Generations of Women

Several years ago a funny thing happened to me one morning. Usually when I look in the mirror in the morning, I am highly focussed on what I am doing. I see nothing but the hair I am combing, the contact lens I am putting in, etc. This morning I suddenly realized that I was looking at my mother. I just stopped and stared at the mirror, wondering how she got there. I was suddenly forced to realize just how much I was my mother's daughter. Our physical similarities are obvious. We both have problems with our left knees. The right knee is not good, but it is better than the left. We have the same weight problems. I will probably have the same heart problems. For a few short years, the realization of these inheritances actually launched me on a regular exercise program.

My mother is the youngest of three sisters, born between 1907 and 1914. Her family had moved to Oklahoma from the Philadelphia area between the birth of her sisters and herself. Her father was a civil engineer who was also the local inspector of coal mines. When my mother was 10, their father, my grandfather, was killed when inspecting a local coal mine. A large rock fell from the roof of the mine and killed him. His wife was left with 3 young girls to support in a society where women had no opportunities outside the home. I never knew, or even thought to ask, how they managed. I knew that they had homestead exemption on the house and that this helped. But, when I was a child, I had no concept of what it took to raise a family. No one in the movies on the west really needed money. I did not know how much money my mother earned until I had to fill out a financial aid form when I applied to MIT in 1958. (She made $200/month, $2400/yr.) I knew that she counted her money after each shopping trip and once tried vainly to find a missing $10. At 10 I sent away a coupon from a magazine ad and started selling greeting cards door to door to make my own money with which to buy books. While the realization that not much money would have been available for all the books I wanted must have been there, the more obvious motivation was the desire to say, "I can do this for myself!" When I got that scholarship and left for college in the east, I quickly met my future husband and became much more interested in our relationship and future lives than in those that had gone before.

A few years ago the middle sister, my aunt Bettye, who lived alone on the New Jersey shore, died. I spent most of the next month or more commuting back and forth between Amherst and New Jersey with my mother, three days to close down the house , dispose of her belongings, and deal with the lawyer; three days to audit a class at UMass and do a little work; one day spent in traveling. In that time I learned more about Bettye by talking to my mother, letting her talk through her memories, than I had ever known about her before. I had always thought that she had willingly left home after high school, even run away from helping to support the family. Instead I learned that she had been sent back east because a "family decision" had been made. Part of the eastern branch of the family "offered to help" by taking on Bettye to work in their restaurant. She had hated it; she was the poor relative. She had finally "run away" from that situation to go out on her own. She eventually became a highly valued private secretary to a lawyer. But only now could I understand her personality: the constant emphasis on money, watching stock prices obsessively, the enormous wardrobe of clothes for work, the strong opposition to my marriage. She had developed all of these characteristics in order to assure herself of a high paying job and future economic security. Her first marriage was short lived, marred by a miscarriage (domestic violence too?). She did marry again, but very much later, after many years of "seeing" the same man. They were both financially independent. He died first, by over a decade, and she returned to living alone. In her last several years a local black man and his wife looked in on her daily and did shopping for her. Her affection was lavished on local cats and seagulls. But her personality, formed by the circumstances of her life, kept her from forming close relationships within the family. Besides, she had been physically removed for the last 65 years of her life. My mother once comented that Bettye had never known why she was sent away from home.

When my grandfather was killed, the oldest sister, Marie, was away at college in Missouri. She was immediately called home. She was the only person capable of bringing in a salary. She became a local elementary school teacher in 1924 and taught school in Henryetta until she retired. She took summer courses at teacher's colleges for credits toward promotion. When I was growing up she lived in the same house with us, the house my grandfather had built. I learned early that I really didn't want to be under her supervision. Absolute perfection was the only possible outcome. If I brought home a spelling test where I had lost a point because I had neglected to dot an i or cross a t, I would not hear the end of it until I had 100% on the next test. It didn't matter that I had been reading since I was 4. Every point had to be gathered in and brought home. All three sisters had been the valedictorian of their respective high school graduation classes. Marie had to make sure that I would not deviate from this path. And, of course, she knew all of the local teachers and principals; they constituted their own social club. No slip could be kept hidden. Things said on the playground could find their way back in no time.

Marie was bitterly opposed my marriage. Her plan had been that I would become an engineer and return to Henryetta to support the family. My marriage obviously upset those plans. It was unclear how much enmity was added because the marriage was outside of our religious/cultural community. (I certainly wanted to get out of it!) It is certain that she could not abide Steve's mother; nor could Bettye. After one visit, shortly after our marriage, apparently the way we shared tasks and my defense of our style, so upset her that she flew to Bettye's house and stayed entirely out of communication for at least a week, literally silent. She did not take deviations from her plans lightly.

But many of her students came back to visit her years after they had left her class, remembering her fondly. Perhaps they bent more easily to plans; or maybe she did not have such firm plans for them so that deviations were better tolerated. The appearance of these old students always amazed me. I couldn't imagine this other side of her personality.

Marie was not in good health when Bettye died. She slowly went downhill and it became harder and harder for my mother to continue to take care of her. My brother lived nearby, but, during the day my mother was in charge. Her health problems were almost as bad but her attitude was a lot better. Finally, after a stroke, Marie was put in a local nursing home. Her speech was slurred; sometimes she didn't recognize people; she wouldn't eat.

My mother, Lillian, was the youngest of the girls. She remembers coming home from school and delivering bread that her mother had baked all day, each contributing to the cash income for the family in the only way they could. Lil too was the valedictorian of her high school class. Though attending college was one of her highest hopes, she stayed home and took a job after graduation. While she finally married, it was quite late and I was not born until she was 27. My brother was born more than 2 years later. But my parents were divorced when I was 4, and I only saw my father once after that, more than 20 years later. The only thing I have ever seen my mother bitter about was that marriage. She brought us back from Fairfax to the house in Henryetta where she had grown up and found a job to help support the extended family. She became an assistant in a doctor's office a couple of blocks from our house.

My grandmother was diagnosed with cervical cancer when I was quite young. As a result, instead of attending kindergarten, since she could not care for me when I returned, I sat in the back of Marie's 6th grade class and read for the year before I entered first grade. But even from her bed, my grandmother would keep track of the time of my return from school during the next couple of years, and any irregularity would be reported. She would go to Oklahoma City for periods of radiation therapy at Saint Anthony's Hospital. I would commute on weekends with my mother by bus to visit. This was my first view of life outside a small town, especially as we did not have a car. There were stores full of books, people with skin of different colors (why did they have to use different water fountains and rest rooms? I always wanted to try theirs to see what was different.), many things to fascinate a young child. After several years of these treatments, she was sent home as they could do nothing more for her. She died when I was 10.

When I was in the sixth grade, it was discovered that I had a very rapidly progressing triple scoliosis of the spine. Exercises prescribed by the specialists in Oklahoma City were not helping. On a summer visit to Bettye in New Jersey, we visited a doctor in Philadelphia. He recommended an experimental surgical procedure, removing tissue from my thigh and using it to attach my rib to my pelvis on my right side, thus preventing further deterioriation as I grew. My mother opted for the surgery and to stay with me through my recovery. As a result, she could not return to her job and lost it. She took a clerical job with the gas company as we spent the next year in New Jersey with Bettye. My brother stayed in Oklahoma with Marie. We returned for the next school year, and Lil got a job with the local hospital, eventually becoming a registered laboratory and x-ray technician. To obtain this certification, she and I again commuted to Oklahoma City by bus to take classes to upgrade her skills. In high school, I worked in both the laboratory and x-ray department, as a trainee with other high school students, for the current minimum wage of $0.50 per hour. We were on call for emergencies as well. When Lil retired, she was in charge of both departments at the hospital and clinic.

Twenty years ago Lil had open heart surgery, a double bypass. After a long recovery period, she continued working until she was 65 but had continuing heart problems. Just over a year ago, I got a call that she was in intensive care in the hospital in Tulsa. Steve and I were in Flagstaff, trying to take a few days together after he completed his duties on a department review committee. Both of Steve's parents had died within 6 weeks of each other earlier that year. We changed our plane reservations, used the few hours we had left and then tried to get some sleep. The next day we flew to Tulsa and drove to the hospital. Steve spent a couple of hours there and then returned to the airport to fly back to another meeting. I stayed to help my mother and my brother decide with the doctor on the best way to meet this crisis. I was in the room when nurses came rushing in to hook her up to the oxygen, get her out of the chair and into bed as a silent alarm signaled that her heart was slowing to a stop. The doctor was found and he was there within minutes. The conversations about scheduling a surgical procedure followed by a pacemaker implant became more intense.

Then, the next day, I was called to the nurse's station to receive a phone call. My brother had visited the nursing home after work and found that Marie had died. After a few moments I returned to Lil's hospital room to break the news to her. She absorbed it, shed a tear that she had not yet shed for Marie's life, and became obsessed with taking care of the funeral arrangements, even wanting to leave the hospital to take care of everything herself. Charles only managed to convince her that he can take care of it by actually doing it and reporting back on the arrangements. Together with the doctor, we convinced her that she could not leave the hospital. I drove down from Tulsa to attend the graveside services. I saw many people who I had not seen for decades. During the service, two scissortailed flycatchers were performing loops over the new part of the cemetery. When the service was over, I returned to Tulsa and the hospital. That Friday I flew back to Amherst to attend a meeting and then flew back to Tulsa for the next week. The surgery was scheduled for Tuesday.

The surgery was successful, though there was no immediate resurgence of energy. The pacemaker implantation later in the week did more to help. It was tuned iteratively for the next few weeks and months. Eventually Lil felt better than she had for years.

Last Christmas, we went through all of the old photographs that my brother had dug out of trunks and drawers. We tried to identify the images with people we could remember. Then we came on this studio portrait of a truly beautiful young woman. I just held that picture and stared at it. There was only one person that it could have been, but I didn't think that it was possible. It was Marie as a young woman, with her life ahead of her. I only knew her after her life was over, more than 40 more years left to last through, but nothing more to look forward to. We showed the picture to Lil and while she looked at it and confirmed that, yes, it was Marie, she recalled how their mother had broken up Marie's one romance. Marie was being courted by a young man at about the time that picture was taken. Her mother (my grandmother) was strongly opposed to this romance, and they would sneak off to meet at the soda fountain. But eventually her mother won; Marie stayed home and taught school, bringing in a paycheck and determining the rest of her life (at that time women who married would lose their teaching jobs).

A couple of years ago, when Marie was still living at the house, after some exchange, Lil was (very uncharacteristically) moved to ask her, "Marie, you really hate Bettye and me, don't you?" "Yes," Marie replied, "you both had an opportunity to marry, and I didn't." Those were the only words spoken, after all those years of living in the same house. But the difference in personality, in choice of outlook, were clearly defined. The bitterness nurtured all those years was still alive and well.

So this is the story of three generations of women and how they dealt with the cards that society dealt them. Fortunately, when I look into the mirror, I still see my mother.

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