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College junior me…Polly Purebred?

Because I was blessed with a beautiful but uncommon first name, I’ve spent my life answering to nicknames. Most of them are derivatives of my given name (Jus, Justy, Jae, and Tina, for example). One friend nicknamed me Scooter because I walk so fast. One called me Roni because my given middle name was Veronica. I’ve also been Pam and Panama, although I’m not exactly sure how that happened. My cousin’s husband decided when he met me that I look like a Mitzi, so that is what he has always called me and I now go by Cousin Mitzi. Then there were the times when folks couldn’t figure out that the “e” at the end of my name meant that it rhymes with Kristine and not Kristin and then called me Justin instead. Still, I answered to that because I knew they were talking to me, and it wasn’t worth the effort to explain it. Turns out I will answer to anything.

During my junior year of college, my then boyfriend’s roommate took to calling me Polly Purebred after Underdog’s girlfriend. I assume this name came about for two reasons: 1) I resemble an anthropomorphic dog with bobbed blonde hair and 2) at the time I was an innocent, naive, sweet young woman. You could add that I am also third-generation, 100% Polish-American, which technically makes me a purebred and a standout in this melting pot nation. So, perhaps the name fit on a number of levels and that’s why it stuck.

The nickname Polly Purebred (or just plain Polly) to which I responded never bothered me. So I was named after a dog. She was still a pretty cute dog, and she was a reporter which at least gave her above average doggy intelligence. I could live with that, right? There were millions of nicknames given to other women at college that were far more offensive and derogatory than Polly. I counted myself fortunate.

But, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that despite appearances and my purebred status, I’ve never really fit into the Polly Purebred mold. Although I am certain that the originator of the nickname meant no disrespect to me, I realize now that I’ve spent the past twenty years working to negate that sweet Polly Purebred image. Polly consistently needed to be rescued by Underdog from Simon Bar Sinister or myriad other villains. If I seem sweet, innocent, and helpless to you, then you’re a poor judge of character.

This past summer I was at the end of a quick 15-mile ride, coming up a hill at a fair pace but not really pushing myself. A gentleman in his 50s rode up beside me and asked if I needed help. Wholly confused by this statement, since I was ably pedaling my bicycle (not even breathing hard) and wasn’t standing on the side of the road fixing a flat or anything, I responded hesitantly with an “I don’t think so,” and he cruised on up the hill without me. As his butt was fading into the distance, I realized that he had been offering to let me draft behind him so I could get up the hill more easily. There aren’t words enough to describe how angry that made me. I hadn’t been struggling on that incline, but he mistook my slower pace to mean I was tired and might need his help. Funny, but I bet that if I had been a 225 pound, sweaty male and not a small, blonde female with pigtails poking out from under my bike helmet that gentleman would not have offered help. I fumed all the way home, my legs fueled by fervent indignation.

I’m not above asking for help if I need it, but I hate when the assumption is made that I need it. Yes. I can carry a 40 pound bag of dog food without your help. I’ll replace that GCFI outlet by myself. I will climb out on our roof to wash the windows on our home. I have calmly extracted a young rattlesnake from our basement and set it free outside. I may be small, but I am intelligent and capable and I don’t need your help unless I ask for it. My husband once remarked that he is glad I have a hearty dislike for large spiders, otherwise I might not need him around at all. You see, I may look like Polly Purebred, but I’m not innocent and I don’t need Underdog to rescue me.

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I got this quote in an email from a fellow MIA member yesterday morning, and I haven’t been able to pry it from my brain: “I bargained with life for a penny…only to learn dismayed, that any wage I would have asked of life, life would have paid.” The author, Jessie Belle Rittenhouse (1869-1948), was a poet, literary critic, and compiler of anthologies. She was also the only female founding member of the Poetry Society of America, and she worked on the editorial staff of the New York Times for ten years in the early 1900s, as well.

I know it sounds crazy, but I feel immense pride when I think about women who were writing, publishing, and professionally employed in journalism before my grandmother was born. I know that Jessie Rittenhouse was a pioneer. She got her degree, went to work, and became well-respected in a male-dominated, intellectual field in a time when what she was doing was the exception rather than the rule. I am impressed by her gumption and wonder what might have made her choose such a non-traditional life for herself. After all, she didn’t bother getting married until she was 55, and she never had children.

I have a feeling that perhaps she did not so much intentionally choose that path as her talent and drive chose it for her and along the way she merely continued to raise the bar for herself. I examine the excerpt from her poem and I think that she clearly understood that she was the architect of her destiny. Her successes, taken within the context of the time period in which they were accomplished, were a direct result of her asking more of her life than her contemporaries were likely asking of theirs. While her college classmates were keeping house, she was hanging out with Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot and reviewing their poetry.

I think the reason that I am so affected by Ms. Rittenhouse’s poetic words, however, is because they embody the entire reason I started this Moms Into Adventure group. I realized it was time for me to ask more from life. I started down a different path than I originally had mapped out for myself and for a while I felt lost, but then I realized that my slight shift in direction didn’t have to mean that I had necessarily sacrificed all my dreams for myself. I still had those dreams. I still wanted those things. I was just traveling a back road to reach them.

When I think about what I want out of my life before it’s all said and done, it goes beyond having family. I know. I know. Having my beautiful and precious family should be enough for me; our culture indoctrinates us early with this idea, and I feel a tad bit uncomfortable knowing that I need more. I’ve always been a bit on the greedy side, though. I have perpetually asked life for more than a penny’s worth and now can say in all honesty that I am happy with who I am. When I ask more from myself, I rise to the occasion. When I want something, I find a means to get it because I am nothing but absolutely determined to have my way. When I feel like I’ve hit rock bottom, I somehow find a way to pull myself out of the chasm. I refuse to believe that I can’t have what I want. It might take me longer than anticipated to get it, but I will get there. I know it. When it comes to my dreams and goals, I have patience and perseverance.

You can gain none of life’s prizes without being brave and perhaps ruffling some feathers along the way. You know Ms. Rittenhouse’s mother was constantly railing on her: “You’re an old maid. Why don’t you settle down? Get married and give me some grandchildren already.” But her determination to walk her own path and ask for more than a penny’s worth made her powerful. Asking life for what we want is always a worthwhile venture, even if it means we encounter some opposition. I’ve long said my greatest fear is getting to the end of my life and realizing I’ve lived someone else’s. So, I’m going to continue asking for the things I want from life. I’m betting I’ll get them, so I’m going to be bold, up the ante, and enjoy taking home the whole pot.