Mothers and Grandmothers
Barbara Fielding, Lawyer
“My mother grew up in a wealthy family, but lost her father when he died of a heart attack in his early forties.
He owned some orange groves in Florida, which he left to my grand¬mother. She sold them in the land boom of 1924 for $100,000 to buy some property where she could raise my mother and my uncles. During the Depression, my grandmother had to sell the property, but she could only get $25,000 for it, so my mother couldn’t afford to go to college.”
Carolyn Woodward, Television Producer
“My grandmother was a brilliant woman, a genius unable to exploit her worth—not so much because she was black but because she was a woman born in the late 1800s. She had a doctorate, or at least a master’s degree. She spoke three languages; she had been to Europe three or four times. She had this knowledge and what did she do with it? She tutored young white kids; she was a nanny or something. My grandmother felt she had a place in life, she fought against the tide.
Though Carolyn’s grandmother stayed with her husband for twenty-five years until he died, “she didn’t want to be bothered with a man.”
Carolyn’s paternal grandmother was also strong and independent. Educated in a music conservatory, she played the piano, the violin, the cello, and the clarinet.
“As a young woman, she left her husband and went back to New Orleans.
He was not a nice man; he was a womanizer. But my grandmother didn’t get bitter; she liked men. She had my father, my uncle, other children who died. [Although she was black] she passed for white, as she couldn’t feed her children otherwise. She worked as a musician in dance halls, churches. Her second husband was the grandfather I knew and loved. He owned a bar; they bought property. He wasn’t educated; he was a rough man. I think she had a couple of men in her life; I never asked. My grandmother was very philosophical; she was able to gain by her experience. She would say, ‘It’s fate.’ She had an abundance of friends and was full of life.”
Clara Zolen, Business Executive
“My mother was the daughter of German immigrants. She didn’t get that far because she grew up between the two wars. There was a lot of anti- German sentiment and in school there was tracking on the basis of language. Then, during the depression, my grandfather, who was a patent attorney, lost everything.
My mother lost her piano, her dog. She was protected but lonely, until late in her teens when she was shoved out on her own. My mother had to work; she had to drop out of college. She became an army nurse. After she got married, she worked nights and weekends as a part-time nurse to help make ends meet. Her mother may have worked as a housekeeper for rich people, but I’m not sure when or where. My mother didn’t get along that well with her mother.”
Flora Dawson, Lawyer
“My mother never finished college. She married young, during World War II, in 1943. She didn’t want to be like her mother—who was a southern belle type of person. My grandmother played tennis, did social things. Since her mother was not that concerned about her, my mother saw her mother as a negative example.
My parents weren’t always happy. My father had affairs and never made much money and my mother ran him down. But I think she was content with her lot. She liked having children; she liked taking care of us. She did a lot of social stuff, volunteer work. She put energy and time into her children, to put them on the right path to life, to help them achieve academic success. She was reacting to her mother, who wasn’t nurturing.”
Sally Jeffers, Journalist
“Before I was born, my mother worked for seven years as the executive secretary for the head of a major television station. Her boss begged her to stay on when she got pregnant with me. He even offered to let her have a room at work so she could take care of me. But she refused. She believed that she ought to stay at home.
My mother was a very talented woman who spent her time doing pottery, weaving, needlepoint, painting. I think she did that because her mother lost two husbands between 1910 and 1920. One died of tuberculosis and the other had a heart attack when he was thirty-six. So my grandmother worked really hard all her life to raise my mother and her sister—she had all kinds of jobs. My mother never had a traditional upbringing and I think she wanted her children to have that.
Also, my father’s mother also lost her husband young—so she packed up the five kids and moved back East. She ran a boarding house during the Depression. So neither of my parents had traditional families, and they wanted them.”
Alison Hartley, Physician
“My step-mother, whose mother was a doctor, specifically decided not to work. Even though she was offered the job of assistant dean at an exclusive women’s college where she did volunteer work, she turned it down. She liked doing the job. It was interesting. But she decided to hold back and to be a housewife. She thought it was appropriate for a lady to stay at home. It was a class issue. Any¬one who worked at anything but a professional career did it because they had to. And she didn’t want it to be thought that she was of the class of women who worked.”