Martha King


Am Female

Clear enough. Not male. A female person. Girl.

I was always hearing solemn instructions about female inferiority. Most women of my generation did. It was natural; it was biological; it could be explained to a small girl in a ruffled sun suit in Lynchburg, Virginia, when I tugged on Lambert's hand and pestered, "But daddy, why? Why is that?"
     Girls often excel in grammar school, he said. And I already knew from school in New York that we were neater, calmer. Most of us were quicker to pick up things like neat handwriting or grouping things in categories. But it was clear to Lambert that this advantage was inconsequential. Girls, my dad explained to me gravely, are best at details, material matters, appearances. Abstract thinking is male territory. At puberty, the boys' more complicated intellectual abilities would kick in-and in high school the boys would begin to excel in the more complex areas. They would develop gifts for analysis, synthesis, conceptualization.
     Abstract thinking runs the world. Which is why men are the presidents and kings, the great statesmen, the makers of history; the great composers and artists, the makers of sense itself. Even chefs. It is men who lift cooking from women's kitchens into a wider world of aesthetics and power.      I would hear almost the same formula at Black Mountain College from Charles Olson: Men make it new; women keep it clean, Olson was fond of announcing. Oh but Charles said women have no need to feel inferior. Read Robert Graves. White Goddess land! Women have innate occult intelligence and magical vaginal power. Olson worshiped the student Mary Fitten, blonde, blue-eyed, old-American-stock Mary, who wrote in a poem, "the moon is the number seven."
     I was smart. I had a high I.Q. It had been tested and while it was not quite as high as my sister Charlotte's, the numbers meant I was superior enough even though I was not superior. It meant that my ease with reading and my quick memory were innate, they were via inheritance (meaning belonging to them) not via work or virtue (which could be counted mine). My deplorable performance with numbers, on the other hand, was a personal character fault. There was no reason for someone as smart as I was to have trouble with grammar-school arithmetic. I just wasn't paying attention. My teachers agreed with this analysis. They were bewildered and annoyed. This became even more clear after we moved to the suburbs and I began to be given report cards with grades. While we lived in Manhattan, Charlotte and I went to the Dalton School, where, in those ultra Dewey days, nothing was graded or required. Absent at school or home was the idea that an accomplishment might take actual work. Everyone seemed convinced that those blessed with high I.Q. could easily do whatever was required. Somehow smart meant effortless.
     Reading, as it turned out, was effortless. It was simply there. The war between the sexes was another matter.
The Dalton School had a playground on the roof where the boys hogged the big wooden blocks. Those blocks were sturdy and large enough to build stairs you could walk on, and high walls and actual forts, and I longed for a chance to use them but it was never going to happen. Girls were driven away by the boys and it didn't occur to us girls to ask adults to intervene. They might not have done so anyway. Natural order.
     Some of the boys, even big boys, couldn't read. They would learn when they were "ready." They might hammer harder than the girls and we girls could gang together and taunt them for being loud, uncouth, and dumbo dumb. That was tolerated too.
     At Dalton, a girl showed me a work-around way to tie my shoes when I couldn't get the long loop to go through the smaller one. She was Chinese. To this day, and despite the fact that I no longer use her method, my shoes habitually become untied in flash, as if through some sort of body vibration. Basil, who knows this story, calls it my Chinese curse. It never occurred to me at the time that she might feel odd or estranged as the only Chinese in class. At Dalton, this same brilliant girl told me how not to wet my bed. That was profound, the best thing I ever learned there.
     I'd be blissfully warm in bed at night and come up to consciousness with that tell-tale clammy cold around my bottom. Not again. Not again. I'd sneak out of bed, despite the likelihood of snakes coiling on the floor in dark, and on tip-toe fetch dry bath towels from the hall closet. I knew I'd never deceive my mother come morning, but I could at least avoid having her wake up, snap on the pitiless ceiling light, strip the bed, and make it up again, all the while "honest to God-ing" at me in her sleep roughened contralto.
     To avoid a wet bed I'd sit on the pot before bedtime until my legs went to sleep. My father would shake me out of bed and walk me to the toilet just before his bedtime. But still it happened. I was taken to the doctor who asked me ridiculous questions: Was I worried? Was I upset at something?
     There was a war going on and every evening we pulled our thick black-out curtains shut before turning on any lights. My parents were volunteer air raid wardens-and one or the other would go out at night wearing a white pith helmet with a red triangle on it-patrolling our East 86th Street neighborhood for any stray line of light that could show the German bombers where New York City was. At Dalton School we were given identification tags to wear on chains around our necks. They were a hard plastic material, engraved with our names and an i.d. number, and some teacher at the school told me they were fireproof. Was I worried? That idea infuriated me: a heap of ashes with a perfect little i.d. tag on top. I flushed mine down one of the school's toilets. But I don't think air raids were what made me wet my bed. All of us didn't do it even if all of us wondered in the middle of the night if there would be sirens.
     Dr. Craig prescribed absolutely nothing to drink after six o'clock. This was torture. I'd suck my toothbrush in parched misery and still wake up in the wet that followed that immense sensation of warmth, release, and comfort. My friend at Dalton appraised my story. "When you dream you're sitting on the toilet, wake up," she advised. I was and am a profound sleeper, falling ever so easily into the violet-blue deep. And I had and have a bladder about the size of walnut. So today, with no concern about midnight air raids, I still use the wonderful method that cured me.

The war wasn't over. It was on the radio, in the newspapers and on the pages of Life magazine. Even in Lynchburg, Virginia, with Big Minor and Miss Lot, there were air raid drills when everyone had to sit in the cellar underneath the stairs waiting for the all-clear siren. But when my father got a raise, Dalton increased our tuition and soon my parents rented a house in Chappaqua out in Westchester County where the public schools were supposed to be superior.
     In another year the war was over, the war in Europe anyway. Life showed pictures of sailors kissing the oily tarmac of Port Newark, and Captain Watson, who owned the house we rented, was due stateside. Of course my father, whose patriotic duty had involved staying safe in New York with his family - publishing books, which he assured me and my sister, were an essential part of the war effort, the very embodiments of the freedom the war was being fought for - of course he'd let the Watsons break the lease so Captain Watson could come right home.
     That's how we came to be stranded that September, at the height of the post-victory housing shortage. Suddenly there was nothing anywhere in city or suburbs to rent or buy. Nothing. My parents ended up living in Pleasantville because their friends, the Crawfords, let them have their big glassed-in side porch. There they made do with a hot-plate and camp icebox. They had just enough room to keep my little brother with them. My sister Charlotte was sent to board with her best friend so she could finish sixth grade in Chappaqua. I was shipped to Charlottesville to live with my grandmother Aggie and go to school with Florence Greene.