My father’s side of the family is from the Southwest by way of Canada by way of who knows, but ultimately Ulster and Scotland. My father’s mom was a McCurdy (so apparently I can wear Stewart tartan? Though I don’t generally do plaids). Presbyterians all the way down (until me).
At any rate, my grandmother was a very talented singer and had a music scholarship; she was a talented painter as well. But she didn’t go to conservatory; her mother was sick, and as the girl in the family, the caregiving fell to her. Then she got married to my grandfather, and Great-Grandma lived with them and stubbornly didn’t die and didn’t get any better.
They were poor. My grandfather was an airplane mechanic, but it was the Depression in Oklahoma City. And shortly after their marriage (we try not to ask too many questions about dates) my grandmother was pregnant with my father.
This was at the time when they knocked women out for labor and delivery. When my grandmother woke up, she not only had a new baby, she’d had a hysterectomy. The doctor, in all his compassion, didn’t charge her for that. Then again, she hadn’t asked.
So my father was an only child. And while it was probably for the best economically, it made for a very bizarre household dynamic – my father shared a room with his always-about-to-die-but-never-quite-getting-there grandmother. My grandfather got sent to war – where his fortunes improved, but my dad grew up lonely. After her mother finally did die, Grandma had to go to work as a waitress. Dad was a latchkey kid…in the 1940s, before the term had been invented. As he grew up, he showed an aptitude for engineering – when he changed his mind and went into theology (and then to Harvard Divinity School on a massive scholarship), his father was apoplectic.
If there had been another child, the load of family expectations could have been shared. My father was traumatized by his relationship with his parents (his mother was very needy, as one might imagine – the woman had never had control over any aspect of her life). He moved as far away from them as he could get, and almost never went back to Oklahoma ever again. When they came to visit us (and he couldn’t refuse them – we were their only grandchildren), he spent a lot of time outside.
If a woman had been able to make her own decisions, a lot of misery would have been spared. Perhaps there would have been different misery – sometimes avoiding the frying pan of one fate leads you into the fire of another – but at least the integrity of a choice would carry some weight. People are better at living with consequences they have brought on themselves rather than living with consequences that are inflicted on them.
Five decades after my dad’s latchkey years, I had my own family, of my own choice. I worked 9-5 during the week; on the weekends I would be in the kitchen cooking up a storm, putting up meals for the week. And I listened to old radio shows being rebroadcast on public stations (this was before streaming audio on the internet) – Jack Benny, Gracie Allen. I knew that all those years ago, my grandmother had done the same. As I cooked and cooked, I dwelt with her.