Granddaughters

Margaret Fuller Slack

by Edgar Lee Masters
I would have been as great as George Eliot
But for an untoward fate.
For look at the photograph of me made by Peniwit,
Chin resting on hand, and deep-set eyes i
Gray, too, and far-searching.
But there was the old, old problem:
Should it be celibacy, matrimony or unchastity?
Then John Slack, the rich druggist, wooed me,
Luring me with the promise of leisure for my novel,
And I married him, giving birth to eight children,
And had no time to write.
It was all over with me, anyway,
When I ran the needle in my hand
While washing the baby’s things,
And died from lock-jaw, an ironical death.
Hear me, ambitious souls,
Sex is the curse of life!

I had this poem painted on my bedroom wall in high school. A strange choice of a poem for a 15 year-old girl to wake up to every day, but I loved it. I loved it, but I also heeded its warning: Domesticity can waylay your plans.

Tonight I read a piece on Huffington Post about a woman from a generation come and gone who was a writer, but never published anything. Her granddaughter, Amy Shearn wrote how life must have been for a woman with four children “in the era before microwaveable nuggets and iPads” to get any writing done. And when her grandmother died, the author’s aunt found bags of old letters and stories in a garbage bag. Decades of hard work and creativity, a moment away from a dumpster.

I remember a conversation with my cousin’s daughter, my grandmother’s first great-grandchild. Granny died when I was 14, and when this girl was probably only 4. When V. was in college, figuring out her life and what she wanted to do, I told her to take advantage of her education and do the things she wanted to do first, because generations of women before her didn’t have the opportunity.

My granny as a young woman.

My granny as a young woman.

My granny didn’t have an easy life. Growing up the youngest of 8 (I believe) in rural North Carolina didn’t leave her with many opportunities. At 17, she had a child out-of-wedlock that we weren’t really supposed to talk about. He lived with her parents. A few years later, she married my grandfather–a man 33 years her senior–and moved to another part of Carolina. There were twins that died at birth, and then nine children after that. My grandfather ran a general store, and when he died (when Granny was three months pregnant with my uncle)…well, I don’t even know how to finish that sentence. I’m not sure what my granny did; there was a farm I know, there was tobacco, and there were nine kids at home. I’m sure she did whatever she could to keep things going.

In talking with my aunts and my mom, I’m able to piece together what she was like before she was ever my grandmother. One aunt said money was very important to her, mainly because she had none. When my mom went to move in with my dad before they were married, my devout Baptist grandmother gave them her blessing. Perhaps to Granny, my mom moving out of North Carolina to Chicago with a man who had a promising career was her dream come to for her child: a chance at a better life than what she had.

Shearn writes, “What lesson can I, a writer and a mother, (can any of us, for that matter) glean from my grandmother’s thwarted literary ambitions? I think the key lies in what my mother said her mother couldn’t do: feel entitled to make it a priority. It’s hard to say, I need to make the time to make this, even if that is inconvenient for everything elseMy story is important and I need to make it.” I’d like to think that Granny would agree with this emphatically.

You can read the whole article here.

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