While ‘90s rap played in many houses, while contemporary America bought machines to cook without fire and to clean floors automatically—luxuries and delights beyond the imaginations of pharaohs, kings, and people of early in this century—another task remained beyond technology. Teenagers struggled to escape childhood rules and to make choices sensible to a world unfolding before them.
It was a warm Sunday morning in early September, about 8:30 in a quiet suburb of a large American city. The green house at the end of a nice row of bungalows had two occupants, Emily Dorsey and her thirteen-year-old daughter, Claire.
This bright morning Ms. Dorsey was busy in the kitchen. Before church, she always prepared a bag of packaged goods for donation. “Claire,” she called up from the kitchen. Receiving no immediate answer, she called louder. “We’ve got five minutes. Let’s not be late!”
Claire, in her bedroom, covered the phone receiver. “Just a minute, Mom.” She examined her hair in the full-length mirror on the back of her closet door. Lifting her hand off the receiver, she continued with her friend, Angie. “I hope Federico likes my hair short.” Finally, she was allowed to have it trimmed. Of course, she had to pay with babysitting money, but for a more mature look, it was worth it. Her mother always stressed the importance of independence, of controlling one’s own fate. Claire liked that her mother was strong.
“Got to go see Fed at church,” she said to her friend. “See you tomorrow at ballet.” After hanging up the phone, she allowed a quick, last glance in the mirror. The dark blue shorts looked good and she loved how her beach tan contrasted with the yellow of her favorite top. Satisfied, Claire left her room and skipped down the steps to the front door.
Ms. Dorsey came out of the kitchen, handed the donation bag to Claire, and then stopped in her tracks. “No, you can’t go like that! Shorts to church. No. No. No.”
“But Mom, we wore this to St. Charles by the Sea last week.” Claire’s voice rose, despite her effort to keep calm. Just like her mother to ruin a good day.
“Our church is different than the beach church. It’s vulgar to show so much skin here,” her mother said. “No decent person goes to church like that.”
“Mother, don’t be ancient.” Claire glared at her. Her mother wore a chic dark blue sheath, three-inch matching heels, and a silver necklace with a small cross. “Your little, black dress is … looks like … who are you trying to get to notice you?”
“Don’t be flip? Insolent girl!” Her mother raised her arm.
Claire jumped back, dropping the donation bag. She scampered up a few stair steps.
“There’s nothing wrong with shorts at church despite what you say.”
“Don’t you dare question me! I have nothing but the best intentions for you.”
Claire normally accepted her mother’s anger like gravity—something that just had to be endured. However, she wanted to see and be seen by Fed. “Sorry, Mom. I was carried away when I said that, but all the girls will be dressed in shorts. It’s hot today.”
Her mother raised her eyebrows. “Only girls that I wouldn’t want you to associate with. Go upstairs right now, young lady and change … into that floral jumper. You looked very nice in that last Palm Sunday.”
Claire considered herself an obedient girl, doing what her mother asked as soon as she asked, but today she couldn’t stop herself. “Last year I was a child. I won’t wear that childish dress ever again. I’m already dressed.”
“You will change. I knew it a mistake to let you get your haircut. I’m not letting you go to church dressed like a tramp.”
Claire shook her head in astonishment. Her mother’s insult stung her pride and her self-image. She ran back upstairs to her room, slamming her door. She locked it and wept with impotent rage.
In a moment, her mother came up. She pushed the door and then rattled the doorknob. “Open up, Claire,” she demanded.
With her back against the door and her feet against the cedar chest, she denied her mother entry. “No. Never.”
Her mother banged hard on the door with her fist. “Come out. Get dressed. Let’s not be late for church.”
Claire covered her ears. Until today, she always gave in. It was easier than fighting, but now she wanted something she was willing to fight for. And it occurred to her, seeing Fed was one thing, but this was even bigger than that. She wanted to make her decisions for herself.
After many minutes of no responses, her mother finally ran out of steam. In a nasty whine which Claire had dreaded, Ms. Dorsey summed up. “You’ve made us late for church, you wicked girl. I hope you’re happy you caused two mortal sins.”
“No, I didn’t. You did. I was ready to go.” Claire yelled at the door. “I’m never going to church with you again.” Pushing with all her force against the cedar chest, Claire realized a deeper truth. Her mother’s words no longer could make her do things.
“In that case, don’t expect me to do you favors, like taking you to ballet.”
Gaining independence doesn’t always give pleasure.