Marsha was seventeen, near the end of her junior year in high school, when she discovered she was pregnant. Carl, her boyfriend, was a year older and had just graduated from Manchester High. It seemed easier to marry immediately. They loved each other and had planned to get married later anyway. Her parents, concerned about propriety, agreed. It was 1952.
Carl enrolled in the state university in Manchester. Marsha’s parents hoped their daughter would complete high school; Marsha however, enchanted with the idea of being Carl’s wife, couldn’t imagine going to school like everybody else. They planned a big wedding, Marsh in a veil and white wedding dress, tailored cleverly to disguise any hint of “impropriety”.
It was a beautiful wedding. Everyone said so. When the baby was born after seven months, shoulders were shrugged but no one gossiped. The parents were, after all, married. The baby was named Amy at a church christening, with Marsha’s best friend Dee serving as godmother.
Marsha was blissful. Her blooming appearance proved to be a second pregnancy. Belinda was born just fifteen months after Amy. Carl moved the family to Boston, convinced the university was better there with greater opportunities for a graduate fellowship in biology, his chosen field. Belinda was just a year and a half when Carl Jr. joined the little family in the apartment on Inman Square in Cambridge.
Marsha, now 20, with three children, was totally immersed in bottles and diapers. She had few friends, just acquaintances from the playground or the pediatrician’s waiting room, women absorbed in their toddlers just as she was. She felt very ‘grown-up’ and when her old friend Dee moved to Boston, Marsha tried to convince her to follow her example, marry and settle down, preferably close by. After all, Marsha and Carl and the children were so happy. But Dee seemed to find the noise and chaos in the small apartment upsetting and eventually was too absorbed in her new job to spend much time with Marsha.
By 1963, all three children were in school. Although she was totally occupied, she began to look at the Life magazine they subscribed to, feeling she should know what was happening outside her own little world. But when women on the PTA, or one of the girls’ teachers asked her to be in some picket line or protest march, Marsha declined, saying she had no time. With three children she had an easy excuse. She
couldn’t see why women were making such a fuss. She was happy and felt it was enough being Carl’s wife and mother to his children. She tried to ignore the news – the protests against the war in Vietnam, Martin Luther King’s marches – but Carl, teaching at the university, could not. He decided to accept an offer from the University of Oregon, telling Marsha it would be good to get away from the East Coast. The missile conflict had been too close for comfort. Who knew how the next crisis would develop?
Marsha had no objections.
Eugene was a small town, almost completely absorbed by the university. Carl seemed happier, said they should all get used to the West Coast, so liberating after the politics and the infighting in Cambridge and Boston. Happy for her husband, wanting to support him in these new surroundings, Marsha found she was pregnant again. Michael was born in 1965. Amy at thirteen announced she wouldn’t babysit, but Belinda, just twelve, was thrilled to have a baby to play with. Carl jr. ignored the new arrival as much as possible. Carl, absorbed with faculty meetings, teaching and research, spent more time on campus. Their little house was often very noisy.
With four children Marsha had no time to form new friendships. She distrusted the easy friendliness, the permanent smiles of the people she met. Compared to Boston, everyone was just too open, too candid. She felt safest in the house, mornings with baby Mickey, or driving the kids around to sports and lessons in the afternoons. Slowly her center of attention shifted from Carl to the children – demanding, needy and always present. There were women she met for lunch or shopping, but Marsha didn’t feel they were really her friends, not like the people she went to school with who knew her before she was a wife and mother. She wrote long Christmas letters to her former classmates in New Hampshire and was happy when answers would arrive, long after the holidays.
With Mickey in Kindergarten, Marsha’s mornings at home were long and solitary. She began to wonder if Carl was happy. When she asked him about his day, his work, what projects he was working on, he would answer very briefly, saying she wouldn’t understand, it was very technical, very scientific. Often, he would miss dinner, mentioning an important experiment at the lab which had to be closely monitored. Suddenly there were weekend conferences he needed to attend.
It was after one of the conferences, this time in northern California, that Carl announced he was leaving. At first, Marsha didn’t understand, thinking he was talking about another conference. Carl, flustered, explained he was taking a job at a pharmaceutical company in California. He would be moving very soon, taking his lab assistant with him. Marsha should understand, it was very important for him to make this move, he would continue to support the family, but he needed to take this offer, it was now or never, a chance like this didn’t come along every day. Finally, he admitted that he had fallen in love, real love, not like the teenage dream that had lured them into family life so early. Finally, embarrassed by her silence, he mumbled “I’ll just go pack and not make further… trouble.”
She shook her head, astonished and incredulous. How had this happened? Bewildered and confused, she wondered how she could tell the kids, her first thoughts for them. She would say Carl had a new job and, if it was good, they would follow after him, a bridge and a hope for her that he would eventually come back. The kids, used to Carl’s absences, accepted her explanation, she thought. Amy seemed doubtful of a happy end, Belinda pouted at the possibility she would have to leave her friends, Carl Jr. shrugged, Mickey, a self-absorbed five-year-old, understood none of it.
Marsha tried to keep up her spirits but as time went on and it became clear that Carl was gone for good, she felt abandoned and over-whelmed, spending hours cleaning an already spotless house or staring into space.
It was Amy who finally pulled her out. Amy at eighteen, full of feminist ideas and disdain for her mother. They had some struggles: Amy dragging her to meetings, urging her to go back to school. “It isn’t too late, fight back, be somebody!” Amy would scream over the kitchen table. Marsha in an apron protesting. She had been somebody she’d thought – Carl’s wife – until suddenly half the equation was gone, leaving her hanging in empty space.
Amy’s energy finally won out but it took almost a year to move Marsha out of the house and the dark hole she’d fallen into when Carl left. She went back to school although she found it strange to be a student like her own children. “Books and ideas, Mom, instead of aprons and diapers. Good for you.” Her high school equivalency in hand, she decided to go on to the university. Amy and Belinda were proud of her, enjoyed giving advice. Carl junior was absorbed in preparation for medical school.
At the beginning, Carl had called, wanting to visit, just to see the kids he’d said, but Marsha asked him not to come. He could talk to the kids on the phone, but she didn’t want to see him, it would be too confusing for her. He continued to support them financially. The older kids were all at University of Oregon, rarely at home when he called. Mickey was having trouble in high school, threatening to leave before graduation.
Marsha thought Mickey’s troubles were her fault – she had failed as a mother – her classes in Child Psych enforcing her guilt feelings. Then, after taking Contemporary History and Ideas 101, she realized how narrow life had been for her, how few alternatives had been available to a young pregnant girl in smalltown America. Viewed from that perspective, she had been a victim. Reading the books Amy shared with her – “I’m OK, You’re OK” and “Passages” among others, Marsha realized she had never really taken charge of her life. She’d fallen in love (she thought) and given up control. If things had been different, where would she be now?
By 1977, degree in hand, she was working. She was good at her job – counseling – and moved steadily up the wage ladder. In 1985 she was able to celebrate her fiftieth birthday and Mickey’s high school graduation at one party. Mickey, in and out of high school, had finally, at twenty, managed to graduate. Amy had moved to Chicago, Belinda, now just Linda, was in San Francisco, Carl junior a medical intern in Portland. Her kids were moving on.
Marsha decided to move to Seattle, to her own place. As an experienced, mature counselor, she had no trouble finding a position. By 1985 the older kids were on their own – Linda, married in San Francisco, Amy, working in Chicago, a single mother of two, Carl junior a struggling young physician. As for Mickey, he was always welcome for a meal or a short stay in the new place, but he had to find his own way – it was time.
Although she was happy to be in a city again, Marsha often wondered what would have happened if she hadn’t had Amy. Of course, there had been no choice, not like there was now, but what a loss it would have been. No, she didn’t regret anything, certainly not the children. Remembering that tiny baby in Dee’s arms, she sometimes wondered if baby Amy hadn’t inhaled some of Dee’s independence, Dee moving to Boston, then to New York. Silly, but you never could tell about unconscious influences.
What would her mother say to this new Marsha? Since the move from Cambridge, they’d only spoken on the phone. Marsha’s life was too complicated and the fare too expensive to travel across country. Her mother had said enough on their phone calls urging Marsha to ‘fight for her man’ – pushing Marsha further into depression and apathy; offering to ‘speak to Carl’ herself, now that his parents were gone – a horrifying thought. After the divorce, Marsha called seldom and kept the calls short. Did it matter, really, what her mother thought? She came from a different time, when wives stayed home and took care of the house and kids; when men and women were married before starting a family.
She began to think of a trip east. It could be an early present to herself for her sixtieth. If she traveled by bus, she could stop in Chicago to see Amy and the children, finally visit her mother, now in an old age home in Manchester, maybe even see Dee in New York, if that’s where she was. She would do some research online. A trip across country – it would be something new.
What struck Marsha most was how everything had changed. Manchester was depressing, one store after another closed, boarded up, her old neighborhood now a slum. Her friends from high school, the ones still in Manchester, seemed old, worried, worn-out. Of course, she knew they wouldn’t be the same but somehow in her memory, they were still as young and full of promise as they had been in 1952. She remembered her mother, vigorous and energetic, telling her what to do – get married, have a big wedding, get your high school diploma – her mother, still able to walk and to remember her daughter Marsha. It wasn’t until Marsha bent over to give a farewell kiss that the withered woman sniffed and said “You smell like my daughter. What was her name?” “Marsha, Mama.” She’d said, shaking her head, whispering “I did it all later, Mama, just like you wanted, married, babies and even more.” Her mother had fallen asleep.
No, that had been hard, Manchester had been hard. She’d thought the stop in Chicago to see Amy would be a nice change. But Amy, so busy with the kids and her job, had no time for her mother. The other women in the apartment had not been welcoming. Sleeping on the couch in the communal living room had not been ideal. Amy’s flat mates were strangers traipsing through at odd hours. Chicago had been a disappointment too. She decided then to go straight coat to coast on the way home.
No, thinking about it, seeing Dee in New York had been the best part of this long trip. Even though Dee was different, so thin, so chic, they still had memories they shared – Manchester, Mr. Shapiro. Her old ‘very best friend’ was not the chubby, shy woman she’d known in Manchester and Boston. Dee had so much experience – the job with that agent, all the glitter and glamour, although Dee didn’t talk about it that way. She’d said it was just what happened, as if she had no plans, no goals. And what she did now – consulting. What was that really? How different was that from her own job – counseling? Dee said it was just helping people. That’s what Marsha did too, without the traveling. Maybe they weren’t so different.
Or had Dee not told her the whole story, just as Marsha hadn’t mentioned the years after Carl left, how hard they’d been. It was just the children and the moving and Carl’s absence she’d described to Dee, never mentioning how bewildering and new everything was then. In a way, Marsha had just gone on, one thing after another, without noticing that she was changing – speaking up in class or in the endless meetings Amy dragged her to, offering her own opinion, even telling Carl not to visit – she’d never thought about it. It just happened, like Dee said.
Of course, more ‘just happened’ in New York than in Eugene and even in Seattle. But the world had changed – even there, especially there, thinking of the many protests and marches. Somewhere around western Pennsylvania, Marsha realized that she had changed, just as much as Dee. No more Carl’s wife, following him across the country, unconsciously trying to satisfy some imaginary image of the perfect wife and mother. Marsha, mother and grandmother still, had made decisions alone, not Carl, not “Ladies Home Companion” or the rules of what was ‘proper’. There were no more rules. The world had changed and she had changed with it. Like a ball in a pinball machine, she’d been bumped off course when Carl left, and now she knew just how lucky she had been.