Chivalry: a reanimated corpse

I read a lot lately about feminism.  I’m tired of reading about feminism because it has joined the ranks of other meaningless words that culture strips out of academia, traipses around playing with while building meme-fortresses out of its tenets and then discards to the mass media to use as fodder when the news is running slow.  Then come the banner carriers who believe they can revive a thing beaten past recognizability.

So I become really tired of reading about something that has little or no meaning anymore.

Perhaps I should have known that feminism would meet this grim and unseemly fate when I realized what was happening to chivalry about ten years ago.  I didn’t know it when I was younger, but my father (really my grandfather, but when you’re adopted you call the man who fills that void in your life “Daddy”, and all the other names he used to wear of biological significance become also meaningless) was a dying breed of men.  I have met a few other of these over the years, and I was always naturally drawn to them, to their conversation, to their manner and to their minds. I have read about girls being attracted to men who are like their fathers were.  What attracted me was something that was disappearing, and I did not realize it was disappearing until I looked around and found that I could count on one hand the number of men I knew who were gentlemen.

Yes, I was corrupted at a young age because I was raised by a man who was a gentleman and a woman who was a lady, and I will tell you sincerely that the worst reprimand, the one that still stings when I remember it, from my father for me was when he turned to me in a public place and said in an icy voice, “I thought we taught you how to act like a lady.”

I think a lot of people, by this point, will be afraid of being nauseated by the turn of this blog.  Well you need not read further, but if you’re not afraid to examine some of these ideas and how they vanished or became meaningless over time then read on.  I am not going to wax glorious on what a gentleman was to a lady.  Those who knew my Mom and Dad know that that’s exactly what they were, but what really stood out was how much they loved each other.  I would like to suggest that part of what made that love so special were that the respectful natures they each had (having been enculturated to behave as a gentleman or lady) .

You see, I think my Mom would have died before labeling herself a feminist because they were associated with a group of women in American society that she would have washed her hands of.  Having been born in 1931, she looked down on them because of their overly aggressive attitudes, and she didn’t want to associate with people like that.  My mother’s closest friends were also all what I would have called “ladies”.  They were mostly gently spoken people, they were considerate, they wrote thank you cards, they understood the unspoken rules of behavior in public society, and they didn’t wear their hearts on their sleeves.  And, yes, they really did care about what the neighbors thought of them.  I’m not sure that was such a bad thing anymore.

But these women (ladies) also had jobs– full-time jobs, no less– they worked for a living, and played for the enjoyment of it.  They cooked for their families, and sewed things for their children.  They gave dinner parties every once in awhile and took pride in their clean homes.  I think some people would mock them for being the wives of the 1950’s (and to be perfectly honest, I heard that mockery thrown at my mother from time to time), but I can also give you a more nuanced picture of the 1950’s lady who was also a wife.  I think it might surprise you, or maybe not since I know a lot of people in my acquaintance also know/knew many a lady like this.

My mother may have cooked for our family, but so did my father from time to time.  Both of my parents were teachers.  They both worked full-time jobs.  They shared the burden of caring for the household and the children in that household.  I know that my father (a man born in 1928) was as familiar with how to change a diaper (even a CLOTH diaper with pins) as any woman could have been.  My father was not permitted near the washing machine except to fix it, but that was because my mother had a preference for clothing coming out of it in one piece.  She can hardly be blamed for the fact that washing machine manufacturers saw fit to make machines that could destroy clothes just as easily as wash them if handled carelessly by a man in a hurry with a long list of things to do on a Saturday.  Mom and Dad both worked in the garden together.  Some of the happiest memories of my childhood are watching them work together, in fact.  I watched Dad fold clothes with Mom at the dining room table.  I watched him throw dirt at her while they were weeding together and feign innocence when she looked up scowling.  I watched him hold babies (we said he had the Midas touch with them) until they’d fall out of their sullens or tummy aches and fall into sweet sleep.

I also watched him partner my mother through the hard years.  I watched him help her learn how to walk again after knee surgery, reassure her after she’d come out of physical therapy crying that he’d get Jackie and I fed and put to bed that night, that she wouldn’t have to worry about a thing.  I watched him help her to the point that she recovered so that she could walk again without a cane for a few short years.  I watched him tell her when she’d cry that she had to be strong for him because she was his strength.  I watched him sing to her, and, more importantly, I’d sometimes sneak into the music room to find her playing piano, and watch them sing together.  I watched him open doors for women, men, and children.  I received my fair share of scoldings and a few spankings for misbehavior or rudeness.  I went with him to work at the local soup kitchen and when I cried the first trip there because of the children coming there he took me in his arms and told me, “Never pity them, Becky.  Help them.”

My father was a gentleman and I have met so few since he died, and most of these tend to be from generations relatively far removed from mine.  My mother was a lady and she would have scorned being called a feminist and I think even my father would have scorned being called one too, though he would be my definition of a man who was also a feminist.

My father believed that women should have rights equal to men because he chose a woman who shared his workload all through his life.  My father believed that a woman’s body was hers, and that it should be respected, but he also believed that a man’s body was his and should also be protected.  One of my more powerful childhood memories is of a time when my father and I saw a boy who was receiving a hideous beating from one of his parents in public and my father intervened.  I never heard or saw him shame another human because of their physical appearance.  It was only when my father believed he could not trust another person’s character or judgment that he spoke deprecatingly to them.  Make no mistake, the man never ever minced words if he thought you were a fool or of a vicious nature.

I learned that being a gentleman does not mean you have to eat toads.

I often saw my father come up behind my mother and hug her and tell her how much he loved her.  She wore his love like a banner that says, “Here is a woman who knows she is loved.”  My father wore her love much the same way.  But I look around at the men and women I know of both sexual preferences and I do not often get to see this kind of love anymore.  There is something that has happened in our societies so that this kind of love isn’t allowed out of the home, and to be seen in the public eye.  I think we’re poorer for it and it breeds a loss of all kinds.  When two people love each other and that love is so visibly apparent to everyone around them it makes the world a better place.  It makes the other 8 of the fruits of the spirit grow more easily.  It’s easy to be kind, hopeful, joyous, forbearing, faithful, gentle and self-controlled in the light of those who are openly loving.  It is also hard to be rude, despairing, broken, ruthless, recalcitrant, vicious, and wanton in their presence.  Love tends to open the doors to the best of humanity while shutting down the paths of humankind’s worst instincts.

And if you think I’m just spouting sentimental/religious rubbish one could also look at the rest of the mammalian world where kindness among peers is also highly rewarded and rewarding within groups of mammals.  Truly, there’s a high price put on having good neighbors, so it seems that the law of the jungle might also have much in common with the golden rule.

And when Dad was dying I saw Mom prove what Dad said of her.  I got to see how strong she was, how strong she could be, and how much he needed her.  Dad and Mom spent their lives being chivalrous, practicing gentility.  I’m sad, in many ways, that he died before I grew up and thought to ask him, “How did you learn to be a gentleman?”  I know some things about his childhood so I know enough to guess that his must have been a hard school, but perhaps that school bred the sincerity of it as well.  Being a gentleman wasn’t something Dad pretended to be when people were watching; it was part and parcel of his character, and that is perhaps the reason I wish I could ask him about it now.  I’ve seen people (men and women alike) who have a set of Sunday manners that look like the Sunday best used to, so being a lady or a gentleman now looks like playing “good boy” or “good girl” for a judge.  I also know the schools for learning to be a lady and there are two of them: you could be raised, like I was, by loving parents with high expectations of your behavior who set you a good example with their own behavior, or you could be raised (like my mother was) in a situation with someone who had impossible standards for you and who would severely punish you if you failed to meet those standards.    I wonder which school my father grew up in, and I can’t ask him about it now.

My father and mother were the definitions of what I would like to believe feminism is about: men and women bearing and sharing equal responsibilities in life– as people, as thinkers, as workers, and as friends.  But I’m tired of feminism and feminists because I’m tired of drumming up a cause for something just to have another -ism and another -ist added to something that was so commonplace in my childhood that if not for seeing its scarcity in other parts of my life later I would never have known it was missing.  Perhaps my cavalier attitude comes from the fact that it seems irrational to me that we cannot agree that men and women should have equal access, equal opportunities and equal loads of the work along with equal respect in their treatment.  And perhaps I find that irrational because even though I know I heard my father respond to my childish “But that’s not fair!” with “Life’s not fair!” I have to say in retrospect that growing up our household…

It looked pretty darned fair to me.

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~ by Rebecca Erickson on October 2, 2014.

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