We are a family of girls — five sisters, a strong-minded mother, and an even stronger-minded grandmother, Thelma, who would have you believe that our family was made only of women.
>A favorite story of Grammy's was about a time when I, Martha, was three weeks old. I was a bundled newborn in our mother's arms, her fourth daughter, born six years after the first. My three older sisters, Laura, Sarah, and Jenny, swarmed at our grandmother's feet in matching outfits our mother had sewn out of fabric from Liberty. We were on the lawn at my grandmother's house in Maine beneath an American flag fluttering in the stiff sea breeze. It was 1964. The Atlantic Ocean spread vast in front of us, and the air smelled of salt and pine. "Here," my mother is reported to have said, handing me to her mother. "You can have this one. I've already got three."
"That's simply not true," our mother would say about the story her mother told.
No matter the truth, I was one more girl for Grammy's clan, one more girl to march intrepidly over time in a line of female ancestors that reached back two, three hundred years. My sisters and I followed in the path of Maid Marian of Scotland, who loved to ride horses and had a keen passion for medicine; of Nancy Cooper, cousin of the great James Fenimore and the first woman in our family to earn a higher degree — which she did during the Civil War at Richmond Seminary; of Glenna, an itinerant schoolteacher in the Wild West; of Thelma, our grandmother, a registered nurse at the Brooklyn Hospital; of Pryde, our mother, an accomplished portrait photographer and the grandmother of two girls, so far anyway, and one surprise boy.
When our grandmother was in the hospital dying of heart failure, Laura was seven months pregnant with the baby who would become Isobel Justine. On a chalkboard in her room Laura wrote Isobel's name so that Grammy could see it from her bed. Isobel was still just a little octopus in her mother's womb, kicking and turning and bouncing with life as our grandmother was quietly dying. "No, no," Grammy declared emphatically, seeing the name. "That cannot be her name. You must name her Glenna. Name her Glenna for my mother. Glenna was a strong woman. Glenna is a strong name." Her determined, sharp green eyes held Laura. Isobel was of her, of Thelma, and would be hers, a baby bundle in a blanket in her arms on a lawn in Maine. Possessively Grammy pressed her hand to Laura's belly. She was placing Isobel in her matriarchy, giving her a role, dreaming Isobel's future so that she could glimpse it.
Not long after our grandmother's death, Jenny became pregnant with a son. A son? None of us knew what we would do with a boy! Indeed, Jenny cried upon learning this news. He was the first boy in our family in a long time. Jenny named him Tommaso after our grandmother Thelma, whose nickname was Tommy. Now, at three, surrounded by his aunts and his best friend, Isobel, he often asks if he can wear dresses when he becomes a girl, if he can grow his hair long, wear high heels and lipstick when he becomes a girl. At the same time he and Isobel run around the house dressed in cowboy costumes, wielding swords, and shooting pistols.
We began work on this book in the fall of 1997. The idea of having a baby girl myself was still a distant fantasy, though my desire to have a daughter fueled my curiosity about the state of girlhood in this country. As we finished the book two years later I learned that I was pregnant and that the baby was a girl. I could see my grandmother holding her, imagine her looking at the baby and sighing and exclaiming, as she loved to do when something thrilled her — "I've died and gone to heaven." In the sonogram picture, the baby was a big-eyed thing with a vast forehead and an anxious little frown peering out of the chthonic depths. She seemed to be expressing concerned curiosity about what was outside, in the same way, it seemed, as we were wondering, speculating, anticipating what was inside — who will Livia be?