This article first appeared in the “Denim Spirit” series of The Fingerlakes Times (NY).http://www.fltimes.com/opinion/denim-spirit-women-without-last-names/article_0872723a-9b78-11e6-abf6-8b6d0b427550.html
Writers have assorted ways to log half-baked ideas, snippets of thoughts, and compelling lines for later use. Journals, three-ringed notebooks, or blue computer file icons collect disheveled piles of words the way shelves collect dusty knickknacks. The chaos of my orphaned thoughts causes the compulsive inkling in my left leg to itch, but I would rather clean the basement than bring order to it. So I dumpster dive now and again, to pull up what remains edible.
On a recent descent I discovered these tidbits labeled only, “Grave Marker.”
Lulu Mattison 1892-1912
April 20, 1897 age 36
Wife of BA Miller
Often such random scribbles lose their mooring to what I wanted to remember, and thus their meaning to me. But I know exactly why theses gravestones were noted: Edith, Lulu, and Fanny illuminated a new and different perspective on my mother – someone with whom I had a complicated and often troubled relationship.
My mom was a brilliant person who skipped two grades in school and went off to the University of Michigan at sixteen. She matriculated in the fall of 1932 but the sudden death of her father two years later ended her college career without a degree. She then took one of the few routes open to educated women in those days; she went off to secretarial school.
My mom would probably not have been successful as anyone’s secretary. She wasn’t just an alpha female, she was alpha anyone else in the room. Fortunately for her and any potential employers, she met my dad and her secretarial career ended. In fact, she never worked outside the home once they were married. An only child herself, she had five children – at least two of them by intention. By the time I was in high school and the only kid still at home, my mom was depressed and when available, drank too much. She likely had an undiagnosed mental health crisis in those years, and that drove her further inside herself and her home.
As a teenager and young adult I could not understand why this brilliant woman had refused to go back to college when her kids got older, as many women in the next generation did. Her inaction and isolation became just one more source of tension between us as it eroded further what little credibility she had in my adolescent eyes.
Edith, Lulu, and Fanny point to a reality to which I was blinded. Because I was male and a product of my own time, and in spite of having grown up in the presence of a personally powerful woman, I did not see that she was also socially impotent. As a popular online video reminds us these days, before the 1970’s women could not: get birth control if unmarried (until 1972); serve on a jury (until 1973); get credit in their own name (until 1974); sue for sexual harassment (until 1977); be guaranteed to keep a job while pregnant (until 1987); legally refuse sex from their spouse (until 1993); or pay the same rate as a man for health insurance (until 2010). Heck, women are not paid the same as their male counterparts still.
To be sure, there were some women who had good jobs and successful careers prior to the 1970’s but they were the exception, and did so against great odds and likely in spite of degrading experiences. We forget or remain ignorant at our own peril about the fact that women were without last names not so very long ago.
Happily my mom and I worked our way toward reconciliation before she died, but I ache to hear her talk about her choices and struggles in those days. My mom was a die-hard Republican yet I suspect she would have great difficulty not voting for Hillary.
R. Sue Rhodes says
Thanks for telling us about your mom. It seems, to me, that she was an interesting woman.
EDWIN BECK says
Cam – Minus the drinking, yours and mine could have been sisters. Mine always needed to prevail, whether it was with another woman (she was especially hostile toward Democrats, although she would have voted for HRC, too); or some man who did not resemble a butt-kissing car salesman. When my sister was well passed her 60th birthday, and making decisions which my mother felt were founded in poor judgment – and which lacked Mother’s input – she would go on and on about “young people these days – you can’t tell ’em a thing.” Youth was inherently flawed – except when she was young, of course – and anyone more than twenty years her junior had no idea what they were talking about. Jews were not to be trusted; and black people – forget about it! Whenever she could not help herself from making some comment about our 44th POTUS, his middle name was always deployed. She did work outside our home for many years, and for that I should be thankful: my father’s income alone could never have been enough to support us very well. Anyway, thanks for sharing stuff about your mother; oh, and one last tidbit: when Mother was dying in a hospital down in Florida, she came around from a comatose disposition after I kissed her on the cheek, and made the comment, “It’s sure been a long time.” My last visit had not been – shall we say – “recent.”
But you made it there, and she knew it, by God. Thanks Ed, for sharing this. Cam
Thanks for sharing a little bit of Muffer. She was full of complexities. I was such a teen that I never tried to make sense of them.
Thanks. I’m not sure we ever get to know or understand our parents with the filter of childhood being so thick even as we age.
Great tribute and so gets at the frustrations of women and how it impacts their children. Us mommas are complicated being no matter how much our sons wish we were not.
Oh so complicated!
EDWIN BECK says
LOVED IT !!!