A large crowd gathered in Edith Wharton’s elegant living room at The Mount on March 23 to hear the four winners of the 2013 BFWW Essay Contest read their essays on “Masculinity.”

Second prize winner Deborah Swiatek waits her turn to read

The winners are pictured below:

L-R, Hilda Banks Shapiro, Ellen Bliss, Joan Embree, Deborah Swiatek

They were introduced by Essay Contest organizers Michelle Gillett and Nina Ryan, as well as this year’s Essay Contest Judge, Katherine Bouton.

Michelle Gillett

Nina Ryan reads from Edith Wharton's autobiography


Katherine Bouton

The winners have graciously agreed to share their essays with our Festival website audience.  Read on!

First prize winner, Ellen Bliss


What Do You Mean Ken’s Pants Zip Up the Front?

by Ellen Bliss

 Nobody struggles with the meaning of masculinity more than a lesbian. I should know, I come from a long line of lesbians.  Technically, I know this is not possible, but let’s face it, once you have one lesbian relative the “aunts” come crashing in like brides to be at Filene’s annual basement sale.  You’ve got the current lesbian lover, the former lesbian lover, the lesbian’s other lover, and her ex-lovers.  You’ve got the lesbian friends of lovers, not to mention the honest to goodness sisters of the lovers (lesbian or not).  And the queens well, they’re a whole other story.


 So, I had a lot of “aunts” growing up.  This was good because I was an only child being raised by a single mother and we didn’t have many actual relatives; bad because they did kinda seem to come and go.  Also bad because I didn’t really have a clue about what was going on until my mid-twenties.  (Yeah, I know. Again, a whole other story.) I didn’t think it was unusual to call all female friends of my mother’s “aunt.”  I also didn’t notice that a lot of them dressed like men.  I was eight years old, I thought Ken’s pants zipped up the back. What did I know.  What did I care.

If Chaz Bono and Donald Trump had a love child, her name would be Aunt Shirley.  Aunt Shirl was a sturdy, robust woman, perhaps even burly.  She had golden hair that swooped around in the most feminine masculine quiff that was possible in 1964.  She was smart, she was funny, and she dressed like a man.

Shirley had an apartment across the courtyard from my mother’s.  She shared it with Ginny, a tall, glamorous, moody blonde who wore her hair in a DA and dressed like Kim Novak (for whom she was often mistaken). They both worked in offices in THE CITY.  By which I mean, in case you’re not from New Jersey – Manhattan.  I loved this about them, that they worked in New York.  I knew that meant they were the best at what they did.  Someday, I wanted to work in New York too.

My mother was living with my Aunt Marilyn, Aunt Shirley’s sister, which was how I knew her.  When I visited my mother on weekends, sometimes we’d go over for dinner. Eventually their friends would show up.  After a while, I was handed a piece of cake and a bottle of coke and sent to the livingroom to watch television.  I sat there straining my ears to hear their conversations.  Adult talk was always far more interesting than anything on TV.  Eventually, I fell asleep watching Chiller Theatre.  In the other world, in the kitchen, there was a lot of Rheingold drunk, a lot of Pall Malls smoked, a lot of laughing, sometimes even a lot of yelling (Ginny was a jealous woman.) and occasionally some all night poker.

Aunt Shirley genuinely adored kids and I adored her.  She talked, she listened, and she was generous with her time. One Sunday we made a deal.  I would help her clean her apartment and she would teach me how to play chess.  I’m not sure that she made out on this deal, but it was a win/win for me.  How I loved those Sundays.

Aunt Shirley’s apartment was like a Pan Am commercial, glamorous and foreign. It was filled with mementos from around the world and I got to clean them! Over her couch hung a painting of Big Ben and Parliament by the river Thames. The other wall held a street café with the Eiffel Tower in the background.  I sprayed Bon Ami on the coffee table and studied those paintings, the way the light reflected on the rainy streets, the way the people sipped their drinks.  How did those people get there?  Someday, I’m going there.  I’ll have coffee in that café and I’ll walk across that bridge.

In the bedroom was a black lacquer suite which included an armoire and a full-sized bed.  There was just one bed. It never occurred to me to ask where Ginny slept.  There was Chinese calligraphy on the wall and jade lions on the dresser. These lions captivated me.  Smooth and cool to the touch, I could only imagine the splendor of the place from which they came. Gently, I wiped them clean.  To me they were incredibly exotic and more importantly, an escape hatch to a world of beauty, free from want, loneliness, and my mother’s continual reminder of what I cost her.

Shirley was the first person to lend me a book to read for pleasure.  I didn’t know people read books that were not required at school. I didn’t know you could actually enjoy reading.  She loaned me “The Good Earth.” I didn’t understand a lot of it, but I tried because she thought I could.  Back then, I thought she was giving me her time.  She knew she was giving me something far bigger, a love of reading, a key to endless possibilities.

For me, the line between masculine and feminine was blurred even before I understood what gender meant. My Aunt Shirley was a butch lesbian, a walking contradiction in 1960s society. She believed in me and showed me that the big wide world was just waiting for me to grab it. She was the ideal father. If the definition of masculinity is “the quality of looking and behaving in ways conventionally thought to be appropriate for a man or boy,” then I learned many good aspects of masculinity not from a man, but from a woman. I learned that not all men go out for a pack of cigarettes and never come home, that they don’t all beat you with a belt buckle. Sometimes, they nurture and encourage you and, most importantly, believe in you. Sometimes, they really do love you.



Deborah Swiatek reading her second-prize-winning essay

My Father

By Deborah Swiatek

Townspeople called my father a gentleman.   He was a successful businessman.  A gentleman farmer.  A proud Roman Catholic: a member of the Irish Academy as he called it.  A sword carrying 4th degree member of The Knights of Columbus.  He had a great sense of humor with an Irish twinkle in his eyes.  He wore a suit and tie to work and a heavy plaid flannel shirt at home.   All of his shirts had to have a breast pocket to hold his hearing aid.  He was deaf.  The device was tucked in the pocket and a wire went from the pocket to his left ear.  He held his arm to his waist with bent elbow for my mother to place her hand on even before her unsteady gait due to her illness.   For the Carnation Ball he dressed in a pink tuxedo coat and proudly escorted my mother decked out in her ball gown as they paraded through the gauntlet of their four children.   He was the perfect gentlemen.

My family called my father an alcoholic.  This is only the second time I have put into writing that my father was an alcoholic.   I thought of him as a drunk, yes, but also as a wise businessman, as a good story teller, and often I thought of him as a very sad person.  But I never thought of my father as manly.  I used to wish that my father was like one of my friend’s father: a farmer.  He seemed so accessible.  He wore dungarees:  it was the 50’s.   He worked in the fields and brought warm raw milk from the barn to the bustling family kitchen.   The family was lively and fun and physical.  The family dinners were noisy with laughter and easy banter.  The father was not a drunk.  I loved going there.

My family’s dinner table consisted of the four children, my older brother and sister, my younger brother, my father, and me.   Most of my memories do not include my mother as she died from a long battle with breast cancer when I was fourteen.  There were rules for the dinner table: sit up straight, don’t talk with your mouth full, say please before asking for the salt or butter, and be respectful.  My father sat at the head of the table, often at a 45 degree angle as he was too drunk to sit up straight.  Somehow the food always made it to his mouth though my brothers and sister and I would sit with bated breath and wonder if the slow airplane to the mouth moves of the fork would make it without spilling anything.  It always did.  And he always ate every bite.  Then he waited for dessert to be served and he ate every bite of that, too.   My sister and I would send eye signals to each other.  Sometimes with anger, sometimes with disgust, but often we had all we could do to keep a straight face.  I mean, really.  Our father was at the head of the table at a 45 degree angle straining every muscle of his body to be very proper all the while insisting that we behave like proper young ladies.  There were several options of response: cry, storm out of the room, scream, argue, or sit there and accept it.  But many times the best solution was to let go and laugh.   It was a quiet laugh, a private laugh, often a laugh with the eyes, but it helped us get through the evening.

Then my father re-married.  He married a woman so unlike my mother.  A woman I could not accept.  A woman I would never accept.  I could not forgive him for that.  How could he do this?  He could do it drunk as a skunk, that’s how.

I used to see these portraits as two separate men.  The first portrait, the father most people knew, was the father I was so proud of and loved.  The second, the alcoholic, was the secret father, the father that evoked anger and embarrassment.  The two could not be reconciled so I kept them locked in separate chambers in my heart.

Then I grew up.    I realized how hard it must have been for him to reconcile the two people also.  My father’s illness was as cruel as my mother’s, but he had to live with it a lot longer.   As my father aged, he seemed to come together more.  He showed more of his gentle side. He laughed more, he drank less often.  He hugged his children though awkwardly. He hugged his grand children with great warmth.

I remember my father’s love for my mother, how the only time I saw or heard him choke up was when her coffin was lowered into the ground and the first shovel of dirt hit with a thud.   How despite his alcoholism, he got up every morning and ran a successful business.  How despite his deafness he lead a normal life.  How he provided an arm for my mother, for me at my wedding.   I remember how he did it all with dignity.  Yes, even those nights at the dining room table, though perverse, he was trying to hold on to his dignity, to the dignity of the family.

Today I no longer wish my father was like my friend’s father.  Now, when I think of that dinner table long ago, I wish I could have seen my father with today’s eyes.  I wish I could have seen that it was an illness that kept him from being the man I so wanted him to be, the man he so wanted to be.  In living through his vulnerabilities, he held on to his dignity.  For that I am proud.

Hilda Banks Shapiro reading her second-prize-winning essay



by Hilda Banks Shapiro

Masculinity.  That’s a funny subject.  I mean, really.  Not funny like laugh but funny like odd.  If you have lived a long time, and I have, you have seen masculinity change.  Over and over.  And then some.

When I was a little girl, I would sit on the edge of the bathtub and watch my father shave.  He used a brush and a lot of creamy foam and he twisted his face to accommodate the razor.  I would twist my face too and wonder when I could do what he was doing, until my Mother explained that I would never do what he was doing.  It was a disappointment.  I thought my father was perfect.  I admired his strong shoulders as he stood in front of the bathroom mirror in his striped pajama bottoms and his white ribbed narrow-strapped undershirt.  When he went to a Masonic Lodge meeting dressed in a dark suit, a white shirt with a starched collar and a small patterned bright tie, I thought no one could possibly look nicer.  His face was soft and smooth and he smelled of baby powder.  It seemed to me that men had all the answers and all the power.  They did all the important things.

A few years later I was taking piano lessons.  My first teacher had taken me to play for a man who taught at New England Conservatory.  His name was Leonard Shure and he was exotic-looking.  He had moody eyes, black slicked-back hair and an interesting, faintly foreign accent.  his voice was deep and resonant.  I had never met anyone like him.  He scared me but he also fascinated me.

When I was ten years old I played a house recital.  My parents invited many people; furniture had been moved about and folding chairs placed in rows.  I played Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin.  People seemed to think I did very well.  Afterwards as I walked along the hall to the kitchen my teacher hugged me tightly and longer than I had ever been hugged.  I liked it because he seemed very pleased but it frightened me a little.  He smelled of something strange but somehow delicious and I realized quite suddenly that he was a man.  He wasn’t my father or one of my Uncles or my older brother.  I don’t think I knew the word masculine then but I did understand that there was a mystery to life that I was just beginning to wonder about.

Two years later, I learned what a “crush” was. I thought about my teacher a lot and began to fantasize about him.  I sort of understood what masculine meant.  Mr. Shure didn’t dress like my father or any of my father’s friends.  He wore soft, light colors, open sandals on his bare feet and he told jokes I didn’t understand.  I felt more and more as if men had all the answers.

They were special, different, attractive in a puzzling way. When I began reading books that explored love and touched on intimate relations I felt nervous and bewildered.  I never asked questions; I listened for answers but I didn’t get any.  Masculine meant powerful, all-knowing–someone to look up to, to hold on to..  I didn’t date until I was eighteen and I had a very mixed-up idea of what masculine was.  Masculine was strong, always sure of oneself, someone who would take care of you, keep you from harm.  Masculine had something to do with ownership in some way.

When I got married at twenty-two I carried a lot of those ideas and those misconceptions with me.  I had been raised in a home by parents who came from Europe and they had many conservative ideas about the gulf between men and women, the importance of rules and regulations, the differences between masculine intelligence and feminine intelligence.

My husband and I began a family quickly and there were seven boys among twelve babies.  They took their cues from their father who came from Danzig and definitely believed in the magic of the masculine.  I re-enforced that belief myself–at least until most of their “growing up” and making their way in the world.  My childhood reverence for my father carried over into my adult life–even after I finally asserted some independence.  I still love what masculine stands for in my mind–self-confidence, irresistible charm and success–the key to every door, simply by being masculine.

Today, when I see young fathers carrying children in back packs on their shoulders, I am impressed.  I am pleased and admiring.  I like the changes.  But I am not sure they belong with the word masculine.  The idea of a woman’s strength and independence is amazing.  But has something been lost?  Has the masculine arm to lean on, the masculine way of leading or guiding lost some of its mystique?  Some of its excitement?  What IS masculine anyhow?  Do we need to bring it back?  Shall we throw it away?  Do we want it?  Do we miss it?  Has it become extinct??


Third prize-winner Joan Embree readingMasculinity

by Joan Embree

It was the last thing I heard before bed. NPR broadcasting Sandy battering New York, New Jersey. Blackouts, floodwaters, fires, grief-whipped trees succumbing, snow. A super-storm hacked up from hell. Or, possibly coincidence, no rhyme or reason, a dream at dawn. Two guys from my teenage past: Sky and Dukie, sixteen, cocky, stomping into my sleep-drugged mind, not giving a shit I hadn’t seen them in decades. They could be dead by now, for all I know.

“Man, I seen some things down by the River last night,” Sky, hopped up as I remember he was. “Yeah, like what?” Dukie, a guy with attitude, cigarette stuck to his lip. “Tremors on the water, man, telling me like maybe a steamer was coming, but, that wasn’t the important thing, man. I’m talkin’ about this feeling in my gut, man, like I knew the tremors were some kind of premonition.” “Shit,” Dukie, ready to pop him one. “It’s been known to drown, man, the Hudson,” Sky’s manic riff turning low, conspiratorial, like he’s onto something big. “What the fuck you talking about? A river can’t drown,” Dukie, amped up. “Overflowed by the sea. Three times in history, man, I read it in National Geographic, when I got a polio shot. One of life’s many mysteries, Jack,” Sky overcome by his own profundity. “What sea would that be, asshole?” Dukie, disgusted. “Look at a fucking atlas, man, I don’t know. Point being, down the line, people in The City, man, gonna have their minds blown. Wake up one fine morning with the surf beating at their doorsteps is all I’m sayin’, man.”

“Shit, Joan, what do you think?” Dukie smirking. “Don’t ask her, man, she don’t know. She’s a girl, “ Sky beamed at me like he’d paid me the highest compliment.” I didn’t take it personally. I knew how guys were. Jerks half the time with their stupid bathroom-poop-jailhouse-anal-rape humor. Still, I was drawn, as a moth to light, to the guy world of bantering. The musicality and energy of teasing. The display of bonhomie.

Don’t get me wrong. I love women. I have a beloved daughter. I don’t think all men are great. Some are horrible; the ones who rant, rave, stalk, abuse, a few of whom I’ve known too well, but that’s nothing you want to know. Fact is, though, most of my friends are guys. My favorite writer is Junot Diaz. I love Charlie Pierce and The Car Guys. I can’t help it. It’s my father’s fault. I hung out with him, fishing, going to bars. He taught me how to drive a car, how to play a harmonica like an ascending train. He told me to be kind, not expect too much of people. Once, he gave me a silvery, diaphanous snake skin laid out in green tissue in a Lord & Taylor glove box. Another time, he went right the hell up to a chained dog blinking and leaning into a howling wind. He ripped the chain off the doghouse, threw the dog over his shoulder like a bag of bones: “For you, Peachy, one helleva great coonhound.” The dog had a limp, mange, bald spots, was half starved to death. He was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. We loved each other for his whole long life. My father, on his death bed, murmured: “You know.” I didn’t have the heart to grill him, so I never found out what it was that I knew.

Out the corner of my eye, black shadows streak by. Whispers brush my ear. Femininity, masculinity, the whole hellish realm of relationship. I don’t get much of it. Despite my age, I feel like a carefree happy girl when I’m with my male friends. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or bad. I told my friend, a psychiatrist, a poet: “Sometimes, I feel like a gay guy trapped in a women’s body.” “I completely know what you mean!” he said with vigor. What did I mean? I don’t even know. He calls me Pony. We explore landscapes together and have committed minor infractions, which I can’t tell you.

My mother had a secret past the size of Asia. Earliest appearance, her wedding photograph. She’s dead. Still, I don’t go on ancestry.com. I don’t need to know about any loser relatives kicking around. I grew up a skinny, slouching, daydreaming girl, until I turned fourteen and morphed into a wild maniac, but that’s another story. Had it not been for my father, I would have been a mess. My mother didn’t teach me jack shit. Don’t get me wrong. I loved her. Her neglect made me strong. How old am I, you ask? I don’t remember. My brother made life more fun than it was. He died alone in his bed in a stone cold house, having asked nothing of me. Once, I told my mother he was in bad shape and we had to help him. She said: “I’ve had it with you, Lady Godiva. I left you alone, didn’t I? Now, you leave me alone.” As if leaving someone alone was the right and decent thing to do.

My son? He’s the embodiment of a good man: strong, kind, brave, rugged, handsome, tender-hearted. When he was a river guide in Honduras, our raft nearly flipped over in the rapids. A guy shouted, “Dude, trying to get rid of your mother?” “Fuckin A,” he said, gently smiling at me. We’ve been all over the world together. Lost in exotic places, until he’d find our way. I haven’t been a good mother, but he lies and tells me I’ve been wonderful. That’s because he’s humble, not arrogant enough to say, “I forgive you.” Light comes off him, stars shoot from his eyes. He’s on a plane now back to Colorado where he lives, soaring high and away, leaving my heart once again to thrum with epic, eternal love.


After the readings, the entire group enjoyed a delicious wine and cheese reception sponsored by Rubiner’s Cheesemongers of Great Barrington, and many were already looking forward to the chance to enter next year’s Festival Essay Contest!

Michelle, Jennifer and Nina at the reception