My tough old aunt elda

Saturday, May 9, 2009

I started teaching English at Cottey College in 1973, when "tests and studies" began telling all who'd listen that American women had since time immemorial been traveling along life's highway with the extra-heavy burden of low self-esteem. (You know, the old Christian hang-up about Eve's shameful role in the Garden, a myth that, in a pesky, insidious way, is with us still.)

Add to that the equally degrading and surely related disadvantage that females were not supposed to talk at all -- unless, of course, their husbands and buddies had mysteriously fallen silent -- and, thanks to the media's bruiting around of all this, you had a whole bunch of suddenly truly wretched females. All you need is a particularly perceptive and articulate sufferer telling the interviewer precisely how she was taken advantage of, and suddenly a million contemporaries wake up and spread the news: "Holy mackerel, that's exactly how I felt! That's just like my experience! Now I know why I was so miserable!!"

I rejoiced that I was starting to teach at precisely the moment when American women young and old were being urged to speak up, to express themselves, to voice their grievances (in good English, of course), to discard the old and soon-to-be-discredited notion that some kinds of behavior, once labeled "unladylike," were somehow out-of-bounds for females. I believed I saw how this ultimately second-class citizenship subtly but decidedly damaged the females of my own family.

And so, for 32 years, I taught with an overall aim at cheer-leading all my female students, in any direction their talents, dispositions, and desires might lead. Today, I look up their names in the most recent Cottey Alumnae Directory with considerable and, I hope, justifiable satisfaction. Thanks, in some small part, to Cottey College and its self-proclaimed mission, American women are finally off the starting blocks.

But, then, I think of my late-aunt, Elda Maddux.

And, thinking of Elda Maddux brings to mind "Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyll" (1866), by John Greenleaf Whittier, one of the "Fireside poets," so named because in those pre-TV years, if your family suddenly found itself snow-bound (or, conceivably swine flu-bound), all you had to do to pass the time of day pleasurably was to sit together around the fireside and take turns reading poems like Whittier's.

In Whittier's largely autobiographical poem, he tells about a "brief December day," when a sudden and overwhelming snow storm isolates a farm family in their "lonely farm-house." Whittier lovingly describes "my father, mother, my brother and two sisters, and my uncle and aunt, both unmarried."

It's his unmarried aunt who always draws me most fully into the poem, because, in some important ways, she was my own Aunt Elda, "the sweetest woman ever Fate / Perverse denied a household mate,/ Who, lonely, homeless, not the less / Found peace in love's unselfishness."

Even though a maiden aunt, she found fulfillment in a lifetime of giving? A gracious ornament at all gatherings? Sweet as the picture is, it ends up sending my blood-sugar level soaring to 630 and making me grind my teeth: "Through years of toil and soil and care,/ From glossy tress to thin gray hair,/ All unprofaned she held apart / The virgin fancies of the heart." Bah, humbug, John! Let me tell you about the elderly woman I came to know and love.

My aunt Elda, like all young women her age (I guess I should call her late-Victorian, not because of her behavior, which I never considered "prim," but simply because she was born when Victoria reigned over England.), was expected to marry soon after graduation from high school and obey her husband's every word. And, like many, Elda married an unknown commodity, in her case a young Cincinnati farmer who soon turned out to be a brute and drunkard. The bruises and scars (physical and otherwise) he was inflicting on her told the members of her nearby family more eloquently than letters or personal complaints (there were no telephones yet) might have done.

Her mother's advice must've been typical of most women's in her position: "Think of your family's reputation, Elda. Respectable people just don't get divorced. Don't forget, you've made your own bed, so now you've just got to sleep in it."

And it's true; only a miniscule percentage of married folks got divorced (not the 50+ percent of today). So, Elda stayed with her drunken husband until, finally, it seemed to her she'd be risking her very life if she stayed any longer. And when she did, having no children to worry about, she suddenly, in late-19th-century rural Ohio, found herself a social pariah. For a woman in her marital situation, a second marriage was utterly unthinkable.

Nobody left her any money, so Elda had to work, work hard, and since she hadn't been to college and her skills must've been minimal, she had to take a job, at Cincinnati's Pogues & Dopke department store as what I can best label "clerk." My father once said his aunt Elda's weekly paycheck could never have exceeded $50. And yet, with her meager salary she managed to buy me every Christmas a porcelain dog, which must've cost her $20 or more. When I was away from home at school, she used to send me periodic fruitcake cans full of chocolate-chip cookies she'd made herself. She was a generous woman well beyond her means.

Elda was sweet . . . but tough, in a sweet kind of way. She and her own niece Vera had driven from Ohio to our home in Larchmont, a suburb of NYC, for Christmas, 1948, when I was 8 years old. The day after Christmas, an historic snow storm dumped an unprecedented amount of the white stuff. Nobody was about to try driving the car to pick up the necessary groceries from the Village some three miles away, but Elda volunteered to use my Flexible Flyer sled to accompany me to the Gristede store and then walk the return distance. At 8 years old, I had a blast, of course. Whether Elda felt the same way I can't be sure, but I do remember she didn't utter a peep in the way of complaint. Elda, in fact, never complained about anything.

She very willingly mowed the extensive front and back yard of their house on a regular basis, and, if I remember correctly, she was about to climb a ladder to paint their house's second floor, before someone dissuaded her. When her niece, my aunt Vera, brought her to New York, the two of them took the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad to Grand Central Terminal, and, from there, despite Elda's having trouble with her legs, in her 70's, her niece Vera decided to walk all around the city. One could only imagine how Elda's legs and feet must've ached. I, who accompanied them on their journey, never once heard Elda complain, although Vera insisted on walking way ahead of us.

My aunt was neither garrulous nor notably chatty. But she was warm and responsive to other people's advances. And that's why, I think, she got along so well with her fellow-passengers on the bus that took her from her workplace in the city to her home in Cherry Grove, north of Cincinnati. In fact, the day she retired from her job, her fellow-passengers organized a grand party for her -- on the bus.

Elda and Vera lived their whole lives, with only short intervals, in a large Victorian house that had been the first house built on Beechmont Road. Although Beechmont's now as cluttered and ugly as Range Line in Joplin, back in the 1950's it was still sparsely traveled and remote, the distance between houses immense. Aunt Elda Maddux spent her days alone after she was forced to retire at age 65. Her niece Vera taught English and Latin at the local high school, so Elda had to survive all alone weekdays, with only the telephone to help her assuage the loneliness. As I say, Elda was an uncomplaining young woman, a tough and other-centered elderly woman, who practiced her Christianity instead of merely claiming it.

By contrast, some of today's young women often seem to me to have taken their older sisters' urging to "let it all hang out" and "express themselves" a little bit excessively to heart. Every time I read or hear of how a young woman has met and tried to cope with one of life's many barricades lying in the way to her happiness, I try to imagine how Elda, who led a comparatively tough life, but who could never have been convinced (perhaps this was her Christianity speaking) it was unfair or sexist, would react to a similar barricade. Most usually, I would see her smile and slowly shake her head.

"Oh, get used to it, dear. If you carry on like this every time you meet with difficulties along the way, you won't live to see thirty."