My mother didn’t have her mother’s attitude of superiority toward men - if anything, it was the opposite – she preferred them. She disliked cattiness and gossip, and was disinterested in much of what passed for girl talk, especially in the 1950s world that persisted in our small town for many years later. She avoided the women’s groups that were popular in places like ours and only participated in them when there was no polite way of escaping, or when the cause was something she agreed with. When I was young she volunteered for PTA and the American Red Cross, working at blood banks and on fund drives; the county leader was a hard-working intelligent woman like my mother and they quickly developed a good rapport. She was our Girl Scout leader, and rather than teaching us to bake cookies, she taught us to make fires and tie complicated knots.
On the other hand, she liked to bake! She taught me to cook, and to sew, and to knit, and to paint; we did innumerable projects together, from Christmas tree ornaments to making most of our own clothes, cutting them out on the dining room floor. She didn’t disdain so-called women’s work; she just wanted to talk about something substantive while she was doing it. She read constantly, devouring every word of the New Yorker each week, and Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly, and the Sunday New York Times, plus whatever books she could get her hands on. She read to me when I was young, and often read the books I was reading for school later on, as well as whatever she had picked up on our frequent trips to the town library; she patiently read vocabulary lists to me as I learned French, and critiqued my essays for English and history courses. She read widely - novels, history, biography - but her real passion was politics and current events.
As a girl, she had wanted to go to Cornell and study medicine, but her father wouldn’t let her; he didn’t think that was a suitable profession. So she went to Alfred University in western New York State instead, and studied fine art, majoring in ceramics. It was wartime, and there were few men at the university; she worked hard and enjoyed it, and remembered details of what she had been taught years later. Later in life, I think she realized that perhaps her true aptitude would have been for the law: she was interested in it, and had the requisite memory for details. When she went into the real estate business with my father, after my grandfather retired, she had a chance to use those skills, and people often urged her to run for the school board or for town office. Her shyness and sense of priorities kept her from doing that – she always put my father and me first, and later did a great deal for her own parents as they aged. But my parents’ downtown office became a center for discussion, with people dropping in all day long to sit and talk, about their personal lives for sure, but also about politics. In that milieu, sitting behind her desk in an office decorated with antique maps and prints of the surrounding towns, she was not only comfortable, but shone, and could easily hold her own with even the most opinionated men. She was disgusted by small-minded, short-sighted politicians, and had great admiration for intelligent men and women with strong convictions, idealism and courage. In a hotbed of rural Republicanism, she voted for very few, and was happy to explain why.
As it turned out, I was the one who went to Cornell, but I found myself back with the Greek myths she had read me, studying classical art and culture rather than medicine or law. I decided against academia and went into business as a graphic designer, and later established a design and communications business with my own husband. Later, when I became a community organizer and started doing more public speaking, I was asked to run for the Vermont legislature, but turned it down. My mother watched all this, always supporting and never interfering, but some years after that, when I had settled down into writing as my means of expression and vehicle for change, she once remarked, quite matter-of-factly, “It surprised me that you chose writing – I always thought you’d do it in politics.”
There wasn’t a drop of wistfulness in her voice, either for my choices or her own. She was like that: accepting things as they were, doing the best she could with the moment, and not wasting time on regrets. I regret that she didn’t run our town, or hold state office, but she put her energy where she knew it had the best chance of doing good. Over the last twenty years, she served first on the town library board, and then as a founding trustee of a charitable foundation set up by an old friend who died, giving grants to worthy projects for the benefit of the town’s citizens. I cried when I read her resignation letter, written to her fellow trustees just a month or so before she died, because I knew how much that work had meant to her and that only a recognition of impending death would have made her resign. During her last hospitalization, and at her funeral, I met several of the men who had worked with her, and I could see in their eyes and in their words that they had known her at her best; we didn’t need to say much at all.