top of page

American Woman - An Essay Honoring America's Backbone

The American Woman



It started with the squeak of the rocking chair. The rhythmic whine of wood. The worn joiners screaming at the steady back and forth. My mom, eyes on the clock above the empty dining room table, one foot tucked under her, one kissing the floor. Point…creak. Flex…groan. Point. Flex. Creak…groan…creak…groan…Steady as the tick tock of time.

***

Sharon Christa Corrigan was born on a typically warm fall day in Concord, New Hampshire. Certainly, it was preferable to her mother that Christa was born at a mere 73 degrees instead of the less comfortable 80 degrees the next day. Air conditioning wasn’t much of a thing in 1948, though not entirely unheard of. In fact, for the next 22 years, the increased existence of air conditioning units matched Christa’s forward progress toward a degree in education and history. The technology advancing, maybe even more swiftly, than Christa’s own knowledge.

***

For years, I pitied her. This public figure who stood tall through her husband’s impeachment. Who tolerated ‘Monica’ snickers and jokes about cigars. I grieved for their daughter, who bore the shame of her father’s indiscretions and her mother’s weakness. I hated that she stayed. The she held his presidential hand and stuck to his presidential side. Maybe for the office. Maybe for the country. But not for her. Never for her.

***

I was seated in front of that rocking chair the day my world fell apart. Because, once my mother moved from it, she never landed. She rampaged from corner to corner, selling everything we owned, making plans, running away. Stealing me from home. Showing me alone the dirty notes and letters she’d found in the wreckage. The ones from his lover. Introducing me, though her disillusionment, to the ideas of infidelity, oral sex, and broken promises. I was nine.

***

1970 was a big year for Christa. She turned her education into a career, learning her new last name, McAuliffe, even as her American history junior high students got used to the feel of it on their tongues. For the next thirteen years, she continued on this course, earning a master’s degree and gaining two children in the process. Her favorite class was the one she designed herself: The American Woman. She not only inspired her students with select speakers and ‘the impact of ordinary people on history,’ but also inspired herself in ways she could never imagine.

***

Some of my biggest moments in life came from watching television in the classroom. In 10th grade, after my entire biology viewed the live acquittal of OJ Simpson on TV, I made a prediction that morphed into a discussion on racial inequality and sexism. At 16, after seeing the way the memory of Nicole Brown Simpson had been treated during the trial, a sick sort of knowledge filled me. I turned to my friend and said, “There will be a Black president before there will be a female one.”

***

For seven years, my mom ran, dragging us behind. One location to the next. Sometimes a year, sometimes a few weeks or months. Rudderless. Homeless. We moved from state to state, city to city, sometimes going new places, other times old. We didn’t get cookies after school anymore. Lots of times, we didn’t get dinner. My mom had disappeared. When she was home, she slept on the couch and cried, or she lowered herself next to me on the bed in whatever two-bedroom apartment we could afford and cried. My brothers did not hear her cry. My brothers did not get to hear her secrets. Or my dad’s secrets. My brothers did not see me cry.

***

The day that John Glen orbited the moon in Friendship 7, Christa knew that a person would soon walk on its surface. It was a thought that stuck with her. One that she wrote about in her letter to NASA. One that saw her, out of 11,000 applicants, chosen to participate in the NASA Teacher in Space Project. She was going to be the first teacher in space!

***

I never chanted ‘Lock her up’ or grumbled about Benghazi. I just didn’t like her. I couldn’t respect her. Her husband’s secrets had been shared with the world. Why didn’t she run?

***

One of the places my mother landed, however briefly, was the last city my family had lived in ‘pre-affair’. Yuma, Arizona was the last place we’d ridden our bikes together after dark, or driven around at Christmas to see the lights, or even buried a pet with the five of us grieving. I found myself back in the same neighborhood, attending the same elementary school, chatting with the same friends. Just two years later. Had it only been two years?

“Do you remember that day?” Robert asked, as we pushed his matchbox cars through the chalky dirt at the edge of the ball field. We were in 6th grade, too old to play with cars, but it was what we’d done before. It was the version of us we know.

I nodded because I did remember that day. I’d been wearing a magenta coulotte outfit my mom had passed down. She was tiny and, even at eight years old, I was catching up to her. The armpits had dipped low on the side and I heard Robert and other kids snicker that they could see my boobs from the side. I sat all day with my arms crossed, glaring at the tiny triangles that were my budding breasts.

“Today we’re doing something different for science,” my teacher said, wheeling a TV cart into the room, then hooking it to the wall with endless wires. “We have a satellite uplink, and the whole school is going to watch the first teacher launch into orbit.”

I was so excited, I forgot to cover my chest. This was it. This was The American Woman I could put my hopes into.

***

Seventy-three seconds. That’s how long Christa held the dreams of America’s youth on her shoulders. Just over a minute for her to brace herself and smile, maybe recalling her brash statement to Johnny Carson himself. “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.” Just seventy-three seconds before an O-ring broke a seal. Before the explosion. Before the ship fell apart then plummeted in the ocean over two and a half minutes after liftoff, slamming into the water at 200 miles per hour.

And maybe Christa had stopped thinking anything at all before that moment. The explosion hadn’t killed her, but the lack of air pressure and oxygen would have knocked her out. Maybe she died from that. Or maybe, as she got closer to earth, she woke for one last moment. A blink of time really. A fraction of the thirty-eight years behind her, of perhaps the thirty-eight years that should have been ahead of her. Awake just long enough to open her eyes and see the dream of The American Woman die.

***

My prediction came true a dozen years later. She lost to a Black man. No ceilings were broken. Eight years after that, she lost to a tyrant. I watched, horrified, as he stalked her on stage. I watched, horrified, as she was vilified. This woman. The victim who had stood so tall and proud. This woman who hadn’t run. Who’d never run. Who used her strength to launch a career. And when she lost, I cried. I cried for women. I cried for her broken dreams. And I cried for me because I had been wrong. I, who had been rudderless, had lost my anchor before I knew I had it. The American Woman.

***

I sat in my rocker for ten hours, one foot on the floor, the other tucked beneath me. The squeak and groan as inconsistent as my racing heart. Point…squeak. Flex…creak. Squeak. Creak. Squeeeeak…cre—. I stopped and anchored my feet to the ground. I stared at the screen ahead. Frozen. No tick tock of the clock to mark the time. No mother’s tears, no exploding dreams. Only a woman in purple sitting next to the man she’d always held up. A woman who lost, supporting the one who succeeded: Another American Woman in purple, eyes shining as she took her Vice-Presidential oath of office. Glass ceilings shattered, and I with it. Heaping sobs from unknown wells. I’d found my hope. My home was returned to me.

14 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page