My grandmother, Virginia, was born February 25th 1917. The youngest of five children, she inherited strong religious and moral beliefs from her mother, Elsie. Hard work was the family norm; especially after the onset of the depression. Virginia knew that her working was vital to the economic stability of her family and she regarded her education as preparation for this work. This was a marked difference from her mother and her mother's family's stance that education for females was a necessary evil only so much as (and for so long as) to make them appropriate marriage material.
Virginia’s Senior High School Picture
Virginia graduated from high school in 1935, yet, because of the depression, good jobs were hard to find so she was hired out as domestic help. She told me when she filled out her questionnaire (the answers to which I used to write this paper) that her dreams were unfulfilled. She did not specify then what those dreams were and, sadly, at twenty-one or twenty-two, I didn't have either the interest or the maturity to probe further. From her second daughter Mary, I learned she wished she could have gone to nursing school. Perhaps this was the unfulfilled dream Virginia referred to? If so, she lived it vicariously through Mary who did indeed go to nursing school and become a nurse.
Eventually, Virginia obtained a job in Indianapolis working in a clothing factory making neckties. Here she worked until she met her future husband, Marvin, who was a bus driver at the interurban station.
Virginia (right) with her older sister Cordelia in Indianapolis circa 1939
There are different views in family lore surrounding how exactly they met and subsequently entered into a romantic relationship. One is that they were introduced by mutual friends. Although probable, I prefer the version told to me by my mother, which is certainly more romantic, and, to my way of thinking, more in line with how I envision my grandmother must have been as a young lady and as a precursor of my family's tendency to be passive-aggressive (otherwise known as "Welty-ese").
My mother’s story goes that Virginia took the interurban bus from the small town where she lived to the big city of Indianapolis each and every weekday to her job at the clothing factory. Marvin was usually the driver and conductor of the bus she took. Tall, blond and blue-eyed, Marvin most certainly would have caught Virginia’s eye. But how would she manage to steer him towards asking her out for a date? To come right out and ask certainly was not done in those days and even if it were, Virginia was not the type to be so blatantly forward. After weeks of internal debate, Virginia finally arrived at a suitable solution. She left her gloves, with her name and address clearly and neatly printed on the inside of them, on her seat when she got off the bus one evening. It took a few days, but Marvin eventually showed up on her parent’s doorstep with Virginia’s gloves in hand and while he was there, asked permission to take her out. So, obviously, Virginia had caught his eye as well!
Marvin and Virginia shortly after their marriage
They courted and married in 1939; she was twenty-two, he was twenty-six. After their marriage, Virginia dropped out of the work force. Marvin had a lot of old country beliefs in him and didn’t think married women should work or even learn to drive a car (and my grandmother never DID learn to drive a car). Women were to be dependent on men.
Virginia bore four children over the period of eight years. Her first child, my mother Dina, was born in 1941 when Virginia was twenty-four. The next, my Aunt Mary, was born a year and a half later; the others, my Uncles David and Bill, in 1946 and 1949. After Bill’s birth, Virginia’s doctor told her to have a tubal ligation, and this was done.
Virginia and my mother, Dina 1941
Marvin didn’t go to war during WWII, leaving no opportunity for Virginia to become a female war worker, and it is doubtful that she would have desired to do so. My mother says that her mother was completely in love with and a total slave to Marvin; she wouldn’t have disobeyed him or manipulated him even if she had the chance to do so (that glove incident not-with-standing!)
Virginia, like her mother Elsie before her, became a devoted wife and mother. She instilled religion into her children by herself since Marvin was not a religious person until later in his life (likely after years of Virginia’s influence in that regard). As with her mother, her husband and children remained her primary relationships and she also maintained a close relationship with her older sister, Martha. Additionally, Virginia established close friendships with other mothers during the years of raising her children. One of her closest friends and all of her children were killed in an automobile/train wreck. My mother recalls how the accident changed her mother. “She would never consider getting a driver’s license after that, even after daddy was no longer around to express disapproval”.
Life flowed smoothly along its domestic trail. Three of her children married and her sphere opened wide enough to envelop the grandchildren. Cooking, doing laundry, ironing, babysitting grandkids, sewing baby clothes planning family dinners and supervising her youngest child Billy through his remaining years of high school occupied Virginia twenty-four hours a day, leaving virtually no time for herself. Certainly, with her complete deference to Marvin, no time for involvement in the women’s movement. She was the perfect Freudian mother; the family a prime example of the new American way of life after WWII.
Soon all of that would change in the course of two tragic events. In 1968, Billy was killed in an automobile accident and soon after, Marvin became terminally ill. Virginia, after nearly thirty years of housewifery and once again out of pure economic necessity, returned to the workforce. There was no objection from Marvin about her working; he had Alzheimer’s disease.
Marvin, Virginia and Dina 1969
She obtained a position in a nursing home while Marvin, who with his strange behavior and difficult health issues was becoming increasingly unmanageable, was ultimately placed in another.
Marvin remained ill for several years before dying in 1975. Throughout this period and beyond, Virginia worked full time to cover expenses. She remained fairly isolated from all but her family, close friends and co-workers.
Virginia and Amy 1986
My grandmother passed away in 2006; two days after her 89th birthday. There is much that I might add by the way of memories of her that would have little to do with the original intent of this paper. However, one very important observation that is relevant, I believe, is that my grandmother, for all her earlier dependence, turned out to be fiercely independent in her later years. Although her family continued to be extremely important to her, the ability to come and go as she pleased (even if it meant walking, taking a cab, riding the bus or securing a ride with friends) was equally important. When the time came that she could no longer care for herself, she opted to go into a nursing home rather than to live with any of her surviving children. This she did, I believe, both from the desire to not become a burden to anyone and to maintain some sense of liberty by staying in familiar environs of the town she’d lived in for the majority of her life. Even the nursing home she chose was familiar to her as it was the one she’d worked in years before when her husband first became ill.
From her answers to my questionnaire, it was very apparent that in no way did my grandmother believe that she was oppressed. She was a product of her generation and once she was married, she adapted to the prescribed style and went about it in the most moral and efficient way possible.