Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Women of Wednesday: Transition Generation

I’m using today’s post to offer a tribute to my mother, who died last summer. I hope this is appropriate, not because she was my mother, but because she epitomized a whole generation of American women.

Nancy Elsa Grant was born in the dark early years of the Great Depression. Her mother was the daughter of Swedish immigrants who had grown up in Boston, sharing a bed with her brothers and sisters (seriously – when they were little her mother put the girls in at one end and the boys at the other) and repeatedly moving house in the middle of the night when they couldn’t pay the rent. Her father had been a student a Boston University, on his way to being the first person in his family to earn a college degree, until the economy collapsed.

That first college degree in the family would be earned by my mother, although her original intent was a career in the theater! She earned a scholarship to an acting school in New York City, but the city proved overwhelming to the 17 year old girl from Melrose. The next year she enrolled at Jackson College and graduated as a member of the first coed class at Tufts University. While there she met my father (he had put up a card on a bulletin board, offering rides to campus. Mom always said she only paid for her rides for the first semester.) Like so many women of her generation, Nancy married quickly after graduation, and was pregnant before my father left for his 6 month deployment to the Mediterranean on the U.S.S. Rankin, although they didn’t know it when they said goodbye. The story is that my father befriended the ship’s doctor, and whenever they were in port he would ask “show me someone who is 5, or 6, or however many months pregnant” – so that when he got off the ship in Newport he wouldn’t be shocked by my mother’s (and my) appearance.

Nancy did the whole June Cleaver mom-in-a-housedress thing, making our home a haven for my father and a launch pad for her three children. Her theater background and English Literature major was expressed in a rich environment of books and stories and creative play which is without a doubt why I am a writer today. Then, as the fabric of American suburban culture unwound in the 1960s, my mother joined the Women’s Liberation movement – not the bra-burning protesting part, but the quiet, determined “I am more than just a housewife” part. This was not without some drama in our home, and in her heart. I recall some struggles in the adjusting of expectation, some guilt and some uncertainty: was she being fair to her kids, to her husband? What did she owe to herself? What was she teaching her children, especially her daughters?

Finally Mom went back to school to update her credentials, got her teaching certificate, and started her professional career. It was a very traditional profession, indeed – early childhood education – but it was who she was and she thrived in it. As her own fledglings left the next, Nancy was passing on her love of literature to a couple of dozen children every year and providing a stable and loving space for the children of younger women who did not, or could not, choose to take a decade or more out of their careers to raise their kids. She rode the waves of educational fads, from Look-Say reading to learning-by-osmosis to phonics and back, but all her teaching was “literature-based.” No child should grow up without Goodnight Moon or Bread and Jam for Frances, Mom believed. So many great books, so few story circles!

After 25 years Mom left the classroom. My dad had died, and she felt she wasn’t a safe driver anymore. (We didn’t know yet that she had Parkinsons.) For another ten years she shared my home, cheering me on and encouraging me with my work, reading my manuscripts and my kids’ college essays. Scrabble games were her great joy, especially when we could coerce one of the grandchildren to join us. Always interested in public affairs and current events, she followed the American scene with fascination and exasperation, and was thrilled to cast her vote for President Obama.

As her body failed her, Nancy filled her days with books – old favorites and new, and classic movies, Shakespeare and Gilbert and Sullivan on dvd. The week before she died, she and I enjoyed an afternoon at the New London Barn theater with an outstanding performance of the Pirates of Penzance.  

So here’s to you, Mom, and to the many like you, who grew up in an old world and retired in a new one, who paved the way so your daughters would have more choices than you had, and then helped provide stability to our daughters in a world where change has become the norm! And here’s to the love of words, of books and plays and hymns and all the richness of human experience they bring to our lives.


Diane Mayr said...

A lovely tribute, Sally.

Barbara said...

A notable woman, indeed!

Mur said...

"...and to the many like you, who grew up in an old world and retired in a new one..." Because of notable women like your mom, that phrase is true for all of us. Thanks, Sally!

I'm Jet . . . said...

hmmm. What happened to the comment I posted this morning?

Anyway, Sally, definitely a warm and loving tribute -- and a great reminder to us all to appreciate the notable women of the transition generation!


Andrea Murphy said...

What a lovely tribute, Sally.