THE ERA or “ERROR! ERROR!”

era

Warm Weather, 1976, and I was being bad.

My mother cleaned me up for the third time that morning. Hair in pigtails, with green bows, she put me down with a pop on tush to stay put. My brother, Robert, two years my senior, kept snickering at me. The minute she left the room, I showed him what my front teeth could do.

“Mom, Fannie bit me… AGAIN!” He finished our fight by biting me back. Before I could punch him, my grandmother, also known as MeeMaw descended on me with a fly swatter. I was spanked, made to sit in the corner (also known as ‘Siberia’) and repeat the Lord’s Prayer ten times. I was on a highway to hell – and I had yet to hear the song…

My dog joined me in ‘Siberia.’  Before long, I was rolling with the dog all over the floor, getting my green shirt with the three fancy letters dirty – again.

My mother came out, her red hair sprayed “to touch God’s ceiling,” and watched MeeMaw pull me up from the dog. Mother just stared at her wayward child. My pigtails were lopsided.

“Patsy, you better have on a bra. Your husband’s the principal: you can’t jiggle. It’s one thing to march for women’s rights; but you can’t be vulgar as you do it. I didn’t raise trash.”

‘Vulgar’ was my MeeMaw’s favorite word. My mother’s favorite words were ‘Siberia’ and ‘sacrilegious.’

“It’s my right to jiggle, but I have one on, Mama!” she did a little wiggle – no jiggle. My grandmother nodded, “Good. Because the newspaper may be there. You want to look pretty.”

“Looking pretty isn’t important – our rights are!” my mother raised her voice and did a fist pump in the air like her heroine did in the fancy magazines that were in our bathroom and living room. My father had taught me the title, Ms., stood for “mistake” and I didn’t understand why my mother liked a magazine named for something bad.

My father was known to “jump the rails” to upset my mother  – and he delighted in it. He and my mother were both educators in a small county in Virginia – with my father being the high school principal. Everyone knew my parents – especially my mother with the flaming red hair and my tall father, who had been an officer during the War. He liked leisure suits with big collars and always had a camera to snap pictures. When not arguing politics, they were frequently taking naps. I hated naps, but my parents must be tired from teaching. But even with their constant naps, their politics had changed and so had my mother’s personal convictions about the future of her young daughter. Of course, I reflect on this now – not then.

Back to 1976:

MeeMaw rolled her eyes and lit a Virginia Slim, “Have fun with Fannie. She’s all yours, Patsy!  Robert and I are going to be working in the garden!” and with that, she and my brother left to play in the dirt. I watched them leave, enviously. I’d rather hang out in dirt and plant things than go with my mother…

“Well, Fannie,” my mother clapped her hands, “It’s time to leave ‘Siberia’ and go to our rally! We’re gonna make history today – for women!”

A ride to Richmond, our state capital (“and the capital of the ill-fated Confederacy…and the place of your birth!”), we pulled into the rally. Mother parked and I jumped out to find my best friend, Jenny, and her mother. We were four years old and would be attending school in the fall together. We had no clue why we were wearing the green shirts that spelled “ERROR.” My father had tutored me the night before so I would chant the word correctly. I kept whispering the word to Jenny who kept whispering back I had it wrong. I felt sorry for her: she didn’t have a father to take time out to explain things to her…

We followed our mothers to the rally where there were many women of all shapes, colors, and sizes – all wearing the green”ERROR” shirt. Many women smiled at my lopsided pigtail and others held signs that matched our shirts. “So many people!” my mother exclaimed, “We are going to change the world!”

“You wore a bra?” her friend asked.

“My mother – give me a break, Vivian – you don’t have MY MOTHER!” my mother patted her hair, “How do I look?”

“Vain,” Vivian laughed, making sure her daughter’s hair was tight in a ponytail. She glanced at me. I was lopsided again. “Fannie’s hopeless, but such a dear.”

“I’m gonna change the world,” I yelled.

I was given a picket sign which Jenny and I had to share, “Since the women are holding them as they march,” my mother explained, “Don’t stab each other, dear. Just look pretty and yell what we are all about!” My mother’s friends, all in matching shirts with “ERROR” on them, did a rebel yell and ran into streets to join the other women for the march, as Jenny and I followed. We stayed near our mothers, but the other women seemed very upset or angry and not as happy as our mothers.

“Why are they so pissy?” Jenny asked me.

“Dunno. We better start yelling too!” I raised my sign and Jenny held onto it as well.

Oh, we did chant what we were marching about! Jenny and I chanted “ERROR! ERROR!” just as my father had rehearsed with me until someone screamed, “Patsy Hendricks! Your girl is yelling ‘ERROR!’ Tell her to stop! Vivian – your daughter is too!”

“I told you!” Jenny shoved me, “Mama, she said it was ‘ERROR’ not E-R-A!”

I shoved her back – and bit her.

In the middle of an ERA march, my best friend and I got into a hissing and biting contest of how to pronounce the goal to change women’s history in America.

“Anne Elizabeth, you can read “E-R-A!” my mother broke us apart and spanked my bottom – in front of the entire march and the large groups of people laughed as the only daughter of Dr. John Hendricks, principal of Buckingham High School, had set up his own history in the making…

“But, Mama, Daddy said it was ‘ERROR! ERROR!”

“Oh hell no he didn’t!” she stopped spanking me and she bid Vivian – and a crying Jenny – goodbye. It was a long drive back to our small town…

My mother – and I- were never invited to a Virginia ERA rally again. The state did not ratify the ERA, but my mother’s native Kentucky did and so did my father’s native Tennessee. For all the states that didn’t, I can only imagine they heard my ‘ERROR!’

Somewhere, in a faded Richmond newspaper, there is little girl, yelling ‘ERROR’ with a lopsided pig tail, holding a picket sign, and wearing a green shirt with what women deserved, but didn’t get: The Equal Rights Amendment! I can only imagine my mother’s embarrassment when her co-workers showed it to her… Over and over, until the family relocated to Georgia: another state that didn’t want the…

“ERROR! ERROR!” Oh, too bad Phyllis Schlafly never heard this story… And how long did my father spend in his own ‘Siberia?’

I’m still wanting to know!

 

 

 

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