2007 Holiday Recollections

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Friday December 21, 2007

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? This year the precious lives of Molly Ivins, Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley and Judith Pomarlen Vladeck ended. Likewise, those of many other strong women who struggled in diverse ways in behalf of the status of women and girls. And within the present decade we have lost Shirley Chisholm, Amanda Cross, Andrea Dworkin, Margaret Ekpo, Betty Friedan, Martha Wright Griffiths, Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, Dorothy Coade Hewett, Patsy Takemoto Mink, Susan Moller Okin, Estelle Ramey, Ann Richards, Margaret Sloan-Hunter, Susan Sontag, Dorothy Stratton, Wendy Wasserstein, and Monique Wittig—to name just a few.  

It was Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, who said, “The law cannot do the major part of the job of winning equality for women. Women must do it for themselves. They must become revolutionaries.” Nigerian women’s rights activist and social mobilizer Margaret Ekpo’s awareness of growing movements for civil rights for women around the world prodded her into demanding the same for the women in her country. Martha Wright Griffiths was the first woman to serve on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and the person most responsible for inclusion in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 of the prohibition of sex discrimination under Title VII. American academic and feminist author Carolyn Gold Heilbrun found it necessary to write her mystery novels using a pen name. “Terrible news. The great Grace Paley, feminist, activist, and until today one of our best living short story writers, has died,” wrote a blogger. Patsy Takemoto Mink’s persistence secured passage of Title IX, assuring equal treatment for women in America’s classrooms as well as on its playing fields. New Zealander Susan Moller Okin contended that the family perpetuates gender inequalities throughout all of society, because children acquire their values and ideas in the family’s sexist setting and then grow up to enact these ideas as adults. In Silences, Tillie Olsen’s analysis of authors’ silent periods in literature included the problems working-class women have in finding time to concentrate on their art. Georgetown University endocrinologist Estelle R. Ramey challenged the assertion of a Democratic National Committee official that women were unfit for the presidency or for handling emergencies because of their ‘raging storms of monthly hormonal imbalances.’ Following her own bone fractures, Ann Richards taught and advocated a healthier lifestyle for women at risk of osteoporosis. Margaret Sloan-Hunter, feminist, civil rights advocate and former editor of Ms. Magazine, founded the National Black Feminist Organization. Labor lawyer and civil rights advocate Judith Pomarlen Vladeck helped set new legal precedents against sex and age discrimination. When she represented a professor who had been denied tenure, Pace University’s lawyers branded the plaintiff a troublemaker who devoted too much time to challenging the system, but the Court of Appeals agreed with Vladeck: “Those who fight for rights are often perceived as troublesome, but the law does not require people to be supine.” Playwright Wendy Wasserstein appreciated critical acclaim for her humor, but described her work as “a political act”, wherein sassy dialogue and farcical situations mask truths about intelligent, independent women living in a world still ingrained with traditional roles and expectations. French author and feminist theorist Monique Wittig was particularly interested in overcoming gender. Her novel, Les Guérillères (1969), was a landmark in lesbian feminism. Yes indeed, For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne. 

“Wanna Buy Some Crissmass Cards?” 

During their marriage, Stella and Judge Johnson resided in a large residence, almost a mansion. She was fat and foolish, well reputed as a good Christian lady who played the church organ for services. He was a lush who left middle-aged, childless, pampered and naïve Stella penniless when he died early.  

As the judge’s wife, Stella had been a society matron, but her life had changed radically. Strong women come in varied sizes and shapes. When we first met, in 1935, I was nine years old. Stella dressed in black. Her home had been taken over by the HOLC—the Home Owners Loan Corporation—a Depression-era agency that attempted to recoup defaulted properties. She was allowed to live and give piano lessons in what had been her front parlor and to share the first floor bathroom. Running water and hot plates were installed in the other rooms, which were being rented out, and Stella was transitioning into rooming house manager slash piano teacher. One of her pupils was an only child for whom she was a modified Madame Sousatzka.  

Many of the Johnsons’ expensive furnishings were stored in the carriage house at the rear of the property. As time passed and the roomers wore things out, she would dip into its contents. The school principals referred new teachers to Stella. Her big news, relayed by my mother, was about the new high school multi-purpose faculty member—dean of girls cum trig-onometry teacher cum junior high school principal. Miss C and “her friend” were moving into rooms on Stella’s second floor. They were former missionaries to India, where the friend contracted an incurable eye disease, and they had been returned to the United States, sans income. Middle-aged Miss C always wore a dark-colored matronly dress. We spoke once, when I was in seventh grade. Summoned to the Office because of my numerous absences, I shed a few tears, and she doled out exactly one tissue from inside her desk drawer. I could tell she regretted having started the whole thing.  

For eight years, I took fifty-cent piano lessons from Stella. It was in her vestibule that I took refuge when an old geezer chased me through the streets, in her bathroom that I weighed myself and wondered how she got on the scale and into the bathtub, from her music stand that I snitched candies. It was from generous Stella that I got one of my nickels to go to the movies during school. I just walked in one sunny afternoon when I was supposedly in sixth grade class and asked for it without explanation, and she smiled and handed it over. One night a week she put on her hat and played the organ for choir practice, and occasionally she would unfold a rickety card table on which we played Canfield and Pik Up Stix. Later in the evening she made genuine cocoa, tiptoeing about in order not to disturb the roomers.  

Over the years, gullible Stella enthused about screwball projects advertised as guaranteed at-home income-producers: growing mushrooms in the basement, holding embroideries sales, selling Christmas greeting cards to her students’ parents and the roomers. She shared the name of the Christmas cards company with me, and I did well going door-to-door with my samples, oblivious of the several weirdos into whose dwellings I foolishly stepped.  

By the time I was a high school senior I didn’t see Stella regularly, although she and my mother still chatted. I received one graduation gift—a silver bracelet wrapped in a new handkerchief from Stella. Her arthritic knee worsened, and she latched on to a young surgeon. Ever optimistic, she was sure he was going to make everything right, but the operation accomplished just the opposite. With no family, she became destitute and immobile and was incarcerated in Pilgrim State Hospital. Years later, my mother shared with me a letter from Stella, who wrote that she was able to return to the community. She entreated my mother to be her sponsor. Recently, I contacted the Hospital administration inquiring about Stella: she had, of course, never gotten out of Pilgrim State. 

Adapted from The Sticking Place; A Memoir.