Voting Rights for Some of the People Some of the Time

Although election day is still two weeks away, for many of us the election is all over but the counting. My ballot was mailed in this week and I’ve already been notified that it has been accepted and counted. State websites that let voters to track their ballots have made life easier for many of us. Thousands of people find it difficult to get to the polls on election day and this year the pandemic has made it dangerous as well as difficult. But not everyone can vote.

Sure you can vote if…

The story of voting in the United States has been a tale of expanding voting rights over the years. The framers of the Constitution could never have imagined that so many people in this country would be allowed to vote. They started out with the idea that a relatively small group of white men 21 years of age or older and substantial members of the community who owned property would be the ones who would go to the polls every four years to choose our leaders.

But many Americans were not content to let men of property determine all the laws. In various states men who did not own farms or other assets began demanding the right to vote. First the rules on property fell. Instead of having to own property or be wealthy, men who were merely respectable members of the community were allowed to vote. In some states, widows and women who owned property were also allowed to cast their ballots.

Finally by the mid-nineteenth century voting rights were extended by Constitutional Amendments which revolutionized the voting roles. On October 16, 2020, Jamelle Bouie wrote a column in the NY Times pointing out that the U.S. Constitution as it stands now was not written by the founding fathers. It has changed over the years especially by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments which guaranteed voting rights to previously enslaved men.

Women in many states were still denied voting rights until the twentieth century. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment changed that so that states could not prohibit women from voting. And in 1965, the Voting Rights Act prohibited many of the measures that states had used to prevent African Americans and other minority groups from voting. The legal age for voting was soon extended to 18-year-olds instead of being limited to people over 21. Thousands of people were added to voting lists.

But states are still making voting difficult for many of us…

Change is not easy. States that were not allowed to charge poll taxes, soon came up with other schemes to make voting more difficult.

In the 2020 election, some states have set up new rules to keep voters from casting a ballot. Texas has ruled that only one ballot drop-off box can be set up in each county. If you don’t live close to a ballot drop-off site, you may have to travel 50 miles or more to get to the one closest to you. If you don’t own a car, you are on your own because there is no public transit offered.  It seems that Texas has decided on a new property requirement for voting. You may not be required to own a cow pasture, but you are required to own a car.  

Voting lines in Miami

And for people who want to vote on Election Day, some states are cutting down on the number of voting sites available. You can vote as long as you are healthy and strong enough to stand in line for six to eight hours. It is hard to believe that this is what the Founding Fathers intended when they planned for a democracy.

The only solution is to cast your vote if you possibly can…

This year when you cast your vote, it is not only a victory for you and the candidates you believe in, it also helps make up for all our fellow citizens who are being denied the right to vote. We owe it to our country to honor the freedom America has always stood for and will continue to stand for only if we use our voting power.

CAST YOUR BALLOT AND PROTEST UNFAIR VOTING RESTRICTIONS!

Happy Birthday ACLU

The American Civil Liberties Union, usually known simply as ACLU, is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. The year of its birth, 1920, was a year very much like our own. Many Americans were fearful of the future in which so many things were changing. The world had just survived a terrifying flu epidemic, women were demanding the right to vote and to decide their own lives, Russia had just installed a communist government and many Americans felt threatened by the success of revolutionary movements in Europe.

In 1917 the fear of radicals had led to the passage of the Espionage Act. Thousands of people were arrested for expressing radical ideas in speeches and publishing them in magazines. Often the government did not respect the traditional American rights to assemble and to speak freely about their ideas. It was in this climate that a small group of liberals started the ACLU in order to defend the traditional rights of free speech and freedom of assembly guaranteed by the constitution.  

Although the ACLU was originally supported mainly by people with liberal political views, in the years since its founding, questions have arisen about where it stands. Liberals cheered in 1925 when the ACLU stood up for the right to teach evolution in schools. Conservatives began to cheer for the ACLU as they supported Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to salute the flag in schools, defended white supremacists and supported the Citizens United decision that allows unlimited political contributions by corporations as well as individuals.

As an organization the ACLU has always been resistant to being categorized. People who strongly support it for one action may turn against it for another. Overall, it has earned the respect and gratitude of both liberals and conservatives, but never a year goes by that someone in one political camp or another doesn’t disagree with a specific action. Sticking by your principles in all situations has always been a difficult stance to maintain.

The fate of the ACLU has to some extent been mirrored in the fate of one of its important founders. Crystal Eastman, one of the most charismatic and well-known activists of the early 20th century, had been famous for years when she joined with others to start the ACLU. Eastman had been an activist fighting to gain women’s right to vote, to own property, and to equality in marriage. She was also a socialist and a dedicated pacifist during the years leading up to World War I. Like the organization she helped found, she refused to settle down to one theme in her life. She supported numerous causes but refused to be defined by them.

Crystal Eastman

During the first two decades of the 20th century more and more women supported the women’s suffrage movement. By the time of the 1916 election, both Democrats and Republicans were vying for the support of suffrage leaders. Many of these leaders, including Eastman, thought that the time for a women’s suffrage amendment was close at hand. Most of the same leaders were also eager to persuade the government not to enter the war which had started in Europe in 1914. Most of the suffrage leaders, decided that getting the vote for women was more important than trying to avoid going to war.

Crystal Eastman stood almost alone in deciding that her commitment to peace was more important at that time than her fight to get votes for women. She never stepped back from her suffrage work, but it became less important in her life. Perhaps that is one reason why she is less often remembered than some of the other suffragists. Many of the traditional suffragists who are honored for achieving votes for women had to sacrifice some of their other values to support that over-riding cause.

Wouldn’t it be nice if individuals like Crystal Eastman or groups like the ACLU could decide what values they upheld and move ahead toward them on a straight path? Instead, fighting for any ideal inevitably raises questions.

  • When does defending freedom of speech turn into support for hate speech?
  • When does a desire to maintain peace mean that we ignore death and suffering in foreign lands?
  • When does a person’s right to privacy justify ignoring possible security threats being planned by online groups?

These are the questions that keep idealists lying awake at night. And the truth is those questions will probably never be completely answered. But they are questions we should keep thinking about. Two books I’ve read recently offer a lot of food for thought. One is a new biography, Crystal Eastman: A Revolutionary Life by Amy Aronson and the other is the recent Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. Both of them raise many questions about how we set priorities in our personal and political lives. No answers—just questions. In the end we all have to find our own answers.

Showing Us a Different World–Nadine Gordimer

Books can erase the barriers of both time and place and July’s People by Nadine Gordimer is a novel that speaks to us today just as clearly as it spoke to readers when it was first published in 1981. This story about clashing cultures in South Africa almost forty years ago seems highly relevant to life in America in 2020.  

Nadine Gordimer

July’s People is set in a future that never happened, at least never quite in the way Gordimer describes it. A sudden, violent uprising by black Africans against the colonial rulers who dominate their country has led to the flight of Bam and Maureen Smales, a white couple from the wealthy suburb of Johannesburg where they have always lived a comfortable life. When violence breaks out and there is shooting in the streets, they finally realize they must leave. At the invitation of their servant, July, Bam and Maureen flee to the small rural village where July’s family lives. When the couple with their three young children settle into the village, they find welcome and safety. They also find an almost unbridgeable gulf between themselves and the villagers whose language they don’t understand, and whose way of life they have never experienced.

Gordimer’s exquisite language makes an unfamiliar place and culture both believable and important. Her vivid descriptions of the minute details of life in a South African village lets us feel the oppressive heat and see the unfamiliar scenes. As Maureen walks through the village, she notices things she has never seen before. Now we see them through her eyes:

Ants had raised a crust of red earth on the dead branches that once had formed a cattle-pen. With a brittle black twig she broke off the crust, grains of earth crisply welded by ants’ spit, and exposed the wood beneath bark that had been destroyed; bone-white, the wood was being eaten away, too, was smoothly scored in shallow running grooves as if by a fine chisel. She scraped crust with the aimless satisfaction of childhood, when there is nothing to do but what presents itself…

Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 in South Africa to immigrant parents. Like other white citizens of South Africa, she lived a privileged life in a colonial society. She attended a private school as a child but was often kept home because her mother worried about Nadine’s health. Growing up isolated from other children, she read avidly and decided to become a writer. Later she attended the University of Witwatersrand, where she met many activists determined to change the injustices and racial inequalities of South Africa. She started publishing stories in South African magazines, and when one of her stories was accepted by the New Yorker in 1951, she became an internationally admired writer.  

Gordimer’s life was devoted to both writing and social activism. She was a friend of Nelson Mandela and other African leaders and traveled the world giving speeches about her books and about life and injustice in South Africa. Although her books were sometimes banned in South Africa, she became world famous, winning the Orange Prize, the Booker Prize and many others. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Some of her best-known books are Burger’s Daughter, The Conservationist, and The Pickup. Each of her books gives insight into life in Africa during the turbulent years of the late twentieth century. July’s People is a good place to start the journey through her world. I don’t think you’ll ever forget the trip.

Nadine Gordimer died in 2014. 

Equal Pay for Equal Scores—treat female athletes right

The United States Women’s Soccer team earned a well-deserved surge of publicity this week when it returned to New York as world champions for the fourth year in a row. Thousands of girls around the country undoubtedly watched the welcome parade and dreamed of a possible future for themselves as they celebrated the women’s victory. But we should remember that the women have still not won their struggle to get pay equal to male soccer players. It has taken a century for women athletes to get as far as this, but there is still work to be done.

U.S. Women’s Soccer Team

Over the years women have been pressured to stay out of sports and let the men do all the active work and get all the credit. The Olympic Games have only slowly and reluctantly welcomed women into competition. America’s first female Olympic champion was Margaret Ives Abbott. She was a young society woman from Chicago who played golf for pleasure and was very good at it. In 1900, she was in Paris studying art and heard there was a golf contest, so she signed up. That was the first year that golf had been part of the Olympic program and for a many years it was the only time. Not until 2006 was golf reintroduced as an Olympic sport. Margaret Abbott may have been a champion, but scarcely anyone noticed her achievement.

The first time the Olympic Games were held in the United States—in St. Louis in 1904—the only sport open for women was archery. Those games were among the most informal and disorganized of games because very few athletes were willing to make the long trek to St. Louis to participate.

Women’s Olympic swim team 1912

As the twentieth century went on, more and more women took up athletics and lobbied for a chance to compete in the Games. Some of the obstacles for women athletes were bizarre. In 1912 when the Games were held in Stockholm, women were allowed to participate in swimming, but America did not send any of its female swimmers. The reason? American organizers would not allow women to compete in any sport in which they could not wear long skirts. Although, as you can see from this picture, the swimsuits of 1912 were very modest by today’s standards.

Now at last the Olympic organization is working to make sure the 2020 Games will be equally divided between male and female athletes. This chart shows how the number of women participating and the sports they have chosen have changed over the years.

Professional sports seems to be a last bastion where women athletes are treated unfairly with lower salaries and fewer perks. Now that the excitement of the World Cup is over, let’s not forget Megan Rapinoe and the rest of the team. As their fight for equal pay fades from media coverage, we need to keep reminding the U.S. Soccer Federation and other overlords of athletic organizations that women do care about sports and we want to support women athletes.

From Bicycles to Surfing–freeing women to lead their lives

Fashion never sleeps, and the holiday season when people are planning end-of-year celebrations, is an especially active time. Fashion decrees what women should wear and influences how they lead their lives. The people who decide what is fashionable have usually been men. In fact, women who have chosen for themselves what they want to wear have often been harshly punished–either by law or, perhaps even more damaging, by laughter.

When Amelia Bloomer and several other leaders of the Women’s Suffrage movement during the mid-nineteenth century introduced the bloomer costume they were criticized and laughed at for their efforts. The Bloomer outfit consisted of a dress worn over wide pants. The obvious health benefits of not wearing a long, heavy skirt that scraped up dirt from the roadway and streets did not persuade men that women should be allowed to determine how they want to dress. As the activist AngelinaGrimke wrote, the bloomer dress suggested that women should have the freedom to move around the streets and participate in public events. It was the freedom the new style offered women that was frightening to many conservatives.

In the end it wasn’t disapproval as much as jokes and laughter that drove the sensible bloomer dresses from the streets of America. Relentless scorn in newspapers pushed women back to more conventional, and restrictive clothes. Bicycle costumes brought a brief revival of bloomer costumes in the 1890s, but they soon disappeared. It took more than fifty years for women to win the freedom to wear short skirts and eventually pants.

Now it is the turn of the Muslim world to design clothes for women that enable them to choose a lifestyle outside the sheltered walls of their family home. The DeYoung Museum in San Francisco currently has an exhibit of clothes designed for Muslim women. Many of them are in conventional styles showing some of the many varieties of clothing worn by Muslim women and other Middle Eastern women, but some of them offer glimpses of new lifestyles as well as new clothing styles.

Surfing costume

The exhibit shows outfits suitable for active sports, such as surfing, but all of them fit within the comfort zone of women following Muslim standards for dress. The DeYoung Museum may be too far away for you to visit, but the exhibit is accompanied by a lavish

catalog full of illustrations of some of the most exciting fashions now being shown anywhere—many of them designed by women to help women live more exciting, active lives. And if you cannot buy a copy for yourself, ask your local public library to buy one for the whole community to share. It is an eye-opening experience for everyone.

Do robots ask questions?

Reading about a 19th century woman forgotten by most history books may seem a long way from robots, but that was the path I followed this week. I met Mary Treat in Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel Unsheltered. If you have read reviews of Kingsolver’s book you probably know that Mary Treat was a well-known scientist who corresponded with Charles Darwin and with the Harvard botanist Asa Gray.

Textbook written by Mary Treat

Born in 1830 in upstate New York, Mary Treat received only the standard female education of the time, which did not include science. Universities did not admit women as students, so where did Treat’s knowledge about biology and botany come from? It seems to have been driven mainly by the curiosity. That is what led her to want to know about the life of the world around her. During the 1870s, she and her husband moved to Vineland, New Jersey, which was one of several Utopian communities built during the 19ths century. Situated close to the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, it was full of plants and creatures that had seldom been studied by scientists. Mary’s husband didn’t care much about plants or insects, so he soon disappeared from her life.

In Kingsolver’s novel, we are first introduced to Treat, as she is sitting in her living room patiently holding one of her fingers in the grip of a carnivorous plant. What drove this woman to study plants and insects while other women were concentrating on dress patterns and cookery? It seems to have been mainly curiosity—the quality that sets many human beings apart from most other species as they look for answers to thousands of questions about the world they live in.

You can ask almost any teacher about how they recognize the children who will someday go on to make a mark on the world and time and time again you get the answer “curiosity”.  Perhaps all children are born to ask questions, but many of them eventually give up the quest. Poverty and the stress of difficult family life and social conditions push some children into abandoning the gift of curiosity, but there are other reasons too.

For centuries men were considered to have a natural monopoly on education. They were the ones who went out into the world and searched for answers while the women stayed home. Women weren’t supposed to ask too many questions, but somehow despite this, some women, like Mary Treat, kept their curiosity alive. Treat made many contributions to biological sciences. Just think what she could have done if she had been accepted into Harvard and studied with Asa Gray instead of having to learn it all on her own?

One of the things that fascinates me about studying women’s history learning about how and why some women have overcome the obstacles in their path and kept their curiosity alive. If we could understand that, perhaps we could do a better job of encouraging both men and women, to use their curiosity to explore the world.

And what has this to do with robots? Well, one of the things about robots is that no matter how many questions they may learn to answer, or even to generate in a narrow task-focused area, they haven’t yet started to ask questions of their own. A workplace filled with robots that have been trained to do a task, will sit passively overnight or during a vacation shutdown. A workplace filled with human beings in a similar situation will come up with a dozen ways to escape their prison and move on to something more interesting. Until robots start asking questions, I don’t think we have to worry about them taking over the world.

Meanwhile we need to keep our children asking questions as they grow up and lead us into the future.

 

Did Elizabeth Bennet Wear Underwear?

Many movies this summer feature fantasy characters inhabiting a fantastic world created in the filmmaker’s mind. Fantasy fiction is the choice of young adult readers who pore over lengthy descriptions of future life. Oddly enough, many of the fantasy worlds of the future seem to resemble one another. The same electronic doors slide open to admit the threatening villain’s as did a generation ago in Star Trek. Human imagination, after all, has its limits and Utopian futures go through cycles often offering predictable versions of what life will be like.

More surprising than fantastic futures are the forgotten realities of the past.  “The past is Jane Austen fashiona foreign country” as L.P. Hartley wrote, but few people take the time to understand how different it was. We assume that the people who lived years ago and wore funny clothes were in fact thinking and feeling just as we do. But when we read the books and letters they wrote, we are constantly being reminded that the past is far different from what we consider normal today. Even the small things like being able to contact friends and family at a moment’s notice is something that seems natural today. How did people get along without it?

When I was researching background for my first Charlotte Edgerton book, A Death in Utopia, set in the 1840s, I found the forgotten histories of the times an amazing treasure trove of trivia that brought the past alive. It wasn’t the detailed histories of presidents and society women

A Death in Utopia Final (Small)
A Death in Utopia

that gave me a sense of what was going on, but the long-forgotten memoirs and collections of letters from ordinary people that helped. In a book called My Friends at Brook Farm (1912) I learned that the young people who lived in that Utopian community had the same desire to be in contact with their friends as today’s teenagers do. John Van de Zee Sears describes the “peculiar whistle” they used to signal to a friend that they were near, and the answering whistle the friend would use to respond. This detail made the Farm community come alive to me in a way that formal histories never could.

Letters and diaries from the past record the way people felt about other people—sometimes far differently from the way we feel today. Van de Zee Sears tells us that “racial prejudice was cherished as a virtue” so his friends who lived in upstate New York in a Dutch settlement worried when he was sent to school among strangers in Massachusetts. To the New Yorkers with their Dutch roots, the people at Brook Farm were “English, that is to say, foreigners, strangers”. For a Dutch American to live among them was a big step. Knowing that helps us understand how long it took for Americans to embrace the diverse society the country was becoming.

A recent column in the Washington Post is a good reminder that even Benjamin Franklin and other founding fathers were far more provincial in their outlook than would be acceptable today. It is good to remember that the men who wrote our constitution were not 21st century men in funny clothes, but people whose lives and ideas were as different from ours as we are from the Martians in science fiction.

There are historians to meet every need. Clothes often lead us into understanding the past and appreciating the way our ancestors lived and felt. One of the most fascinating blogs that I read is written by two women who are the authors of popular regency novels. They call themselves “two nerdy history girls” and their blog posts introduce the fashions, furniture, and habits of the past. Would you like to know what underwear a Jane Austen heroine would have worn? Or how a woman wearing a hoopskirt could manage to sit down on a sofa? The nerdy history girls show us videos of how women dressed, how their clothes were made, and how they were worn. Learning about those clothes and how constricting they were helps us to know the women. After learning about the reality of everyday life, it is easier to understand why many women didn’t have the time or energy to demand rights for women.

Instead of celebrating the creators of fantasy worlds, I like to celebrate the historians who bring to life the world of the past and let us see what it was like to live in years gone by. The more we understand the past, the more we should be able to control our future. As for what Elizabeth Bennet wore—read the historians!

Why Are Women Still Dancing Backwards?

Almost everyone is familiar with the comment from a cartoon written by Bob Thaves about Ginger Rogers, “she did everything he [Fred Astaire] did, but she did it GingerRogersbackwards and in high heels.” That about sums up the extra requirements put on women as they move ahead in a professional world dominated by men. Often this includes the expectation that women in any field will look like models and stay as fit as athletes whether this has anything to do with their work or not. Men are usually permitted to put on a little weight (as long as they wear a well-tailored jacket to disguise it) or to let their biceps sag a bit.

A recent New York Times story described the rigid standards set for cheerleaders who work for professional sports teams  but it is not only women who perform before the public who must observe different rules depending on their gender. Female writers, artists and political figures are judged differently than the men they compete against.

Tracy K. Smith, the poet laureate of the United States, was featured in a recent Vogue magazine article looking like a model.  Although the article itself was respectful and professional, it seemed odd to have the caption label all the items of Ms. Smith’s wardrobe. Can anyone imagine Virginia Woolf allowing a magazine to inquire into the brand names of all of the clothing she wore for an interview? Tracy Smith’s poetry stands on its own as one of the treasures of American literature. Surely her readers do not need to know the details of her consumer choices.

Women who run for political office are scrutinized not only for what they say and the causes they work for, but also for the clothes they wear and the way they style their hair. Hillary Clinton’s pants suits and shoes certainly became part of the stories written about her. No one bothered to report on these items for the men who were running for office.

Some of the most glaring examples of the different ways in which professional men and women are viewed can be seen in the various TV news channels. The women who report the news on CNN all seem to have carefully made-up faces and to wear sleek, tight-fitting dresses while they report their stories. I sometimes wonder how many more hours they must spend preparing for work than their male colleagues, who go on air sometimes rumpled and tieless, but with all their flaws hidden behind a generic jacket.

It is certainly great that women are reporting the news at all. I can remember the bad old days when it was said than the TV audience would not accept serious news presented by female reporters. Still, the playing field will not be level until women are allowed to be fully human in their professional lives. They may occasionally gain a few pounds, or their hair may turn gray or white, and wrinkles can be seen as an honorable sign of a thoughtful life and knowledge gained. Until they can appear honestly—aging and changing as the years go by—will women have achieved full equality?

I think I can hear the ghost of Ginger Rogers urging us on.

 

 

Forgotten Women–Elizabeth Peabody

This past week the New York Times launched a series paying tribute to fifteen notable women who did not get obituaries in the newspaper when they died. Each week in this new section, called “Overlooked”, the Times will add the stories of women who deserved, but were not given, an obituary when they died.

What a great idea! I thought when I read the announcement. I decided I would go back and take a look at some of the women I’ve written about on my blog to see whether they fit into the “Overlooked” category. One of the first people I thought of was Elizabeth Peabody, a celebrity during much of the 19th century, who has long been forgotten

Elizabeth Fry visiting Newgate Prison
Bookstore discussions

despite her achievements in education and publishing. As it turns out, she did get an obit in the New York Times, when she died in 1894, although she was treated more as an eccentric old woman than as the respected educator that she was. I think she deserves a better send off than that.

We have no picture of Elizabeth Peabody as a young woman, although she was well-known in Boston. As her biographer, Megan Marshall, explains, Elizabeth’s portrait was painted in 1828 by Chester Harding, a well-known portrait artist in Boston. Elizabeth was 24 years old at the time and teaching at a school she had started for girls. Instead of being pleased by the portrait, her parents were scandalized. Women of that time did not have pictures of themselves mounted on walls and displayed to others. Unlike men, women were supposed to live lives that were private and hidden from everyone except their families. Despite the prevailing customs, however, Elizabeth was destined to become a well-known figure in Boston and elsewhere during her long life. The portrait, incidentally, was destroyed years later in a warehouse fire so the only existing pictures show Elizabeth as an elderly woman.

Elizabeth was one of three Peabody sisters—the other two were Mary, who married

portrait of Elizabeth Peabody
Elizabeth Peabody

 

Horace Mann, and Sophia, who became the wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne. All three were born in the early 1800s and lived through most of that eventful century, but Elizabeth had the most lasting influence and left a legacy that is still with us.

In 1838 Elizabeth opened a small circulating library and bookstore in the family home. She knew Ralph Waldo Emerson and many of his friends who were interested in expanding the intellectual horizons of Americans. They were eager to learn about the new ideas being talked about in Europe and Elizabeth’s bookstore offered them a chance to read and discuss European journals and new books. Not only that, Elizabeth also opened a small publishing operation and published several articles and books written by members of the group including several of Nathanial Hawthorne’s early stories.

Elizabeth Peabody’s small bookstore in West Street was the place where the new Transcendental Club held meetings. Margaret Fuller offered her “Conversations” in the bookstore for the wives and friends of the Emerson circle. Elizabeth’s bookstore appears in my mystery story A Death in Utopia as a place where the Charlotte Edgerton and her friend Daniel Gallagher can follow up ideas for solving a mysterious death.

Running a bookstore and being a publisher were not Elizabeth Peabody’s only occupations. She studied European educational theories and opened the first kindergarten in America. Her most lasting legacy remains the revolution in teaching young children which grew out of the kindergarten movement. She deserves more than the meager obituary written for her when she died in 1894.  Megan Marshall’s biography The Peabody Sisters; Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism  gives a good start on learning about Elizabeth and her accomplished sisters.

Sisters and Lost Worlds

My sister died this week. Her death was easy and not unexpected. At 86, no one can hope for many more years of life. But her loss leaves a hole in my life and a world of memories that can no longer be shared. After parents die, sisters and brothers are the

Janet and Adele 1945 Rockaway
Janet and Adele Mongan;  Rockaway Beach, NY 1945

only people left who have known us as children and remember what our lives were like.

We were born in Queens, New York, and grew up in our small neighborhood in the big city. We didn’t have many models of what sisters were supposed to be like. Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose in England were the most prominent sisters we heard about. But it is hard to find much in common with girls who spent so much time standing on the balcony of palaces and watching troops parading by. The other sisters we read about lived in books like Little Women and spent their lives in improbable good deeds.

But we learned. We went to public school, so every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon after school we would walk over to church for catechism class. I remember one afternoon we walked there silently because I was angry and refused to speak to my sister for some reason I’ve now forgotten. In class the subject was sin, as it so often was, and for some reason I asked Sister Mary Bernard whether refusing to speak to your sister was a sin. “Yes, Adele”, she said fixing her fierce eyes on me.  “Refusing to speak to someone is a sin.”

I’ve forgotten, or rejected, a lot of what I learned in catechism class, but I always remember that stern pronouncement. And I still believe it. Talking to people, and listening to them is what makes us human. If we refuse to talk—to communicate—we are denying our humanity. I wish some of our leaders could learn that. Perhaps they needed a Sister Mary Bernard in their lives.

But our main job during those years was winning the war. We did that by spending our allowances on war stamps and pasting them in booklets until we had enough to buy a war bond. We also stomped on empty tin cans to flatten them for recycling. Sometimes we stayed after school to help in the war effort. I can remember one afternoon we addressed envelopes so the OPA (Office of Price Administration) could let grocers know they could raise the price on filberts. Neither of us had any idea what filberts were, but we firmly believed that sending these notices to every grocer in Queens would help our brave soldiers and sailors.

Eventually the war ended—first the European War and then V-J Day when the entire World War ended. We looked forward to peace forever. Peace meant prosperity and frozen food, television, and no more black-and-white movies.  We finished high school and went away to college.

During college vacations we would come back to the city. The YWCA at 53rd St. and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan played a large role in our lives. We went to a modeling class there one summer and learned to walk and apply makeup in a way we hoped would make us look sophisticated. We also went to the Friday night dances.

YWCA at 53rd
53rd St. YWCA

At one of those Friday night dances I remember meeting two young veterans just returned from Korea. One of them told us stories about the war that horrified me.

Suddenly I became aware that the Hollywood-based stories we had grown up with about heroic, generous and kind American soldiers had not told the whole story. We learned that war meant brutality and cruelty on both sides and that no one was immune. Perhaps those lessons helped prepare us for the later horrors of Vietnam. And perhaps learning about adult lies helped us to really grow up.

We both went on to have husbands and children, even grandchildren, with all the joys and complications an expanding family brings. But whenever someone dies she leaves a hole in the world—a set of memories that will eventually disappear when there is no one left to remember. One by one our time is done. The world goes on with new players and new memories. But good-byes are never easy.

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,

Nor the furious winter’s rages;

Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.