how many times did my daddy tell me the story about how it was snowing in atlanta the day i was born. how he made the long distance phone call to his daddy in fayetteville, how it was hard to understand each other because of the static on the line. he told that story not with the defiance and antagonism and one-upmanship that dressed later stories starring daddy and his dad. the story of my birth was told with the same excitement i heard in my son’s voice when he delivered a fistful of dandelions picked ‘specially for me. daddy made it sound like he was delivering a gift to his daddy, a gift more precious than the new fedora or the 35 mm camera he gave granddaddy in christmases yet to come. and perhaps he did feel like he, the sole surviving son of five children, was delivering a gift to his parents. another important thing? he never even hinted that he or grandaddy was even a smidgeon less excited because i was a girl and not a boy. in face, my gender never came up . . . except in the spelling of my name.
i wish i could ask granddaddy about it, too, but he died on the day of the christmas party when i was in fifth grade, when stories were something endured after the initial telling.
when i look to mother for a genesis tale, i get a recapitulation of daddy’s story . . . probably because daddy was the source of her information, too, given the effects of general anesthesia and all. then last weekend, quite by accident, i discovered a little something new and sparkly. i was talking to mother about her work during world war 2. she worked at atlanta general depot, doing a host of various jobs as she progressed through the field and up the ladder, eventually landing a supervisory position over 3-4 other women. i came upon a form granting her request for maternity leave beginning on 25 september – months before my birthday. i thought i was onto something. did she have toxemia like i did with my firstborn, also a daughter? or were pregnant women required to take leave, in effect being banned until after? or, given her beauty and keen sense of style, was she reluctant (read: embarrassed) to show her ever-protruding body for months on end?
i was on a feminist-fed roll.
“mother, here’s your leave form,” i said. “why did you start your leave on september 25? you were granted six months’ leave, most of it spent before my birth.”
“oh,” she said as she speared another piece of fried egg, always proud of the lacy effect she was able to create in the cooking, always apologetic when the lace did not materialize as she’d hoped. “some officer whose name i can’t remember asked if i wanted to work for him. when i told him no, he said well, he’d just put in an order and there was nothing i could do about it. i really did not want to work for him, so i just took my maternity leave and there was nothing he could do.”
and with that little story kernel, i see my mother – a lifelong secretary – in a new light. i completely forget to be disappointed that i wasn’t the center of her answer, i don’t even consider till now, turning over the stone of feminism, the possible prejudice i showed attached to her being a secretary . . . there wasn’t room for any of that on account of the pride i felt at her spunk and resolve to be in charge of her own life by whatever means necessary.
and it was certainly more than thrilling to discover that even at this age, there’s something new to learn about her, about me, about us.