The Neck and the Butterfly

Reflecting on gender roles

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in Features • Illustrated by Nina Pagano

I open the fridge. I spend the morning in my underwear, scrubbing each item and shelf down and turning into a popsicle in the process. I try not to grit my teeth over my girlfriend’s occasional habit of leaving her used cup on the counter. 

Noikokyroúla, my maternal grandmother calls child me. My little housekeeper. Literally, housewifeCinderella, one of my friends says when he calls and asks what I’m doing. 

I tell my mom I don’t know if I will ever want to learn how to break down a chicken. After years of her covert campaigning on behalf of making use of the whole thing, this feels like a confession. 

Before or after that, I make another confession, this time to my girlfriend, about my family. It begins with a trade secret among our women. The right way is the hard way. The confession: I do not cut it, or at least, I don’t know if I want to. 

“Right, Evelyn?” my father’s mom says to me. It is not a question. She’s just told us we need to finish our food, even if we are full, or that we shouldn’t talk back to her. But she is not telling us; she is telling them. “Right, Evelyn?” comes after she’s chastised my brother and cousin after they’ve expressed their resistance to her commands. 

All three of us are children. But I am to endorse my grandmother; to use my voice, but only to demonstrate my deference to order. 

Growing up, I am friends with girls from all different backgrounds. They are raised like their brothers; they are raised like my brother. Their dads cook dinner for the week and barbecue during the summer. Their moms don’t keep their homes. Instead, they go out with their friends on the weekends and, sometimes, even on vacation — without their husbands! 

On the way home from my grandmother’s, my girlfriend hands me a homemade cinnamon and walnut pastry my mom brought for the drive. The sun is setting. Beside us, the Delta is like glass. 

My mom tells us how during her childhood, she spent weekends at her grandmother’s trailer park, and her brother, at their grandfather’s. My grandfather, who would hide the car to prevent my grandmother from learning to drive when he wasn’t home, spent the weekend fishing. My grandmother spent it home alone. Then, the new week began, and he was off to work and the children, to school. And repeat. 

My grandmother was in her mid-20s when her father fell ill. My grandfather refused to pay her way to Greece for a final visit. Her father died before she had a chance to see him again. 

“I remember she wore a black bow in hair after that,” my mom says. 

By the time I work up the courage to call my dad, my girlfriend has been out to me for nearly a year. There is a long pause on the other end of the line before he laughs and says, “Well, at least you won’t be living with a guy.” 

When my girlfriend and I were 25, she was diagnosed with early-stage cancer. Her treatment involves major surgery followed by a month-long recovery and one round of chemotherapy. My mom convinces my father to let her recover in my brother’s old room. 

“So, how much longer is this arrangement going to last?” my dad asks me after about a week. 

“I’ll talk to him,” my mom declares after my father and I have a have a shouting match in the kitchen. I radiate fury. Two nights later, I help my still-hobbled girlfriend out of the passenger seat of the car and up my parents’ driveway. “How are you feeling?” my dad asks sternly. I know he thinks what is going on in our house is indecently modern. 

Years later, my mom laughs when I tell her, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but no one is scared of you.” But my words disturb me for weeks after I say them. I remember what Maria Portokalos says to her daughter in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head any way she wants.” 

When I first see the movie, I think it is a great line — and, whether mythical or not, an honorable distillation of Greek woman strength in the face of often restrictive cultural traditions. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder. Who wants to be a neck? 

Ritualistically, my father stirs his coffee each morning, setting the spoon on the counter beside the sink before he leaves for work, so that it lays in a little translucent brown puddle that disappears into the granite. 

From a work trip to Washington, D.C., he texts my mother. 1. Take the car in. 2. Get shirts dry-cleaned . . . She is awaiting the results of a biopsy that ends up being negative. He must have forgotten. 

I didn’t know, my dad says about my depression a decade after I overdose on my antidepressants. I didn’t know, he says about my mom’s. We try therapy. We are invited not to point to those around us when looking for causes. Our malcontent remains shrouded in mystery. 

My dad scolds me for not making my parents’ bed before I leave for school. I tell him I hadn’t had the time that morning. He scolds me for not washing the spatula I used to bake brownies. I think about his coffee spoons. A talisman of our mysterious malcontent. 

My paternal great uncle, Sargon, was an Assyrian poet who wrote often about his childhood in Habbaniyah, Iraq. Where only the Bedouins and goat herders could survive. In Knife Sharpener, he writes: 

This is when I saw English women for the first time, having their tea, seemingly almost half-naked among their flowers and well-kept lawns, some of them covered with freckles like cantaloupes or snakes; a totally different female to our mothers and sisters who were wrapped in black most of the time and looked as if they had just come back from a funeral. 

“I went from my parents’ house to my husband’s house,” my mom tells me. When she met my dad, she was in her first semester of community college. 

My mom, who loves art history and spends her evenings with her face in a book, dropped out after that. She tells me about a teacher she had in high school, a nun, who told her she was smart. “‘But you are like a butterfly,’” she says, waving her hand in the air. Floating. 

In Greece, my mother wore short skirts and sang loudly and danced on tables and smoked cigarettes and broke plates, leaving Athens for one night to do more of the same, but more wildly, in Santorini with her brother and his then-wife. When I look at the photos of her from that trip, I remember the warnings the women in my family were issued when they attempted to leave the house in dresses that were too form-fitting or tops too low-cut. As if they had just come back from a funeral. 

I think of one of my mom’s favorite lines from Moonstruck, uttered by Cher to her on-screen fiancé: “In time you’ll die, and I’ll come to your funeral in a red dress!” 

I try to picture my grandmother — who was brought to the U.S. to marry my then 27-year-old grandfather when she was just 15 — in a mini skirt and platform sandals. I can’t. Instead, I remember my uncle barbecuing lamb in the backyard while my grandmother and my mom prepared salad, potatoes, and tzatziki inside. My mom’s book of CDs, most of them Greek. When a song that my grandmother particularly loved came on, she’d turn up the stereo and come outside, singing loudly to the children. 

My mom relays my grandmother’s parenting wisdom. You’re supposed to love your kids, but they aren’t supposed to know it. 

My mom tells me about her own grandmother’s visit to California in the eighties. The two would stay up late, talking across the dark from their twin beds. What do you talk about all night? my grandmother would ask. 

My mom’s family calls her by her grandmother’s name. My dad used to, too. Not anymore. He calls her by her legal name, which is the Americanized version. 

“She’s the one person I still miss,” my mom says about her grandmother. 

I don’t speak to my grandmother for over three years. She says we don’t talk because I don’t call her. I send her a text. I tell her it’s wrong that we are apart. I’m your granddaughter too, I say. I remind her that she still talks to her other granddaughters, who have children without having gotten married. But what I’m doing is different. 

I say, I’m not doing anything wrong. She doesn’t answer. Instead, she tells my mom what the Bible says about some people

The only relatives in Greece who know about her separation from my grandfather are her two sisters. The Bible says things about her kind of people, too, it seems. 

Shes a good girl, my family says about me, in front of me. Pure as the driven snow. They say this again after a close family friend graphically sexually harasses me when I am sixteen. 

The spring before I turn 19, I begin dating my long-term boyfriend. We argue like animals most weeks, chain-smoking cigarettes and forgoing meals. You wouldn’t get hit on if you didn’t dress like a slut, he says. I don’t forget his words. When I break up with him, I tell him I’m craving intellectual stimulation. I’m not getting it here, I say without saying it. I hope it cuts him as deeply as I meant it to. 

In our final days, we fight about right and wrong. His face twists into a near-scowl when I tell him most terrorists in the U.S. are not of Middle Eastern descent. Really? he says, but he doesn’t believe me. I’m a question mark to him, and it makes him angry. But he wants me to be his wife. 

When we visit, my father’s mother asks my mom about me. Will I get married? What about babies? Did you tell her? I ask my mom. She didn’t. I’m a question mark to my family, too. 

But when I remember 18-year-old me, I see an image: I was a butterfly, too. And I got to escape. •