A snowball whizzed inches from my head. It beaned Greg, the skinny kid with a huge nose and too much acne, on the side of the face. Greg fell back with a grunt. That guy had the WORST luck. I ducked down fast, and looked around. Jerry was inching his face around the side of the fort, low and slow, an expert in the art of snowball war. Look at that form. He’s a natural! He had three snowballs at the ready, and his hand was groping for them, waiting for the right minute to… BAM! Quick as lightning, Jerry launched ONE!, TWO!, THREE!, snowballs and, as the enemy was looking to dodge them, he shot his hidden fourth missile, smacking the leader. It creamed him right in the kisser, and boy was he ticked! I bellowed a triumphant “TAKE THAT, BROTHER!”, the tamest of my teasing, and stood up to gloat. Looking back, I probably should have kept those words to myself because three big shapes bounded from the opposing snow wall. It looked like Jerry was in for a world of hurt.
Wait a minute… I WAS IN FOR A WORLD OF HURT!
And we were. Gone were the gentleman’s unspoken rules of snowball fighting. The part where opponents stay behind their own forts, except when TIME OUT is called. Or to scramble for mounds of snow when the current pile is used up. The rule where plans were made and carried out with whispered commands and nods of the heads. Those rules became moot with that last insult. It put my brother over the top, literally, as he leaped over the fort itself, and the older, grumpier boys barreled right on after him to pummel us.
Jerry received some punches, but they were doled out with respect. After all, he had a great arm and great aim, and in the snowball fighting world, that meant something. Greg was also spared the brunt of the attack, but mostly out of pity. I mean, the guy was not a threat. With his gangly limbs and enormous glasses, he had mostly been taking up space. But I… well… I was the real target. I was mouthy and talked big. It was time for them to put me in my place.
Richard, my older brother by about 2 minutes, is all, took some real whacks at me. My nose got bloodied, and my right arm went numb with the knuckles of his fist. We had bruised his ego, my friends and I, and by unspoken rule, he had to let me have it. His cohorts backed him up loyally, if not quite as enthusiastically. He wanted me to call uncle, but suddenly I rallied. I’m not going down like this, no sir!
As unbecoming as it was, I yelled an obscenity. A full obscenity about mom, which surprised us both, seeing that 1. Swear words were not an option at our house. 2. I was willing cross the line about our respected and feared mother! It signaled to my gang that all bets were off. My team scrambled backwards over the snow, getting a bit of space between our enemies, and then went back in. I kicked and slapped and bit. I pulled hair and tweaked any part of loose skin I ran into. My buddies lunged into their own particular forms of scrapping. In short, we fought like … like… well, we fought like girls. I was fine with that. After all, I WAS a girl, and my gang was firmly under my leadership.
Jerry switched up his moves from the dodge and weave, to the yell and kick. Screaming, “Hi-Yaaa!”, at the top of one’s lungs could be surprisingly effective. Greg spit a loogie as he got close to his enemy’s hair, and I wondered if that wasn’t going too far, but the technique was flawless. Richard and his right hand man, Dan, skittered back as if it were venom. There was no holding back. And in that moment, something great happened.
I realized that being the younger, smaller twin didn’t mean I had to be the weaker twin. I had bowed to my brother for most of my life. He had my back when my mouth got us in trouble, but against him, he made sure I knew he was in charge. Well, Not Today!!
I punched my brother as hard as I could in the stomach, pouring my new found confidence into my fist. I got ready to take the hit that should have come back. I even closed my eyes for a second, anticipating, and then…nothing. I opened my eyes and saw the surprised look on his face as he experienced my determination. Richard was hesitating, probably for the first time in his life. I saw him go from a husky, swaggering 10-year old, to a sullen pre-teen that didn’t know what to do next. I had stood up to him, and it threw him off.
I could see the gears turning in his head. My team was supposed to take the hits, and he would save face. Instead, our little gang found some backbone. Some grit. After all, my team was willing to SPIT to defend ourselves, and that was commitment. We didn’t care about his expectations, and that was new. And Richard did NOT do change well. His pack noticed his reluctance, and slowed up a bit. Then stopped altogether. We were at an impasse.
All of us gulped great breaths of air while looking at each other. I needed this win, so I was grinning as I was gulping. I knew I was winning simply because I gave as good as I got. I noticed a cut on Richard’s cheek, and remembered where my nails scratched his flesh. I had also given him a good kick to the behind, but knew he would never acknowledge that. I had cheated unabashedly to gain my win, fighting all girl-like, but, I reasoned, he started it when he broke the rules of the snowball fight in the first place. Also… we were 10. Fairness was still a loose interpretation. Fluid, if you will. As long as Mom didn’t find out.
Our gangs broke up, claiming the need to go home for chores/dinner/homework. Richard and I walked into the kitchen together, and mom asked immediately about our scrapes and cuts. She scolded us for our rough play as the marks showed their brilliant reds and pinks. Mom demanded to know what had happened, and who’s mother needed calling, but we shrugged it off as no big deal. She huffed and puffed, shaking her stirring spoon and threatening to tell our father, but we knew she was reaching. Eventually, she went back to cooking dinner.
Richard and I never spoke about the broo-ha-ha after that, but we had established mutual respect, and that went a long way in the years to come.
“And that was the beginning of standing up for myself, Dot.”
I was sitting at the edge of her bed as Emily, my granddaughter, listened, occasionally hiccuping through tears of frustration and pain. I called her Dot, short for Granddaughter, when I wanted her to know I was in her corner, and this was one of those times. “Never confuse being strong with being mean. I know your mom would say you shouldn’t have fought back, but I think you were spot on.”
Emily had been banished to her room. After a humiliating event of being sent to the principal’s office, she had to watch the man make a phone call to her mother. It had been a long day all around, and she looked miserable. She now held on to her childhood blanket, only acknowledging it at all when she was distraught. (Emily was way too old for it, she had claimed, but allowed it on her bed “for her mom’s sake”, who was all for sentimentality.) Emily now scrunched the tattered corner of the yellow blankie, wringing it back and forth in her hands.
That’s how I knew she was in anguish.
She had been part of an “altercation” involving 2 other girls in the hallway. Mr. Calloway, her principal, had scolded her soundly for fostering “an atmosphere of hostility”, letting her mom know there was no choice but to suspend her from school for 3 days. Emily’s mom had needed to take time off work to pick her up immediately.
“The ride home was awful, Nana. Mom yelled at me the WHOLE WAY!” Emily snuffled a bit as she started talking, and wiped her nose on her blanket unconsciously. Dot is adorable when she’s angry. She gets that from me. She was so vulnerable, but had started down her path to defiance. I felt honored to share this time with her. I looked attentive, keeping my musings to myself, and let her keep talking.
Apparently, Emily’s mom, Andrea, was outraged at the barrage from Mr. Calloway, and wouldn’t hear a word of explanation from her daughter. “Do you know what I had to interrupt to come pick you up?”, Emily mimed with exaggerated voice and motions. “A very important meeting with my BOSS!” She tapped her nails on an imaginary steering wheel and huffed a bit. “Now it looks like I’ve got family problems, and I already have to compensate for being the only woman on the team. UUUHHHH! I’m so disappointed in you!…” On and on Emily ranted, not letting up until she finally felt done.
“Then your mom pointed her finger up the stairs, and off you went to your room, right?” I concluded for her. “You promptly called your Nana, and here I am. Nana will fix it. She’ll stand up to Mom. Plus, she spoils me!” I did my own imitation of Emily, exaggerating my motions with my arms folded and a HARRUMPH at the end. “So you waited in your room, fostering your outrage by mentally conversing, first with the assumptive principal, and then your unfair mother. I know you, Dot. You do this, just like I used to do it.” Emily smiled, faintly, and I knew I was right.
“Let me guess what you said, okay? I bet I’m close.” Ahem.
“Oooooo… you have to pick on me JUST to make yourself important, you old geezer. You strut around making commands and don’t have a clue about whats REALLY going on!” That’s what I should have said to him. I don’t even care. Hmmph! What is with his hair anyway? That comb-over isn’t fooling anyone. And that wrinkly old suit? He wears it every day! EWW! He is such a jerk!
Emily smiled a bit more, accompanying it with expressions of derision and a bit of eye rolling. It felt good.
“And you, MOM! Just stop! Let ME speak for once! It wasn’t even my fault!” Emily was especially angry with her mom, as she wanted desperately to impress her own hero. Her smile lessened and her eyes went down to her blanket as I mimicked her frustration. “I hate that you just assume I was fighting for no reason. And saying you are DISAPPOINTED in me? Well… maybe I’m disappointed in YOU!…”
Emily pounded a fist into her pillow. She was that angry.
“You were probably plotting your agenda to run away when I came in, weren’t you? Well, I’m here now, so you tell me why it all happened.” I hugged her, and then listened. Haltingly, she explained that she had been the brunt of gossip, and then jeers and insults by 2 girls in the school hallway. She had tried to ignore it calmly, but when they started in on her single mother being only able to afford second-hand clothes for her raggedy daughter, she exploded.
Emily hurled an insult or two, Also gotten from me, and the girls pounced on her. “FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!” The crowd chanted, and was broken up, but not before there were slaps and gouges exchanged. She gave as good as she got.
“I tried so hard to let it go, Nana, but I just…couldn’t. Mom works her tail off so we can be ok, and I had to just… you know, do SOMETHING, and now Mom is mad at me. I HATE HER!” Emily shut her eyes and leaned back, sullen. I leaned back next to her. “Dot, give your mom some time. She didn’t stand up to her bully when she should have, and now she has to fight every day for her place at work. Let’s wait a bit, and then we will talk with her together. You scored a victory today. They won’t challenge you again, at least for a while. And the other students know not to mess with you. I’m proud of you.”
Emily’s hiccups eventually slowed, then stopped. We spoke of boys and … boys. Then it was time to take on my daughter, but Dot now knew she had a cohort, and that made her brave. It was a start.