Thursday, December 30, 2010

A time machine

If you suddenly heard yourself speak -- yourself nearly 60 years ago, would you recognize yourself? Would you even admit that could be our voice, your words? Time travel is a popular sci-fi plot, it's not something most of us experience. I felt as if I experienced it yesterday.

When I moved to NYC in 1981, I had a trunk full of writings. Soon thereafter I saw a notice in a NY Review of Books saying the Schlesinger Library at Radcliff wanted diaries kept by adolescent and teen girls in the '40s and '50s. In my trunk were diaries from about 19950 to 1960 ... and more. I contributed them to the library, happy to lighten the trunk. I forgot about them. A couple of years ago I learned that a Ph.D. student was using the diaries [and that another had also dipped into them.] The thesis is written and going to be published and he woman needed my permission so we have emailed in the last few days. She sent me the chapter in which I was quoted. Her subject is the education of women during the '40s and '50s. I read through quite a lot of information, partly familiar and partly new, a variety of quotes from young women's diaries of the period, largely women from the Seven Sisters colleges. I believe there was one woman from Iowa and a black woman from somewhere other than the Eastern seaboard.

Then I came to myself, characterized as a farm girl with a mother who graduated from high school, a father who only went to the 5th grade, a working class girl whose family gained a little prosperity just after the war. [In fact, built a house on a bigger farm and acquired indoor plumbing for the first time.] A girl who was an emotional misfit in high school and at last found social success and intellectual stimulation in college ... in Indiana, far from the East Coast. These things were all true, although they sounded like random facts -- indeed they were fished from a murky well of angst ridden teen prose. My diaries were far from literary, I couldn't bear to read them before sending them off.] Most telling was a quote from a diary written probably the second or third Christmas after I started college saying what a miserable day it was, ranting about the narrow-mindedness of my family.

That was the voice I heard, sad and angry. I don't remember that Christmas or what made me write the line although I feel as if somewhere in the depths of memory I heard a tiny ping! Yes, I'm sure those are my words. I don't think I like that judgmental young woman but she was me. And it was true. I've never felt happy about Christmas. Back then I wanted away from that place. I did not hate my parents, I do not now/ They set excellent examples of honesty, diligence, frugality and good sense. But those are adult assessments. My mother inspired my desire for a different way of life; not by word or complaints of her dissatisfaction, but by making it possible for me to know another world existed. She tried to give me skills above and beyond those some other parents gave their children: piano lessons, opportunities to learn to speak in public, inspiration to write essays and send material to the local newspapers.

I've been thinking about the long years since that diary entry. Not only middle class women benefited from college educations, in the rest of the country many women of working class and middle class had intellectual opportunities their parents didn't have. I spoke with a woman from Tennessee who became a Spanish teacher to whom I said, "I didn't know we were very poor until much late." "Me either she said." She too had been the first in her family to go to college. The old slogan "you've come a long way, Babe,"was true for many of my generation. I will not go on now about my fears that the current generation won't have our opportunities.

2 comments:

FOLKWAYS NOTEBOOK said...

June, You were a brave womam to donate your personal diaries. Of course, they became a gift and a treasure to the young student writing about women.

What I wrote in my diaries were fleeting feelings and I would not like to be held to the wall that they were feelings made in stone.

You are from the same era and region of the country I was raised in -- the Midwest. Women were pretty much objects during that time-frame which I believe would make any young girl angry -- especially one that was encouraged to be strong about herself.

Girls from the 40s and 50s became the advocates for the womens movement of the sixties. How fortunate was that!

Interesting subject your young student is writing about. And yes, we appear as dinosaurs to some young women today but without us advocating where would they be now?

-- barbara

Kass said...

I can't imagine giving my diaries away. What a unique idea for a thesis. I like how you've made sense of your adolescence. It's nice to see the origins of your thoughtful mind.