Thursday, May 6, 2010

Songs for my grandmother

Mother's day is coming up. In our house, it has never been a big holiday. I remember hearing when I was growing up that some women couldn't stand the day. They boycotted church to avoid it. I wondered what the big deal was? Show up, get a flower, watch the kids sing. Gotta be better than your typical Sunday.

One year a woman explained publicly why she hated the day. Apparently she had spent the morning yelling at her kids, trying to get them dressed nicely and out the door. They arrived at church frustrated and angry. Then the children promptly went up to the front of the room and sang:
Mother dear, I love you so
Your happy smiling face
Is such a joy to look at
It makes home a lovely place.
Said mother explained that this was not her reality. She felt ashamed to accept her flower, as she was obviously a failure.

Meh. I'm pretty confident that the words to the song are not anybody's reality. At least not all the time. In fact, all those songs -- about flowers reminding us of mothers, and mothers being tender and kind and true, and having beautiful shining eyes like glistening stars -- they weren't written for you or me, or even about you or me. I sang them when I was a kid, so clearly they were written for a completely different set of mothers than the set I now find myself in. Actually, I think they were written for a different set of mothers than the one my own mother was a part of.

They were written for my grandmother. And not both of my grandmothers, although Geneve was a wonderful lady. Those songs were written just for my Grandma Alberta (yup -- the one lucky enough to be named after her dad).

My Grandma Alberta married a soldier near the end of World War II. While he was on leave, she got pregnant. At the end of the war, my grandpa returned home to his wife and a baby boy he had never met before. They went on to have six children. Thus my grandma was a mother -- a new mother -- in those years following World War II. The more I learn about those years, the more I think they were very very strange years in the history of the U.S. I am not a historian, and so I do not completely understand. But I do know that expectations for women seem to have been turned on their heads and focused to a very narrow ideal. An ideal in which mother was a "joy to look at", and "tender and kind and true", and made one think of flowers.

I wasn't there, but somehow I envision my grandma as trying to live up to this ideal. She definitely put up with a lot more from my grandpa that I ever would have, especially in those early years of marriage. Grandpa wasn't abusive or anything; he was just a dreamer with very unconventional and uncomfortable dreams, many involving lack of indoor plumbing. He dragged his family along as he fulfilled those dreams. I assume that Grandma put up with so much because she was a woman of her times. Women of that time put up with their men, cheerfully. While singing of flowers and meadows and clover.

Thinking about mother's day, and songs about my Grandma Alberta sung in primaries world wide, and the strange post WWII world in which she lived, made me think of the following words which I read in one of my academic journals very recently. The quote is from a book review by Margaret A. M. Murray, of the book Pioneering Women in American Mathematics, by Judy Green and Jeanne LaDuke.
"... over the years 1920-1939, approximately one out of every seven Ph.D.'s in mathematics in the United States was awarded to a woman.

"In the years following World War II, owing to complex sociopolitical forces, women's share of the Ph.D.'s dropped precipitously. An oft-cited statistic ... asserts that, among the mathematically talented, boys outnumber girls by approximately 13 to 1, corresponding to a presence of women of just over 7%. Perhaps one reason this statistic has gained so much traction is that it matches so well with the proportion of mathematics Ph.D.'s awarded to women during the first three decades after the war. Indeed, it was only in the early 1980s that women's share of the U.S. mathematics doctorates rebounded to their pre-World War II levels. To those who assume that American women are just now attaining critical mass in research mathematics, statistics on the pre-1940 women Ph.D.'s often come as a bit of a shock."
I think Grandma Alberta was affected by these "complex sociopolitical forces". Although I'm positive she never wanted a Ph.D. in mathematics, I do wonder how my world might have been different if she hadn't been quite as willing to follow my grandpa around the world on his wild adventures.

While I was growing up, my family lived quite close to these grandparents -- at least while they were in the U.S. I identified with the dreamer who was my grandpa. In fact, he may deserve the credit for many of my dreams. He ran off to graduate school at Columbia University on the GI bill -- the other end of the world as far as his parents and siblings were concerned. With that experience in his background, he always spoke to me as though graduate school would be part of my future.

But Grandma was quieter. I remember deciding once to make an effort to become better acquainted with the homemaker who was my grandma. We didn't seem to have as much in common as Grandpa and I. I vaguely remember working on sewing projects with her. She wasn't convinced that my grandpa's dreams for me were appropriate for a young woman. But she yielded to my grandpa.

Soon after I was married, now in graduate school and vaguely nervous about qualifying exams in my future, I visited my grandparents' home over a holiday. They both sat me down in their living room to talk. My grandpa gestured to the photo of his first great-grandbaby, a dark haired, dark eyed beauty of a child. He and Grandma both pointed out to me that while dreams and education were important, there were things that were more important.

Me, I just smiled at them, with my lovely shining eyes (just like the stars that twinkle way up in the deep blue skies).


Letterpress said...

Great post (again). Yes, I agree. Those songs are for the grandmothers. Good thing I am one. I remember Alberta sitting me down and telling me that I should re-think school as it was obvious that our home was too busy and I was pretty harried. I could see we were on totally different wavelengths--I'm working on forgiving Jeff for never letting his wife have the satisfaction of her own schooling. She gave it up when he decided to write a book (!). It was always all about him--but that's how that generation was.

I permanently lag behind you in achievement, caught as I was between two types of women, two generations. Some days I dislike the fact that at my age I'll never be anything more than an adjunct teacher, as I got to this place too late. Other days, I revel in my freedom to go and do and enjoy the grandchildren without being tied down to committee work, service to my college, and all those things the full-timers have to put up with.

One of Dave's (former) grad students once told me that she was jealous that I was able to raise my children and be home with them. To say I was surprised would be an understatement because she now worked at a fairly reputable firm making the Big Bucks. And at that time I was jealous of her being able to complete the arc of education to employment in a seemingly satisfying position.

I like the choices women have now, even when they don't feel like choices. I guess I wish Alberta would have had that same opportunity. Happy Mother's Day!

Tiffany said...

I love this post. On so many levels. Thank you!

Soul-Fusion said...

love this!
Historically, I think at least on factor leading to the "complex sociopolitical forces" could be attributed to the men coming home from war and wanting to take care of their families again to assert their usefulness. The "Rosy the Riveter" phenomenon during the war had allowed so many women into the workforce who weren't ready to run back home so it was sociolpolitical pressure that pushed them back into domestic life despite the fact that more and more modern conveniences made their domestic responsibilities easier. I'll stop there but I find this time period in our history fascinating and I love that description of it.

Mother Eagle said...

Such a beautiful essay!