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?
i was thinking about her today: my great aunt irene. aunt rene, i called her. oh, how i love and miss that woman who almost lived long enough to see her 98th birthday, though i would’ve never, ever told her i knew her age. aunt rene taught me the importance and value of humor. she taught me that women can – and often do because they have to – most anything a man can do. (her husband died far too early.) aunt rene taught me to play canasta . . . and encouraged me to make up the rules when i needed to. but most importantly, aunt rene, who was born before birth certificates were issued, taught me that you don’t ever tell how old you are. you just don’t. and it had nothing to do with being a lady, and everything to do with knowing that just ’cause you can count it, doesn’t mean it counts.
my great grandmother, idabell. my pop was among six kids left to her sole care when his dad died at 40. this was during the great depression. imagine…a single mother of six during the great depression. her desperation to provide shelter led them to live in a chicken coop.
i also admire eleanor roosevelt. her quote, “no one can make you feel inferior without your permission”, is quite empowering.