And so the exercise was: name the women you admired when you were young….and none came to mind. There were women I loved. There were women I liked. There were women I worshipped from afar like movie stars, but admire has some special quality to it, some backbone of clear and hard esteem that made me search my memory. And then I remembered Lillian Hellman, the playwright and later memorist, whom I met at 17 through her book, Pentimento. Why her? Maybe because she was the first woman presented in my life who didn’t fall into the pattern, wife, mother, loyal second. Lillian married, divorced, had a dashing, alcoholic affair with Dashiell Hammet and wrote during all of it. She was restless and flawed and lived a big life with big mistakes.
And then I thought of Lily Jones, my Dad’s great aunt. Aunt Lily had the only pretty house of my childhood, and she didn’t sleep with Uncle Albert. She was the only woman of my acquaintance who didn’t sleep with her husband. Their headboards were separated by the windows of her bedroom. He slept on a converted back porch, his room littered with stale cigar smoke and detective magazines. She raised flowers–her yard was full of them–and was hugely clever with her needle. I have some of her many quilts and dollies and handmade pillow cases. She dipped snuff and drove her 1920s car until the 1950s.
Now I have lived a most ordinary life–always attempting to fit the pattern and not always doing it well. I’m not quite clear what it is I admire, but I think it’s a streak of independence, a not fitting in, in one case, on a grand scale, and in the other, quietly enough to get by in small town.
So if admiration has a clear and hard backbone of esteem, who are the women you admire?