That first morning Karen and I must have looked almost like twins. There were the identical haircuts, we both had big blue eyes, we were about the same height, and we both wore blue overalls – the kind with a bib and shoulder straps – and tee shirts. Mine was striped, Karen’s had checks – those were the days before pictures on tee shirts. That was about the biggest difference between us. We quickly became chums; Karen thought I was a girl and I guess I didn’t really think it very important whether I was or not – Mom had never made a big deal of me being a boy. Sylvie was busy making new friends with the Grade Two girls, so she either didn’t notice that I was with the girls at recess, or she didn’t think it mattered.
At least not for a couple of weeks. Then one evening, as we were having supper, Sylvie remarked casually: “Mommy, at school they’re calling Jean-Marie ‘Jean’, like the girl’s name, and he goes to the girls’ washroom.” “Why’s that, Jean-Marie?” Mom asked, to which I replied, apparently quite nonchalantly, “Miss says I’ve got to be called Jean. So I’m a girl now.”
Sylvie giggled and Mom was quiet for a moment. Now you don’t have to be a therapist to know that Mom should have firmly killed that notion, right there. It may be one thing for a boy to come to such a decision in his later teens, but a newly-turned five-year old is hardly ready to decide on something like that. Just imagine Dr Phil’s reaction to that one. And Mom, intelligent and accustomed to handling all sorts of weird situations as a nurse, knew very well that this should not be a matter for negotiation. But what struck Mom — we’ve talked about this many, many times — was the funny side of things. Quirky rebel that she was, always one to test the system, she was thinking to herself, “Well now, the school started this. Let’s see how long they take to realize their mistake”. So, instead of shutting the door, as would have been prudent, she threw it wide open with her next question. “Do you mind being a girl?”. “No” I said, apparently taking another bite of my sandwich as though what I’d just told her was the most normal thing in the world. And then Mom followed up with another question that virtually ensured the die was cast: “Would you like to be a girl?” To which I replied “Yes”, then, realizing that the situation perhaps called for good manners, “Please, Mommy?”.
Sylvie wasn’t giggling any more, but taking all this in, looking at Mom and nodding her head excitedly. This looked like fun. And Mom, realizing as she spoke, that this could head down a pretty slippery slope, said to us with a mischievous smile, “All right then, at least for a little while, but it has to be our own special family secret. All right?”. We both understood perfectly. Family secrets were things we kept just between the three of us.
Mom says that during the conversation, and especially when I said “Please Mommy?”, I did look more like a cute little girl than a boy. She knew that what she was doing wasn’t exactly wise, but she says she thought it was all a game that would be over in a week or two.
That wasn’t what happened. Having lived my whole life in an almost totally female environment, I was more than content to accept my new role. Sylvie thought it nicer to have a little sister rather than a little brother, so she wanted to make sure that nothing would go wrong. Before we went to bed that night, with all the seriousness of a seven-year-old big sister, she told me some things that I had better not forget, most importantly that I always, always, had to go into the girls’ washroom cubicle by myself, and always, always, sit down.
Over the next few weeks Karen I became inseparable. The real first awakening for Mom came later in September when Saskatoon got its first really cold snap of the year. When Karen came to school the following morning, instead of the blue overalls she had on purple leotards and a little tunic dress. So of course when Mom picked us up after school, I said I had to have leotards and a dress too. Mom was ready to baulk at that but Sylvie was ahead of her – as soon as we got into the house she dashed to her bedroom and came back with leotards and a dress that were now too small for her. Setting in motion a system of hand-me-downs that would go on for a long time.
There was more to come. Soon after, my helmet of hair was due for a cut. Karen’s was too, but she announced that she was not going to have it trimmed — her Mom had said she could grow it. “I want it like your sister”s” she told me. Sylvie’s hair was well below her shoulders. To me longer hair was the one obvious difference between girls and boys. So I told Mom I didn’t want my hair cut any more. By this time she was all too aware that the Jean game had taken on a life of its own, but she hadn’t figured out how to turn it around. How was she now going to tell the school that Jean, the cute little girl in a tunic dress and purple leggings, was in fact a boy? And as each day passed the situation became more difficult and more daunting. In every other respect Mom was very much a take-charge sort of person, but this had become something she didn’t know how to handle. The hair crisis meant more sleepless nights for her, but she let me have my way. My bangs were trimmed but the rest remained uncut. And over the next few years Karen and I grew our hair and Sylvie introduced us to mysteries of hair-care: the necessary parts like brushing, combing out tangles, getting a straight parting, and the more fun things like single or twin braids, fixing a ponytail with a barrettte, and putting it up “just like Audrey Hepburn”. In Grade Two, Karen and I decided to see whose hair would grow the longest. I won: by the end of Grade Four mine was long enough that I could almost sit on it, to the envy of Karen and the other girls. I had very straight hair, somewhere between light brown and ash blonde, which was nice, but Karen had glorious honey-blonde hair, so I envied her for that.
And of course along the way, with Sylvie’s aid, we painted our nails, raided Mom’s make-up drawer with attempts at applying lipstick and mascara, tried out perfumes. And, when Sylvie wasn’t around, we experimented with different clothes out of her closet.