Mother's Day: Thoughts on a Generation

T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding” that
               We shall not cease from exploration
               And the end of all our exploring
              Will be to arrive where we started
               And know the place for the first time.
Sometimes, the person we’re closest with can be the most difficult to comprehend. Lately I’ve been writing poems that reach back toward my mother, who died in 2012. Many of the poems arrived while I was hiking alone in Scotland. Like Cheryl Strayed in her Pacific Coast trek, it took solitude, as well as encounters with women across the Highland landscape who were mentors, guides, occasionally saviors, for me to begin to consider my mother’s life and my own as both a reaction to, and completion of, hers.
My mother came out of that generation born in the Depression, their lives upended by the Second World War. Their thirst for experience, for travel, was whetted by the global upheaval – pins in world maps for the missing brothers, letters from distant ports – then quashed, if never entirely. My mother never stopped repeating stories about her cross-country train trip to rejoin my father in California, stories that burrowed into my thoughts, emerged in a love of solo wandering and train travel.
I’ve been reading a fine book about a woman of that era, Diana Simmons’ The Courtship of Eva Eldridge: A Story of Bigamy in the Marriage-Mad Fifties.  Published by the University of Iowa Press, the book came about because of a legacy – not of her own mother, but of a mother nonetheless. “This is a true story based entirely on some eight hundred letters and other primary documents, on site visits and interviews, and on archival and library research….the names of people and places—mostly small towns—have sometimes been changed, and in a few instances the nature of relationships has been altered slightly.”
            It is a story of detection, the kind of laborious work that most detective work is, done not with guns blazing but in the dusty basement record rooms, tracing down those who are lost or who have chosen to lose themselves. Simmons writes journalistically - and I mean that as high praise, being a former journalist. Her prose is lively, specific, clear and clean. The story bounces back and forth between 1940 and 1963 – only a few years, yet they marked an epochal change in America for men who went to war and returned, and for the women who tasted a different kind of life as well, and abandoned it willingly or not for a return to the dream of domesticity.
            “After World War II, Americans spent a great deal of imagination and energy creating a fantasy. It was a fantasy that embodied all they had dreamed of during the privation, loss, and upheaval of Depression and war, a vision so strong that it took on a doctrinaire quality. Everyone had to have the storybook romance and marriage; everyone needed the glowing home, where a loving husband made a lucky woman joyously happy,” she writes.
            Not only Eva, who fell for the serial bigamist Vick, but Vick himself who “spent much of his own imagination and energy inserting himself into this fantasy.” Like the plastic groom atop the three-tiered white cake, perfect and brittle – no more than a symbol – this fantasy was held up as life one should aspire to. Bride and groom, side by side, she in white and he in black, locked forever in a formal aspect. Always facing the same direction. “And Eva? Certainly she bought the romance part of the fantasy, clinging ferociously to the idea of the movie-star-handsome lover who adored her and wanted only her forever. Certainly too, she wanted to be married, to be safe and respectable,” Simmons writes.
            My mother grew up in a small town in western New York, her family troubled by a terrible secret – why had they lost their comfortable home on Cherry Street, and had to move to a rundown shack with bad water and a cow’s head on the kitchen floor? It was only in hindsight, very long after the fact, that she realized her autocratic father, well-read and well-traveled, must have gambled the house away. The security of a home would be her passion for the rest of her life. When in retirement my parents moved from a four-square house that might have resembled her childhood one to a mobile home at the beach, she would immediately and always call it “a paper house.”
            Her marriage to my father was very much a love match – they met at a square dance and fell in love at first sight. That love endured his capture in the Korean War and a difficult life in its aftermath. My mother never finished high school, never completed her plans for a real estate license. She devoted herself to my father. Growing up, I was a precocious and insufferable child who looked to my father for knowledge and to a small library of classics handed down from my mother’s family. I looked right past her, right through her.
            Like Eva, she married in that postwar lust for domesticity, one driven by the budding consumer economy as delineated by Betty Friedan. It was 1950. I would not be born until 1955, a long delay for a first child, as a result of the Korean War and my father’s recovery from his ordeal. I’m not sure that they were ready even then. They certainly put any plans for a wider life into a deep and locked closet, returning in what would become the Rust Belt out of family obligations. I wonder what their lives, our lives, would have been like if they had stayed in California. If my father had gone to college. If my mother had aspired to a job that was more than temporary income from working at the “splinter factory.”
My mother might not have voiced her sense of loss, but she talked about the friendships and adventures of that narrow window of time, from meeting my father to their return to New York State, with more passion than she ever showed for her life as a housewife and mother.
I wonder, too, what my mother’s life might have been if she had been born a little earlier, if she had found herself, like Eva, thrust into the world of work and challenge as American women took jobs in industry and business and government. The small-town life that Eva shared with my mother was blown apart when she found herself in the city, with money of her own and no one to tell her how to spend it, or where, or with whom. With the war’s end, she found herself struggling against the tide of “storybook marriages,” only to fall prey to the charming Vick. When he abandoned her shortly after their honeymoon, she returned to a working world that didn’t value women as it had when they were “patriotically” taking the roles of men “for the duration.” Eva worked, and traced her errant husband – only to learn of the other women he had loved and abandoned.
"Only a real maverick would dare contemplate supporting herself when jobs for women were limited and low paying, especially if you planned to grow older than thirty-five or forty," wrote Simmons of the women who did not retreat to the kitchen as soon the ink had dried on the peace treaties. Her Eva was a rebel, making that first journey to the defense factories that would in turn open the way to new experiences. She learned to be tougher, to make her own luck and accept the risks along with the rewards. It's not simple to be stronger than the men, whom women were urged to rely up, to trust unto death. It's not easy to make your own path when the accepted one is so well-laid and cleanly bordered. Eva would keep trying, marrying again and again, until old age brought her a couple of wonderful surprises.
The 1950s lasted a long time in rural areas. When I graduated from high school in 1973 as valedictorian, the scholarships and prizes that went with that achievement were given to a male – the salutatorian. My parents tried to push me on, and up, though my female classmates were mostly headed for marriage and a traditional life – as Margaret Mead famously wrote, the only truly acceptable pattern for Americans. I struggled against faded but still potent fantasies, through marriages, though not children, a start-and-stop academic career. The only thing I would not let go was the writing; though that suffered at times, it was never abandoned.
I was never made for domesticity – my mother’s wanderlust, unsated, finally came to late flower in me.
And so I found myself an aging, solo, sometimes ecstatic wanderer. Climbing another hill on the Great Glen Way, (mentally) singing songs that my mother used to sing. Encountering her again and again. Arriving where I started, to know that place – and person – for the first time.

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