I’ll always remember that cup of hot cocoa. It was warm and wonderful with hints of vanilla, sweetness, and spice; just like you. I had never once had anything like it. I was maybe twelve or thirteen. In fact, I think it was the year I had turned fourteen and began my freshman year of high school. My social and emotional maturity had not caught up to the rest of my peers. Many of them had already experienced dating, puberty, and more age-appropriate hobbies. By contrast, I refused to wear make-up or grow out of my tomboyish ways. I had crushes on boys, but no concept of what to actually do with one outside of friendship. Sure, I fantasized about experiencing my first kiss and who it would come from. It was such a foreign and magical concept I couldn’t quite fathom, and it piqued my curiosity. I heard friends discuss such matters, and I rarely had any input to add. At times, I was even repulsed by their graphic make-out descriptions.
I have a diary entry from back then that makes me laugh every time I read it:
“Who would want to do that?! Having someone shove their tongue down your throat is disgusting and gross!!!”
Despite my thoughts on the matter, it seemed like everywhere I looked boys and girls were making out and getting together. I did have some friends who were LGBTQ or at least tried to figure out their sexualities around that same time. A few of them likely wondered if I was asexual or closeted since I had a “Butch” haircut and wore mostly comfortable clothing. Even if my supportive LGBTQ friends didn’t think it, the majority of my high school did. While I agree that asexuality wasn’t far off the mark for a time, as I did show a general lack of interest in the majority of sexual and romantic ventures, I would eventually come to new identity conclusions that helped me discover my true sexuality.
For at least a three year period of time, I really questioned whether I was born as the correct gender. This was prior to my knowledge of the transgender movement that I would become aware of at a later date. During that period of time, if I could have chosen my gender identity, I would have selected male. However, I felt there was something deeper beyond that, and wondered if it was my role to change society’s view of gender. That conclusion finally struck me with anger and passion.
Why should I have to change everything about myself including my body just to fit society’s stereotypical gender assigned expectations? Isn’t it much easier to go against these “one-size-fit-all” stigmas than it is to change my entire being? I’m sure other people also fall into this position. Ideas are what need to change, progress, and evolve, not everything else.
I had decided that the person I was meant to be with would love me for who I was as I was. I wasn’t willing to change the way I dressed. I wasn’t willing to change my low-maintenance haircut. My interests in muzzleloading, history, and outdoors needed no changing. I would never be the type of girl to get my nails and hair done regularly or to put on pairs of heels. Half the time, my feet were too large to fit into the majority of women’s styles I actually liked, so I regularly opted for men’s footwear anyway. These were things about myself I wasn’t willing to compromise on. If I was going to change, it was going to be on my terms. If that meant I went through life without a partner that made no difference to me. As a teenager, I was already accustomed to the single-life. I could just continue.
It was around this time of revelations and convictions that I went to visit my relatives in Ohio. I looked forward to every visit; and though they were rare, I relished each one. By contrast, my mom and dad wanted to just “do their own thing” and often grew irritable with my aunt and uncle’s plan-making. We took trips to the wildlife reserve, ate tasty and unique home-cooked meals, played sports outdoors, and tried out board games together for a large chunk of the trip. On a couple of occasions, we even stopped by the Amish country. To me, it was like a grand vacation with plenty of child-focused activities; activities I didn’t get to do at home. However, visiting my relatives in Ohio also meant something more than that to me; inclusion.
I felt valued and important, and I was able to see my most favorite relative of all; my cousin Marissa. Though she was several years older than me, she never ignored me or acted as if I was an inconvenience. She volunteered to have me on her team when games called for teams. She helped me with my own game plays even when we weren’t on the same team. I thought she was the kindest and most beautiful person in the world. While I considered her a dark-haired beauty, I don’t actually know how the rest of society viewed her. I thought her personality shined and that made her radiant in my eyes. I wanted to grow up to be just like her.
On this particular visit in my early teens, she had recently graduated college, started her teaching career, and bought her own home. When I heard the news, I excitedly asked if we could go see it. My parents were curious too, but they didn’t go over when my brother and I did. Marissa volunteered to give us our own personalized tour. She even drove us there in her own car, which excited me. I giddily watched out the window and asked her a million questions while my little brother fell asleep in the seat next to me. When we arrived, she showed us around her new home and showed off her bedroom and bathroom. She was always obsessed with rubber ducks; and was quite proud of the bathroom décor she selected to properly display them. I smiled as I thought this brightness and joy suited her. She always was a planner and obviously great with kids. She didn’t talk about needing a romantic partner like my peers and other relatives did, and that was refreshing.
As much as pressure was often put on me by schoolmates, my mother, grandmother, and many other female relatives placed more pressure on my nonexistent romantic life. They always wanted me to get a boyfriend or dates to dances. When I told them that boys just weren’t interested in me, I was often criticized and told I needed to change my appearance or the way I dressed. I needed to be more feminine. I disagreed and responded to them with my newfound assertions. When I did get a date to a homecoming dance, I was shamed for asking the boy instead of waiting for a boy to ask me. I felt like I couldn’t win for losing, but Marissa wasn’t like that. She didn’t put that weight on me. She didn’t act as if I was abnormal. There was no pressure in our conversation, and we talked about the things that we enjoyed. Her unconditional acceptance and easy going nature made me look up to her. Here she was, a young woman with no man in her life and she was successful. She had graduated with high marks, she was teaching at a job she enjoyed, and had bought her own home. After we finished the tour, she asked if my brother and I would like some hot cocoa.
I watched with a peculiar expression on my face as she melted chocolate chips in a pot with milk on her stove. All of the hot cocoas I ever had were from an instant packet. She stirred it meticulously with a whisk and smiled as she added the brown sugar and continued to stir. She added vanilla and picked out two large mugs for my brother and me. She added a cinnamon stick to the side of mine and topped it with marshmallow fluff and whipped cream. She sprinkled some cinnamon on the top of it as well. She told us we could stir with candy canes if we liked as she sat the hot chocolate down before each of us. I was in awe, and honestly wondered why she didn’t have a boyfriend with skills like that. Obviously, she made her hot cocoa special because she liked it that way and instead of serving a fully capable adult she chose to make something wonderful for two kids she would rather spend time with. I felt beyond honored. No, Marissa wasn’t like the rest of my family or my peers, Marissa was something else; something wonderful.
Several years later, Marissa did meet a man who would become her husband. She set her qualifications, waited patiently, and he came to her. She didn’t have to change a single thing about herself. They had similar values and were true compliments to one another. Their marriage partnership is equal; both are all-in, and all-loving. She was still the same happy Marissa I knew, and things only changed for the better. I don’t know how many times she had experienced some sort of flack like I caught for her romantic life, but she didn’t seem to let it bother her. Her response or lack of consideration on the topic taught me how not to let it bother me either.
I received my first kiss at seventeen with a boy I had shyness, humor, and good conversation in common with. A friend set us up, and it wasn’t a bad first relationship. I set my boundaries and when he pressured me to cross them, I left. I failed at that part in several other relationships afterward. When those partners wanted to change me at my core, I woke up and rebelled or left. I was most romantically involved and connected with partners who valued my intelligence and mind. I adored partners that made me grow intellectually and as a person. I realized that was essential for my sexual attraction, and likely what I had been missing out on during my pre-teen and teenage years. I would meet a heterosexual partner with demi-sexual tendencies who would help me grow as a person, and stimulate me intellectually and therefore sexually. He would bring out the best in me and love me for who I am, even if he does compare me to a Vulcan from time to time.
Some years later, Marissa would get frustrated with her profession and moral principals she refused to compromise in her teaching career with the school system. She would leave on a positive note with the school, but choose to begin her own home business while being a stay-at-home parent. She would make wonderful cake creations and sweet treats. She makes the most incredible peach filling for cakes, and her cakes are perfectly moist and balanced. She would try her hand at an ice cream catering position for a time, and have three children despite being in her later thirties during those pregnancies. She caught a lot of grief regarding her age from family, friends, and a few nosey nurses, but all of her children are healthy and happy. I think she is a rock star for providing for them, and for proving all of those people wrong. In a way, she’s tempered risk with determination, and I promise you she thoroughly considers and plans for all possibilities. In all she does, she does so wholeheartedly, and it shows. I love how amazing she is.
As for me, I would work a stable professional job like she did for six years of my life. I’d try to subscribe to what we were instructed in school and by family culture. Eventually, things didn’t sit morally right with me either and I’d become more aware of my own individual ambitions. I’d see that my prudent and structured cousin was successfully managing her own business and pursuing her dreams. She, who was always more of a perfectionist than I was, marched on despite certain risks and bravely made changes for the benefit of herself and family. If she was willing to throw caution to the wind, why was I still subscribing to the same societal traps and making things miserable on myself? I needed to change and grow too, and I no doubt looked to her for inspiration. My own goals of leaving my workplace and pursuing writing, community outreach, cookbook creations, having and adopting children, and spending time with those I love are now under way. To this day, I still look forward to meeting up with Marissa. I was her biggest fan. I look at her life, and how mine is turning out now, and think to myself, “I picked the right role-model. Marissa is my superhero, and I look up to and love her dearly.”
Sometimes all we need is someone to accept us for who we are, show they care for us, and give us a little time and attention. We’ll grow up watching them and they’ll influence us to become better people. Heroes can and often are everyday people, and performing those acts are definitely superpowers in today’s world. I wonder what would have happened if I had grown up without such a positive influence who was a true light in my life. I’m glad that even when things got bad in my own life, that watching her life was able to provide a reminder to me of what could be achieved. She has my utmost respect and gratitude for that. When I have a cup of hot cocoa, I always think of Marissa and how she has influenced my life for the better. I haven’t had a better cup of hot cocoa since, and I wonder if it is because the loving kindness she possesses is the secret ingredient. I hope that someday I’m able to make the best cup of cocoa my family, friends, and neighbors have ever tasted; just like she did.