Like my sisters and me, the three little boys who lived next door seemed more a unit than separate people. One day, those boys suggested we show each other what was “down there.” Our curiosity was stymied when our mother descended on us, yelling. We took off running, yanking up our shorts and polka-dotted underpants while we fled. Mama took off after us—I had never seen her run before!
She chased us around the swing set, the three of us darting together, then splitting up, sprinting wildly around the yard. We started laughing, which only ramped up our mother’s fury. We laughed as long as our mother kept chasing us. But, then, suddenly, she just stopped—and that’s when she won. She glared, called each of us by our first, middle, and last names—Angela Hope Wright! Barbara Marie Wright! Cynthia Frances Wright!—and ordered us in the house. We hung our heads and walked inside, single-file, picking out our switches on the way in.
Still, it was hysterically glorious to be running, on the same side, and free.
That day, we tested the power in numbers. Three against one, we had a chance. No one could force us to swallow beets or take ballet lessons if we all held our ground. On a good day, we could stand together, and if only for a moment, we could win.
“All for one, and one for all!” my sisters and I shouted as we dashed around the backyard, dueling with sticks. Three Musketeers, we were. Always on alert and trying to stay off the grown-ups’ warpath, sometimes the best we could do was to retreat together into our imaginary world. Sometimes, it was each little girl for herself.
We would laugh uncontrollably when my father jumped out from behind a door to startle us, or tossed us into the lake one by one, or heaped us up in a pile and tickled us until we couldn’t breathe—or until someone got hurt. It was the same when he started a water fight in the back yard—rollicking fun until he crimped the hose, and then let it loose to jet into the trusting face of one of his own kids.
My father radiated both thrill and danger. He would charm, and then harm. He was like a plate of spicy food—there’s pleasure in the mingling of sweet and savory, and then comes a bite that burns all the way down.
When Bonnie, my twin sister, was seven, she fell down at a roller-skating party and hurt her leg. The X-ray showed a broken shin. Her cast stretched from her toes to the top of her thigh. On mornings when we were running late, our father left without us, which meant we had to walk the mile to school, Bonnie now on crutches. He forbade his secretary to pick us up when she passed us on the road. He wanted to teach us a lesson.
A child learns about power from the adults in her life—their power, but also her own. I tested my power in the ways limited to a child. I tried to win my parents’ approval, for example, with my grades, but they were never as good as my sisters’. I begged my mother to admit that I cleaned the kitchen better than my sisters, but she wouldn’t bite. Whining and crying earned me little sympathy, only the nickname, Sara Bernhardt, after the famous French stage actress.
I tried to please my father by handing him tools while he worked on his car or boat, blinking back tears when he yelled, A monkey wrench, goddammit! I saw nothing that resembled a monkey in his jumble of tools scattered all over the garage floor, in various toolboxes, and hanging on pegboard, and I knew better than to ask.
In ill-advised attempts to be seen, I carved my initials in the mahogany headboard and in the toilet seat. Making my mark brought some satisfaction but also a lot of trouble. I changed my strategy and began to etch my twin sister’s initials instead of mine. Since our parents couldn’t figure out who really did it (and to be honest, even to this day, we aren’t entirely sure ourselves), they bruised both our butts with a wooden spoon, a belt, a hairbrush, or a switch. That was just how it was back then.
Because approval was often beyond reach and trouble just around the corner, sometimes my best plan was to hide, crouching in the space between the toilet and the bathtub, holding my breath, until my father’s storms passed. Lying worked as well. I became an accomplished liar, saying whatever it took to avoid confrontation, something I would later have to work hard to unlearn.
This is the kind of game my father liked to play. With a glint in his eye that usually promised a pile of fun, he would reach for me—C’mere, sugah. He would bend my little elbow, hold it tight. Then he wet his wide palm on a sweating ice tea glass and use it to rub circles on my arm until the hairs kinked tight into tiny little knots. When I tried to unbend my elbow, the knots stung like bees, and tears shocked my eyes. I looked pleadingly for my grandmother and mother to protect me. Neither said a word.
Granny held the power in our family as lightly in her hands as an experienced rider holds the reins. She was the matriarch. Not the “head” of the family—that role belonged to my grandfather and later my father—but our gravitational force. She drew us together and kept us from flinging off into the universe, separate and unaccounted for, which is just what we did after she died.
She loved to throw a party, which she did when social obligations began to mount. I can see her now, in a black dress with bright splashes of color, perhaps, or a crimson blouse matching her lipstick and nails. I see her tossing her head back laughing, the way she did with us, her arms crossed lightly as if she is utterly self-contained, conveying both, I’m entirely at ease, and Don’t get too close. Maybe she has a glass of sherry in her hand. I watch her moving naturally among her friends as they mingle, laugh, and talk about Jimmy Carter like they knew him (and some of them did). Everything working like clockwork with no sign of effort or tension, no clench of the jaw, no air of being rushed or hassled.
It was with this same deftness that she governed our family.
If Granny was the queen, my father was the crown prince. My grandfather must have been there but the power seemed to lurch between my grandmother and father. I saw nothing in my father that looked like weakness, but my grandmother must have seen something I didn’t, a vein of vulnerability running beneath his bedrock facade.
Granny took up for my father, defended him, pressed for his advantage, even against us, her daughters-in-law and grandchildren. I suppose that to her, he was still her young son who needed her protection. Never mind that sometimes we were the ones who needed protection from him.
It did something to me, it does something to me even now, to see the person with the most power unbridled, leaving the rest of us exposed. I watch with helpless rage as men with immense power attack sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg. In some ways, Greta is like any normal teenager, calling out the hypocrisy and interrogating the authority of the adults in her life. Our home is burning down, she tells them, while you fret about who is supposed to sit at the children’s table.
How dare you, she asks.
How dare she, they seethe. No way is this impertinent imp going to tell them what to do, so they launch into verbal assaults.
Greta’s lone weekly Friday protest in front of the Swedish Parliament, holding her School Strike For Climate sign, got the attention of the world, leaving no doubt about the power of one. Now millions join her climate strike, helping us believe in the power of many.
All for one and one from all.
[Check out Angela Wright's back porch interview]