Every fall I start trying to come up with a blasted Christmas list. As someone who doesn’t really care for more stuff (the crap I have is already spawning behind my back), and as an ultimately practical person, I have a tough time thinking of what I want. As much as I’d love a new toaster, I’m sort of over receiving appliances; and how does one go about asking for a trip around the world, which is one of the few things I do truly desire?
A few years ago Paramount released an Audrey Hepburn boxed set of DVDs. The set includes Sabrina (probably my first introduction to Hepburn), A Roman Holiday (I first developed my crush–not sure if it was on Hepburn or the delicious Gregory Peck) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (I fell head over heels. Later, Mama gave me my first record: the soundtrack for the film. Then later, “Moon River,” the film’s signature song, became my bridal processional.) Who doesn’t love this lady? She was so demure and beautiful and proper and polished. I put the set on my Christmas list, knowing I’d love to have it but wouldn’t go out of my way to ever buy it for myself.
Around the same time Audrey Hepburn’s boxed set came out, Warner Home Video released a different Hepburn boxed set. The Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy Signature Collection, featuring Woman of the Year, Pat and Mike and Adam’s Rib. I’d seen a few of Katharine’s films because we were raised on old movies, but she’d never made much of an impression on me: her voice was pinched; she was brash; she didn’t bear the sort of charm I’d come to expect from leading ladies; she was a force to be reckoned with; she was definitely rough around the edges.
When I opened The Hepburn/Tracy Signature Collection on Christmas, it caught me off guard. But not too much, because I’ve come to expect the unexpected gifts from Mama. I figured she must not have taken my list with her when she went shopping, and I decided I’d eventually get around to watching these old movies, and oh well, I could always save up for the set of Audrey Hepburn movies I really wanted. But in the next week or so when I was talking with my sister, Bridget, I found out that Mama had given her the Audrey Hepburn set, even though she hadn’t asked for it. So weird.
Then I started watching Pat and Mike. Hepburn plays a college PE teacher-turned professional athlete; her fiancé had certain ideas for her to conform to, but she fought against them. She even straightened out Tracy’s character for his “little woman” mentality. Next I watched Adam’s Rib where Hepburn and Tracy are a married lawyer couple, duking it out across the aisle in the courtroom. That’s when I really grew to love Katharine Hepburn.
And it suddenly clicked with me. Maybe Mama bought us these collections because this is how she sees us. Bird is Audrey, this beautiful, poised, merciful woman, and I’m Katharine, sort of squawky (?), outspoken and ferocious, and . . . just different.
I tried for years to stop being this way, to tone it down or act more like a “lady.” I stopped arm-wrestling and spitting watermelon seeds and running foot races and tried to always obey, always conform, always submit. I kept my useful skills of logic and directness to myself; I internalized the analyzing and questioning, not wanting to be blamed for rocking the boat. I hid my opinions and lost my voice. I lost myself.
My friend and college advisor, Dr. Melton, changed my life in a moment when he suggested I start seeing all my strengths for what they were instead of seeing them as personality flaws. He challenged me to begin developing and cultivating my gifts rather than burying them for the comfort of others. Of course, there’s an interesting tension between staying true to my honest heart and deferring to others for the sake of peaceful community. Finding a balance is like taking baby steps toward who I’m finally going to be.
I think Mama was right to buy me the Katharine Hepburn collection. Sometimes we know ourselves better than anyone, but sometimes others see the things we didn’t even know were there.