Friday, June 24, 2011

Raising a glass to strong women

At this point in my life I can see two generations behind me, one generation in front, and another on the edge of emerging. Looking at the oldest generation of women in my family, my grandmothers, I can see that even in our recent history there has been a change in traditional gender roles.

My paternal grandmother falls into the Rosie the Riveter group. While some women were flocking to the nursing profession to help with the war efforts, my grandmother left her small town in North Dakota with her younger sister in tow, and set off for the San Francisco Bay area. The offer was hard to turn down; Go to California, learn a trade, help the country, and wire a ship. She was Ellie the Electrician.  

My mother's Mom was slightly more traditional. The only child of a business man, she married young, kept house, and though she married a farmer and raised children, she also had a mind for business. Whether she was selling her now famous Angel Food cakes, broilers, or eggs to the local produce, she squirreled away money for the family and kept her portion of the finances very well ordered. She was well educated in her own right, though not through formal schooling, but she could tell you a little bit about most things and if she couldn't she would look it up in the encyclopedia and be ready to talk about it the next time. 

In a time, especially in the Midwest, when most women were content (maybe) to clean the house, raise the children, and be active in the church; these two women were the strength of their families. It's been said that while the husband may be the head of the home, the wife is the neck. Without the neck, the head falls over and doesn't know which way to turn. My grandmothers epitomize this sentiment. 

My mother is cut from this same cloth. She's truly my hero, my role model, and my inspiration to make a better life for my family. My mother, like many of her generation, tried to embrace the life they were raised to believe was meant for them. Having a career was acceptable as long as it didn't interfere with your primary concerns; Church, marriage, and children. She married her high school sweetheart, a soldier she'd promised her heart and future to simply because she'd promised and that was what you did. Though things were rough at the start they pushed on and had 3 children. As things grew steadily worse she  began to work outside the home and soon became the primary breadwinner. When my parents finally divorced, she became well versed in juggling multiple jobs, multiple babysitters, and what was left of her sanity. 

My mother remarried a couple of years later and as the women before her, she became the "neck" of the household. I am proud to say that my mother and step father recently celebrated their 30th anniversary. While there were times that I'm sure both of them thought of packing it in, their marriage was saved by the sheer expense of divorce attorneys, a stubborn determination, and love. 

She is a traditional wife in many senses, but she was also an integral part of their business. She worked right along side her husband, learning the aspects of farming many farm wives didn't know. I'm sure that there are many women who know how to drive a tractor with a wagon attached, but she is the only one I knew of that could hold steady next to the combine as it moved through the field and "load on the go". Even her husband can tell you that her skills as a farmer rival that of many men in the field, and that's not just because she's sleeping with him. 

Farming isn't an easy life for a single person, but add the responsibility of parenting to that and you have an equation that equals pure and unadulterated exhaustion. She never forgot her "primary role" though. She always provided healthy home cooked meals, played taxi to our events, managed the laundry, managed the discipline, and made sure that her wifely duties were up to par. We know this because sometimes they can't keep these things to themselves and we're not fast enough to smack our hands over our ears and yell, "La La La. I can't HEAR YOUUUU". 

Raising 6 kids between the two of them and managing not to let anyone starve had to be a chore. We gardened, raised livestock, and as children we worked from an early age to earn the money we needed for the extras they couldn't afford. Yeah, I bitch about it now when I am 37 years old and have been working at least part time since I was (hmmm I believe we started working in the fields at) 7, but if I'm being honest it gave me sense of security that has kept me from going insane when I felt like I was ready to give up. They could do it and so can I. I know how to work. I know that if required I can even do the physically taxing work that many of us educated ourselves to get out of doing. If my world fell apart tomorrow I would be shaken, but I wouldn't be broken. I won't lie. I'll wallow in self pity for a week, and then I'll put on my big girl panties and a smile and start over again. 

A guy friend of mine said, "Take off the tool belt, Angie." He encouraged me to be a "girl" and let someone take care of me. That sounds like a lovely idea most days, and then I realize that I might not be genetically capable. I'm still willing to try. The last 2 months have left me wishing for a change that I wasn't in charge. Some days I just want someone to step in and say, "Not this time. Let me mow the grass, Let me put a paver path in the back yard. I will take your car to get fixed and don't worry about the cost. Please give me a chance to talk to the kids about the importance of an education. You've done enough. Go take a nap." 

I would happily slip into the traditional female role and make a fancy meal, put on something pretty, and wait for my hero to return. But this ain't Disney and I'm sure as hell not Sleeping Beauty (I drool when I am really tired). After that meal was eaten and the dishes were cleared I'd probably be wondering what else needed to be done. The hero would look at me, probably roll his eyes, and turn on the game while I went to the basement to plan the electrical upgrade for my ancient fuse box. If my Dad's mom were a little younger, I'd probably call her and ask how to do it myself. Then I'd probably call my Mom and tell her what I'm up to. That's how I roll.  

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