Our daughter was a fighter from the first breath, maybe even before the first one. I swear she tried to kick her way into this world. She was willful and wily, and it was wonderful. There was a time, even before she could walk, when I could see her flex her tiny muscles as if to hunker down on an idea she could not yet express. I didn’t think that a sprinkling of stubbornness and determination was at all a bad thing. Since she certainly inherited two pairs of dominant genes for stubborn determination, there wasn’t much point in trying to fight nature. I decided to focus on nurture instead. I wanted to nurture courage, conviction and compassion in equal measure. Like much of parenting, I felt a lot like I did in freshman chemistry when I was mixing compounds drop by drop hoping to change the solution to a lovely, bright purple color, and get an A, without catching the lab on fire. It was a fine line between strength and sass.
Our first indication that she was not going to need assertiveness training came on the day of a family outing to the local fishing and hunting emporium. We walked three astride into the store, her tiny hands grasping ours as she skipped, pony-tail bobbing, across the threshold. We were not 20 feet into the store when she put the brakes on. Mouth agape, she eyed the trophies that lined the walls.
“Look at all the pretty animals…. Hey! Hold on. They’re dead! Who killed those animals!” She started out with her ‘indoor’ voice but it escalated quickly to ‘drill sergeant’ before ending at ‘riot control’. She caught the attention of a large herd of hairy, flannelled men no doubt on their way to pick up ammo. That was about the time my husband dropped her hand, smiled at me and said, “Good luck. I’ll be in fishing.” Fortunately, her melt down occurred near the camping section, so we sat around the cardboard campfire to have a little chat. Despite the cozy glow of the 100-watt lightbulb shining through the crinkled orange and yellow tissue paper, she could not be swayed. I explained. She listened. She explained. I listened. In the end, she conceded that it was OK to hunt but only if you lived in Alaska, didn’t have a grocery store, and promised not to put the head on a wall. She had a very narrow set of rules for hunting. You can probably guess where I went wrong here. I was debating the merits of hunting with a four-year-old. She was a thinker.
It was only a couple of years later when I found her in the basement painting a blue and green earth on a large sheet of cardboard her unsuspecting (and apparently uninquisitive) father gave her. Polar bears and their dwindling habitat had been the topic of reading group that day. She was inspired to do her part to save the planet. She had a three-part plan: 1. Paint an enormous sign emblazoned with “Save the Earth”; 2. March up and down our street shouting “Save the Earth”; 3. Ask people for money to save the earth when they stopped to talk to her. My husband was worried that this was a sure sign she was destined to leave us to join the Sea Shepherd Society as soon as she had the bus fare. I was worried she was going to be kidnapped. Fortunately, she was painting in the basement by the fire place, so we sat down and had a little chat. I explained. She listened. She explained, emphatically. I listened. In the end, she conceded that asking strangers on the street for money was unsafe. I conceded that she could march back and forth on the front lawn, under my watchful eye, shouting “Save the Earth” until a neighbor complained, and then she would have to come in and have dinner. Since we lived on a cul-de-sac and there was little traffic, she got bored quickly. No one called to complain. Dinner was on time.
My hope for her is to grow up strong enough to stand up for what she believes in; courageous enough to use her voice not just for herself but for the greater good; and compassionate enough to understand that not everyone feels they have a voice or that they can use their voice. Though she did not save the polar bears, she continues to stand up and speak up for what she believes in. That is harder than you would think. Oh sure, there were tears of sadness shed over the polar bears and tears of anger shed over the hunting trophies. Those tears were nothing compared to the pain a young adult feels when faced with something that seems so wrong or unjust that it’s unfathomable anyone else could see it any other way. She had her first taste of that after Parkland. As she marched with thousands of other people against gun violence, it might have been easy to forget that, if everyone agreed on the subject, marching would be unnecessary. That fact wasn’t lost on her. I felt for her. I remember being a high school student in the late 1970s when the Equal Rights Amendment was being debated. I couldn’t believe a debate was even needed. I couldn’t believe we needed a constitutional amendment at all. We were living in Georgia, so my outrage was the minority (and very unpopular) voice. So last night, I sat across from her at dinner, and she shared her outrage and frustration on behalf of a group of students she cares deeply about. My heart hurt for her, but I knew this was not the time for me to fix things or take over. This was her fight. If she was ever going to have the courage to fight again, she had to get through the frustration and anger on her own. One of the most painful lessons in life is finding out that you can be right and still not be able to change what is happening. The challenge is to know what is worth fighting for and then get right back up and keep on fighting. After all, glaciers carve out mountains.
This photograph was taken on a trip to Padilla Bay. From her expression, I can say with some authority that she was saying “No!” at the time. I picked it because it reminds me of her willfulness and strength.