you might think.
She was one of thirteen children (only eleven of whom made it through their childhoods) who belonged to a suddenly single mom at the height of the Great Depression. Her mom engaged in what we today would recognize as “serial monogamy” in order to feed her kids–but, back then, her choices were viewed as “fallen.” Her kids were virtually alone in the world. My grandmother went on to get married and have four kids of her own, to work a farm, and to work as a newspaper reporter for the Medina Herald in the 1950s. (Let that sink in a minute: a self-taught woman holding her own in a newsroom in the 1950s.) My grandmother would proudly recount how the editor of the paper once bawled out a copyeditor who “corrected”–and actually screwed up–the grammar in one of her stories. “‘If you see Betty Marsh’s name on a story,'” the man had snarled, “‘you don’t touch it!'” It was her gift to the world (and to her daughters), to have her work justified by a man in front of a room full of her male peers.
My mother’s profound gift was to internalize the worth of a woman as fact. She embodied that fact for my sister and me, and for hundreds of her students over the years, as she became the first of her family–male or female–to go to college, the first to get a Master’s degree, and the first to become a teacher. She taught it to me in exactly that many words: Kathryn, there is nothing you can’t do just because you’re a girl. She proved it in a million ways over the course of my childhood, too–being a teacher, an artist, a scientist, and a capable woman of her hands. She was and is a powerhouse, leading by example.
Fast forward a few years. I was at the time (and still am) an overweight, middle-aged woman with an autoimmune disease. Deciding to be a stay-at-home mom had put a serious dent in my self-worth. In my own eyes, abdicating the working world to take up the traditional homemaker role was a kind of betrayal of all that my mother and grandmother had worked for. (I’ve since realized that’s bunkum–they fought for me to have the choice, dummy! But still…)
I’d been stumbling and fumbling my way through learning taekwondo. I was a red belt, racking up teaching hours as part of earning my way toward a black belt. And I’ll be honest, there were many times that my teaching at the dojang felt like the only grown-up, useful work I got to do. (There are only so many times you can sing a nursery rhyme or play Candyland before you feel like your brain is leaking out your ears.) So, after a series of successful breaks at various tests and tournaments, I decided that I wanted to attempt four one-inch-thick pine boards with a single back kick. I had enough chutzpah available to me (even fat and flawed and in my forties) to announce my intention in front of my master.
That’s when I found out that, if I succeeded at this hare-brained plan, I would become only the second woman in the history of my dojang (at thirty years and counting) to do it.
I was so nervous that I got only two hours of sleep the night before, and even that much required Benadryl. That day, I felt like I was only half aware of my body as I navigated the bedlam of the in-house tournament. Scores of people swarmed barefoot in and around arenas marked by red and blue floor pads. Students in crisp white doboks snapped kicks and punches as they were judged on forms; their doboks sagged and their faces ran with sweat as they faced off in sparring matches; splinters went flying as they broke boards in ones and twos. I performed well in my own forms competition, despite being ragged with lack of sleep (God knows that, at my age, lack of sleep is a given).
But as the time for my attempt came closer, a whisper began to lap the room, becoming a sustained buzz, and then becoming outright stares and pointing, as I came to the floor with my stack of boards in hand.
Four boards, each ten inches square and an inch thick. No pieced boards held together with glue, or balsa demonstration boards that could be broken just by holding them wrong. These were solid pine, as all the boards at my dojang are, cut from a 1×10 with a miter saw.
The smell of pine sap in my nose, the nerve-sweat on my hands, I must have checked how the crowns in each board stacked a dozen times before I handed it off to my holders. I bowed, both to them and to the waiting masters. The holders–four men–got into position, experimenting with handholds until the corners were secure and their fingers were mostly out of the way.
The entire dojang fell silent. I shrugged the shoulders of my dobok into a comfier position, tugged my pants legs up a little, put up my fists, and settled my bare feet into free fight stance.
The first attempt was a disaster of nerves and lost balance, as I wobbled at the back half of the spin and unloaded the kick on my holders’ arms. I missed the boards entirely. My own laughter was the loudest of all as I lined up for another try. The holders reset.
At the last instant of the second kick, I lost my balance again, thumping my foot off the stack, shoving the holders back instead of breaking cleanly through.
I glanced at the spectators and could see the need of every woman in that room. Their husbands were merely intrigued by my attempt, but the women themselves watched me with fists clenched, their heads raised at full stretch, as if willing the boards to break would make it so. And I realized, we may be sixty years past that editor in the newsroom of the Medina Herald, but women still need this.
My masters added holders, hoping that more pairs of hands would give the solid resistance I needed to overcome my technique failures. Eight people now stood in a solid wedge behind my boards, four sets of hands holding, four more people holding the holders, like a pyramid stack of cheerleaders laid over on its feet. I forgot them, and the spectators, and the masters watching; my world became a single ten inch square of white pine.
On the third attempt, one of the boards gave a despairing pop, but though all eight people rocked backward with the force of my strike, the stack remained whole in their hands. The buzz went around the room again, all female voices, tight with need and worry: Come on, do it!
On my fourth attempt the stack broke. The room went wild. The gathered parents of dozens of students applauded, the women whooping. The ranking male master in the room felt the need to make an announcement about my achievement. The ranking female master (and owner of the dojang) grinned quietly as she gave me a medal. The tournament resumed, with the male students who knew me as the nice mom-like instructor looking dazed and perhaps a little alarmed at the idea of how much power I’d been holding back. All the female students of every age and belt rank stood taller, smiled bigger, and threw kicks with a bit more power and panache.
But even as I kicked that last time, I knew something had happened to the bones and discs in my back. That hitched-up feeling persists to this day and will, at some point, require surgery. I know I will never attempt that break again. The risks are too great. But I still want to do it again, because the break wasn’t clean. I didn’t achieve it in one, or even the tournament regulation three, attempts. It took me four. And that despairing little “pop” on attempt number three meant that a board had been compromised, however slightly. Even though all the boards stayed in one piece before I destroyed them, that break still feels unfinished to me. I want to do it cleanly, with no question about the boards or my performance. I want that break to be flawless. On some days, anything less than flawless feels like failure…
…until I remember the story that one of the parents present that day later told me. Her daughter, three years old at the time, had been at the tournament, too, cheering for her older brother. She had seen me hit that stack of wood over and over again. She had seen eight full-grown adults being shoved backwards by my attempts. But she didn’t have the word “attempt.” She didn’t have the words for “competition” or “medal” or “board breaking” or “tournament,” so she used the words she had: to that little girl, I had “defeated eight men.” In my worse moments, when I despair that my life has been of no importance to anyone but my daughter, when I despair that any of the work of my life might do lasting good in the world, when I despair that the work of a stay-at-home mom can’t compare to the work of a working woman, I remember that little girl’s words.
To her, my attempts weren’t failures. They were moves so powerful that I knocked eight full-grown adults off-balance with a single kick. (By the end my holders weren’t all men, coincidentally, but still…point made.)
My gift to my daughter–and, apparently, to every female of any age at that tournament that day–was to prove a woman’s power, regardless of her paycheck. There was, of course, no actual “defeat” (unless you count the damage done to my vertebrae). But despite living in a culture warped by lopsided power dynamics and victimization, we’re now part of a generation of women who know what they’re worth. We have discovered we have the right to say “no,” or the right to say “yes”–to whom we want, when we want, for whatever reason why. We have the right to do whatever we choose, and we can do it with our heads held high. And we believe (correctly) that we have the power to back it…and eight men…up.
And to my great-grandma, my grandma, and to Mom, I say: Thanks for the gift.