This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills. Well, spring has come in the door, fitfully and uncertain, like a child who has done something probably bad, and doesn’t know if you know it yet. A warm day or two and then a burst of snow, and another. Rain maybe, but where it will fall too much or too little no one knows. Mother Nature is nothing if not fickle. Just like a woman, we say. Well, I’d like to say a little more about that.
We’re also just coming out the end of Women’s History month, with names handed around – Alice Paul, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams – that we only hear once a year and can only sometimes remember what they were famous for. They did something. We think it was important. If we’ve studied history beyond the headlines we know that women have always been far more influential than was ever acknowledged. Did you know that when they held the big celebration in the 40s about economic successes of the new deal, the women who had been instrumental in that change were not allowed in the photograph. Actually one did sneak in at the side, but they cropped her out. When the leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s rejoiced up on the stage at the March on Washington, the leaders who were women were not allowed on the stage. And today women’s wages are still 77 cents on a man’s dollar for the same work, and men are still trying to decide if women can be trusted with their own bodies.
But that whole line of thought set me to thinking about all the women in my Ozarks life, and probably yours. We had our stars, our Missouri Poet Laureate Mary Elizabeth Mankey, and the inimitable May Kennedy McCord, host of the long time favorite Ozarks Radio show “Hillbilly Heartbeats”.
But there were others in these hills who were not famous except in their own families who just went about their business, did what they could and what they must, and never counted the cost. Never demanded that others ante up, do their part, give them their fair share, or a seat at the table. They were too busy fixing dinner, planting the garden, keeping up with the laundry.
One of my most vivid memories of childhood was when my father came home early from work on a very hot summer afternoon. My mother was on the little utility porch in back, ironing. Because it was a secluded spot and such a hot job, she was ironing in her underwear. He thought she heard him come in. She didn’t. So when he stepped onto the porch and put his hand on her shoulder, she, in all her five foot one inch strength, brought her fist up from somewhere close to the floor, and decked him. They were both very surprised. And he looked very warily at her for a good long time afterward.
She likely learned this from father, just like her sister, my aunt Juanita.It was understood in our family, you just didn’t trifle with Juanita. She wasn’t a mean person, far from it. No kinder little plump pretty lady you would never encounter. But she had, lets just say, an enhanced sense of fairness. She was never cruel to anyone. But if you messed with her or anyone in her family, she could be very, very fair.
One legendary story about her came about when my cousin and her husband separated, and they had a child together, about two years old at the time. My cousin, her mother, and Aunt Juanita, her sister, had driven up to Monett, where a brand new Dairy Queen franchise had just opened. They were taking the baby and themselves on an outing to get an ice cream. They’d just arrived when the ex-husband pulled up alongside and asked to see his little son. My cousin handed him out, whereupon the ex-husband grabbed him, headed for his car and announced “you’ll never see him again.” A garden variety Ozarks domestic drama, even in those days. Well, they all boiled out of the car, the baby’s mother screaming, her mother screaming, trying to get the baby back without hurting him. They managed to pin the father against his car. But he was too strong for them, and it seemed all was lost. But then little Juanita ran around the car, climbed up on its roof, who knows how, and shinnied across. Then she put her index finger in the corner of his mouth and with all her strength yanked his head all the way around to face her. Then she leaned down, and said, calmly and gently, “Mo, you need to let the baby go or I’m going to have to kill you.” Well, of course, he let the baby go, whereupon she retrieved her finger and got down off his car. And they all went about their business, had their ice cream and went home. As you can imagine, the element of surprise figured greatly in the outcome of this story. But it was mostly my aunt Juanita.
I am told that, having raised a family of five girls and one boy, my grandparents worried about their daughters’ safety. Then my uncle Roy was seriously injured trying to hop a freight train coming back from the Oklahoma broom corn harvest. So my grandfather was even more concerned, and he sat each of the girls down and had a talk with them. He told them to pay attention, to not put themselves at risk, and never, ever start a fight. But, he said, if a fight came to them, they would have to win it at any cost. My mother recounted his talk with her, when she, the smallest of them all, said, “but what if the other person is bigger.” Pick up a rock, he said. And that was that. Every one of the Gentry girls grew up fiercely independent, even though they all followed the standards of the time, married, had kids, trained them all, husbands included, in respectable behavior and good values, and fiercely defended their separate broods. Aunt Juanita never had children. She had everyone else’s.
When her sister Neva’s husband was killed in a car crash, leaving her with a five-year-old, Juanita helped raise him. When my parents died, she finished raising me, and that took a very long time. She never faltered. She never lost faith in me no matter how scattered my wanderings or how wrong my choices. The women in our lives sometimes make all the difference in what kind of life we actually get to have.
So the next time you give a thought to Women’s History month, along with the many strong and memorable women who spoke up, who marched and who started and participated in great social change, cast a look back into your own Ozarks past and give a thought to those amazing Ozarks women at the center of it, who helped shape your future, and made the life you have possible. This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills.