I keep a life list of regrets.  Certain events that I wish, with all my heart, that I could undo.  One regret is Phoebe.  Phoebe was a Rhodesian Ridgeback.  We got her as a puppy when I was in eighth grade, a couple years after our dog Sam died of cancer.  My mom’s sister Winnie sent us Phoebe from Los Angeles.  Winnie and Jeffrey had a pair of Rhodesians they thought the world of.  Phoebe was an adorable, playful puppy, and I loved her deeply.  She had a mind of her own, and wouldn’t play fetch, so instead I played chase-the-puppy-around-the-yard trying to get the stick.

Phoebe had a mind of her own in other ways, too.  Whenever we left the house, she slept on the couch and toppled over the trash, spreading it around the house.  Looking back, we totally should have crate-trained her.  Or secured the trash better.  Instead, if we got home to strewn trash, my dad would beat Phoebe with his fists.  It got to a point where whenever we raised our voice, she would preemptively lower to the ground and cower with her tail between her legs, whimpering.

But the beatings had no impact on her behavior.  At some point we could no longer delude ourselves into believing that the beatings had any purpose, other than to take out anger on what we had concluded was a bad, overbred, neurotic dog.  Phoebe was no Sam.

Sam had been a mutt — some lab, a dose of golden, some german shepherd.  Sam was a real dog.  He tore apart bones.  He fetched tennis balls like it was nobody’s business.  Even if you threw them 30 feet into the lake.  Or deep into our bamboo forest.  And he observed the household rules to a tee.  There was an imaginary line on the floor leading to our bedrooms that Sam never crossed.  My dad boasted that you could drop a steak on the other side of the line and Sam would still not cross it.

Sure, Sam had his own quirks.  Like attacking people and terrorizing friends and neighbors.  He sent my friend Stephanie to the hospital for stitches.  His jaws snapped through the car window and bit a kid walking by on the sidewalk.  But our family just considered that the natural behavior of a real dog.  We never punished Sam for attacking the mail as it came through our door’s mail slot, stripping the wood from the door with his incisors.

My friends loved Phoebe.  She had deep dark, doe-like eyes.  And a sleek light brown body, with a strip of hair that ran the opposite direction along the top of her back.  Ridgebacks were originally trained for lion hunting in Africa.  And we constantly ridiculed Phoebe for it: ‘What kind of lion hunter lets the cats take your cushy bed, and make you sleep on the wood floor?’  Compared to Sam, Phoebe was a total sissy.  She had a delicate stomach, and wretched up any bones.  She would only go into water as deep as her knees.  She didn’t even like baths.  Instead, her favorite activity was basking on the armchair in the back yard for hours.  I tried to take Phoebe on four mile runs in the woods, but she had no interest, and just lagged behind while I dragger her along with the leash.

Over the years, I came around to see Phoebe the way my dad did: as a pretty worthless animal.  Another neurotic female.  My dad used to throw tennis balls all day with Sam.  But he never walked Phoebe.  Never took her to the park.  I still remember how, when Phoebe finally died, my dad was driving our station wagon to her favorite watering hole in Rock Creek Park to deposit her ashes.  Only he drove the family to the wrong spot.

My mom was nice to Phoebe.  She took her to the park every day and let her wade in the water, even if it was just up to her knees.  Sam was never allowed to play with other dogs at the park.  He would have ripped them to pieces.  But Phoebe had her set of special doggie friends, the calmer ones that didn’t try to jump on her, and she’d race around the field with them.  In many ways, Phoebe was a way more normal and well-adjusted dog than Killer Sam.  The fact that Sam was perceived as the ideal dog, and Phoebe derided as chicken-shit, speaks volumes to how the Nelson family valued male traits of power and virility over female traits of sociability and sweetness.

It breaks my heart, but I have to admit how cruel I was to Phoebe.  She would run up to me, her ass swinging side to side and her tail hitting all the walls and furniture, trying to squeeze between my legs so I could pat her sides and rub her ears, just like I did in the old days.  But as the years wore on, I’d ignore her and nudge her out of my way, convinced she was a dud.  Just another weak, neurotic female, undeserving of love.

The pain will never go away.  She was my dog, and I didn’t love her, let alone protect her.  But I can try to understand my behavior within the larger context of Nelson family dynamics.  There were no ambiguities about where power resided in our household.  Everything that came out of my father’s mouth was gospel.  Things that came out of my mother’s mouth were dismissed as the nags of a neurotic, intellectually inferior female.  My mom never won an argument.  She barely succeeded in getting me and my dad to remove our stinky socks from the living room floor.

I grew up determined to be a Bob, and not a Jill.  I killed myself trying to prove that I was just as smart and strong and skilled as the boys.  The alternative seemed to be a life condemned to constant cooking, laundry, and calls with internet and cable providers.  And rather than gratitude, my mom’s efforts were met with derision: never buying enough ears of corn, overcooking the steaks again, and called neurotic if she requested participation in any form of tidying.  Like removing the stinky socks still languishing on the living room carpet.

My freshman year, Mr Mathis had a parent-teacher conference with my parents.  He described me to my parents as an unusually bright and gifted student.  Right, she’s a very good student, my parents accepted.  But Mr Mathis pressed his point.  My parents furrowed their brows, and for the first time were confronted with the possibility that a female in their midst might actually be clever, and not just good at organization and attention to detail.

Unfortunately, Phoebe wasn’t the only one I failed to defend.  Every time I didn’t pick up after myself I was participating in my mom’s trampling.  I absolutely went along with the family perspective that my dad was right about everything.  I can never make it up to Phoebe, who passed years ago.  But I can keep clawing away at the warped values still twisted into my psyche, whispering that a woman’s words have less weight than a man’s.  And my female family members should be aware that I know acutely what it’s like to be trampled by Bob.  If they think that piles of achievements somehow exempted me, they are gravely mistaken.  Sometimes I wish I could go back in time and shake that little Martha, and warn her the game is rigged.

Yesterday I was speaking with my mother in the car, explaining how I’m still struggling to view myself as an equal in my marriage, to give my words the same weight as my husband’s.  Even though Aaron is the world’s most supportive, progressive husband.  And I’m a successful NIH scientist.  Somehow my hardwired brain still picks out all my shortcomings and presents them as evidence that I, being female, am inherently weaker and inferior.  Just because I can’t ran as fast or speak as forcefully.  As I struggled to find the right phrasing, she interrupted, ‘Oh, well, Aaron is just so intelligent and capable.’  And I fell silent, processing the dimensions of the battle ahead.


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