My grandmother was the one who taught my uncle to throw a football. This is a recycled story; it’s been told far too many times in my family – especially by my grandmother herself, who started repeating her stories many years ago.
This story is of the single-line variety, but it acts like a zipper opening
onto a larger scene. Picture a woman in the late 1950s with a tight sweater, conical breasts, perhaps a silk scarf tied loosely over her curler-fixed hairdo, slim-fitting pants, and a football poised perfectly atop a crooked arm. A little boy waits across the yard, legs apart, knees bent. He is grounded and ready, eyes dancing.
I once asked, “Where was Grandpa?”
“He was gardening,” my grandmother answered. A twisted mouth of distaste.
And so I knew. Teaching a child to throw a ball was supposed to be a father’s job, but the mother had to do it. This was somehow distasteful, inappropriate, wrong.
The notion of appropriate gender roles sneaks into us, even through the closed teeth of these zippered histories, long before we can analyze the merit in these lessons.
My parents had two daughters. My dad admits that this relieved him. He says, “I didn’t want to be a role model for how to be a man.” When I first heard him say this, I remember wondering why he got off the hook as a role model just because we were girls.
Even as a child, I knew that there was a greater role to model: the human one. And why shouldn’t any human learn to throw a football?
My husband is not a sports fan. Anyone who knows me knows that, if a man is to be in my life at all, he is very unlikely to be a stereotypical one.
The fact that my husband is Chinese might be part of this equation. He’s more interested in the quiet martial arts, viewing taichi as spiritual practice rather than physical exercise.
But it took a few years of marriage for me to realize that he was not into sports at all. The man doesn’t even like to walk. Cycling,
hiking, casual ball sports with friends in the park – none of it interests him unless he’s cajoled or coerced, which ultimately takes the fun out of it. The only exercise he does is in an obligatory context: strapped to a running machine in an air-conditioned gym in pursuit of vanity’s approval.
I’ve given up on him. In any outdoorsy pursuits, I seek my friends or go solo. Somewhere along the way, I learned to throw a football and enjoy it.
Now, we have two children. Our second child is a boy and, lo and behold, the old story was unzipped recently when my mother reminded me that my grandmother taught my uncle how to throw a football.
“But who taught you, Mom?” I asked.
“Nobody. I still don’t know how!” She was flippant; athleticism isn’t her thing.
“Both my kids will have to learn,” I said, setting my jaw against lessons separated by gender. I’d already argued this point with my mother-in-law, who regularly flaunts my daughter’s future prowess in the kitchen under her culinary tutelage.
“Well, your husband’s not likely to teach either of them that!” My mother smirked, gesturing in his direction as his head bobbed up and down in a silent, headphone-clad groove session with his computer.
I don’t doubt my husband will be a good role model to both of our children in many ways, but teaching them how to throw a football is definitely not going to be one of them.
I guess some traditions skip a generation.
This article originally appeared on pXX of the September 2014 issue of beijingkids. To view it online for free, click here. To find out how you can obtain your own copy, email email@example.com.
Illustration: Liu Chang