For Rea Howarth, from her daughter Caitlin
Stacks of paper marked my mother’s progress through the days. White Out and red pens littered her desk, the staples of her business and my own surreptitious supply for five-paragraph essays. At school I learned to type on an Apple II; at home, her electric typewriter hummed softer. I stopped letting her edit my papers around the sixth grade, and our relationship survived my adolescence.
Her jobs evolved over the years, from journalist to in-house editor to at-home freelancer. Projects took shape as civil rights activist memoirs, Native American reservation investigations, feminist campaigns within her adopted Catholicism. The missions took priority over their invoices, a practice she reminds me not to repeat. When I discount my value, I recall hers. She makes up the difference between doubt and equality.
I stole her Strunk and White over a decade ago. Her journalistic ethics focus my work in human rights and security, a steady compass when nothing else seems certain. There are questions she taught me to always ask, assumptions she taught me to never hold. Deadlines demanded real-time responses to situations that take lifetimes to explore.
Two decades through my life, my mother’s story far outstripped mine at the same age: four times a sister, twice a wife, once a single mother, too often a survivor. The labels layered fast, but frayed when she broke into a new chapter.
Stacks of journals mark my progress through the days; an Apple laptop takes the typewriter’s place. My window looks out on a yard less elegant than her garden, in a city transformed fundamentally and not at all since she arrived here at eighteen. I dedicate the hours to her, trying to make up the difference between the world she’s lived in and the one she deserved.
For Sandra Snook, from her daughter Ngiste
“Do not forget the legacy forged with blood, sweat, and tears by so many women who wanted this for you. You may not know them, but they dreamed of you.” — Mom
Four generations of women span from Great Grandma Evans’ birth in 1900 to me writing this post in 2016. Four generations, and four stories that build on the one before. Great Grandma Evans boldly moved to Des Moines, Iowa to start her life as a working woman. She got married, because that’s what happened then. She turned 20 the year women were granted the vote.
My grandmother actually was a working woman, a sign of the progress that can be made in even a single generation. Of course, the neighbors frowned upon it, and she was limited to secretary roles because, again, that’s what women did. She walked in Equal Rights Amendment marches with my great-grandmother, grandfather, and my own mother.
My mother, like so many women of her generation, fought in the trenches in ways my grandmother and great grandmother could not. Nearing the end of her lifelong career in science, the hardest battles are behind her; now she mentors younger women and relishes all that they have before them. There were times she wanted to start her own company, but without health insurance for her children, it was a non-starter.
Mom tenaciously refused to let single parenthood get in the way of her dreams of a big family. That determination gave me one of the greatest gifts in my life as 2.5 (it’s complicated) adoptions lead to my unruly, rambunctious, loving six siblings. Tolstoy says all happy families are alike, but I beg to differ. My family earned our happiness because my mother built us all up and laid the foundation for functional adults. Of course, when we needed it, she checked us before we wrecked ourselves. As my mother once pithily reflected, “I bit off more than I could chew. Then I had to swallow it.”
Now that I am a year older than my mother was when she became one, I see the voraciousness latent in all the generations of mothers before me. Thanks to these women, I live in a time of abundant opportunity. I know I am not the end, merely the fourth generation moving society forward, paving the way for the next generation. My mother says the women before dreamed of us. They dreamed, and when they woke, they worked.