The Woman She Was

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self Portrait With Her Daughter.

She was a woman caught in the cultural contradictions of her time. Born in December 1913, less than a year before the start of what became known as the First World War, she was only eight years old when it ended, too young for it to have mattered much to her. She grew up in unusually happy times as her father achieved success as a building contractor in a big city. As a young teenager, she received an allowance of $1 a week, the equivalent of $15 in 2021 value.

She was only seventeen when the Great Depression began to hit her family. She graduated high school and went on to college on a plan that permitted her to begin working early as a schoolteacher. Her family needed the income.

Soon she met and fell in love with a young man who was soon to be ordained as a minister—an honorable profession, though not a lucrative one. She was slightly horrified to find that his parents still lived on a farm. On her first visit, she couldn’t bring herself to use the outhouse and nearly burst her bladder on the trip back home. She married him anyway. In 1940, it was what young women did. Working as a teacher was only something you did until you married. Until you had a man to look after you.

But… in college, this woman had adored her art history courses, and through all the changes in her life, she held onto the art prints and teaching instructions she accumulated in those classes. She also loved poetry and memorized many lovely verses, although her extreme near-sightedness discouraged her from reading for pleasure.

As the Second World War loomed, her husband tried to volunteer as a chaplain, but was refused because of his poor vision. (In his case, it was a genetic condition that could not be corrected with lenses.) They struggled through together, birthing a daughter a few weeks after D-Day in 1944. A second daughter came along in 1948, three years after the war’s end.

In the small towns where her husband served as pastor, this woman found her teaching credentials in high demand and, as soon as her own two daughters were old enough for school, she went back to work. She always projected an apologetic attitude about working outside the home. She felt that she ought to have preferred focusing exclusively on home and husband and family. But she had a secret: She loved teaching. She couldn’t claim it as a career, because women of her era weren’t supposed to have careers. Just husbands and homes and families.

It’s difficult for a woman to be a good mother when she’s made to feel guilty for wanting more. And she can’t help but be slightly resentful about that. She also can’t help feeling like life has cheated her when she’s raised to have a taste for class and little luxuries and ends up trying to figure out what to do with the sack of onions her dear husband accepted as payment for a wedding ceremony. She was fortunate that the man she married was devoted and adoring, making her feel like a beautiful princess, even though he couldn’t afford the lifestyle.

I know you did your best, Mother. I wish we could have talked about it.

“Motherhood” by Picasso.
Pieter de Hooch, A woman with a child in a basement room,
ca 1656-1660.

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