When I was four, I was told by my grandmother, who was my main caregiver(?) that I had a baby brother. I said, innocently, “I’ll still be your grandbaby, won’t I Nana?” To which she replied, with great satisfaction, “I have a grandson now, I don’t need you girls anymore.” The girls referred to were my cousins and I. I have never forgotten it. This is my earliest memory. It was also my introduction to the worth of females in my world. In the family of grandparents, parents, uncles, a great aunt, later events only made it more clear.
On the farm where we lived there were no other children anywhere near. When I went to school at six, I was the only girl there who did not know how to play jump-rope, hop-scotch, or jacks. (I was also the only girl able to identify ten kinds of snakes which gave me a little street cred with a couple of boys who had not yet decided to hate girls.) I asked the girls where they learned. “the girls on the block.” It was obvious they weren’t going to interrupt their game to teach me. I asked Mother if she could do those things, and she said, ‘of course.’ She didn’t offer to teach me, either. Mother belonged to two bridge clubs, (one for couples, one for women only) one sorority, and two other women’s clubs. She was very busy. I spent most of my time alone writing very bad poetry. It rhymed and scanned well. It was still very bad, though I didn’t know it at the time.
On graduating high school, I wanted to go to a university that was known to have a good creative writing course. My parents told me it was too far away ”for a girl.” They had already picked where I was to go. I therefore did the equivalent of repeating a couple of years of high school in a local two year college for girls: a kind of holding-tank for girls between high school and marriage. It had no creative writing course or anything else helpful. My brother, four years later, asked to go to the university I had chosen (only because I had chosen it) and was sent there without question.
Therefore, I can honestly attribute any success I may have had in writing to four years of high school English with a remarkable English Teacher named Dorothea Benkleman. Dorothea was older, gray haired, rotund, had a raspy voice, and was the butt of many jokes behind her back, mostly by boys who saw no sense in Chaucer or Shakespeare, punctuation or spelling, except that they had to get a passing grade in order to be on the football and basketball teams. Nonetheless, she was a fine teacher who loved what she taught, and any skill I may have was learned at her instigation and through her encouragement. That is the sum and total of my writing education: I usually don’t read critics. Too many of them say I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m sure they’re perfectly right. Mostly I don’t. Or if I do it right, I don’t know the right literary name for what I did.
It was in the two year holding tank, however, that I was introduced to the ideas of Malthus, and for the first time considered what overpopulation was doing to our planet—perhaps re-discovered, for much of the wild area around the farm where I had grown up was by that time already covered in houses, and the wildlife there had been displaced or killed—probably including all ten varieties of snake. The farm had been my home, my friend, my family. I grieved over it more than I grieved at the death of any member of my family because I was closer to it than I was to any of them—or they to me.
I married. I can admit now, over sixty some odd years later, that I did it simply to get away from a home that had never been at all nourishing or kind, though it was not abusive by the standard of that time. Hitting children wasn’t called abusive unless you did it with a knife or heavy stick. I was, however, the only one hit. I never saw anyone hit my brother. Maybe it wasn’t nice for grown up women to hit little boys. I worked throughout my marriage in between having the requisite girl child and boy child. Except for peeing standing up, the boy-child never got to do anything the girl-child didn’t. To my astonishment, after five or six years of marriage, my then husband, purely in order to avoid the brief service in the military to which his college education through the navy V12 program had obligated him, suddenly chose a new career which would have required my lifetime, full time assistance in a field in which I could make no genuine or willing contribution. We divorced and I subsequently supported the children through a varied job career, with no time left over for writing.
When the position of director of the local Planned Parenthood became vacant, I applied, took the job, and worked as the director for some twenty years. I believed in that job and did it out of conviction. When my children went off to college, I started writing once more, dibs and dabs., then settled into a year long dedication to work on The Revenants—all my off-work time., helped by a friend who really listened and offered sensible help! When I had finished the book, I sent it to a publisher. They kept it forever. I phoned to ask that it be returned—700 pages, typewritten, not on computer, and I didn’t have a copy! They said they rather liked it, but it was too long to publish by a beginning writer, would I give the publisher something more “accessible.” I put a junior high kid in the front of my mind as the probable reader and King’s Blood Four was written by the end of the month. So? It was a short book. “Give us another one like that, we’ll publish the first one.” I gave them a dozen all told, nine in the True Game series and three in the Mariannes. They did publish the Revenants.
So—It is from my tap-root that I come by both feminism and concern for ecology (also racial prejudice, which is another true story about a lonely little girl who was not allowed to play with the children of the Syrian farmer who rented our land because he was ‘a darky.’) All those talking animals and ETs in my books are just different races. I am eighty-three years old, and I remember the whys.
Sheri S. Tepper
(The image is of Sheri and husband Gene having a cup of coffee on the patio)