2006 Tiffany Nilson - New York City
Words of Women 2006 Essay of the Year
The Most Influential Woman of My Life
I should say it is my mother. I know I should. I know it, I know it, I know it.
Or, perhaps, my grandmother. . . .In their own and very different ways, they are not only the most influential women in my life, they are the most influential people in it. But space does not permit me to adequately elaborate on the example of my mother, who, at a very early age, taught me never to say “shut up” or “pee” because they were unladylike. (Yet, somehow, “fuck” has entered my vocabulary and is used on a regular, even daily – and depending on the day, even hourly – basis. And, depending on the hour, this word sometimes shoots out of my mouth in short, violent bursts of “fuck”, “fuck”, “fuck” like the rat, tat, tat of a machine gun. But at least I don’t say “shut up”. That would be rude.)
As for my grandmother, merely knowing that she came from across the pond, from the exotic land of England, with its Yorkshire pudding and daily ritual of tea at 4:00 pm, opened up my mind to a world beyond my hometown with its single stoplight. Green might have meant go, but no one ever went very far past that stoplight in my hometown. So if I will not say my mother or grandmother, then it is clear to me that the only choice left is Scarlett O’Hara.
I have always known who Scarlett O’Hara was. How can you live life without ever hearing that name and just somehow understanding that it carries more meaning than almost any other name ever bestowed on a being, whether fictional or otherwise. Sure, there are other names that conjure images and ideas and thoughts, but nothing suggests the luscious vibrancy or the defiant willfulness of Scarlett O’Hara. I did not actually read Gone With the Wind until I was in sixth grade. At that time, I was greedily searching for any bit of romantic fiction that I could find – and as the Sweet Valley Twins were not yet in vogue and as it would be another year before I happened upon smutty romance novels with Fabio and other plastic looking men on the cover ripping the bodices off helpless looking females whose backs were arched and contorted in such a way that they all must have been serious practitioners of yoga – I decided that the only thing I could do to sate my mad hunger for romance was to read Gone With the Wind.
I had been looking for a sublimely romantic story. What I did not realize was that Gone With the Wind was also a how-to guide on navigating and surviving the phoniness of society by peeling back the layers of arbitrary social norms to get to the heart of human motivation. You see, even thought Scarlett was only sixteen-years-old (and as I was only twelve at the time, of course I had to rely on her greater experience of the world), she had discovered that no one meant what they said. Every comment was calculated to elicit a specific reaction in others. If a girl told you she liked you green-sprigged muslin dress and matching green Moroccan slippers, you could be sure she didn’t care two hoots about either. The entire conversation was calculated to make the boy who overheard the comment think that she was nice and generous and, thus, make him like her. I had never heard or read anything that made so much sense to me. Scarlett O’Hara single handedly revealed to me that the world was based on self-interest, and I have never been the same.
Now, whenever I hear anyone speak, I know that there are actually two conversation taking place – the one people say and then, hidden right beneath, the one they actually mean. Every conversation is now a mini-puzzle in which I have to size up all the participants, quickly calculate their motivations and interests, and then process how their comments forward their personal agendas. Ordering a pizza with friends can be exhausting. You would prefer mushrooms but can just as easily live without them? Hmmmm, what are you REALLY saying? Do you just want to appear amenable to the others whereas I will seem inflexible if I insist on no mushrooms? Well, I know your game, and that will not happen. Mushrooms it is! Scarlett wouldn’t be fooled by your pretense to agreeableness and neither will I! So there!
Because of Scarlett, I am always prepared for the worst. If fact, I actively look for the worst in every situation to prevent it from ever happening. Traumatic events or major life changes rarely faze me as I have been mentored by a woman who lived through a Civil War and survived it. Then again, the only civil war I have ever faced is the one inside my head – the one between the side of my brain that sees the good in people and the one that only sees them as being motivated by selfishness. But, despite presidential edicts to the contrary, I do not feel as if I am living during a real war, and this hyper-suspicious outlook has often proven harmful. So I am slowly coming to the realization that, as much as I love Scarlett, perhaps I should let go of her. I will always admire her strength and, yes, even her hardness. But I now understand that those things ultimately hurt her, and they have also hurt me. So for now, I will embrace my inner Melanie. I do not think my twelve-year-old self would approve of that decision, but I am now thirty, and there is no reason to fight a war that is of my own making.
Tiffany Nilson, Maiden - New York Ciry