Monday, September 24, 2007

Song of Years

When I was sixteen, I read Bess Streeter Aldrich’s book, Song of Years. It was about an 1860’s Iowa family who had seven daughters and two sons. The story centered on Jeremiah Martin, a politician who helped settle the Iowa plains, but I centered on Suzanne, the Martins’ teenage daughter, who fell for Wayne Lockwood, a handsome young neighbor.

I quickly identified with Suzanne. She was a girl of few words, deep thoughts, and a vivid imagination. She dreamed the dreams I dreamed, and longed for the things for which I longed. I admired her integrity, strength and character. But most of all, I admired her spirit.

After reading the book for the third or fourth time, I made an announcement, “When I have my first daughter,” I said, “I’m going to name her Suzanne.”

The family was used to my proclamations. That same summer, I had also announced I would be going to UCLA when I graduated from high school.

I didn’t go to UCLA, of course, but seven years later I had my first and only child, a daughter. And I named her Suzanne.

In February, 1963, Suzanne’s father and I moved into our brand new home at 416 Sunset Drive in LeRoy, Illinois. Carroll and I had been married almost four years, and my dream was finally a reality. I was pregnant.

As soon as we settled into our new home, I began buying the layette: Curity diapers, tiny undershirts, one-piece stretch outfits, two-piece outfits, and booties in all colors. We painted the nursery a soft periwinkle blue and hung white Cape Cod curtains. We bought a white bassinet, complete with ruffles and a bow, a new maple crib and matching chest, and crib sheets in every color in the rainbow. After Carroll assembled the bathinett (a gift from my co-workers), the room was ready.

We had just bought a new washer and dryer, so I stocked up on Ivory Snow detergent (gentle enough for a baby’s skin, they said). I bought soft, fluffy towels and washcloths, and I washed everything in Ivory Snow, rinsing them twice so the soap would not irritate my baby’s tender skin.

I spent the rest of the summer decorating our house and keeping it spic and span, trying new recipes, and learning to make pie crust with a new yellow shortening called Fluffo. I washed clothes and hung them in the sunshine to dry, ironed everything, and organized the kitchen cabinets, linen closet and dresser drawers. My free time was spent reading Dr. Spock, magazines, and books from the library.

I loved being a homemaker, and soon I would be a mother. I was happy.

On September 22, 1963, I was awakened at 2:30 a.m. by my first labor pain. I was ecstatic, but petrified. Would my baby be healthy? Have 10 fingers and toes? Both arms and both legs? (It was only a year after the thalidomide scare.)

And then I rushed to my journal:

2:45 a.m.

This is IT! I think I’m in labor! I haven’t woke up Carroll yet. Better let him sleep as long as he can, because this will probably be a long day for him. I’m timing the pains now and it’s kind of strange. Sometimes they’re 10 minutes apart and sometimes they’re three minutes apart.

I can’t believe it’s finally going to happen! I’m kind of scared…

5:10 a.m.

The pains are no different, sometimes 15 minutes apart, and sometimes four minutes apart. Could this be false labor?

7:00 a.m.

Guess I’ll wake Carroll up now. The pains are a little closer, but not much. I just don’t want to be one of those women who goes to the hospital and has to come back home. It would be SO embarrassing!

That was my last journal entry for months.

When I awakened him, Carroll sat up in bed, a look of panic on his face. “No s***?” he said.

Four days later, he pulled up to the entrance of Brokaw Hospital in Bloomington, and the nurse helped me out of the wheelchair and into our red-and-white ’59 Plymouth. Our family is complete, I thought, cuddling our blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter.

“Now the hard part begins,” the nurse called as we drove away.

I smiled and waved. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about, I thought, gazing at my sleeping daughter and settling back in the seat. I felt confident, grown up. Ready to rise to the challenge of motherhood.

Or so I thought.

While Mother was with me that week, everything was fine. But things changed the night Carroll drove her to Champaign to catch a bus back to Kentucky.

Sheer terror galloped through my body as I watched the tail lights of the Plymouth disappear in the gathering darkness, the early autumn wind whispering through the trees, dry leaves flitting across the driveway. I was away from my family and friends; I lived in a strange little town where I knew no one and no one knew me. And winter would soon be here.

I had cared for all of my younger brothers and sisters, and done a good job, everyone said, but this was different. I now had no backup; Mother was not here. How on earth could I do this by myself? This little creature was depending on me.

Sleepless nights followed. I never seemed to catch up, and I couldn’t relax. I had to be wired, ready for any emergency. Carroll tried to help, but I felt it was my job and my job alone. That’s what mothers did; they took care of everything at home, and fathers supported their families.

Our new neat, orderly home was soon in disarray. Tiny outfits, sheets and towels littered my perfect nursery, lying in various piles. The new bathinett stood unused, Johnson’s Baby shampoo, lotions and oils littering its surface and the tray beneath. When I bathed her in it for the first time, Suzanne let out a high squeal, her tiny face beet red. She screamed through the whole thing. So I began bathing her in the bathroom sink. It was too much trouble to run the hose from the sink to the bathinett anyway.

During the day, I knew I should sleep when Suzanne slept, but I roamed the house, waiting for her to wake up. If she awakened too soon, I wondered if she was sleeping enough. If she slept too long, alarm set in: Was she breathing? Would she die of Infant Death Syndrome? If she cried for any length of time, I panicked. Was her formula too strong? Not strong enough? Was she having colic? Or was it something fatal?

And then, Carroll and I took her to Dr. Nelson for her six-week check-up.

“She’s a strong, healthy baby,” my pediatrician said, smiling at Suzanne, who was merrily waving her arms and legs, eyes fixed on his face.

He suddenly held out two fingers, and she grabbed them. I gasped as he lifted her and swung her back and forth. She held on for dear life, but I cringed, afraid her fingers would let go, already seeing her tiny body lying on the floor, neck broken.

I jumped up, ready to lunge for her, but Dr. Nelson walked over and placed her in my arms. “You’re doing a great job with her,” he said.

Ping! The expert had spoken.

I finally relaxed. Suzanne began sleeping through the night and growing into a cooing, happy baby. She rolled where she wanted to go before she crawled. She crawled before she sat up. She spoke her first word at eight months; took her first step at nine months. She grew into a happy little girl, with no repercussions from those first harried weeks with her anxious mother.

I admit I am an overprotective mother; always have been; always will be. But Suzanne understands me and handles it well. She is a daughter of whom any mother would be proud.

I tried to buy Song of Years for her when she was just about Suzanne Martin’s age at the beginning of the book. Written in 1939, it was out of print, so I had a book searcher find a copy and I gave it to her on her birthday. Before I presented it to her, I copied a quote from the book:

Song of Years, it warned your heart…filled it too, with melody that would last forever.

So, happy birthday to my lovely daughter, who warms my heart and fills it with melody each time I look at her.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Road Less Traveled

Through the years I have had many discussions about life with many people: my daughter, sisters, mother, my husband and friends. What is it all about? Are we here for a reason? Do we have control of our destiny, or does our destiny control us?

"It's like you're trying to climb a mountain," one sister said, "You're making some progress and feeling good about it, but you lose your footing and fall back." She stopped for a minute, a thoughtful look on her face, "And then you start climbing again."

I thought that was a very good way to put it. Me? I liken life to an Interstate highway.

But I have not always felt that way.

In the 1970's, I woke up one morning and realized I had no control over my life. I was living a life mapped out by someone else, and there was no veering off the designated path.

And then. Something happened. My anesthetized senses began rising to the surface, and a picture slowly emerged: an Interstate highway. When you're driving down the Interstate, you usually have a destination in mind. You can drive straight to that destination and never veer off the path, sticking to the written-in-stone directions. Or you can take an exit every now and then, driving down unknown roads, discovering new places, meeting new people, and learning things about yourself you never would have known.

But first, you have to take the wheel.

After much soul searching, I finally got off that Interstate. I explored. I took this path and that; I drove down gravel roads, dirt roads, back roads. A few times, I thought I had come to the end of the road. But I just got right back on the Interstate and kept going.

And that, for me, has made all the difference.

The Road Less Traveled

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

-- Robert Frost

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Meeting Eldridge Cleaver

I just received word my short nonfiction piece, A Black Panther’s Hearse, has been accepted for publication in Canada. Editors at Existere, A Journal of Arts and Literature, tell me it should be out the first week in October.
The story is about Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party, whom I met during a visit to Berkeley, California in the spring of 1988.
I read Cleaver’s shocking book, Soul on Ice, in 1969, and if someone had told me I would someday meet the author, break bread with him, talk about his prison days and discuss writing with him, I would have told them they were crazy. And if they had told me he would offer to edit my stories, I would have told them they were stark raving crazy.
But that is what happened.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Feminine Mystique

From My Journal, September 2, 1967
LeRoy, Illinois

I’ve been thinking seriously of going back to work. I saw an ad in last Sunday’s Pantagraph for an office manager with a minimum of two years’ experience. The salary is $98.00 a week! I called, and the man told me I would be in charge of the whole office…payroll, bookkeeping, everything, plus I would be taking dictation from him. He said a man had the job before, but he needed a secretary, so he decided to combine the two jobs and hire a woman. He wanted me to come for an interview right then. But I chickened out and told him I’d call him back.

At times, I feel it’s the thing to do, that a nursery would be just the thing for Suzanne, then, when she skins her knee or something, I wonder what would happen if I weren't there to comfort her!

I finished The Feminine Mystique yesterday, and it really set me to thinking. Betty Friedan says housework is something that should be done as quickly and efficiently as possible, and no one should make a career of it. I agree about the housework, but what about the children? I’m responsible for my precious little girl and feel that I should be home with her. I'm not wild about housework, but it has to be done. I do love fixing nice meals, baking, and decorating the house, but even with cooking and baking and decorating and cleaning the whole house, I still have time on my hands! Sometimes, when I’m watching Suzanne playing with her dolls, I wonder if I’m doing right by her. She would probably love being at the nursery, with all kinds of playmates.
It’s so confusing! Sometimes I feel like Gloria Steinem living in June Cleaver's body!
The man called again just now! I’m surprised he would call on a Saturday! He asked me if I could come in for an interview Monday morning at 10. Seems like I’m just being pulled along on this…like getting out in the water, then the tide pulling me on out. In a way I want to get the job, and in a way I don’t.

Carroll dictated some letters to me and I practiced on my shorthand. I was pretty rusty, but the more I take things down in shorthand, the better I get. They’ll probably give me a timed writing, too. Wish I had a typewriter to practice on!

I’m getting ready to press my brown and beige suit. I plan to wear it with my new gold necklace and button earrings. Thank heavens I just bought a matching purse to go with my beige heels! My white gloves are still in good shape, so I don’t have to worry about buying another pair.
All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley