Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Happy Birthday, Elissa!

My daughter Elissa's birthday is today, 19 February. I always get nostalgic on her birthday. Same on my daughter Michelle's birthday, which is 13 June.

About a week before their birth days, I start counting down to the days they were born, just like I did when I was a young woman and pregnant in Madison, Wisconsin. I was a graduate student, one of only a few women around the history department at that time. There were no women faculty members, and I remember a not very cordial meeting with the chairman of the department, the famed Merrill Jenson, who questioned why I, a woman, was there. I would probably get pregnant and quit.

Dang, if I didn't get pregnant. But I didn't quit. I'm sure I was the first pregnant graduate student in the history department, and I'm sure the faculty didn't know what to do about me. I was about as huge and obviously pregnant as one could be, too. I waddled around the campus in a huge double-breasted coat, a bargain from Penny's, and looked like I was 9 months pregnant from the time I was 5 months pregnant. It was hard getting fellowships and teaching assistantships, not to mention getting up and down Bascom Hill. Abe Lincoln and I had many nice discussions as I caught my breath before making it to class.

My big fear was my water bag breaking in class. I don't think too many graduate students up to that time in the history of mankind had this particular anxiety. Ah, such are the pioneers!

I had finally gotten a teaching assistantship, too, in economic history, which I knew nothing about, but wonderful Mort Rothstein, bless his heart, assured me it was okay. All I needed to know was supply and demand, he said. Funny! My pregnancy didn't seem to daunt him either. I give him, and the department, credit for having some faith in me. I did my best, with lots of understanding from the students.

Elissa made her grand entrance at about noon on 19 February, with the help of Dr. Madeline Thornton, one of the few women doctors in Madison at that time. She would also deliver Michelle a few years later. By the way, fathers were not allowed in the delivery room . They could just twiddle their thumbs in a waiting area, with plenty of cigars on hand to give away once everything was all done. Their biggest concern was "is it a boy or a girl?" No one knew in advance then. "It's an Elissa," I told him several hours later, hugging her to me and smiling with joy through exhaustion as they wheeled me out of the delivery room. He had no idea what I had been through. He was happy. After a few days in the hospital, trying to breast-feed, I went home. There were some 80 bluebooks on my desk, waiting to be graded. They would have to wait.

Elissa was beautiful. She was a wonderful baby, cheerful, calm and curious, and we both made it through that semester okay. I loved watching Elissa and I loved studying history. I loved the questions and issues students were raising then, about who was included in history, who was left out, how to tell the stories of ordinary people. It was an exciting time to be a history student.

It was an exciting time to be parents, too. Elissa's dad, who was also completing his dissertation, was glad, for example, to get an emergency phone call from me one afternoon, explaining...well okay screaming hysterically...that he had to come home immediately to help me clean up Elissa and the dog after she had spread over a pound of Desitin (we had just bought the super duper economy size) all over the dog, a sweet German Shepherd, the furniture, and every surface in her bedroom, even the curtains (all of which were bright pink, which may have had something to do with Elissa's decision). Poor Elissa, aiming to be creative, and sensing she had created a huge problem. The smell of desitin followed us everywhere. We settled down with Dr. Seuss.

Then I got pregnant again with Michelle. The times they were a'changing, and fast. The escalating American presence in Vietnam provoked tremendous anger and civil disobedience, shouting matches and marches. Wisconsin was a hotbed of teach-ins and protest, offering cogent analyses of the history of Vietnam and questioning why we were there. People like Professor William Appleman Williams led the way and students were ready and forceful. The anti-war movement took off like a rocket, entering mainstream America. The Civil Rights movement was rumbling up to the surface of public awareness, too, starting at the grassroots in the South with people like Fannie Lou Hammer in Mississippi, building from the ground up and expanding with increased involvement of white and black students across the nation--an inexorable march toward justice and equality. The Beatles were on the scene. Rock n' roll took off. Then.... President Kennedy was killed. I was going up the front steps of the Student Union in Madison when Lee Kelley ran out of the building screaming frantically, "The president's been shot!" Bobby Kennedy was killed. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed.

Michelle was born on June 13, 1968, that eventful year in modern American history. For us, on that day, joy took over, and we celebrated a healthy new baby girl.

We left Madison that year, and headed for Toledo, Ohio, where the girls' dad got a teaching job. I had finished up everything but the dissertation; ABD it was called. We thought we'd be in Toledo a few years, and move on, but we ended up staying and raising the girls there. There were ups and downs, protest activities, challenges, and then in 1975 I finished my dissertation, on Utopian thought in American society. Merrill Jenson was probably rolling over in his grave. Rothstein, I'm sure, gave two-thumbs up, and so did my patient major professor, David Cronon, who stuck by me. It took 10 years, a little prodding from my Dad, my own inner resolve, and it got done. I had a family, I had my girls, and I had my degrees, and for the time that was saying something.

Since I was the only woman around with a PhD degree the chairman of the Toledo history department asked if I would teach a women's history course. The idea of women's history was just beginning then. I said no. I didn't know anything about it. I didn't have any women's history at Wisconsin. There weren't any women around, no faculty, no courses. I almost talked myself out of a job. After some thought I decided to give it a try and developed one of the first women's history courses in the NW Ohio area. There were so few books available, it's almost hard to fathom. But I added new books and new articles as they came out, and helped other departments start women's studies courses. Campuses across the country stirred with interest, students asked questions, scholars were born, did research, and created a historiography. A whole new field was born, and it blossomed.

Elissa blossomed too. Today is Elissa's birthday . A flood of memories. In fact the memories increase with each year of Elissa's age! Somewhere among our various belongings, in various places, there are lots of photo albums around, her baby book, her first tooth, first haircut, first grade, camp, piano recital, artwork, 8th grade, high school, BA degree. But some of my favorite memories are of Elissa turning over at 5 months and saying her first words at about 8 months old. Her birthday parties, every year, fun and games. Learning to roller skate. Her love of reading (she read constantly, and the teachers couldn't keep up with her). Her love of our dog Tryg and other animals (and her collection of model horses). Lots of imaginative play and Old West End Festival plays. Her times with my parents, Nana and Grandpa Curro, who adored her. Summers in Nantucket with the Cary-Coolidge-Butman family, which she loved. Her going off on her own, a time of some trepidation, learning and growing; stumbling and growing; and finding herself: a creative, artistic, compassionate, open-hearted, kind and beautiful person inside and out.

Elissa: Graphic designer, collector (of all things) and collaborator, artist and auntie, sister and friend, mother of Julia and Tony, grandmother of Philip, who threw her iphone in the water and left his GranE worse than phoneless, and loving daughter no matter what!

Happy Birthday dear daughter. May your life be full of good memories, good health, good energy and positive spirit, and lots of love. May you get a new iphone, too. Your ever-loving mom

Philip Is Famous, created by Elissa

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