The following essay originally appeared on The Huffington Post on Mother’s Day 2007 and was frequently reprinted elsewhere on Mother’s Day in the years to follow. After my own mother, Lucille Baratz, died on January 17 of this year, I discovered multiple copies of it in one of her drawers at assisted living. Apparently she liked it so much, she made a habit of handing copies out to other residents like candy. I thought that in her memory, I would run it one last time. Here you go, Mom.
This is a story about women.
I know nothing abut my great-grandmother on my mother’s side. I do know that when she died, my great-grandfather replaced her with a woman known in family lore only as The Witch.
When my grandmother Lucy was sixteen, she was playing jacks with her younger sisters when my great-grandfather showed up one day with a new dress. He told Lucy to put it on, that she was getting married that day. With four daughters and two sons and The Witch to support, he couldn’t very well keep them all at home forever. So off Lucy went in her new dress, in 1907, to be married to a man ten years her senior.
Over the next sixteen years, Lucy became pregnant several times, resulting in four live births, the last of whom was my mother. When my mother was still quite young, Lucy decided it was time to stop cooking all the time. It was time to start joining clubs and traveling. When my mother grew up, they went on many trips together, often to Florida but also on bigger trips, like a cruise to Venezuela.
Unlike with The Witch, there are many family stories about Grandma Lucy. She was big on rituals: graduations, funerals, anywhere people gathered to celebrate or commiserate, Lucy felt a responsibility to show up and be counted. There was a boy from a large family in the neighborhood, Polish immigrants, who was to be the first in his large family to graduate from college. For whatever reason, lack of funds or lack of interest, no one from his family planned to attend. So Lucy took the train from Bridgeport to New York by herself so that when his big moment on stage at Fordham University came, there would be at least one person from back home to cheer his name. In terms of funerals, which she took to attending with a vengeance later in life, she was saddened and shocked one day to read in the papers of the death of her friend Mary Johnson. So of course Lucy went to the funeral. The only problem was, it was the wrong Mary Johnson. This Mary Johnson was black, while Lucy was white, and the packed church of mourners were all black too. I suppose it might have occurred to Lucy, this being the ‘40s, that it might have been simpler to just turn around and leave. But Lucy couldn’t, wouldn’t do that. Someone named Mary Johnson had died! She must pay her respects! Lucy went through the receiving line, hugging and kissing Mary Johnson’s children, telling them all what a great woman their mother had been. Lucy, unsurprisingly, was the hit of the funeral.
Lucy’s daughter Lucille, my mother, would take a different path in life. She would not marry until she was thirty-one, nearly twice as old as Lucy had been when she was married. Lucille was a maverick, the only one of Lucy’s female offspring to attend college, one of the few female pharmacy majors in her class. After receiving her pharmacist’s license, Lucille regularly attended meetings of the Bridgeport Pharmaceutical Association at which she was the only woman among 50-60 men. In 1948 she became the first woman elected to office in a local pharmacy organization in the state of Connecticut.
Lucille was also a big fan of sports, any sports but in particular baseball. Rather than my father, it was Lucille who taught my older brother how to play ball and how to keep score. This meant that I had to learn how to play and keep score too, because there sure wasn’t anyone in the house that wanted to play dolls with me. At 84, Lucille still watches the Yankees every chance she gets, and still keeps score.
I have not had to insist on my right to pursue my own interests nor have I had to become a maverick: Lucy and Lucille paved the way for me. Because of them, I believe it is my natural right to go after my dreams. If I want to be a writer, then that is what I shall be. If I want to be published in several genres, despite popular wisdom that you are not supposed to sell fish in your meat market, then that is what I shall do. Because Lucille never questioned whether she should be in an organization with only men, when I grew up to develop a passion for pool, I never questioned whether it was OK or not for me to compete in predominantly masculine settings. I just loaded my pool cue and went. I also have Lucille to thank for my love of books. I don’t remember a time growing up when there wasn’t a stack of books between the couch and the old-fashioned stereo in the living room. I don’t remember a day when I didn’t see Lucille spend at least part of it lying on the couch with a book propped on her belly or, in the summer, out by the pool. Even in the pool! The women in my family read everywhere.
Which brings me to the next generation, my seven-year-old daughter Jackie, who has inherited our love of reading and will no doubt grow up to write circles around me. I spent 10 married years thinking I’d never be pregnant and then – poof! – along came Jackie. She is everything my line of women would predict she’d be: smart, kind, generous, happy, beautiful. Indeed, Lucille refers to her, and rightfully so, as Joy.
From Lucy Martin Caldana to Lucille Caldana Baratz to Lauren Baratz-Logsted to Jacqueline Logsted, we are one unbroken line of women, improving as many things as we can with each generation.
Lauren Baratz-Logsted is the author of 31 books. You can read more about her life and work at www.laurenbaratzlogsted.com