Monthly Archives: October 2019

Melancholy Autumn returns

I always loved Autumn. Even in junior high school I collected pictures of sweeping Vermont scenes, postcards of orange maples and calendar spreads of leaf-strewn villages, and hung them on the wall or pasted them into scrapbooks. Typical pages included a football game ticket, a pressed red leaf, and one of those liquor ads where the couple is sitting in a pile of raked leaves or cozying up on a plaid blanket. 

And in Autumn I read Autumn novels. Praise the Human Season by Don Robertson, the sweeping story of a couple’s long marriage. The Hunter’s Moon by Nathaniel Benchley, with its eerie undercurrent of sexual violence. Home from the Hill, the story of a Texas family by William Humphrey. These books left the taste of Autumn in my mouth, whether sour fear or loss or just the bittersweet reality of lives bravely lived. 

In this old house, October meant battening down the hatches. My father would have stacked the cordwood with his disciplined precision. The garden would be left to rot, or turned over and planted in winter rye, the last green tomatoes lined up on the kitchen window sills. Indoors my mother already would be tending the fires, the wood stove and kerosene range, taking the chill off the first frosty mornings. My father would have swapped out the screen doors for their glass counterparts and pulled down the storm windows. 

And I would be filling up notebooks, my journal and my five-subject Mead of school notes. Reading those novels and Glamour magazine. Putting together fall outfits of corduroy and flannel. And always the season’s change played on my emotions, Nature once again strumming a beat inside me.

The season always started brilliantly: a “pale gold shimmer on the trees’ tips,” “trees at last … red and pale gold,” against “slate blue folds of the clouds looming over the roof.” 

But the first tree to turn in the neighborhood, a maple across the street, started early – in late August – and by October was nearly bare. Too soon came the gales of mid-fall.

In October 1975, I noted “russet elms,” the “dirty blackness of the river,” a “black starless sky,” and “crumpled leaves” the “color of dried blood.” I could “almost feel the yearning of Earth’s breast beneath them.” 

In 1976, after a violent rainstorm not unlike the one we just had, I mourned the Indian summer that had been washed away. “Skeletal branches” had begun “to emerge bare,” leaves lying “like cereal flakes on the ground.” 

Once after a visit to my grandmother, to the place where my father was raised, I wrote, “I am committed to the land and what it symbolizes.” 

And I was. Although only a teenager, I sensed rather than understood my emotional connection to the countryside, the seasons, and what I can only call my inheritance of place. I felt it every time I drove along the dirt road that led to my grandmother’s house in the Tug Hollow section of Richmond. From the bus window, I watched as the leaves exploded into color on Shannock Hill. No matter where I was, I paid attention to the insistent heartbeat of the natural world. 

I had read Emerson, but not enough to understand his explanation in “Nature” of the relationship between our exterior and interior worlds, how Nature provides us the raw material to spin the metaphors that allow us to express emotions and ideas that would otherwise be inaccessible. But already I was trying to make that connection, to spin a web out of Autumn’s stimulus. This was what I meant by “commitment to the land and what it symbolizes.”

This week October once again did her turn. After days of gold came her bleak and barren hours. Even before the wind lashed the trees and the rain tumbled down, I felt unsettled. Out of sorts. Depressed. And before I realized it, I was back in those old sad Autumns. Three years ago, tending to my sister, sick and emaciated, right before her cancer diagnosis. Forty-one years ago, adjusting to a strange new place, a college campus where I was missing all the old rituals of home. Memories came tumbling back of Autumn’s ambivalence – the grand show before the final exit. 

So I did what my mother would have done. I gathered up the last of the green tomatoes. I picked as many cosmos and zinnias and roses and poppies as my arms could hold, and filled the house with vases of them, tall, short, milk glass, blue glass. I thought about all the loved ones I’ve lost. I remembered my sister in the glory of October, before December took her away from us. I pictured my mother raking up the garden, her hair under a kerchief. I could see my father carrying in an armload of wood or facing  the early-morning chill to warm up the car before I drove to school. No matter how the wind blew or the rain pounded, in this old farmhouse they kept us warm and safe and ready for the winter to come. And so, after thinking about that for a while, I felt a little more ready for it now.

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Pregnant and out of a job

 

In the spring of 1959, my mother had been a teacher for 18 years, with the previous 13 years spent teaching first grade at the same elementary school. There she had developed a reputation for having particular skill with students who had learning disabilities.

By now she was making about $5,600 a year. It’s quite possible she was the chief breadwinner in the family, as my father’s income as a logger and lumberman was modest at best.

After a difficult early marriage, they had settled into more peaceful times. My father had returned from World War II with what we would now label PTSD, and a drinking problem to boot. In the mid-1950s my mother had visited a divorce lawyer, but by 1959 my father had turned to AA and stopped drinking. They had added on to their tiny house, and their two incomes made life a little more comfortable for my two sisters, who were 11 and 8 years old – there was money for circus tickets, new clothing, Girl Scout uniforms.

But sometime in April or May of that year, my mother, then 39 years old, discovered she was pregnant.

In 1959, teachers who were visibly pregnant were expected to stay home, as my mother had done during her other two pregnancies. This would not change for some time, as Elizabeth Warren’s story of losing her teaching job because of her pregnancy in the early 1970s attests.

Small-town teachers like my mother also had no union protection. They signed “contracts” on a yearly basis but these simply set their salary. So when my mother gave notice that she would be out for the 1959-60 school year (she expected the baby in late December), the School Committee was under no obligation to rehire her after that.

In September 1959, she received a letter from Superintendent Phillip L. Kelly. He had tried to hire an elementary school teacher who would cover my mother’s class for a year, and then when she returned would go to the high school.

“However this proved to be impossible,” he wrote. “The school committee, at its meeting on September 8th, agreed to give you first consideration in employing a teacher at your teaching level. However they felt they couldn’t enter into an agreement to hire you.”

Doing so, he added, “could easily result, in our small system, in overstaffing the school.”

Of course, such situations are easily handled today. A long-term substitute is brought in until the regular teacher returns. Why he couldn’t do this is a mystery.

As it turned out, my mother did not try to return to her job. I was born later than expected, in January 1960. By then 40 years old, she was overwhelmed with a new baby and some postpartum health issues. She opted to cash out her retirement fund ($1,331) and quit working. 

How did she feel about this? It would be a stretch to say that she resented the circumstances that forced her to give up her career. Making pregnant women sit out the school year was just the way of the world in 1959. 

No, she did not seem heartbroken that her teaching career had ended, but I’m not sure it was particularly good for her. In some ways I think she would have been better off working – less isolated, more engaged. The school department also lost a veteran teacher. 

You could say I benefited from her decision, as I was the only one of her three children to have a stay-at-home mother. But life with my mother was not all story hours and craft projects. When she wasn’t doing housework, she was writing poetry, doing crossword puzzles, or reading, activities that did not involve a child in her lap. “I wasn’t put on this earth,” she used to say, “to entertain you.”

My sisters were at school all day, and our age differences were an insurmountable gulf. My mother’s regular presence afforded me a security my sisters did not enjoy as preschoolers, for when she taught, they had lived all week with my grandmother. But I learned early to occupy myself.

For years I felt responsible for ending my mother’s career. But I think the truth was a little more complicated. I think she could have returned to teaching eventually, if she’d wanted to. After all, hadn’t the superintendent offered to give her “first consideration” if there was an opening? But, though they needed the money, my mother never tried to go back. She might complain about their lack of money, but my birth had convinced her, rightly or wrongly, she could no longer be both mother and teacher.

Today, of course, the world is vastly different. Women often work right up until their delivery date. But in some ways nothing’s changed. Many women, sadly, still have to navigate all the conflicts that motherhood and career bring: arranging child care, completing housework, making dinner. Even in the most egalitarian households, both spouses struggle to be good parents and responsible employees. 

We say we’re a family-oriented culture, but sometimes I wonder.

 

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