My older brother and I were fighting in the kitchen of our Redmond home. I was around 8 years old, which would put my brother at 11. We were arm wrestling while standing, fighting over who knows what - probably something food related. We were always fighting over baked goods.
My Papu, my mom’s father, entered the room. Him and my grandma often drove up from Tacoma for Sunday night dinners where my cousins would join us from across the street, and other family members would pile into the house for an impromptu barbecue or my mom’s famous spaghetti.
He tried to separate my brother and me who were really into it. This was around the age that I stopped being so shy. It frustrated me how small I was, surrounded by five roughhousing boys, so I began to do things like curse. Knowing I’d lose this fight, as I always did because he was much bigger and stronger, I hollered what I thought meant “fuck you” in Italian - courtesy of the movie Grease.
Albert Benezra, my Papu, had been in the Navy, owned a pawn shop on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma and knew how to handle a gun. He also knew how to swear in several languages. But I’d never seen the look on his face when I shouted my movie-inspired expletive. I can still see the shocked expression all these years later!
I froze, as most kids would, not knowing if I was going to get busted or not.
My Papu threw his head back and laughed, saying “that’s my Ruvia!” which was his nickname for me since his first language was Ladino (a Spanish dialect) and he loved my red hair.
I was never told I should always, always be nice.
I was never told to be polite and stay in the elevator if I felt funny about it.
I was never told I had to be accommodating when a bunch of boys, my brothers, cousins, brothers friends, cousins friends - I grew up around SO MANY BOYS - were tackling me, teasing me, torturing me.
In so many ways, these boys helped prepare me to walk through this world on my own.
I learned how to swing a bat, throw a ball, bike, go-cart, kick a ball right along with them. I knew how to flip shit back to handsome teenage boys even as a 12 year nerd, without looking up from the book I was reading.
I wore glasses starting at age 9 years old and I’ve told you: I was sick a lot. One way that I could counter being the “sick, fragile kid” was being badass in sports, swearing, being willing to take on a dare, keep up with the boys.
Both my parents are pretty tough so they never discouraged my tomboy behavior.
Even at age 19 years old, when I decided to meet up with a male friend and his TEN guy friends from college in Florida for spring break, they didn’t stop me from going. TEN TEENAGE BOYS AND ME. Thankfully, my friend and his crew were super sweet, I felt totally safe, and had a blast with them, but dang, I’d be having a panic attack if my daughter wanted to do something like that now!
I figured I could take care of myself. Which is both ridiculous and kind of awesome.
There have been many times over the years, where girlfriends - not that young - twenties, thirties, would come to me and ask, “how do you tell guys you don’t want to have sex but still want to mess around? HOW DO YOU DO THAT?” Nobody teaches this in school! This is one reason I want to write about these topics - I’ve been curating this content in my head for YEARS.
There are a lot of things I struggle with in interpersonal relationships, but for some reason, setting physical and sexual boundaries was never hard for me. I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t have a problem telling boys NO, because I grew up with SO many who were annoying me SO often (NO, you can not have the rest of my cookie. NO you can not use my bike for your crash test dummy experiment. NO, you can not fart on me while we watch Goonies).
I knew that if I wanted to live the life of an adventurer, become a successful entrepreneur and take on the world like a BOSS, I had to figure out how to navigate it BY MYSELF.
I WANTED to be the one to protect ME, not a dude.
So when the time came during a date or flirtation, I’d say very clearly “this is what’s happening tonight” or “it’s going to be a PG-13 evening, if that’s not your jam, we can part ways now.”
I don't recall anyone saying “bye, bye” because of my direct honesty. I’ve had guys try to do more, get handsy and talk me into it! Of course. And sometimes I would have to walk away if they refused to be respectful of my wishes. But most of the time, we hashed it out. Clear communication about boundaries. Nobody walked away because I was definite about I would and would not tolerate.
All these years later, I almost never see this modeled in movies, on TV, or in the media.
I’d like to think that my Papu helped me become this woman who wasn’t afraid to say NO. That I’m allowed to say or do whatever I need to do in order to keep myself safe. He always made it clear that he was proud that I was a fighter.
I also realize now, he made me feel like I was still lovable even when I was the tough girl. I didn't feel like I needed to be demure, quiet and "no trouble," in order to be "accepted."
There is something powerful about having an important man in our life give us permission to be a strong, mouthy, sometimes impolite little girl.
It gives us the strength we will definitely need to navigate this unsafe world as grown women.
I miss you, Papu. Thanks for always believing in me and encouraging that fire that you knew burned inside me.
I've worked for Girls Inc over the years - it's a national organization that I highly recommend either supporting by donation and/or volunteering and/or signing up girls to get involved! Their site is not working right now, but you can find them on Twitter and Facebook.
I did research for this post by Googling "girls empowerment" and wow, so many great resources! Too many to list! I encourage parents, teachers, aunties, uncles, grandparents to take their daughters to workshops and encourage them to learn how to say NO at an early age. Setting boundaries isn't an easy thing to learn but the early we start teaching them how to do it - and educating boys on how to honor those boundaries - the safer this world will become as this generation grows up!
Photo #5b. This is part of a writing project where I challenge myself to write 700-1000 words per day - not in advance - for 30 days using old photos and different writing prompts. This particular set of stories will focus on my experiences as a (white) Gen X woman and experiencing America pre- and post- #metoo movement.