Grandma’s Story Continues

. . . her.  She was a farm girl, body and soul—cooking, camping, being a good mother—that was the life she was meant for.  He was different.  He grew up near the city and didn’t have much in the way of family.  No brothers or sisters.  Two boy cousins but one was much older and the other was much younger.  One cousin who was his age and lived with him for a while, but a girl.  His father died just before they met.  He was alone (with his mother to support) and afraid.  He needed family and that’s what she had.

There were Uncle Tom and Aunt Lena, and Ruth and Bill and the children, on the lower farm.  Grandpa and I, and Uncle Dick and Aunt Peggy and their children, on the upper farm.  Aunt Jane and Aunt Naomi and their husbands up the hill, and their children starting to build houses on the back road.  Betty was descended from two farm families and lived within walking distance of all thirteen of her cousins.

She was our oldest child and, as oldest children do, she thought she was the boss of the world, particularly including her three younger brothers.  When they were little, the boys would regularly gang up on Betty and pummel her into constraining herself.  Her husband wasn’t of that sort, more’s the pity.  Milton gave the appearance of being as strong as her father and brothers but he wasn’t strong; he was just dictatorial.

Milton took Betty to plays and concerts in the city; she took him to picnics and family gatherings on the farm:  they each seemed to have what they wanted.  They were both smart.  She’d graduated from state teachers college and he’d gotten his bachelor’s and master’s degrees the same day from Temple University.  This posed a problem because master’s degrees were awarded first in the commencement ceremony but Milt couldn’t get his master’s degree if he didn’t have his bachelor’s.  In order to maintain protocol, Milt was called into the chancellor’s office, handed his bachelor’s degree without ceremony or comment, then ushered out to get his master’s degree with full pomp and ceremony.

Milt’s father died shortly after he graduated.  His father was superintendent of the Methodist Sunday School and he took sick in the church—heart attack or stroke, who’s to say?  It was before he and Betty had met.  The men carried Milt’s daddy from the church to his home three blocks away and put him on the couch in the front room.  He lay there three days till he died.  The morning after the funeral Milt woke to the awareness that, at twenty-two, he was now the sole support of his mother.  He did what a man does and went out and got a job.

Meanwhile, Betty had graduated with a degree in teaching but her daddy didn’t want to see her in the schools, so he arranged things and she was hired as a social worker.  It was near the end of the Great Depression but, of course, we didn’t know it was near the end.  On the farm, when money was short, we’d have fried corn meal mush and eggs for supper.  It became one of Betty’s favorite meals.  She never knew we were eating it because we didn’t have anything else.  That’s all right.  We got by, and never asked for help from others.  We were more fortunate than most.

Anyway, Betty grew up, graduated college and then went out as a social worker.  She was in the tenements on the Southside, where the coloreds lived.  Twice a year the steel mill would send recruiters down South to get men to come up and work in the mill.  After they got here they’d be housed in such terrible places as wouldn’t keep a child healthy through the winter.  Daddy, as head of Labor at the mill, saw this and it just wasn’t right so he and two other men got together and formed the Building Loan and Savings Bank to give the workers low interest loans so they could build proper houses.  Betty never knew her father did that.  We didn’t talk of such things at home.  Bragging isn’t our way.  You do what’s right and that’s that.

One of the stories Betty told from her visiting the poor people was about the Catholic Church.  She’d go and visit some poor woman who didn’t have enough money to buy food for her children, and Betty would ask the woman, where did the money go?  What did you spend it on?  And the answer would come back, well, the priest came and said I owed such-and-such to the church.  That made Betty so mad that she never forgot it.  This big old church that’s supposed to be taking care of people is bullying poor women to give up money they needed for food.  You had to pay the money or your children would be sent out of parochial school and if they didn’t go to parochial school then they’d burn in hell.  Threatening people with hell if they didn’t pay up–such a terrible thing, and a church doing it!

Betty and Milt got married in March.  Oh, she looked so pretty!  Curly brown hair—she got a permanent for the occasion—and brown eyes.  She wasn’t very tall but Milt was taller—and him so thin!  Like Frank Sinatra then, we’d joke about how if he turned sideways he’d disappear.  But he was debonair, sophisticated looking.  After the wedding they went to Williamsburg, Virginia, for a long weekend then he had to be back in school.  He was teaching math at the high school just down from his mother’s place.  Betty wore a suit when they left on their honeymoon trip and Milt had given her a bouquet of violets—not easy to find violets in March, but every year after that he’d look for violets to give her on their anniversary.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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