This year on your birthday you are far away, across the sea, and I miss you. I miss your smile and laughter, the sound of your flute drifting up the stairs late at night as I float off to sleep. Normally my escapes when feeling sad are booze, bubble baths, and books, but as you know we do not have a bathtub in our new house here at Kithnarra. And books – well, for the last few months I have been unable to read much, because my mind trips down winding lanes of whimsy, stumbles upon worry, then dead ends straight at weariness. So…booze it is!
Not too long ago I decided I better head back in the direction of books, at least part time. I picked up a book I knew I enjoyed, one I considered ‘fun and easy’, just so I might get back into the habit of reading without too much suffering. It was Bill Bryson’s ‘Neither Here Nor There’ – simple, short, funny chapters all about his solo journey around Europe.
Decades ago I read this book as a young, single woman and thoroughly enjoyed it. Back then I imagined myself someday visiting all the cities he listed, wandering from one chic restaurant to another, jotting down wise/witty notes on wrinkled napkins and moist beer coasters as he must have done. Now, two decades later, I read this book from the crook of my little house in the big woods, tucked into my great big, black bed – a tired, middle-aged mom who’d never made it to much of Europe after all, but whose first-born daughter was now off on her first solo trip to the Motherland all alone, like the youthful Bill Bryson of yore.
My re-read sputtered into stagnation quite quickly. For on page after page, city after city, there was nary a lady mentioned on this guy’s epic jaunt around Europe. Not only was Mr. Bryson travelling sans females, but all of the important, historical places he was visiting – castles, monuments, city sights…were filled with statues and stories of men. Pasty, rich, strategic, mistress-clad men, mostly. (For complete accuracy Joan of Arc might have been mentioned. But of course she was famous precisely for acting like a man. Gah!). Women were almost completely absent from THE HISTORY OF EUROPE. Oh, they were there alright, but jotted down unnamed, mentioned only as rather large, bosomy seat mates who turned out to be quite cushiony on long, jostling train trips.
So, my darling daughter, I never finished rereading that book. As you can probably visualize, I put it down, disgusted, and turned to wine. Because, let’s face it, the world refuses to recognize women very often. Not for womanly things, anyways. And for most of human history, women have been completely occupied by child-birthing and child-rearing and food maintenance, and there has been no time nor energy for women to occupy men’s spaces and rewhittle the world in their softer image.
On one of these nights, as I lay in bed and the wine took hold, I began to think that I would write my own book, about women – real women – who changed the world for the better, women that most of us have never, ever heard of. I dreamt I might travel to visit their birth places, follow in their feminine footsteps, but of course as soon as I started investigating the logistics of where to go and what to see, the word ‘folly’ sparkled with new life. For women leave little behind, except offspring. Women, historically, have never had the time, money, nor skill to write down even basic words to leave behind. Physically women mostly leave just dust, which is ironic considering they’ve spent their whole lives trying to wipe that stuff up.
But, Annalise, I desperately want your world to be one in which you can participate as a pivotal member. And I thought by shining a light on the women who so valiantly and painfully paved the way for women working for equality today, I might smooth the path just a bit, so to speak. So I began reading day and night, researching, compiling my own ‘binders full of women’ that piled up on my bedside table like actual props from a Saturday Night Live sketch. I noted down women who wowed me, women to whom I related in one way or another…women who whispered their stories into my ear like old friends, begging me to pass them along.
I read of women who scratched out rudimentary diaries on the plains while other women marched tirelessly through city streets, demanding birth control, voting rights, freedom; I read of women who worked their bodies into nothing but bones, or left their own children simply to raise money for bread; women who grew crops that had never been grown before; women who founded schools and took in the needy and unwanted; women who dedicated their lives to pursuing art and environmental preservation. All of these women, who nursed and toiled and organized night and day, day and night, with little to no booze, bubble baths, or even books to comfort them. Imagine!
And most nights as I read in the dark, I would tell your dad about these ladies, whisper their names out loud, there in bed, and he would ooh and ah and agree with me that the world should and could be a more balanced planet, where women and men’s words were heard and evaluated with equal vigor.
Then one night, as I lay in bed, I tried and I tried to unravel one woman’s story so that I could retell it, but I couldn’t, because this woman was a scientist – the first woman scientist to work at Bell Telephone Laboratories back in the 1940’s – and her story was so smart and sophisticated that it was just too complicated for me to understand. I grasped that she was a crystallographer and geologist, that she was a researcher who ran a program that studied the electromagnetic properties of crystals. But of course I didn’t really know what electromagnetic properties were. And I knew nothing about crystals except for the pretty ones that hung in gift shop windows.
I read further about Dr. Elizabeth A. Wood and her pioneering work with phase transitions in silicon and how she studied ways to change the state of certain materials through the application of electric fields. But how her work led directly to the development of new superconductors and lasers at Bell Labs was completely beyond me.
I turned to your dad, who as you know is quite smart, and also scientifically-minded. He was reading there beside me when I said,
“So…you know how I have binders full of women now?” He nodded.
“And you know that I am researching ladies that were downright incredible but nobody’s ever heard of them or built statues to them or chose them for their ‘extraordinary people’ high school research papers?” Yes, your dad nodded.
“Well, this one lady, Dr. Elizabeth A. Wood, was a geologist and crystallographer who taught at Bryn Mawr back in the early 1900’s.” I began.
“Uh hmmm,” he muttered, completely non-plussed.
“And I’m really not smart enough to understand WHAT she did, let alone the science behind it, but what I think, after reading what I can find about her, is that she is the reason for the lightsaber. You know, like in Star Wars? I mean, I think this lady must be the mother of the lightsaber.”
I thought your dad would laugh or whoop or do some big exclamatory gesture at this point, considering I’d now willingly brought up Star Wars as a topic of conversation after twenty-five years of marriage! But surprisingly your dad remained quiet, put his book down, and instead turned to me rather sadly. His face was a mixture of deep pity and reluctant patience side-by-side. “You do know, Kristine, that lightsabers are not real?”
“Yes…ugh! I do know that!” I replied, indignant. “But they are based on the notion that they could be real, scientifically, are they not? And this lady, Dr. Wood, studied the two things that make up the fundamentals of all lightsabers – crystals and lasers, right? And therefore, without her, I don’t think there could even be the notion of a lightsaber, could there?”
Here I was truly asking him, because as you know your dad is exceptionally smart in some ways that I am not, and Star Wars is definitely one of those ways, as is science and lasers and basically everything I was speaking of.
“No, no, no,” he sort of pity-laughed. “That’s not how light sabers work. They’re not just crystals and lasers…”
“Well, what are they, then?” I demanded, outraged. “They must be. Even I know that!” (As you might remember, Annalise, I’ve seen ONE Star Wars movie to date, and that was enough to last me a life time).
I turned away from him then, insulted and upset. Not only did I know just enough to know what I didn’t know, but what I thought I might know was still dead wrong.
A deep quiet enveloped our bedroom that evening, as I lay there feeling disgusted with my ‘feminine’ brain. I was deeply ashamed that I was not smart enough to grasp these scientific concepts, and it physically pained me to think of myself as a walking stereotype – this womanly ‘less-than capable’ creature somehow. But then my eyes fell on my binders full of women, imaginary friends to me now, and I supposed all of those women had suffered this same feeling, in myriad ways, thousands of times, over the centuries.
Meanwhile your dad twiddled furiously on his Phobert (my name for his iPhone, as you surely recall) as I tossed those binders full of women onto the floor and began drinking big swigs of wine. I wondered if I should just travel straight to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house there in Missouri to take photos of her little farm and perhaps the beloved corn-cob doll Charlotte and call this whole idea a wrap and be done.
A long time passed. At last your dad sat up rather straight in bed, turned to me with surprised, arched eyebrows, and said, “Well, Kristine, it turns out that according to the Star Wars Expanded Universe, lightsabers use a crystal that directs a laser back on itself to make the beam. So, you are actually, factually correct. That lady whose work in crystallography lead to advances in lasers was in fact the mother of the lightsaber!“
After that earth-shattering moment of course nothing changed. Nothing at all. And on this night, as I write this letter to you, everyone in our family sans you and me are off seeing the new Star Wars movie, which yet again fails to dedicate even a second of screen-time to its most enlightened mother-figure. Because Star Wars, obviously, is all about The Father. Who cares if our noble Dr. Wood remains locked away in the attic of human knowledge, sans any credit from the masses for being brilliant and truly light-years ahead of her time? (“Honey, you’re misusing the term ‘light-year’. It’s a distance, not a time period.” – Dad) This is the way the world spins for most ladies, Annalise – epic stories swirl round us, are sung time and again of heroic men, while we women must toil, birth, dream, persevere – all while singing our own quiet victory songs within our heads…songs which carry us on, push us forward, keep us balanced, step by arduous step. So – my birthday wish for you is that whenever anyone talks of Star Wars, anywhere, for whatever reason, sing out loud and mention her – DR. ELIZABETH WOOD. Talk about her. Tell her story. Because we owe her that!
And I want you to know that even though you are now sixteen going on seventeen, you are not innocent as a rose. Because you, you were named after Annelies Frank – a girl allowed to dream but only allowed to live for 15 going on 16 years. And when people speak of you, Annalise Kirk, and mention how you used to walk around the public library calculating the square footage of the carpets with your feet; or how diligently and ferociously you practiced and studied the flute even though you were years behind the other students; or how bravely you ventured off into a part of the world you knew hardly a thing about, on your own, at just 16 – well, I hope you mention your heroic namesake as well – who wisely remarked, ‘In the long run, the sharpest weapon of all is a kind and gentle spirit,’ because we owe her that!
Once you are seventeen you will return to a country piloted by Donald Trump and friends, so it behooves me to tell you that your life might indeed be viewed like an empty page, that men like him and his cohorts will certainly want to write on, but don’t let them. Write your own damn story! Speak out, march on, play louder, dream bigger, go farther. ‘Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness’ (Annelies Frank) You are a citizen any country should and would be proud of, Annalise, and I hope you come home to a country that values your voice, your vision, your very feminine you, because we owe you that!
Seventeen years ago, an hour before Christmas Eve, I was so very happy when you were born healthy and a girl. And I am now so very proud that you have grown up to be not just a girl, but a smart girl – a girl who likes languages and formulas alike; a girl who wants to see the world first-hand even if it is scary and unpredictable and at times downright unappetizing; a girl who works hard at things no matter the rewards; a young woman on the brink – one who is not afraid to write down her hopes and dreams and then pursue them, whatever the next page may hold.
You are sixteen going on seventeen. Happy Birthday, my love!