I don’t remember the exact moment the deal was struck, but sometime after I turned four, I entered into a gentlemen’s agreement with god. I would drink my milk every day, become strong like Superman, and god would take care of the flying part. I really detested drinking milk, so this was not a pact I entered into lightly.
Nearly every night before bedtime, when I was supposed to be praying, I reminded god of our agreement. I counted the estimated number (it was hard to keep track) of glasses of milk I drank since our agreement. I sought his counsel where I would fly to first (the top of the PPG building in Market Square), who I should tell first (Erin, my best friend because she would believe me right away), who I would save first (hopefully a puppy).
But: I was going to need a costume when we both kept our ends of the deal. You couldn’t fly around without a costume. It was an essential part of the package. And let’s be real: As a child of the 80s, when you believe a “man” can fly, you picture Christopher Reeve in a red cape billowing majestically, powered toward the heavens by the Earth’s yellow sun. You don’t picture Supergirl. I wanted to be Superman—I didn’t want to be a spin-off or just a cousin of the real thing. I wanted to fight Gene Hackman, and the San Andreas fault.
I got into a fight with a boy at school that year, because we both wanted to be Superman for Halloween. He told me that only boys could be superheroes, but he offered to let me hold his cape. After crying all day, I told my mom that I didn’t know why a boy could be Superman for Halloween and I couldn’t.
Mom didn’t know either so she borrowed a pattern and made the costume.
I’m trying to remember who mom was when she made that cape. I remember certain things. She talked about God then, but not too much. She resented being a teacher, but she was good at it. She believed in being “put together,” but hated her wardrobe. I have pictures of her in brown corduroy skirts and matching jackets, wrap dresses, and impeccable high waist shorts. Women were always complimenting the chestnut toasted curls that wildly framed her face. She was an excellent parallel parker.
Every memory of her from past two decades seems strangled by her religious fundamentalism. Her standard wardrobe features long skirts that cover her ankles, embroidered sweaters, and tight buns. She either speaks in vague niceties and or in Bible verses. She rarely drives, and believes women should be submissive to their husbands. I remember our awkward phone calls, asking me to accept Jesus, refusing to pay for my birth control or co-sign my first lease, diagnosing my depression as too much sugar, crying whenever I snubbed her advice.
I can only think of her in terms of restriction—what I should believe in, what language I should use, what I should and shouldn’t do with my body. That could, though, just be the usual byproduct of a child remembering a parent.
I imagine my father had a hand in this Superman fantasy. He and I watched the mythic 1978 Superman over and over until we ruined the magnetic tape of the VHS. Superman was The Godfather of superhero movies—it even co-starred The Godfather. I was entranced by the idea of being the strongest person on the planet. I also loved the adoption storyline; the way someone can discover strength that has nothing to do with the parents who raised them.
I’ve assumed that my father is responsible for my belief that I could do anything a man could do, because he encouraged my imagination. He would act out elaborate plots of movies with me. He was my director, my co-star, my stunt double—whatever I needed. When we played Superman, I would run heedlessly around the yard humming the theme song, arms out like a plane (a compromise, it’s actually hard to run in true Superman flight posture) and my dad would pretend to be someone in trouble.
I picked my Halloween costumes based on what I was obsessed with that year, that month, that moment. I was the kind of kid who watched the same movie over and over, or played one song on repeat. When I presented my costume idea each year, mom always said okay. It was one of the few times that her “yes” didn’t come with a caveat or contingency. She always found the pattern and got to work.
Her costumes were like her handwriting: full of neat corners and perfect lines. Like an assistant, I would help her tuck a seam, or pick the right thread. Without fail, I was amazed that the pieces of fabric we picked out at JoAnn Fabric could be sewn together to make anything recognizable, let alone the thing I asked for. I still have most of them packed with tissue paper in a large red tupperware: Rainbow Brite, She-Ra, Debbie Gibson. I was never the kind of Halloweener who would settle to be a standard witch, or toss on cat ears.
When my imagination got too demanding for her sewing capabilities, she rented costumes. A fairly amazing feat considering that we often didn’t have the money to go see a movie. One year, I demanded to be the Phantom of the Opera. I was twelve and I didn’t think much about the love story, but I *loved* the tragedy. My mom found a costume store that had the mask and suit in my size. I wonder how she explained to the clerk that her thirteen-year-old daughter wanted to be a gothic, disfigured stalker.
Recently, the timbre in my voice has started to fluctuate. I sound just like my mother—not the content of my speech, as people often mean when they say such things—but the actual cadence and pitch of my voice sounds like hers. I’ve actually stopped midsentence because I thought she was speaking.
I wonder what else will transform, what other parts of me I will start to mistake as her? What about my personality—or even my sense of motherhood—is preordained? What miscalculations of hers will I repeat? What about her idea of motherhood should I keep?
My fear of turning into her has always been fueled by her new restrictions on femininity, the very narrow lens she uses to see the world.
But her lens used to be much wider. She used to put her faith in me and not just God. That red cape she made out of felt is a testament to that. It symbolized that I didn’t have to settle for Supergirl—a 78 cents on the dollar superhero if there ever was one. It was mom who encouraged my limitless sense of self.
In the Baltimore marathon last Saturday, I saw a runner dressed in a Superman costume. I ran the race even though I had a persistent dull pain in my left ankle. I spent 12 miles of the race wondering why I didn’t sideline myself. And why, last October, I insisted on running the Greenville half-marathon when I had shingles and a mysterious cyst on my shoulder. What makes me think I can keep dong this thing that is fairly simple but also sort of impossible?
My husband, a full marathoner, was somewhere ahead of me keeping a much faster pace. He comes from solid marathon stock, his father once ran a sub-three-hour. Neither of my parents exercised, or thought about fitness, so I’m not sure where I got this running idea from. My legs are short, my breasts have too much bounce, my feet are nothing special. My pace is shockingly average.
I saw Superman around mile 10, the mile when my resolve usually starts to unravel. Marathons and half marathons—really all races—have a Halloween feel. There’s a trick or treating element to the people on the sidelines handing out candy, beer (in Baltimore, also white wine), and orange slices. Every race has a fringe group of runners who dress up: picture a woman with rainbow tights and a tutu, a girl with bunny ears and a hard-shell turtle backpack, a man in Robin Hood tights and hat, a woman as a Dunkin Donuts coffee cup.
Supermans are fairly common, but this one had a decent cape. It billowed well, giving a strange elegance to his gait. I instantly remembered running around the crabgrass with my arms out, and how that running felt more authentic once I had a cape.
My father would stand at the top of our sloping front yard and yell, “Save me Superman!” I’d flick my cape out—the inside had my name in mom’s perfect handwriting—and run towards him. It was the closest I ever got to flying.
Jen Girdish lives in Washington, DC, with one very tall husband and two average-sized cats. Her work has appeared in the The Morning News, Awl, and McSweeney’s, among others. She is at work on an essay collection all about herself.