IT’S A WOMAN’S WORLD
By NANCY PATRICK
This may sound crazy, but I love women. They amaze me, they astound me, they mystify me, they inspire me, and they sometimes confound me. Women exhibit strength, resilience, courage, intelligence, adaptability, and loyalty.
The wide array of women’s qualities strikes me with awe. Traditionally, women have served auxiliary roles in society—roles such as homemaker, mother, teacher, nurse, or other work that contributes to a household headed by a man, the traditional breadwinner. I think shifting attitudes in gender roles began during WWII, my parents’ generation, which includes those children who grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s and became young adults during the 1940s.
The female role models in my life included my mother, my aunts, and my grandmothers. Their lives taught me many things—some positive behaviors to imitate and other tendencies to avoid. These women grew up in difficult times. My grandmothers, born at the beginning of the twentieth century, became teens during WW I. Women of their era had the misfortune of losing fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons by the end of WWII. Not only did war mark their lives, but also poverty and hardship scarred them.
My own mother, a complex mixture of good and bad qualities, came from an alcoholic father and a harsh, angry mother. I know that my grandfather died at fifty-two years of age from complications of alcoholism, a life my mother rarely discussed but one that damaged her psychologically. On the rare occasions Mom talked about her father, she spoke lovingly of him as a “good daddy when he was sober.”
Unfortunately, he rarely sobered up. When drunk, my grandfather beat his daughters with razor strops as they bent over a bed frame. My mother never elaborated on the girls’ offenses, but I do know that she feared her dad enough to conceal a split tongue and broken arm for three days once after she had fallen from a forbidden tree, incurring the injuries. My grandparents discovered the injuries when the arm became swollen and bruised from the break.
My maternal grandmother worked at a town laundry in Hope, Arkansas, for many years. The strong chemicals she inhaled during those years adversely affected her health for the rest of her life. She had breathing problems as long as I knew her. She also had a fiery temper. As a mother of five daughters, one of whom died in infancy, and the wife of an unemployed alcoholic, she became an angry, bitter woman.
Read accompanying poem by Nancy Patrick, “The Little Girl My Mother Was”
My parents and I lived with my grandmother for a short time before my sister’s birth. My dad, a poor, uneducated and unskilled Arkansas farm boy, was no match in temperament for my grandmother. Shortly after my sister’s birth, my dad made the decision to move us to Texas, away from our family’s roots. In her rage, my grandmother screamed, threw things, banged on the walls, and called my dad every name in the book. I couldn’t have been more than five years old at the time, but the traumatic experience remains my earliest memory.
Obviously, the most influential woman in my life was my mother, Norma Jean Carr Smith. Born in 1928 in poverty-stricken rural Arkansas, she could not escape two of this country’s most trying decades—the ’30s and ’40s. Neither did she have the advantage of a loving, healthy family. Unfortunately, the emotional and physical abuse she suffered affected her psychological health. Her life-long depression manifested itself in suicidal threats, irrational anger, jealousy, and fear.
In the 1960s, mental health care was not as accessible as today. Additionally, the stigma attached to mental illness prevented many from seeking help. I remember multiple occasions when my dad would load my unmanageable mother into the car and take her to her doctor who would sedate her so she could sleep off the current crisis.
In spite of my mother’s many flaws and weaknesses, she managed to show her love for my sister, my dad, and me through many of her actions. She worked hard to fulfill her familial responsibilities such as cooking, cleaning, and laundry. An expert seamstress, Mother made all my sister’s and my clothes, including both our wedding dresses.
When I think of some of my dresses over the years, I realize how little I appreciated her talent. She made me one dress with an empire waist and scoop neck edged with perfectly scalloped overlays. I wore the dress in a photo that hangs above my husband’s desk. I sometimes look at it and admire the skill she possessed to make that dress. Another favorite dress was a sheath that had an entire front panel of tiny pleats from the neck to the hem! How many hours she must have spent on those pleats!
Unfortunately, my mother was not an anomaly for her generation. My aunts had similar lives as did the mothers of many of my friends. Life in the ’30s and ’40s proved hard for just about everybody. No one had enough of anything during and after the war. People respond differently to hardship, so not all my aunts suffered the same depression and mental illness as my mother, who never experienced peace or happiness in her eighty-five years on earth.
Despite my mother’s unhappy circumstances, she did have some good friends and happy memories from her adolescence. Kodak cameras captured many of those moments in beautiful black and white photography of the era. I absolutely love those photos. Every time I look at them, I marvel at the glamour of the young women of the 1940s. Perhaps unaware of their own glamour, they seemed to know just the right poses to create the lasting images of their generation. To me, they all looked like Hollywood starlets.
I started this column by talking about the awesomeness of women. I know men have their own roles and burdens in life, but as a woman, I feel an affinity with the women who paved the path for me. They did not have the benefit of my educational and professional opportunities. Many of them saw marriage and family as their only options, so they walked into those roles and fulfilled the expectations society had for them. They had babies, they maintained homes, they kept marriages intact, and many suffered silently for want of unfilled dreams and aspirations. Because of their sacrifices, their daughters and granddaughters can choose the lives they want to live.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing.