February Is a Poignant Month

February is a poignant month for it marks my parent’s wedding anniversary and mother’s birthday and both come a few weeks after the 10th commemoration of her death.

Probably because Barack Obama’s inauguration is still fresh in my mind, and she was a lifelong progressive Democrat, I’ve been thinking a lot about Joyce lately: More than anyone else, even more than events or friends or causes, it was Joyce who gently nudged me further and further left during her lifetime.

It might seem like a long journey from being the youngest daughter in a family that escaped the worst effects of the Depression to a post-war, suburban wifey with two kids playing in the yard who made a mad dash inside when they smelled cookies coming out of the oven, to becoming a woman so vocally and actively incensed by the world around her that she ended up on one of Richard Nixon’s enemies list.

It might seem to be a long journey but it really wasn’t. Well, not for Joyce.

Growing Up Ordinary
Raised in a family that managed to financially cling to some scrap of the middle-class through the Great Depression, she grew up in a home where her father ruled. Period. If her mother displeased my grandfather – the grandchildren all called him Papa – somehow, he simply refused to speak to anyone in the house. Sometimes, the silence went on for days.

Doing well in school was very important but so was setting the table properly and helping to get dinner ready on time. Evenings were spent doing homework lying on the floor in front of the humungous Stomberg-Carlson radio in the living room. Family vacations were annual, usually in August at a resort near Green Lake, Wisconsin, a small place with housekeeping cabins that barred Jews, Irish and – it goes without saying – blacks. Since my grandfather was Jewish, when they were very little Joyce and her sister needed a bit of coaching before the trip: “We’re Jewish at home but not on vacation.”

Outwardly, mother grew up an ordinary girl in an ordinary home with ordinary expectations and ordinary dreams. And Joyce was well on her way to living the kind of ordinary life her parent’s anticipated for their two daughters.

Until she hit the University of Wisconsin.

An Early Contrarian
Joyce had it in her head that she wanted to study architecture, a dream that lasted until her first meeting with an academic advisor. That’s when she heard, for the first time in her life, there were limits that come with being born female: “Don’t be silly,” she was told. “Girls can’t be architects. Have you thought about teaching or nursing?”

“Have you thought about encouraging students instead of making them feel like a fool?” was her tart response. She rose to her full five feet nothing tall and stomped from his office feeling as if she were a giant.

Thus was the first early budding of a trouble-making radical.

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In fact, after her session with the advisor in 1939, she actually tried organizing a campus protest. Unfortunately for Joyce, she was the only girl at UW that year interested in studying architecture, let alone be willing to protest. The whole thing fizzled before it began. According to Joyce, the only protest her freshman year promoted staying out of the new European war, a rally she refused to attend even though her entire sorority went because she thought America would be in the war eventually and ought to start preparing rather than pretend it was an irritating inconvenience involving “foreigners.”

Without explanation or reason, my mind snaps to when my sister and I were kids.

One morning as we were eating a Rice Krispies breakfast, mother heard the garbage truck in the alley over the snap, crackle and pop in our bowls. She leapt from the table as if shot from the Quaker Oats cannon – cereal figured heavily in school day breakfasts – and ran out with a bag that Dad forgot to dump in the pail on his way to work. Wearing no makeup and one of those “lush, plush” Target robes made out of some synthetic fabric that squeaks when you rub it against itself, Joyce headed out the door before she had time to apply make-up. Besides the green robe, she wore a pair of faded, fluffy slippers, her hair was still in rollers. (Remember rollers? I still can’t fathom how anyone slept with them in their head.)

Anyway, she dashed down the alley looking like the Mad Woman of Genza shouting, “Am I too late for the garbage?” The guy hanging off a step on the rear of the truck yelled back, “Plenty of room, lady, jump in.”

She had a parallel haunting experience with the man who read the Minnegasco meter when I was about 11.

Joyce was carrying a load of laundry to the machine. I had left a bunch of toys around in the family room, through which she had to pass to get to the laundry area. One of the things not put away was my baseball batting helmet, which was supposed to be stored with my other equipment behind the Kenmore washer-dryer. Because her arms were filled, she put my batting helmet on her head.

Unbeknownst to mother, the meter reader had come in the house as he usually did if the door was open and walked downstairs. (Those were simpler, safer times and it was Minneapolis, after all.) Just as he entered the laundry room unnoticed, mother decided there was room to toss her bathrobe in the wash so he caught her standing in a bra and girdle – another bit of remarkable fashion yesteryear – with my batting helmet on her head.

The meter reader let out an embarrassed, “Oh, God, excuse me!” They stared at each other in dumbfounded surprise for a moment or two before the meter reader mumbled, “I hope your team wins, lady” as he ran quickly up the steps. That month, my parents received an estimated bill. And from then on, the meter reader always knocked – even if the door was open.

Tricky Dick And Mom
Now I’m back in 1968 and by the time Dick Nixon narrowly defeated our sort-of next door neighbor at the time, Hubert Humphrey, for president, it was a world where all around her people were losing their heads while she kept hers.

Joyce had her first big political fight with dad over dinner one night when she called LBJ a liar over the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Phil, still stuck in a post-World War Two “my country right or wrong” mentality, was apoplectic that his wife, the mother of his children, the woman who kept the home fires burning while he was in the Navy during WW2, not only held an opinion different than his but dared to express it. Publicly. She wrote letters to our Congressman, both Minnesota senators and the local newspapers opposing the Vietnam War. Worse, as far as dad was concerned, she actually defied him and marched in an anti-war parade through downtown Minneapolis.

She knew she was right and history proved her so; eventually, she even convinced her husband.

Say what?

charley-james.jpgPhil, who spent his life convinced that he knew all there was to know and only god knew all the rest, actually came to see that Joyce was right about the war, if nothing else in their half-century marriage. He pushed through an anti-war resolution at a county Democratic Party convention and between his stand and mother’s letters, they so delighted Tricky Dick they got their mail opened regularly, their taxes audited repeatedly and their name on one of his countless enemy lists.

When the lists were released, finding her name on one was a highpoint of her life. Joyce has been gone now for a decade. I’m glad I still carry around such vivid memories of her.

Charley James
The Progressive Curmudgeon

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