When I was about 13 years old, just coming into womanhood, in a very ceremonial atmosphere, my mother presented me with a carefully typed manuscript which she had prepared on her old Royal typewriter. The document was “The Subjugation of Women” by John Stuart Mills which he wrote in 1861. She had bound it in a red satin ribbon and I knew immediately that it had great importance but at the time, I was too young to fully comprehend that she was telling me that the world would not treat me equally unless I was willing to live my life by my own rules and on my own terms.
My mother was raised in a traditional French family where the husband/father was the definer of their lives. Every decision outside of the household was his to make, without questions. I recall that my grandmother never wore a pair of trousers until after my grandfather had died because he disapproved of women in pants as much as he disapproved of dresses that might reveal any part of his wife’s legs beyond her ankle. So, I grew up seeing my grandmother clad in ankle length dresses with long sleeves, no matter the season nor the work she was doing, housework, mucking the barn, working the garden, or milking the cows.
What was most strange to me was that my grandfather seemed to treat my mother as an equal and I never quite understood the dicotomy. He was a carpenter and taught her to use tools to build what she needed. He was a home builder and taught her to roof a house. Together they built stone walls and layed fencing amd they seemed to work in a comfortable partnership.
My father had come from a poor family of Irish immigrants with a father who drank more than socially and a dour mother of six children. I have no memory of every seeing this grandmother smile or speak softly or gently. She was stern, unforgiving, unloving, and I believe, generally disappointed in her life. I never knew her very well so my thoughts about her are supposition rather than fact.
It doesn’t surprise me that my father was taken with the girl with strawberry blond hair, who was always ready to smile; the girl who would fill the surrounding woods with the sound of her beautiful singing voice and the house with the music of her grand piano.
Because of his military career, our home was often without my dad’s physical presence so fathering as well as mothering was what my mother did and there was nothing she couldn’t do.
When they were together, at the drop of a hat they would dance in the kitchen as frequently as they would discuss politics. She filled his life with music and he filled hers with words. They were best friends and intimate lovers, of that there was not doubt. When she died one Christmas Eve, he lost his will to continue his struggle to live and joined her a few short weeks later. I became an orphan with no one left to share my memories.
When I wrote her obituary, I said she was a feminist before it had a name and a feminist after it became a label. She was the model for the woman I wanted to be and hopefully became. She drew me the blueprint for a good life and as I have tried to follow her plan, I have drawn my own little squiggles in the margins.
I’m drawn to these thoughts today because I was cleaning some old boxes this morning and came across those typewritten pages, still bound with the frayed red ribbon, the legacy from my mother.