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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

A Woman of Passion

September 2019

My mother had dark complexion, almost black hair, blue eyes, olive complexion, and facial features that classified her as beautiful. We lived on Fifth Avenue for a good part of my childhood. We took the Fifth Avenue bus to shop. I used to think she could walk up to a rack, sniff to see the classiest outfits and tell me to try them on. On the hanger, some looked dreadful, but when I put them on, they worked. She had an uncanny sense for style, so uncanny that people turned to stare at her dress and dignity as she walked along the avenue oblivious to people commenting on her. While her surface portrayed a lady of great dignity, beneath that lay a woman of passion for independence, fairness, and justice, a difference I did not recognize for years.

My sister’s building super in the City once said to her, “Hannah, none of you girls is as beautiful as your mother.” Hannah replied, “Oh Irma, we’ve known that all our lives.” The first clothing item I purchased with 123 pennies was a pair of pink and grey argyle knee socks. I looked to my father for approval. “None of you girls dresses as well as your mother.” My sisters and I never took these as insults; they were merely factual observations.

Everyone who knew my mother knew she was a shy, quiet and reserved person. People did not think of her as vehement or passionate about anything, but her dignity was far beyond skin deep. In her senior year of college, she voted in the first election when women had the vote in this country, but she never belonged to a political party. She graduated from Mt Holyoke in 1921 and went to graduate school in Paris at the Sorbonne living in Europe alone in the mid-1920s. She was 81 when, in 1980, we sat in her living room one day, she at the secretary and I on the davenport. The E.R.A. needed only three more states to ratify it in order for it to become a constitutional amendment. Pounding her fist on the desktop, she said, "The Equal Rights Amendment has to pass!" I was so stunned I couldn't say a word. I never heard her laugh, never saw her angry, never saw her cry (not when her mother died, not when my father died), yet there she sat passionately demanding equal rights for women.

Many of the people I went to Grace Church School and Friends Seminary with had parents whose names were familiar in literary, theatrical, and political worlds. Our English teacher for grades 6, 7, and 8 had us reading Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and Eliot. We were a rowdy, intelligent bunch full of ideas during the Korean War and the McCarthy era. When she wanted our attention her Southern drawl proclaimed, “People. People! I want your attention.” She never uttered the words “boys and girls.” We were always people. I grew up assuming I could keep my own last name, work in whatever field I chose, and make good money to support myself. I took for granted that I was equal to any man or woman in any society. One day in October 2016, I realized I was a feminist: I’d been practicing it throughout my life, but had always been too busy working and enjoying life to consider feminism. Indeed, I wondered what all the fuss was about. If these were my rights, I asserted them. Instead of marching or burning a bra, I went to university and work. Someone asked me recently if I hadn’t had a conflict with some man at work. Examining the decades of my career, I can say no. Some might say the following incident was a conflict, but it wasn’t because I didn’t believe what this professor said and his statement didn’t prevent me from anything.

I asked a favorite professor, from whom I took four philosophy classes, for a recommendation for graduate school at the University of Edinburgh. He told me no; I should get married and have a family. This was 1962, and for the first and only time in my life, I was astonished by the content of his thinking. How could a professor of logic come to such a conclusion? I had never thought of getting married. I asked a different philosophy professor who knew me less well. We talked more than we ever had and I gave him notes about me to use. I was accepted for graduate school.  

When I was assistant principal at a high school, I had an excellent principal. Any time I thought I had been prejudiced against, I talked to him. He had a Socratic way of looking at facts and I saw that being female was not relevant to the situation. In one instance I had applied for a position two levels above the one I had. As we discussed it, he made me realize the other person was more qualified than I. I later learned I came close to getting the position, a compliment in itself. After being a principal for twenty years, I took early retirement. I also wanted to write, something I did while working full time, but I wanted more writing time. Some of the writings are academic and in the field of learning and behavior analysis, including writing about thoughts and feelings. Some of my writings are poems, novels, and narrative nonfiction.

I continue to write articles and chapters in the behavioral field and expanded my literary writing also—more poetry, the starts of two more novels, and two more nonfiction books. Maybe getting published is easier for a man or maybe that’s a statement true fifty years ago. I have no data to say it’s one or the other.

I write. I consult. Five years ago our son, a building contractor, built a studio for me. It’s the best and only office and the only exercise room I’ve ever had. I flourish in there. No more converting part of the bedroom into a study. A year ago my husband said we were getting old and needed to slow down. After listening to that occasionally for a few months, I said, “Speak for yourself. I do not feel old and I have work to do.”

My daughter-in-law recently wrote me:

I try to explain to Reid when I buy Norah a running shirt that says Girls Run the World and he says boys should be allowed to run the world too, that actually they already do, and he needs to make room for girls to succeed. So I try to talk about…the importance of being willing to have a dialogue with people who believe things you don't, and to be able to speak about what you believe in and why.

Although my daughter-in-law never met my mother, I believe she is passing on to my grandchildren the lessons my mother and father believed in so strongly.

When I was young, my household consisted of eleven people—nine women of various ages—grandmothers, aunts, my mother, sisters, retired friends of my parents, and my father and brother. Never was there a word or feeling that we—my sisters and brother—could not achieve any goal we set, or aim as high as we wanted. We were expected to behave morally and honestly, stay in good physical condition, and to study and learn in school and throughout life.  

Today I know I am the link between my mother’s passion and my granddaughter’s future.

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