When I was growing up, I had two role models.
One was my very high achieving and equally uptight mother, a woman who had decided at the outbreak of WW II to abandon her career and marry a sailor. (You got married in 1940, you quit your job, at least at the firm where my mother worked.) My mother applied the same drive and rigour that took her through a Master's degree during the Depression to being a housewife, looking after her war damaged husband and raising me. And as I grew old enough to understand, she complained about all of these tasks, averring that the height of woman's emancipation had been reached in the 1920's and that she was caught in a backlash. To an extent, she was right. The late 1940's and the 1950's were the heyday of the white picket fence mythology.
My other role model was my mother's younger sister, my aunt Marion. Unmarried, amazingly talented in art, a gifted musician, she was an elementary school teacher who had her own apartment, drove a Carmengia, took fascinating vacations with compatible friends and generally seemed to dance through her life. Again, as I grew old enough to understand, I realized that this was not entirely so. Marion had a winsome, heart shaped face, a figure that Marilyn Monroe might envy and a horror of commitment. She did experiment with sex, she told me, but found the act of intercourse so funny that she could never really get into it. And although she had a network of family, friends and colleagues when she needed them, she was subject to fits of deep depression in which she felt entirely alone.
When I was a university undergraduate I got proposals. I even got a diamond engagement ring once. I gave it back, for various complicated reasons. But when I met the man who is now my husband and knew I had a real choice to make, I thought of the lives of my mother and my aunt and I chose my mother's path. Deliberately, knowing how much the yoke sometimes galled her, I made a commitment for life to be like her. I look back now at that cocksure girl and wonder if I ever could have been that person.
By the time I was in my forties I had two teenagers, a full time job, a dog, and a husband whose idea of fun was to spend every weekend at a waterless, non electrified cabin in the woods, chopping and stacking wood, building things and, each spring, making maple syrup. For all these activities my participation was, he believed, essential. And it was. He lived for the weekends, he needed to do these strenuous things and he needed me to help him make it work. Some of it I did, in fact, enjoy a lot. But there wasn't a lot of time left over for me to be my own person. And there were times when the yoke, indeed, chafed.
I dreamed, in odd moments, of a home that was just mine, of a life that I could order, of solitude to read, to create, to be subject to no one. I dreamed of being able to indulge my own taste, to do things without hurry, to roar off in my little sports car to fascinating spots, to have my own money and spend or save it as I saw fit. I saw myself with a career for which I was fitted and well paid and appreciated. I look back now on that rebellious and sullen woman and wonder if I ever could have been that person.
I have a daughter who lives that life, minus the Disney touches. She has a friend who has a husband, three kids, a dog and a career such as the aforesaid collection and her health permit her. They have, I am told, conversations in which each wants what the other one is fed up with having. Her friend says "We get together and yearn for the other's life. We always come down to the understanding that you can't have it all and life is about sacrifice and difficult choices, particularly if you are a woman. I see all she has accomplished and experienced and feel like I'm missing out in a huge way, here in suburbia, and she looks at my kids and feels the same thing."
I did not realize, in my twenties, that choices made can take you to unforeseen places. I did not realize in my forties that all choices lead to a place where the road not taken looks better, less stony, less steep. I learned that in fact all roads have stones and mud and hard uphill climbs.
Now, in my sixties, I am learning that all roads eventually connect. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo quotes Bilbo - "He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary." There is great scenery along the road. You meet friends there and journey with them a while. You learn things. Even when the feet are sore and the legs weary, the road dismal and steep and boring, it takes you forward. There is no map; I find I no longer want one. It is my road and I will follow wherever it goes.
But I can't help wondering if, should I be around twenty years from now, I will find myself wondering how I could ever have been the person who wrote this.