The older I get the more I become convinced that who we are is shaped by the forces of the environments into which we are born As I think about Mom on her birthday, her life only underscores that point for me. Being part of – as Lora puts – the next generation to go, I think that I can still relate to some extent to the world Mom grew up in, but I wonder about my grandchildren. For Liam, Andrew or Owen to understand what the world was like for Mom is like asking me to understand what it was like to be born at the time of the Civil War. The world was so other that it seems almost impossible.
The world Mom grew up in was one in which, for women in particular, you were asked to accept authority without questioning and do what you had to do. Parents weren’t there to nurture; they were there to be obeyed. A world where women’s roles were defined by being a wife and mother, where as a military wife you were simply an appendage to your husband, where the Church decided the size of your family, where a bank account couldn’t be in a married woman’s name and where the word “obey” was still part of a woman’s wedding vow. Thankfully, my granddaughter Amelia does not have to grow up under the weight of such social norms, but at the same time it also makes me wonder how it would be possible for any of us that follow Mom to know what it was like to be her and to make the choices (to the extent that they were choices) that she made.
When Mom was born in 1921, most people did not have cars or telephones, let alone televisions, computers or ATM cards. Where Mom grew up in Northville, Spink County, South Dakota they did not have indoor plumbing or electricity. Her family's bathroom was an outhouse some distance from the house with corn sheaths for toilet paper. I have to laugh when I try to imagine how some of my children who won’t even use a roadside Porta Potty in an emergency would handle that. In the South Dakota winters, they would have to bring the pigs inside and let them sleep by the stove to keep them warm. Something I doubt any of the rest of us have ever had to do. Since my grandpa Wilkins’ first five children were boys and he had rheumatoid arthritis, Mom and her oldest sister Lucille were the “boys” in the family, doing all the male chores. We always talk about Mom having perseverance, about how for all her talking about it, she would do whatever she had to do to survive in a situation and I’m wondering how much of her early character was formed back in that Dakota farm cold.
We all like to pontificate about life being the choices we make, but how much choice does a person growing up in Mom’s time and under Mom’s circumstances have. I think specifically of how she was told to quit high school and go to work as a nanny by her father so that she could give the family the money she earned. I can’t even envision my son Eli making that kind of choice for Maggie.
And we all know the story of how when she was finally old enough to move out on her own and moved up to San Francisco, her father sent her brothers-in-law up there to haul her back home. Mom talked about that so many times that it is clear it left a deep imprint upon her. Would any of our adult children allow us to do that to them these days, and would we even consider it short of a life-threatening situation?
Mom had the bad luck to be married at a period in history when virtually all able-bodied American men were in the military, and that, too, profoundly set the course of her life. I don’t know how many total times she had to move, but I know that prior to college I attended at least ten different schools.
No one meeting Mom would ever, without getting to know her better, suspect all that she went through, all the forces that shaped her. She had a great sense of humor, loved to talk or tell stories, and when her voice allowed her, was always singing. Perhaps that was due to an inherent part of her nature that helped her to withstand so much of what life threw at her. I wonder if she had been born here in the twenty-first century with its greater (if still imperfect) opportunities, what life would have been like for her, what she would have been able to accomplish. The fact that we may feel ourselves more successful or prosperous or educated or enlightened has less to do with merit on our part than with the circumstances that shaped our lives allowing us to become what we are.