Here is a picture of my mother and my aunt. The one on the right is my mom who’s now 79; her sister is 87 and I’m going to call her Aunt B.
They had another sister who died from Alzheimer‘s disease a few years ago. By the time she died, Aunt N didn’t recognize anybody, but at least her death was peaceful.
Her passing was the third death in that generation – my two aunts had husbands who had already passed away.
My mother is the black sheep of the family. As an aside, I have often wondered where the term “black sheep” comes from. It seems to smack of racism, but has not yet left the language. We also say when we kill plants in our garden that we don’t have a green thumb, but a “black thumb.” I am guessing that the origin of “black sheep” is similar in origin to the term “black swan” meaning that it is a rare event in normal circumstances.
And using that definition of rarity, I will give my mom that. Compared to her sisters, she was the rare bird (or sheep or swan). The youngest by a fair amount, she was the change of life baby. By the time she was born in 1934, Grandma was ready to get back to work and she didn’t let an unwanted pregnancy get in her way – she attended UCLA and received her degree in public health nursing, a newly created program. Eventually, she became the first school nurse in the Inglewood, California schools. My mom was under four when all this happened.
The good news for her was that her much older sisters (by eight and eleven years), really took to her and to a great extent, Aunt N became my mom’s mother.
I have often wondered when we romanticize the past, if we really understand what it was like – what the complexities of a particular family’s dynamics were. My grandmother wanted to return to work because, I suspect, she didn’t respect her husband’s ability to bring them above the lower middle classes. I’ve come to this conclusion based on many offhand comments by my mother and aunts over the years about their parents’ relationship – “Mama said don’t listen to Daddy,” “so we didn’t tell Daddy and went and bought it anyway,” and such.
Grandpa was a nice man, a good man who didn’t run around or drink, didn’t beat his wife or yell at his daughters. He and Grandma lost a son when the child was quite young, but I never heard him talk about this. Grandpa was proud of his daughters and loved his grandchildren. I remember a man who was disabled, sitting at his “desk” and reading newspapers and the Readers’ Digest, taking various vitamins and supplements (their house stank from all the pills he took), and doing a lot of arm strengthening exercises. He had a lot of body building magazines around and was the first person I ever knew who read Prevention. He distrusted doctors and democrats, starting with FDR.
My grandmother was a frustrated woman living with Mr. Nice Guy. He wasn’t exciting, unless you found a guy who watched Lawrence Welk exciting, and being a letter carrier (which is what the early postal workers were called) wasn’t really a living wage if you were going to have three children who eventually you wanted to get through college (well, two out of three wasn’t too bad). She had ambitions, she wanted more.
So going to work was the route, the ticket up. Her income was what was going to make the difference in their lives. And it did.
My memory of my Grandma was of an unsmiling woman who always had something to do and someplace to go – now. She drove like a maniac; would get irritated at my cousin for making funny sounds (just little kid stuff), and made banana and honey sandwiches for my other cousins. She was hard working and did her duty.
Thankfully, Grandpa had a sense of humor and my aunts also married men with good senses of humor. So my memory of family gatherings was of laughter at in jokes and tall tales, many directed at Grandma. To her credit, she’d crack a smile and even occasionally would laugh at herself.
This pattern – of hard working, serious women married to men (equally hard working) with good senses of the absurd is one I figured out when I was in graduate school (why it took so long, I’ve no idea). Once I figured it out, though, I realized it was important for me, too. I’m a fairly typical woman from my family DNA – hardworking and serious. My husband has made me laugh every day that I have known him – which is about ten years now. That’s pretty remarkable.