I was born in 1937 and married in 1958. I was a born idealist, living mostly in the imagined beauty of future possibilities. I grew up Catholic, but with only one sibling who was ten years younger than I am. I envied my Catholic school mates with lots of sisters and brothers as built-in playmates. My religion sent me a lot of mixed messages about my worth as a woman, but motherhood was definitely held up as the ultimate purpose for a woman.
Although I went to college on a full scholarship at Rice University, which was a predominately male, technical school, I simply didn’t feel attracted to a career. I was a history major that didn’t want to teach. I wanted to get married and dreamer that I was, I thought I’d enjoy having a lot of children as playmates. In fact, when I married, we spent time picking out names for thirteen children of both genders. (Thirteen was my lucky number. I passed Calculus on the thirteenth of one month and was chosen as a Yearbook Beauty on another thirteenth. At the time, I didn’t realize that neither of these was going to be particularly helpful in bringing up children.)
My father wanted me to be a scientist. So he discouraged me from taking Home Economics at my girls’ only high school and my mother gave up after one disastrous attempt to teach me how to cook.
She had decided to start me off as simply as possible with a cornbread mix. All I had to do was put the mix in a bowl, add water, some vegetable oil, stir and put it all in a greased pan. She put everything out, pointed out the instructions on the box and left me to it. I was doing fine, really. But she came in right before I was going to put it in the pan. She said, “OK. Now, wash your hands and put it into the baking pan.” And she left again. I was confused. My mind tends to connect ideas and discover new possibilities. This is often a gift, except when I connect the wrong things. I wondered why I needed to wash my hands? I did remember reading somewhere that bread baking involved using your hands for some reason. So, I began to scoop out the mix with my hand and shake-fling it into the pan– and around it. Between what missed the pan and what was stuck to my hands, there wasn’t much left to cook. As I was standing there puzzled, mom returned, took one look, and yelled, “What in the world are you doing? What a mess!” I started crying and backed away from the mess. Unfortunately, I backed into the stove where there was a small pot of melted butter for the fresh artichokes mom was cooking. The butter went everywhere, down into the burner, down the front of the stove, down my back, onto the floor. As Mother stood open mouthed in horror, I fled sobbing to my room and threw myself, butter and all, onto my bed.
Mother was also a perfectionist housekeeper. Since my mind was usually occupied with ideas and impossible dreams, my attention to physical details was pretty much non-existent. So Mom didn’t delegate many housekeeping tasks either. And since she herself didn’t iron, I never acquired that skill either. Are you beginning to feel sorry for my husband, who fell in love with me at first sight in Calculus class?
Coming back from our honeymoon in Acapulco, Mexico, we visited my in-laws in Nashville. Then as now, fifty-eight years later, my husband wore white button down dress shirts. I decided to wash and iron them, more in an attempt to impress my in-laws, than out of love. It never occurred to me that this was an acquired skill, not a natural talent for all women. I remember hearing my father-in-law come into the house asking in a loud voice, “What’s burning?” and my mother-in-law hushing him with, “It’s Eileen ironing.”
The next part of this series will deal with both some of the humorous challenges of having four children in five years and the Religious crisis of my doctor telling me that having another cesarean section in the next few years would most likely kill me and my Catholic Pastor’s response that, “Lots of children end up with very good step-mothers.”