Looking at my 70 year old self isn’t the most fun if you’re talking about looking in the mirror. There’s no denying the changes no matter how you’ve taken care of yourself. Thinking about who I really am is a different story. Current events make me wonder why my thoughts differ from some people around me, people who appear to have lives somewhat like mine. I’ve realized that my evolution as a person is due to so very many things that have happened to me, things are unique to me as your lives are unique to you. It’s also the people who were there that made the subtle changes along the way. When I tried to capture the change makers in my life, most of them seem to be women. I adore men and have known so many good ones who loved me, made me laugh, were such great friends and teachers and were part of this story, but, it’s the women whose images seemed to jump forward as I write this.
I was a good little girl, more quiet than shy. I was one of those who wanted to please so I didn’t argue with too many people, at least back then. I know I watched what was going around me, saving it in my mind, processing it along the years.
I never met my great-grandmothers, but I’ve been finding out about them recently. They were pretty amazing women, ones I’m proud to claim and ones who influenced my grandmothers and parents, which helps me understand who they were and who I am now.
I have a couple of great-grandmothers who were very poor. One of them lived on a farm in southern Oklahoma and another one in Kentucky. Their lives were hard and I now see how they influenced my grandmothers. There was another one who I’ve found working as a servant on a farm inTexas at the age of 14. I can’t find more about her until she met my great-grandfather, but he owned properties in and around early Ardmore, Oklahoma. As a widow, my mother spent a lot of time with her and describes her home as a place where people gathered to talk about ideas, where she kept few clothes but had a hat to wear to the Opera, such as when Jenny Lind came through town. She always wore white, which may explain my mother’s affinity for this, and ate sparsely, as my mother remembered it. She lost her husband and both her sons, so devoted herself to her three grandchildren, including her only granddaughter, my mother.
My other great-grandmother was born to people from Louisiana and Kentucky. There were slave owners on that side of the family, although my great-grandmother’s obituary says she was loved by equally by the citizens of her town, black and white. Interesting that they wrote that back in 1937. I can only admit to this part of my history with regret, understanding that it was a much more complicated an issue that I can only acknowledge and not correct.
My paternal grandmother was one of the ones born poor, one of many children in a Catholic family, who married into one of the nicer families in their hometown of Uniontown, Kentucky, leaving her religion behind to marry my Episcopalian grandfather. The churches were rigid in those days. She raised four children and watched her three sons and her son-in-law leave for World War II. They returned with honors except for her youngest son, who was killed at 22, parachuting over Germany. He is buried in Europe and she never saw his grave. As the middle of her nine grandchildren, I was born after the war and never really saw her grief. To me, she twinkled, but I learned later that she never forgave FDR for her son’s death, refusing to even have a postage stamp with his picture. Her arthritis was linked to this anger, as I heard the grownups say. They didn’t talk about much with kids in those days. From this, I can relate to the mothers of fallen soldiers and their grief, sometimes misplaced.
From this grandmother, I also learned a remote lesson about death. As she lay in her coffin at the funeral home, I watched from the door as my father stood beside her and laid his hand on her cheek. She taught me the power of a mother.
My maternal grandmother was born to poor farmers in southern Oklahoma and, at 18, married my grandfather, who was probably 40 at the time. They had three children before he contracted Bright’s Disease, a kidney disease more easily detected and cured today, and died, leaving her a widow at 27 in the middle of the Great Depression. He bought her a neighborhood grocery store, a tiny place where she could eke out a living in those dark days. My mother, the youngest and only daughter, remembered that their only dignity in those days was that they owned their home. When the gas went out due to unpaid bills, at least they had the house. My great-grandmother left each of her three grandchildren a house along with other property. I’m not sure if my grandmother was left one also, but she lived in one of the houses and rented out rooms to pensioners (I asked my mother and found that these men were retired and living on government income). There was also a big house where she rented out rooms and I remember going with her to check rooms or collect rent. I grew up staying with her and sharing a bathroom with those men, walking down a dark hall lit by one bulb, past those lonely, small rooms with their screen doors that gave me a peek inside. This quiet little girl absorbed all of this.
This grandmother taught me other things, too. I was the oldest grandchild and spent a lot of time with her since she lived alone. Her next granddaughter had cerebral palsy. There was no difference in the way she treated us, which taught me to not be afraid of those who are different or can’t do all the things we can.
My mother grew up an old soul with a mother who seemed to always find the joy in life even though she was faced with so much. She gave my mother her sense of adventure, always saying “Let’s do something,” before we set out to see what was going on in the world. My mother worked from a young age, telling me that she was once turned down for a job as a receptionist when she was 16 for being too pretty. The owner thought she would be a distraction for his son. My mother told me her stories of being sexually harrassed after graduating from business school and going into the workplace. When the Anita Hill case was in the news, she told me what it was like when she was young and why she absolutely knew Anita Hill was telling the truth. This was eye-opening to me since my mother was the absolute 1950s mother, the homemaker who kept everything perfect for my father to walk through the door. Her stories of what her life was like before she met Daddy taught me another side of the story I hadn’t been exposed to in my own life. My mother’s stories as I shared my experiences through my life taught me so much and brought my own experiences into much clearer understanding, even if I didn’t agree with her sometimes.
There have been so many women who taught me through the years. Sometimes, they were friends, sometimes we shared an experience, sometimes we only shared a brief moment. They stay in me, they shaped me.
Growing up, my mother always had a maid to help her with the house and her three children. There were no mothers’ day outs or day care centers, so these women stayed with us while she ran her errands or met her friends or whatever she did. All I know is that we had nothing but love and respect for these women. My mother worked right beside them, cleaning and washing. We were comfortably well off, but not extremely wealthy. We often went with my mother to drive them home when they missed their bus or the weather was bad. My mother wanted us to know that there are people who weren’t able to have the things we had.
One of the maids who worked for our family for many years was Daisy. She was from the south and taught me, just like in “The Help,” to fry chicken and pork chops. I wish I’d learned to make her chocolate pie! Daisy was my confidant and there was no messing with her. In my high school years, she counseled me on boyfriends and scolded me on anything I did wrong, although I was a good kid. In 1962, our family was taking a trip east and we drove a route that took us to Atlanta so we could put her on a bus there to go visit her family. Her nervousness and fear as we drove through the south taught me about prejudice as I had never seen it before. Her approval of my future husband tickled me and her joy at our wedding was special, although she wouldn’t come to church with us and waited at home where we had the reception. Her “ship came in” when she finally found a man and married, and quit working, only to have it end when they died in their little house after a gas leak. She shaped me in so many ways.
As a child, I didn’t know any black people outside of those who worked for us or in places like the country club. Many years later, my mother told me that she thought that my grandmother once loved a black man who shopped in her little grocery store. Of course, that would have been scandalous in the depression days in small town Oklahoma. Learning that gave me new perspective on both my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother did have one boyfriend while we were growing up. His name was Mr. Baker (I never heard a first name) and he always wore a hat. She kind of giggled when I asked about him, but they never married and he was always Mr. Baker. My mother told me she didn’t marry when her children were young because she was so afraid that she might marry someone who might abuse them in one way or another. Again, learning that in my later years taught me a lot about the reality of those times and those wonderful women I loved.
Once I was old enough to be out of the house, away from the complete influence of family, there began the parade of women who flood my memories. Among teachers, there is my high school Latin teacher, a former WAC, a Scots woman, who brought the ancient language to life and shared her no-nonsense opinions, her incredible sense of humor, and her intelligence with us. She is a friend today, still sharp as a tack in her 90s.
My first roommate in college was from a small town, graduating from a class of 6. My class was 650 in the city. She was my first small town friend. Another college friend was my first black friend. She was from Arkansas where her family owned a funeral home. To say she was a novelty is an understatement since she is the only black girl I remember from our dorm. We loved her sense of humor and her tolerance of us. I look back now and realize how hard it must have been for her, but she never showed it. Another girl in college was in the same First Aid class I was in. Since I was making an A, I had no problem, but she was struggling and the teacher made her an offer that she wisely refused and reported. I was called into the Dean’s office to talk about it since I was her student counselor. From this girl, I learned that there was such a thing as sexual harassment by those in authority.
I married during my senior year, graduated in May, and went to work the next day at the local grocery store in Stillwater, Oklahoma, as a checker. This was because I decided to take a summer job like my husband (who had to join a union to work construction that summer) before I returned in the fall to teach as a graduate assistant. My parents never understood my decision. One of my favorite co-workers was a wonderful young woman, married to a highway patrolman, who worked at the grocery store for real reasons. She was so very nice and we became friends as we tolerated our boss, a man who chided us if we leaned back during a lull. There were no computers in the summer of 1967, so we had to figure sales tax with the help of a little chart and learn the ever changing prices of the produce every day. The cash register was quite manual and our lines were long on the Saturdays when people came in from the country to do their weekly or monthly shopping. The store was probably closed on Sundays and not open in the evenings back then either. On the day I gave my notice, explaining to our obnoxious boss that I was going to be teaching at the University in the fall, I saw the change in the way he treated me and saw me. I will never get over being outraged that he would treat me differently than he was treating my new friend who would be there long after I left. I learned a lot that summer. A lot.
In the years following, I had four children, moved into our first home, became a housewife, an educated housewife, which is what you did in those days. I hired my own maid, joined the community groups, worked in my children’s schools and did the things I was supposed to be doing. Oh so many things were going to happen to me in the next years that I could never imagine then.
I had occasion to visit an abortion clinic in the mid-70s, a visit that forever changed my views. There, I observed a woman bringing her 14 year old granddaughter, a young black college couple, a woman who had three children and couldn’t afford more. These women were there for their own reasons, there at a legitimate clinic run by doctors, having to make decisions that they were obviously struggling with. I watched counselors going over their decisions with them in a kindly manner, not forcing anyone to do anything other than make sure. There was no joy in any of their faces. I had thought I was anti-abortion until that visit. I became pro-choice. It was none of my business to interfere with this difficult decision in these women’s lives.
When I was pregnant with my fourth child, I was elected the President of a group of young women working to support the symphony orchestra. It was the first big board of directors I would serve on and I was one of a few token women. The power brokers there were old, white men to this 29 year old young woman. I knew them as civic leaders who had made a huge difference in our city, but I also learned that they were nice but not exactly inclusive of the women in the room. The fact that I was pregnant made them a little uncomfortable. I don’t know if they thought I would have the baby during a meeting, but I learned from the experience. I learned from the strong, bright women who spoke out in the meetings and I learned to let my own voice be heard, even if I was pregnant and looked like a kid to them. I learned to represent the ideas of the people I was representing and stand up for them. It was a huge lesson for me and I thank those other women.
I served as a Deacon in our church during the next years and was in charge of helping people who called the church asking for assistance. I learned that there are people who call churches when they are desperate and that they sometimes take advantage of kind people. We didn’t give them money, but would buy them food or pay utilities for them. Once I took food to a woman and her children who were living in a motel where she was cleaning rooms to pay the fee. The children were clean and going to school and she just needed a helping hand. I remember that woman.
Later, I was chairman of a project to open a Women’s Resource Center, a place for displaced housewives (a new term in the 70s) to come for information on resources for getting an education, a job, a place to live, community help and whatever else they needed when they found themselves suddenly having to fend for themselves after a divorce or other life event. As we congratulated ourselves and met the press on opening day, a woman walked up the sidewalk, holding the article from the paper announcing our facility. She ignored the crowd, the press, and walked up to me. She needed help and was there to find it. I remember that woman. She taught me that we were doing the right thing and those women we had only imagined really were out there.
At that particular time in my life, my friends started facing challenges in their lives. Husbands started leaving them for other women, which rarely happened in my parents’ lives. Their friends may have had affairs, but they stayed together. Women couldn’t afford to leave their husbands because there was no place for them to go, so they tolerated a lot. A lot. Anyway, my friends, who were educated but had stayed home to raise the kids, now found themselves having to support themselves and their kids, even with child support and alimony. What they found was that the workplace didn’t automatically hire them in positions that reflected their education or their volunteer experience serving on boards in the community. They found themselves at the bottom of the ladder, having to work their way up. Not only did I have friends who found themselves in this position due to divorce, but some became widows unexpectedly. I learned from these friends that there has to be a way to raise a family and keep one foot in the work place door. This lesson is still being learned by the next generation. My hope is that the young women of today look at my friends who started late and worked their way up into positions of leadership in the workplace by pure hard work and determination. I learned so much from these women and it influenced my thoughts while raising my own three girls and my son. When I became a widow at 52, it was these women who were my inspiration while I faced those same challenges.
As an adult, I became friends with an African American woman who came to Tulsa as the director of an agency as I was serving on their board. Over twenty-five years ago, we sat at lunch while she told me of her fears of having a child. We are the same age and I had four children at the time, but she taught me the fear of a woman who did not know if she could have a child, especially a son, who would grow up in a world where he would face such discrimination because of the color of his skin. I never forgot our conversation, even as I watched her raise her outstanding son. I silently worried with her. She taught me.
I served many years on the board of the domestic violence agency in Tulsa, starting when it was relatively new and the women who fought for it ranged from Junior League members to prostitutes, all working together. The first shelter was in a neighborhood and the only security from abusive men who would come to the door was an umbrella stand with a baseball bat. I worked with those mothers and they taught me. Once, I was at a Halloween party given by volunteers for the families in the newer, more secure, shelter. I was taking pictures with a Polaroid camera, for privacy, for the mothers. I remember one mother who held up her one year old child who was in a full body cast. When I put the camera to my eye, I had to stop. The lens took me into her eyes too deeply and I had to compose myself and start over. Another mother asked me to take a picture so she could send it to the father. I had to bite my lip. She taught me about the cycle of violence as I tried to understand how she could want to do anything for the man who had caused them so much pain. Once, we took a group to the zoo and my oldest daughter and my son went with me as I picked up a woman and her child for the trip. We spent the day together with this woman who didn’t smile much and a few weeks later we passed the woman at a bus stop and my children recognized her. I remember all these women so well.
So many women pass through my memories. There is my 90 year old artist friend who I have known for over 40 years who taught me the life of an artist as I watched her paint while raising the last of her five children by three irresponsible husbands. She is so intelligent, so independent, and such an individual. There was my friend who died of cancer before her 40th birthday, the first time I watched someone go through the horrors of chemotherapy and mastectomy and fight so hard for her family. Watching her taught me so much when I went through the cancer battle later with my husband and son. And I now remember my life-long friend who lost her mother to cancer when she was 12. The funeral was the first one I ever attended and I remember watching her during the service to this day. And now there is my college friend who is now facing ALS with such bravery, grace and humor. I treasure these women.
There are my friends who called me through the years to tell me that they were gay, hesitant as they waited for my response. I had the same response I had to the friends who told me their children are gay. I love you and it makes no difference. Maybe I learned that from my mother who had friends who lived out of state and explained to me that they were a couple. I don’t remember what term she used all those many years ago, but I remember that it was ok with her. I have had the same response to friends who were in interracial marriages or other relationships that weren’t like mine. I don’t care. I want those I love to be happy and loved and that’s all that there is to it. And, I don’t feel threatened by it in any way. Thank you for teaching me that I feel that way.
I thank my friend who is Native American for sharing her story of growing up with so much prejudice across town from the lily-white life I grew up in. I thank the woman in the wheel chair who came to my office with her loving daughter who was starting her own non-profit at the age of 15 to help get prom dresses for girls who couldn’t afford them. These women taught me grace and generosity.
So many women’s faces I have seen in my life. The UPS delivery lady who worked so hard at a formerly male job and who took the time to come to my husband’s funeral. The woman who had lost her husband and then was sitting in a flooded trailer in the country when I came to do damage assessment for the Red Cross. Her quiet despair as she barely noticed us walking through the destruction haunts me still.
I have a high school friend who moved to Alaska and found her life as a homesteader, wife of a trapper, mother in a remote area, and now an author of many books. Her life is seemingly so different from mine, yet so much the same. I visited her the year after my husband died and we drove around her area of Alaska, near Fairbanks. She took me to visit a friend, a Russian woman. This lady had been brought to America by her husband and they were looking for a life with their five children when her husband died, leaving her in a place where she spoke no English. She ended up in Alaska and had remarried, living with other Russians near my friend’s home (although everything is far apart in Alaska). The day we visited her, she had a new baby and was in bed. Also in the room were several older Russian women, sitting in a row of chairs, dressed in traditional Russian clothing, complete with babushkas. They spoke no English, so my friend tried to communicate for all of us. I took the baby and they silently watched me, understanding that I was a mother and grandmother and knew how to hold the child. We smiled and nodded and communicated silently in the universal language of women and babies. I found out later that they were from Chicago. I remember them all well.
So many women have made me who I am and I don’t even have to speak of the friends and family who have been mentors and companions and shared so many fun and rich memories. I love my three daughters, my daughter-in-law, and my two granddaughters who taught me how to be a mother and grandmother and continue to teach me every day.
We all have our stories and each is so very unique. I only know that who I am and how I understand the world and how I empathize with all people has been strongly shaped by the women who were my ancestors and those who I meet along the way. Men have had some influence, great influence, but the women have meant so much.
As we celebrate the first woman nominated to be President of the United States by a major party, I think back on my ancestors who couldn’t even vote and try to understand what that must have been like to live in a world where women were not treated as equals under the law. You don’t have to agree on politics to understand the importance of current events.
As we face the world today and tomorrow and the challenges each generation faces, I hope that the person I’ve become, the person I keep becoming, is passing along the best things about this world to those I love and those I meet. We are all in this same world and we need to understand each other and work together for every good thing there is in our lives, all our lives.