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Top of the totem pole

Marjorie Campbell

"Will,” my 12-year-old Liam demanded of my 15-year-old, “how do you get girls?”

I was washing red lettuce leaves at the kitchen sink thinking about the disasters avoided in the day gone by – when the question nabbed my attention.

“Well,” began Will, green eyes twinkling, “you start with the ugly ones.”

I stopped spinning the lettuce and grew alert, abandoning suddenly meaningless distractions like dinner.

Will’s voice mounted.  “You talk real nice to the ugly girls, you know.  The ones no one talks to,” Will said, jumping up, posing.  “They will like that a lot. Then, the cute girls will notice how good you are with girls.”  Will winked, under his flaming red hair.  He had warmed to his podium.  “Then, the cute girls will start coming up to you to talk and all.  And soon,” I watched him gesture royally, wondering if I should throw my knife his way, “soon, you will be at the top of the totem pole.”  I thought he was done and it was my turn.

But he added, “Top of the totem pole.  Just like me!”  He puffed up, like a mating parrot.

I gasped.

“Just like you?”  I thought to myself, stifling a guffaw, stunned into momentary, drop jaw pause.  “This, my wounded, fallen Romeo, who’s had nothing but broken dates and bruised rose pedals,” I reflected, “is at the top of his totem pole?”  It was hard not to break into laughter and lecture.

Then, my deceased father’s words from long ago drifted into my head, like a freezing breeze that catches your breath.  “Just like you?” I recall him saying, as I explained to him to my new, much better formulation for marriage.

It was a time – 1978 – when I was on top of the totem pole.  I was a very young, very radical feminist.  I had brand new ideas to reconstitute families into loving, caring units independent of biological ties.  I had soulfully pontificated to my listening father, arms spread wide, brown eyes aflame, my idea of redefining family units based upon choice, not biology.” “Then we can all be truly happy. Just like me!”

“Just like you?” my father gasped – a loving, wonderful father who had spent long evenings listening to my tearful struggles with the social world of the 1970s.

Well, drat.  I knew I had not worked out all the details.  I was no more prepared to discuss the particulars than I was ready to give them a go.  But, just for a moment, I felt solid, and wanted to say so.  I had no plan of defence.

Graciously, he let my comments go.  I recall him patting my head, as he walked out of the room.

Many years later, my father and I reversed position.  Troubled in his marriage to my mother, he busily explored options.  One evening, he picked me up at the train station, handed me an opened Budweiser and launched platitudes about “changes happen” and “love does not always prevail.”  Then, with no interruption, he confided, “Margie, I’m going to leave your mother.  I’ve met a woman who sets off my fireworks.  I am on the top of my game, and, I am sorry, I’ve got to go.”

“You are on the top of your game?”  I gasped at my father, swigging back the cold beer in drenching, dripping gulps.  The lower half of my body started trembling from the waist down, as if I was the one about to topple and fall.  Somehow, I knew, he had no plan of defence.  And we drank our beers and headed home in frothy silence.

Recollected, I looked at my beautiful, certain 15-year-old, flushed with his position and expertise and, I chose, to say nothing.

Later, scrambling them off to bed, I whispered to Liam, “You will find your way with girls, dear son.  Not to worry.”

And I tucked Will into bed and whispered, “You are a goose, my dear.  Don’t forget how far the fall is from the top of the totem pole.”

 And I kissed my husband reverently, head of my household – the most traditional family structure God designed – and gave thanks for my fall from lofty feminist foibles.

And I offered to Our loving Father in heaven my gratitude that my Dad found his way back into the marriage with my mother – and died lovingly in her arms.

And I pondered Saint Paul’s admonition, “forbearing one another in love” – realizing that, sometimes, those tipping about on the top of their totem poles require no response, just gentle encouragement as they find their way down.

Topics: Family , Marriage , Parenting , Relationships

Marjorie Murphy Campbell, J.D. LL.M.  An inaugural speaker for California Catholic Women’s Forum on True Feminism for Real Women, Marjorie has 15 years experience as a radical feminist followed by a reversion into the Roman Catholic Church.   She practiced criminal and bankruptcy litigation;  published as a law professor and, now, Catholic writer; raised a family and appears as a speaker on social issues from the perspective of New Feminism.  She has blogged with Deal Hudson and has written for www.InsideCatholic.com, now Crisis online, which compiled her humor columns in a volume On The Way to the Kingdom, with an Introduction by Teresa Tomeo.  She currently writes for Catholic Womanhood at Catholic News Agency and is completing her Canon Law degree at Catholic University of America. 

View all articles by Marjorie Campbell

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July 23, 2014

Wednesday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time

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