Saturday, December 5, 2009
Of all the anonymous people who have influenced my life, a special place is held by a Norwegian immigrant farmer who hired my grandmother to help with household chores. My grandmother, Nellie, had been orphaned at eight and raised by an elderly childless aunt and uncle. She was a teenager, when, around 1910 or so, she went to work for the nearby farmer, helping to cook and clean up. What happened exactly, I don’t know. When I interviewed my mother and her sister in the 1990s about their childhood, they each reported that the farmer had chased their mother around the kitchen table. He influenced my mother because he terrified her mother. This early experience of sexual harassment made Nellie extremely suspicious of men and, when she married, extremely protective of her two daughters born fourteen months apart.
Protective is perhaps too kind. Her mother saw the world as a dangerous place for women, and she kept her girls near her, suffocatingly so. Add to that, she was strict. She allowed her son, Robert, the third child, the freedom to roam; with his bicycle he could wherever he wanted after school. My mother and her sister had to come straight home. He could invite friends over; he could go to friend’s houses. Toni Morrison in her elegant Playing in the Dark says that the enslavement of African-Americans in the first part of the nineteenth century heightened the meaning of liberty for whites. It’s as though whites needed to illustrate how free they were by how enslaved others were.
My mother and my sister experienced the reverse: they knew how homebound they were by their brother’s freedom to roam. Their lives seemed all the more restricted in the face of their brother’s freedom to exit and return. If there had been no brother, Margaret and Muriel would still have had to come home after school, would still have had an overcautious mother, but they would not have been reminded daily that it was because they weren’t boys that their lives were so constrained. My mother had an abiding sense of the injustice to women at being treated differently.
I read somewhere that we are always leaving our mothers. Our arrival in the world is also a departure from their body as our world. Both Margaret and Muriel were bright girls. Muriel was valedictorian of her class. St. Olaf offered her a scholarship, but it was the Depression, her parents didn’t really understand how such funding worked, nor even how college worked. College was not a way out.
During the height of the Depression, these two young women plotted how to escape their mother and their small town. Margaret hit upon an idea: Mom would teach and put Margaret through school; then Margaret would get a job and put Mom through school. My mother went to work in a one room school room in rural Minnesota, and sent money to Minneapolis to support Margaret as she went through business college (secretarial school). After two years my mother was going to join her in Minneapolis, and Margaret, armed with her degree and a job would put my mother through business college. My mother quit her job, and then learned that Margaret had not yet earned enough money for Mom to come to Minneapolis. So my mother had to take a job in another town, another one room schoolroom. It was a miserable year.
Finally, she was liberated into life in the big city. What a grand time they had. We need more stories about single women and the lives they led at the end of the 1930s and the early 1940s. They each landed great jobs for women at that time. They golfed; they played bridge; they had women friends. The world of Minneapolis was theirs!
When World War II broke out, Margaret joined the Women’s Army Corps and Muriel the Red Cross. Mom was sent to Hawaii. When the war was over, Margaret was stationed in Japan, and Mom was engaged to be married. She was coming home. She wrote to her parents telling them of her arrival time at the train station. She got off of the train and looked for her parents. No one was there. She waited for a while, watching to see them arrive. No one showed up to pick her up. She was confused. She had sent the time of her train’s arrival. What happened?
Finally, she grabbed a taxi and took it to the house. She asked her mother why her father wasn’t at the train station. Her mother told her she did not send her father to great her at the train station because she had disapproved of her going to Hawaii, because Muriel had not asked for permission to join the Red Cross. (At the time, she was thirty years old!).
My mother encouraged her daughters to leave home early and often – if we wanted. We all went abroad as teenagers. We knew a warm welcome was always awaiting us. And we all know where we want to be right now. They are there; I’ll be joining them soon.