How have women claimed power for themselves? Is our definition of power our personal journey? And how do we map our own power as we move through life. In 1945, World War II was ending and my family, like so many others, began picking up their lives and moving forward. Here is one experience, my experience.
If I were to name one experience of power, being an individual with my own North and responding to that rather than any of the cues from the social context or demands as with the authorities in my life as a young child, it would be nearly impossible. Examining the earliest memories dusting my grandmother’s staircase for company with the lemon oiled rag at age 5, with my Aunt Mary who had her hair tightly wound in bobbie pins and a red and white scarf tied securely around the pins to hold everything in place. My grandmother was fussing in the kitchen, and her tone was worried. My Aunt was dismissing her concerns but she always seemed to dismiss my grandmother, with only a little distain of “Ma, you just don’t understand.” That never seemed to handle Grammy’s worries, and so they would go on and on. New worry after new worry.
“Well, you’d think the Queen of England was coming,” I said. Aunt Mary had taken me to the matinee and the news featured the coronation of Princess Elizabeth. I piped up probably imitating my Aunt’s dismissive tone. This had my Aunt burst out laughing. She sat back in the chair opposite taking a break at this point, and took her Chesterfield out with her long tapered red fingernails, lighting it. ” No, Peggy Anne, now you just don’t need to be fresh,” she said, but I could tell she was pleased. “You are going to meet your new mom. She’ll be here soon and Grammy just wants everything to go right.” “Finish what you’re doing and we’ll go get ice cream at the corner when you’re done. We have plenty of time before we go to the train.”
They took me with them in the taxi cab that took us to the train station. My grandmother with her church hat, church coat and bright blue eyes shining behind her silver glasses. A blur of legs was all I saw, and some of the people wore the black and white uniform that was in the picture of my dad in his Navy uniform on Grammy’s bureau. Loud announcements and the sound of the trains in the distance greeted us at the door. I held my Grammy’s hand. She had dressed me in the Navy blue new coat and combed through my hair till it hurt before we left the house. Her eyes were glisseny as they often were behind the glasses when she knelt over to me and said “Now, you be nice to your new mother,” but I could barely hear her because I was struck by how concerned she looked as she spoke.
As we walked by the big black hissing wheels of the train, Grammy pulled even harder at my hand so I kept up. The red hatted man came off the train and placed a stand on the cement right in front of us, and people came down the stairs. A few of them passed before I saw a woman holding a baby with a big red purse, the baby’s pink blanket hanging down as she tried to make her way down the stairs. She looked at Auntie Mary, then at Grammy and kept walking fast as she wanted to get away from the train so we were walking fast back where we came from.
Once home, all I felt and saw was how tired and how worried my Grammy looked, even as she sat at the table with Louellyn, the new step mom, as they smoked their cigarettes and talked about Joe, my dad. At least once during that dinner hour, I saw Lou look my way but her face was expressionless and she was talking to Aunt Mary at that time.
The next morning, the house had new noises and new energy. I came downstairs to find Grammy, at the kitchen table, saying good by to Grampy who was off to work, and Lou who was sitting next to a high chair where a little person with brown hair was happily banging a spoon on the tray.
“Why don’t you sit here with Sally till I get back,” Lou said as she got up when I came into the room. I sat down, marveling at the smells and sounds of the baby in front of me. Her eyes met mine and she smiled and I felt it all through me. I felt warm inside just looking at her and smiled back and she handed me the spoon that had been in her mouth.
“Go ahead and give her her food,” Lou said as she returned and lit up her cigarette sitting at the kitchen table where Grammy was making the margarine turn yellow as she beat it with a spoon.
The tiny green jar with the baby’s picture on it, and the orange jar sat on the table next to the high chair so I filled the spoon with the dark green stuff and moved the spoon toward the baby. Sally’s mouth opened and her red lips folded around the spoon and each spoonful thereafter. She looked at me again and burst out with a laugh. Each spoonful, each smile filled me with delicious anticipation and joy. We in later years have often said, Sally and I, that that was our first expression of love for each other in that exchange.
Days passed that were happy full of Sally in the chair, on the floor and taking small steps from one piece of furniture to the other. Around Sally, it was like the lights were on and everybody was home and everybody was happy.
There was another trip to the train station with Grammy and this time it was to get “Joe.” There was quite a lot of crying by my grandmother all the way home and now I realize it was because he had just come home from the war after four years.
Days later, more crying as once again there was a taxi to the train station. This time, I got on the train looking out the window happy with being able to see out. Lou was across from me holding Sally who was playing with a rubber toy and throwing it to me every now and then. Joe came and sat down as the train jerked. Just then I realized my grandmother was not coming. I felt so deeply afraid I couldn’t speak. I was frozen as I looked out and saw my grandmother waving her handkerchief and I could see that she was crying. “Why is Grammy crying,’ I asked to no one, now frightened. I had lived with her only a year and a half after my dad brought me to her house. She had held me when I was very sick with Whooping Cough. Aunt Mary said that it was while I was very very sick that I had warmed to Grammy. So now what I had thought was my North, my place- was moving away from me as the train lurched forward.
Joe, the dad who I had never known because of my parents never living together, and his being overseas in World War II sat next to me as the train picked up speed. “Oh, she’s not crying, the train smoke has gotten into her eyes, that’s all,” he said.
I couldn’t see where Grammy was anymore even as the smoke cleared and sat back in the chair, smelling the many smells of the train feeling not a part of anything. Hot and Cold, all at once. Sally scooted off her mother’s lap and came over to me with her toy, drooling and smiling, handing me the toy with glee.
I took the toy, I took the love. That has always been my salvation, my power, my direction North.