MIchael Carey: Mother was a woman of letters in Lake Minchumina

By MICHAEL CAREYMay 20, 2013 

Most of the people who shaped my life are long dead. They now exist in my memory or imagination.

For the moment, I imagine my mother, Mary, sitting at her kitchen table in my parents' cabin on a rise overlooking Lake Minchumina west of the Alaska Range. It's December 1948. Mary's two small children, my sister and I, are napping in the next room. My dad, Fabian, is 30 miles or more away behind his dog team on his trap line in below-zero weather.

Mary has brewed a cup of tea on our Lang wood stove and is about to read the mail, flown to the local post office from Fairbanks that morning. Daylight is fading. She has lit a kerosene lamp -- and a cigarette.

The mail is usually bills, bank statements, catalogs, magazines and circulars from the major fur-buying houses in Seattle, St. Louis and the east. But today Mary has received a letter from a childhood friend in New York City, where she grew up and attended college.

I don't have to imagine the letter. Or others written by her friends in New York during the years after World War II. Mary saved them, some in their original envelopes. They were in the cabin 50 years before I brought them to Anchorage.

The writers, like my mother, were women in their mid to late thirties. They were college educated, and college educated at a time when, according to census data, less than 5 percent of American women had four years of college.

The letter writers, as you would expect, devoted a great deal of space to their families, especially children if they had them, friends and neighbors. But what makes the letters striking is the writers' diversity of intellectual interests and idealism. They're talking about what they have read in The New York Times, The Nation and The New Yorker as well as new books (Thomas Merton's "The Seven Story Mountain" is one, William Faulkner's "Sanctuary" another). They are excited by new ideas -- and by Jose Ferrer's return to Broadway.

They also were engaged in occasional disputes. Mary found "Sanctuary" a "horrible" violation of middle-class norms; her friend Florence saw Faulkner's exploration of twisted desire and base sexuality, while repellent, psychologically "interesting." They also disagreed about Harry Bridges, leader of the longshoreman's union, whose radicalism was front-page news in the late Forties. Florence, without citing specifics, was disappointed in Mary for her criticism of Bridges.

Mary and Florence had been classmates at Hunter College in Manhattan, graduating in 1934. Hunter was home to progressive, modern beliefs they both absorbed.

Florence left New York for Chicago to pursue social work: Her new address was Hull House, created by Jane Addams to help immigrants and the poor. Hull House was one of the pillars of American liberalism. In Chicago, Florence discovered psychoanalysis, also influential in American liberalism. Analysis, she told Mary, taught her to appreciate the advantages she had in life -- especially compared to the children she saw in the Hull House nursery school. But her struggles on the couch were exasperating. She closed her description of the analytic experience by writing that she must get busy "and iron some hankies -- this analysis seems to require a lot of them. I am so ashamed of the way I cry. Never in the literature have I read of anyone who seems to weep as I do!!!!"

Florence, for the moment, was failing to live up to her self-image as a strong woman putting her education to good use. She, my mother, their friends from Hunter understood they had a responsibility to employ their education not just to better themselves but to better the world -- and the world as it emerged from World War II needed profound bettering.

Florence encountered the consequences of the war in a train stations when a train loaded with European "DPs" -- displaced persons -- arrived. She told Mary "I stopped at the Traveler's Aid desk where a friend of mine works. One of those to arrive was a minister -- about 38 or so. He was then welcomed by an older man. They kissed on both cheeks. Heavens, everyone, including your correspondent, was weeping."

As Mary finished reading the mail, she no doubt realized it was time to prepare dinner -- moose meat, which would not be on the menu in New York or at Hull House. But as she turned to her domestic chores, she knew a day would come when she no longer would be a mother with children in a wilderness cabin. Some day and perhaps some day soon she would return to a town or city. And return to the responsibilities accompanying the privileges granted an educated woman in post-war America.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com.

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