SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2008        Personal Memory Ethnographies


Lisa DeJordy-Steele

Motor Oil and Dirt

       The smells of motor oil and dirt are not automatically associated with a sense of femininity, but for me they always will be. Those smells will always remind me of being free and not knowing I was different from my brother, other than of course size and age. Until this incident I had not known that I couldn’t be like my brother or do what he could do. He was my Hero, who wouldn’t want to be like him? My father’s words forever changed that in me.

        My favorite game to play as a child was “ditch em”. That was basically what my siblings and the neighborhood kids called hide and seek. This was a favorite summertime pastime as we had the whole block in which we could find random hiding places and we could hide either in groups or by ourselves. I think this was my favorite game because I was the youngest and therefore my siblings had to help me hide, which meant I wasn’t excluded from their play but was right alongside them.

    One evening in particular I had been “assigned” to my brother; it was his job to make sure I was included in the game but not so much that I hid myself away from the others. I being the youngest, it was their job to basically keep track of me. My brother was my favorite person in the entire world and I felt “special” to get to tag along with him and his friend Kenny.

      Ditch em was the game we played everyday that summer. All the kids in the neighborhood, about 15 of us, would gather just as the sun was setting to determine the rules of the game for that day and decide on the teams. I always made sure Kenny was on my team as he and I were the best at hiding and could run the fastest. That day Lisa was assigned to my team and since she was my sister it was my job to keep an eye on her. I wasn’t too happy about it either, she was going to slow Kenny and I down and would probably giggle while we hid, which could get us caught. There was no way out of it though as she had been on my sister’s team the night before. It was my turn to baby-sit. And it was my fault Lisa got hurt.

    Being the youngest, I hadn’t yet made it to the third grade, which also meant I was the slowest. Randy and Kenny would both grab a hand and pull me along to keep up with their pace. At times they would literally have to swing me ahead of them to quicken the pace. Other times I would end up being dragged along. I didn’t mind though, as long as I got to hang out with my brother.

    This evening I couldn’t seem to quite catch up with their pace. They were both much taller than me and their legs could move quicker. They came around the house toward the backyard, running as fast as they could and dragging me along toward where my brother kept his pile of dirt bike motors that he used for his dirt bikes and go-carts. Kenny went around one side of the pile, my brother went around the other and before they could get a good enough swing to hoist me over the top of it my knees crashed into the pile of machinery and I was dragged over it.  I got scraped up from my shins to my thighs, not very bad cuts, no stitches, but plenty of blood.

       As the only boy in the house it is my job to keep an eye on my sisters and keep them safe. I should have made sure that Kenny was just as careful with my sister as my father expects me to be. He is right, I was careless and Lisa would never have been hurt if I had been paying attention. I let myself get caught up in the game and pushed her too hard. I know the girls can’t play the game as well as the boys and I should have slowed our pace down to let her keep up.

    I will never forget the reaction of my father as he and my mother were looking me over and cleaning my wounds. My mother of course was concerned because no mother likes to see their child in pain but my father on the other hand was more concerned with scars. He yelled at my brother for being careless and not watching out for me and made it very clear that he was afraid I would “scar”. His exact words were, “Little girls with cuts grow up to be women with scars. How pretty is that? You don’t let your sisters get hurt!”

     Without any words my mother's blue eyes soothed my wounds, calmed my fears, and reinforced my father’s words. I remember looking up at her after looking at my brother’s scars and seeing sadness in them I couldn’t have described with a word at that age. It is only after being a mother that I can now understand the hurt a mother feels after watching their child realize that they are limited by absurd social regulations. Even right now I cannot fully express the lack of power she conveyed by her silence and the strength she nonetheless gave me by her presence. Mothers and women, such a paradox.

     I don’t know if I really understand my dad’s reaction.  He was really angry about the possibility of Lisa getting scars. What is the big deal? I get cuts all the time and he never pays attention to that. It is different for girls than it is for boys, though. Girls are going to wear dresses and scars on the knees would look horrible with a dress. I know I wouldn’t want to date anyone who is scarred up. Maybe dad didn’t overreact, but he should have blamed Lisa more than me. She shouldn’t have been playing with the boys anyway, right? If little girls with cuts grow up to be women with scars, then little girls should stick to little girl games.

     As my father declared scars were unacceptable, I thought about the scars I saw on my brother’s face. He was born with a double hare lip and a cleft palate, meaning his facial structure was not completely formed at birth. As a child he had endured hundreds of surgeries that I remembered very well. I remember seeing a hurt in his eyes, but I was unsure if it came from my father’s words of anger or the direct meanings they held for my brother.

Even as my father taught me in my home what the role of my gender was and how I was expected to play this role, the constraints placed on women were changing in broader society. It was the early eighties and not only were women changing the restrictions on their lives but they were reexamining the idea of gender identity .Ideas of how sexuality played into gender roles was transforming as well. These were changes that had taken root many years before but the fruits of liberationists were beginning to take shape.

    It’s almost as if my father refused to see that the world was changing around us. My mother had worked right alongside him building our family business but the home and the children were still considered her main role and something my father only involved himself in peripherally. The chores were divided by gender, dishes and laundry to us girls while my brother was put in charge of the yards and making any minor repairs to the home that were needed. My father was the driving force behind dictating these gender roles, whereas my mother provided the example that would ultimately be most useful to us.

      Like many women of her time, my mother pulled double duty in her work load. She worked right alongside my father building a business while providing the force that kept our family going. This was the role model that would prove to be the most useful to us girls as this was the world we were inheriting. Looking back historically at how the world was changing around us, I believe that my father was almost afraid of how his role as the provider was shifting and what that would mean for him.

      Women were not only the sole provider of the comforts of home but women too were the breadwinners. With this role changing women were also demanding that their pay reflect the work they were doing, that the fact of their biology be acknowledged with maternity leave, and that they not be discriminated against based on this biology. Gender was being questioned at the same time with the acknowledgement of gender identity disorder from gender reassignments at birth, with the people that had been affected by this being given a public voice in which to state their position. Another way in which these gender roles were being challenged is by the gay community that had begun to demand their rights and challenge the heterosexist view of the world.

     I was lucky to grow up in a world where the roles of women and the constraints of gender were being questioned and challenged. While I may not have been aware of exactly what was going on at the time, I now see the look in my mother’s eyes differently. She conveyed a lifetime of lessons in one look while passing on a glimmer of promise for change. She was the role model for how I saw women: strong, hardworking, compassionate, nurturing, and able to handle much more than they were given credit for. Her eyes that day conveyed a silent protest, with a loud message:  the world is changing for you, move with it!

      I remember thinking, why is this different than the cuts my brother Randy gets when he crashes his bikes? Why doesn’t anyone get yelled at when he needs to go get stitches because he wasn’t paying attention to the dips in the field? And why would girls be less pretty if they have scars? I never asked these questions, I just internalized the message. I was different from my brother in ways I had never imagined and my dad would be sure to point them out to us.  A few years ago I actually caught myself repeating my father’s words of, “Little girls with cuts grow up to be women with scars,” to my own daughter after she had been reckless in climbing a tree. I have since fixed my mistake and relayed this same story to her.
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