From an early age, I was taught to set and clear the table for others. I would wane in and out of the laughter, drama, and stories unfolding at my grandmother's kitchen table on Sunday afternoons. It was the one day of the week when my father didn’t travel, and which we spent intact as a family. The ritual of nana's meal never surprised us, nor did the handmade meatballs which fell apart in our mouths. The perfection of pasta al dente doused in a red sauce which had stewed on her stovetop for days, nurtured with neck bones and ribs procured fresh from the local butcher.
She was the youngest of four and the only one to be born in the states. Somehow her family found their way from Sicily to Omaha, only carrying tradition with them. The men were to be served by the women. The women conditioned to cook, to clean and to complain about the men. Sometimes they spoke up with empty threats. “What was that?” my grandfather griped at the banging noise interrupting the shoveling of pasta into his mouth. “The thing I am going to hit you over the head with,” my grandmother rebuked, as she picked up her cane and propped its handle up against the chair.
I carried the title of oldest, a younger brother and two younger sisters closely avoiding following in my overly responsible footsteps. My grandmother was my mentor and my ally. Teaching me where to place the dishes, ensuring papi got his favorite bowl and was served first. Standing at the sink with me for hours before, during and after the meal. Shaking the drenched cotton dishtowels intended for drying and worn past their use. Lamenting, “I just pray he goes first, so I can have a few good years.” He didn’t.
My conditioning to serve others was a natural asset in my corporate career. Engrained in systems that kept me subservient, it was easy to decline a seat at the table and continue to simply do the work. My muscle of self-doubt reinforced by the weight of cultural conditioning. In the 21st century, women in the United States sit in executive seats, next to our male peers, at a ratio of only 10%. While the tide is changing and there are always exceptions, it is still the norm for women to take ownership for primary household and childcare responsibilities while working full-time. When I did manage to find a seat in a boardroom filled only or mostly with men, I would question my right to be there. Debate how I might use my voice and say the words I wanted to say. Sometimes I did. Often times, people kept talking. Once in a while another person would repeat them as their own. The most painful occurrences, however, were when my boss, not always a male, would corner me after, to shame my fluffy aspirational thinking. Reminding me that work was meant to be difficult and not a place centered on the betterment of humanity. That harassment is part of the price we all pay. That achievement is riddled with self-sacrifice. And most of all, I needed to stop showing my feelings, apologizing, and advocating for people as part of the work equation.
At some point, I simply opted out of the routine and rituals that made me a corporate citizen. I let go of the aspiration to fit in to places not designed for me. Gave my seat up to someone else who wanted it more. Quit making it my mission to please others who most of the time, were not even people I respected or admired. “Why did it take me so long?” I wondered.
My interviews with other women echoed a similar longing to be seen and to disappear. To stop striving for an invisible milestone that we will never reach. To reconcile our truth and our knowing in a form that doesn’t look like acceptance. To begin a rebellion that looks like our terms.