By Kim Cooper Findling
Ever go on vacation and wish you’d be someone else for the week? Just really get away from it all, including yourself? Last year, my oldest daughter spent our Hawaiian vacation being a boy.
Seven-year-old Elizabeth, known to most as Libby, announced upon arrival in Honolulu she was now to be referred to as Eli. And that she was a boy, and would only do and wear “boy things” for the entire week of our stay. Given that Libby/Eli has a rather theatrical, forceful personality we’ve all become accustomed to, the transition was fairly seamless. Her sister Maris, age five, gave a brief nod. I gave my immediate approval.
Grandma, who we’d come to visit, took a half-second to get on board, but then she was there all the way. “Eli, would you like to play a game of Rat-a-tat Cat?” she said in a cheerful voice. “It’s gender neutral.”
Libby’s spontaneous decision wasn’t totally without foreshadowing. A week prior to our vacation, she announced, “I want my hair cut like a boy.”
“Are you sure?” I asked her a dozen times. “If you don’t like it, it’ll take a while to grow back.” She was adamant. The stylist gave her an early Justin Bieber. It looked pretty great, actually.
In Hawaii, Eli wore the same clothes every day—those she had brought along that were “most boyish.” Green “Life is Good” tee shirt, black athletic shorts. I’d promised both children we’d shop for new swimsuits in Honolulu. At Macy’s in Ala Moana Center, the sales lady shot us a glance and pointed Maris in one direction and Eli in the other. I followed Eli to the boy’s section where we purchased a crisp new pair of board shorts in blue and white and some sturdy black flip-flops. (Maris selected a fine Hello Kitty floral bikini, in pink, and a plumeria barrette for her hair).
At the beach, my children taught themselves to boogie board. Maris made a new friend named Grace. She introduced Grace to her brother, Eli. The dynamic of being both oldest and male apparently gave Eli even more reason to boss everyone around than usual. The children built a sand city to rival Atlantis, with Eli as chief engineer.
My husband had remained home in Oregon but we had kept up to date by text. I sent him a photo of our girls on Waikiki Beach. They were fresh from the ocean, jubilant, one fist each held aloft, rock star style. Libby’s short hair was slicked back, her hip jutted at an angle in those cool board shorts, her naked chest projecting not so much boy or girl as just child.
“That’s my boy!” my husband texted back.
At our favorite beach bar, where we sat under a verdant banyan tree and ordered drinks with pineapple and umbrellas on top and listened to ukulele-driven covers of contemporary music, the waitress called Eli “sir.” She was elated. “Did you hear that, Mom?” she giggled. I grinned and agreed that it was awesome.
I was slightly less amused when an indignant middle-aged guest wearing a voluminous purple muu muu booted my daughter out of the ladies room a few minutes later. I asked Eli what she said to the lady who’d demanded she vacate the premises.
“I told her I was waiting for my sister,” Eli replied.”You could have just told her you’re a girl,” I pointed out. Eli hadn’t considered that option.
On the last day of our trip, we all went to Chinatown. Grandma wanted to buy the kids a present. There were a lot of pretty dresses in Chinatown. Plentiful flowers and jade jewelry, too. I saw Eli’s commitment to boyhood waver in the face of all of those flowing tropical prints, lush leis and smooth beads.
She selected a fringed sarong, albeit in blue. Unsure what to do with it, she eventually tied it on her head like a bandana. The long remainder fell down her back, trailing on the pavement. Maris’s new cotton dress was adorned with gardenias and lace, and she spun in circles to make the fabric float on the tropical breeze.
On the plane home, we shared small cellophane bags of pretzels and flipped through the photos on my phone. There was one of us hamming it up around a bronze sculpture of a lion in Chinatown, another of my children leaping waves at the beach, another of Grandma with one arm wrapped around each child.
“So who’s going back to the second grade?” I finally asked my seven-year-old, after her little sister fell asleep. “Eli or Libby?” She wasn’t sure.
We had a layover in Seattle, arriving back home in Bend after dark. The cold air was a shock, but it smelled of home.My husband greeted our oldest child as we came through the door of our house, tugging suitcases and boxes of chocolate covered macadamia nuts. “Hello, Eli!” he said.
“Daddy, it’s Libby!” she corrected and threw herself into his arms. Macy’s issued a full refund for the board shorts.
Kim Cooper Findling is the editor of Central Oregon Magazine, the author of Day Trips From Portland: Getaway Ideas for the Local Traveler and Chance of Sun: An Oregon Memoir, a writer/ambassador for Travel Oregon, the sporadically competent mother of two, and a closet rock star. See www.kimcooperfindling.com.