I have always loved the name Samantha. I loved it when I christened my baby daughter with that name, right there in the recovery room at St. John's Hospital. I didn't anticipate that people would so quickly opt for the truncated version, "Sam." Even my husband, Frank, began calling her that, as soon as we transported that little bundle of joy home. I was quick to correct him, and everyone else who dared refer to her as Sam. Even so, by the time Samantha entered middle school, her teachers and classmates had effectively chopped her lovely name down to one syllable. But she's always been Samantha to me.
She had reached the age of seventeen when I began my tenure as cochair of the Spring Benefit Fashion Show. The program is sponsored annually by the Mothers' Club of Grosse Pointe South High School, of which I was a member in good standing. That same year, Samantha began wrapping her luxurious auburn-brown hair into a bun and concealing it under a baseball cap. She fancied nondescript T-shirts and boys' jeans. I had trouble convincing her to give up wearing her tennis shoes for Senior Honors Day, where she was being lauded for scholastic achievement.
"No one is making Chaz change her clothes, so why should I?" she said. Chaz was her closest friend from school.
In the end, I lost that little battle.
Then one evening, she launched into a debate about gender-based stereotypes with Frank at the dinner table.
"You're saying that a girl can play football with the boys if she wants?" he said.
"Let her play," she said. "Gender shouldn't have anything to do with it."
"Why doesn't she try out for field hockey?"
"Just because someone is born one way, that doesn't have to define them," Samantha said. "They shouldn't have to feel trapped in their own body."
Frank's eyebrows shot up as if he had stuck his finger in an electrical socket.
"Are you talking about something existential, Sam?"
Samantha's face turned crimson.
"Dad, I'm talking about the whole concept of male and female," she said. "Gender is just another category society has developed to narrowly define people."
I watched as my husband carefully studied his indignant daughter. She wasn't one to react like this, and Frank was the sort who considered his actions before jumping in.
"I'm not following you, Sam."
Samantha sighed and sat back in her chair. The vermilion ran out of her cheeks. Frank and Samantha were so alike. Both were not likely to get caught up in tempestuous arguments. Unlike me, they prided themselves on being able to keep a tight rein on their emotions.
"All I'm saying, Dad, is that gender is not a binary concept anymore."
That was it for Frank. He quietly excused himself from the table. Samantha played with her food, twirling the pasta over and over on her fork. Then she pushed back her chair and departed as well. That left me alone—with an entire table of plates to clear. I felt as if I couldn't breathe.
Frank retired to the den to watch a basketball game on TV. I resented that he could tune out like that. I found it impossible to forget what Samantha had just said. Especially when I looked up the word "binary" later that evening in the Merriam-Webster dictionary I keep in the study. I was surprised by what I found. I always thought the word had something to do with mathematics.
Not long after that uncomfortable dinner conversation, Samantha demanded I buy her bindings so she could flatten her breasts. She described the bindings as "a super-tight sports bra." I refused, because I believed this could do some permanent damage. She was still growing, still blossoming into a young woman. I told her I didn't want to inhibit that. She responded that I was "inhibiting her right to determine her own destiny." Any further attempt at discussion about the matter was fraught with tension. Arguments usually ended with a frosty stare in my direction for the rest of the evening.
As cochair of the Spring Benefit Fashion Show, it was expected that my daughter would participate. Most high school girls look forward to the privilege of walking down the catwalk in the school gymnasium. I myself had often dreamed of this moment when I would pass off the baton of womanhood to my beautiful daughter. This would be her debut into society, her coming-out moment, so to speak. I had to temper some of those expectations, considering her recent stance on gender identity. But I was still determined to see that Samantha would take her turn on the runway.
The Mothers Club of Grosse Pointe South High School was in full gear preparing for the Spring Benefit. The fashion show was our biggest fundraiser, with about five hundred people attending. That's a big production to pull off.
The theme that year was Casablanca, which made me think of the classic movie and Ingrid Bergman cantering about in day dresses and fitted suits. The school decorating committee apparently had not seen the film, the result being a windblown and disheveled look around the gymnasium. They had managed to erect a fitting homage to the movie Twister. I commandeered a few student volunteers and attempted to spruce things up as best I could.
As we rearranged banners and crêpe paper, I reminisced about Samantha's time as a middle schooler. She was never what I would call a tomboy type or an athlete. She'd detested physical education classes, calling them a "plague on American youth" and "forced physical labor." Samantha was more interested in aiding the kids who cowered at the edges of dodgeball games during gym class than she was in becoming an active participant herself. For this, I admired and respected her.
Still, I was totally taken by surprise when my daughter began to take up the mantle of gender rights.
"No one should have to feel like they are imprisoned in their own body," Samantha said. "It's limiting to be categorized by what kind of genitalia you're born with."
I thought Samantha's body had developed into that of an attractive young woman, complete with feminine hips and waist and bust. Not to mention that exquisite auburn hair of hers. She'd inherited my shapely legs, and I felt a twinge of pride whenever she walked into a room on those gams. Of course, her legs were usually covered up by a pair of boys' jeans that hung above those wretched tennis shoes. At least her shoes sported a pink stripe.
I found myself hoping this was just a phase for Samantha. As a nine-year-old, she was smitten with horses. She even tacked up a poster of a Clydesdale colt to her bedroom wall. A year later, she'd forgotten about everything equine and developed an infatuation with bears.
I suspected it was her friend Chaz who was filling her head with these newfangled ideas. Right before school began, Chaz chopped her wavy chestnut hair into an ear-length pixie cut. When I told her she resembled a brunette Jean Seberg, she stared back at me with this quizzical look on her face. I never saw her wear anything but a pair of faded men's overalls. I was sure "Chaz" wasn't her given name; she probably started out life as Andrea or Heather. She had this terrible habit of smacking her gum as she chewed, creating loud pops that reverberated in my eardrums. About all I ever got out of Chaz was, "Hey, Mrs. N," when she arrived at our house to see Samantha. They would quickly disappear up into Samantha's bedroom, discussing who-knows-what for hours. When leaving, they dashed down the stairs and out of the house in such a rush that they sent my Fashion Show notes on the kitchen table airborne.
No adult could outwit that dynamic duo. Take, for example, when our neighbor Amy Drummond, known in Grosse Pointe for having the most failed attempts at social ladder climbing, happened to see both of them leaving my house one afternoon.
"What lovely girls," Amy said. "Won't you look pretty at the Spring Benefit Fashion Show!"
"We are not ‘girls,'" Samantha said.
"Right. We don't like to be referred to by any label that would suggest gender," Chaz said.
"Oh my," Amy looked perplexed. "Whatever do you want me to call you?"
She was walking straight into a baited trap.
"Say ‘they,' or ‘them.' That should work." Chaz always had an answer for everything.
"I'm supposed to say ‘them girls'?" Amy said. "That sounds so—Appalachian."
"Or just refer to us by our initials," Chaz said. "How's it going, S?"
"Not bad, C. What say we get a move on? A lot of moonshinin' to get to."
"Lord willin' and the creek don't rise."
I found myself regretting the AP American History class I'd insisted Samantha enroll in.
With that repartee, they (and I do mean "they") headed off to who-knows-where, leaving a confused Amy with her jaw agape.
I studied up on gender issues in preparation for a conversation with Samantha. I chose what I thought was an auspicious time—one afternoon when she was rooting around in the refrigerator looking for something to eat.
"Samantha, did you know that the term ‘LGBT' was coined in the 1990s?"
"No, Mother, I didn't know that." I thought I could detect an eye roll, but her face was turned away from me, intent on what might be in the crisper drawer.
"And the LGBT rainbow flag was developed in 1978. I remember seeing those little rainbow bumper stickers around when I was a girl."
She emerged from the refrigerator clutching an orange. "If ‘LGBT' was coined in the 1990s, what were the rainbow bumper stickers doing around in the 70s?"
She had me on that one. I flipped through my mental 3x5 cards for another tidbit to share, but couldn't think of one.
"I have a question for you," Samantha said. She carefully peeled her navel orange and looked at me pointedly. "Is there a difference between sex and gender?"
"I'm assuming they're the same thing."
"Your sex is a biological determination, a physical part you are born with. But your gender is a socially mandated role thrust upon you."
She was leaning against the kitchen counter, tossing sections of orange into her mouth as if they were peanuts.
"It's like a feeling you have inside you?" I asked.
She finished the orange and washed her hands.
"What kind of feelings do you have, Mother? Do you feel like you're settling for the traditional role of a white suburban mother?"
"I don't really think about such things. And besides, this is about your beliefs."
That expression threw me, but I decided to press on.
"It's uncomfortable for me to even think about that, okay?" I said. "It can be all right for you, though."
"Now you're projecting." She left the orange rind on the counter for me to dispose of.
"Well then, how would you define it?" I wasn't hiding my dismay at this point.
"I try to reject any definition imposed by societal standards, like gender."
"There you go," I said. "Now we're beginning to have a conversation."
"Yeah," she said. She picked up her book bag and ambled out of the room. "Good conversation, Mom."
At least we were talking about it now. I wasn't sure I was making any progress with her. Samantha appeared to only be tolerating my naïveté on the matter.
Frank, for one, seemed unaffected by Samantha's newfound raison d'être. He spent his evenings in the den watching Pistons and Red Wings games on cable television. After that initial dispute at the dinner table, he'd shown no interest in continuing the conversation. When it came to topics he saw as essentially "female," he'd bug out, and no amount of pressuring on my part could get him to return to the discussion. Samantha was clearly my project; he had already fulfilled his obligation in the parenting contract by teaching her how to drive when she turned sixteen.
It took all the energy I could muster just to persuade Samantha to try on a few outfits for the fashion show. It only made matters worse when we bumped into a super-excited Emily Bunting at a local boutique, accompanied by her mother and her aunt Fay. Samantha brought along the forever-overalls-wearing Chaz, who was none too enthused to encounter the Buntings.
"Snob," she said, giving Emily the side-eye. Samantha responded by grimacing.
"Come now, girls, let's try to be civil here," I said. They ignored me.
It was clear that Samantha felt distracted and confused by the many options and colors she had at her disposal. As cochair of the event, I had been granted considerable leeway with what Samantha could wear. It seemed to make no difference. She was miserable in everything she tried on.
"This... is ...ghastly," Samantha pronounced as she emerged from the changing room in yet another less-than-satisfactory dress.
"Wow. Coral is not your color," Chaz opined.
"Well, that's being helpful, Chaz. What do you think would be a good color on Samantha?"
"I dunno. Nothing really frilly." She smacked her gum at me.
"I told you this was a waste of time," Samantha said as I handed her a red number with a long faux-wrap to try on. She held it away from her body as if it were a venomous snake and trudged back behind the curtain. Chaz snickered.
"Why are we acting as if I'm actually going to walk down that runway?" she said from behind the curtain.
"We have to stick to our commitments, Samantha."
"A commitment you made, not me."
I glanced over at the Buntings. They chirped enthusiastically at each other, fawning over Emily as she modeled a navy A-line dress. I watched them dolefully, ignoring Chaz's pleas to take an ice cream break. Since Samantha was eight years old, I had fantasized of creating a cherished memory--that special time I was choosing a coming-out dress with my daughter. Instead, I would probably look back on this as an exercise in futility.
"We're not done speaking about this," I muttered at her through the curtain.
Except we were done speaking about it.
The night before the benefit, I was in a tizzy. Mothers were calling me with last-minute requests, one of the sponsors hadn't gotten back to me yet, and the florist texted to inform me they were out of orchids. My biggest worry was that Samantha would go AWOL on the whole thing. I hung a cute green dress on the door in her bedroom. It had been donated from a chic local dress shop that was supporting the fashion show for the first time. Samantha refused to try it on. I was done fighting with her about it. All the squabbling left me exhausted. I wasn't sure if I even wanted to attend the benefit myself.
Against my better judgment, I turned to Frank for some encouragement. I intercepted him before he made his daily appointment with the television set.
"You're not the only one who's been frustrated," he said.
"Really? You never gave any indication that this was bothering you."
"At first, I was angry," he said. "Angry with her, angry with you, angry with myself."
"I know! I've felt that way too." I liked this. We were connecting on an emotional level.
"But recently, I've had some time to think it over."
"I've been doing some thinking as well, Frank."
"We have to accept that she's strong-willed. She's going to do what she wants to do, with or without us."
"I'm tired of hearing you two argue. She's the only child we've got, and I don't want to lose her."
"I agree, but you haven't..."
"Just let her be, Patti. Things will work out the way they're supposed to."
And with that, he marched into the den to catch the rest of SportsCenter.
I tossed and turned in bed all night, even more exasperated by Frank, who was snoring peacefully beside me.
"Enjoy your sweet dreams, Frank," I whispered. "Mine have all but dissipated into thin air."
When morning arrived, I decided to put on a happy face and accept my fate. Samantha found a way to breeze by me and out through the back door before I had a chance to say something to her.
It will be embarrassing when everyone realizes your own daughter decided to skip the event, I told myself. But you can get through this.
I left the green dress up in her bedroom, knowing I could return it later. I stuffed my fashion show agenda into my work portfolio and lifted my car keys off the kitchen counter.
I busied myself attending to last-minute preparations in the high school gymnasium. The student decorating committee had strayed off course again while hanging streamers, and the band ensemble was missing a clarinet player. I was trying in vain to explain that Clark Gable had not appeared in Casablanca to an eleventh grader, when I heard a familiar voice behind me.
"Frankly, Mrs. N, I don't give a damn."
That seemed like a cheeky thing to say. I whirled around to confront my antagonist, only to come face-to-face with Chaz. She adjusted the braces on her overalls and smiled at me.
"Chaz, if you're here to help out, there's some banners over there that need straightening."
"Thanks, but I'll pass," she said. "I just wanted to tell you that Sam sent me to your home to pick up that green dress. It gave me a good excuse to skip chemistry class. She's in the women's locker room right now trying it on."
It was in that moment that I truly understood the definition of the word nonplussed.
Another student interrupted. "Mrs. Neilsen, the caterers are here. Where do you want them to set up?"
I pointed toward the grandstands, and then turned back to respond to Chaz.
But my little guardian angel in overalls was already heading for the gymnasium doors, smacking her gum and hoisting her book bag over her shoulder.
The show went off in grand fashion. Teen girls paraded down the runway one after another; a few could have used some lessons in posture and walking heel-to-toe. Nevertheless, they were lovely. Youth can make up for a lot of clumsiness.
Emily Bunting stumbled a few times trying to keep up with her escort on the catwalk. It appeared as if she had tried on high heels for the first time that morning. Still, she looked smashing in a pale-blush two-piece outfit. Her escort was a long and lean boy with a swimmer's physique.
"Next up, Trevor Kroetsch. He's escorting Samantha Neilsen, daughter of our cochair, Patti Neilsen."
I braced myself. Would she topple over in those heels? Worse yet, would she still be wearing those hideous sneakers of hers? I assumed she would walk in with a look of disdain on her face, displaying an abhorrence for the entire affair.
I needn't have worried. Samantha looked absolutely stunning with her auburn hair flowing down against that emerald green dress, her long legs in full view. Trevor was clearly distracted as she strode assuredly next to him in her high heels. How did she learn to walk that way? She bedazzled just about everyone, including me.
"Samantha is wearing a simple green dress, complete with a sash around the middle."
At that point, I could hear a commotion in the back of the room. It was Chaz, raising her fist and cheering like a rabid sports fan. "Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Go Sam!" The audience tittered, then broke into laughter.
And then I saw my daughter do something I hadn't seen since we started arguing weeks ago. She smiled. She smiled wide and without shame. People murmured and applauded.
Samantha had grown into a beautiful woman. The beautiful woman that I always knew she would be, right from that moment at St. John's Hospital when she was born.
She was living my dream, if only for a moment. Now I needed to let her go, to find her own way in life. I had raised a young woman who was fearless, and willing to face the consequences for standing up for her own convictions.
What more could I ask for?
Trevor and Samantha executed an elegant turn at the end of the catwalk and began to make their way back the way they came. The two bumped shoulders inadvertently, causing Samantha to laugh. Trevor leaned close and whispered near her ear. Samantha gaped back at him, flabbergasted. Then a crimson hue crawled over her cheeks. She was blushing.
Did I just see what I thought I saw?
Title image "Emerald Exhibition" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2023.