Woman to Woman -
What Goes Around
A Short Story
by Kathy Coogan
Mary Ellen Swift was seventeen in 1966 when she figured out conclusively that her mother, her prudish, proper, bossy mother had been pregnant when she married Mary Ellen’s father. It couldn’t have been a worse time for Mary Ellen to finally figure this out.
The seeds of the Age of Aquarius had been implanted, its gestation period begun. Mary Ellen’s perfect older sister, Catherine, when told the news said to her sister, “Did you just do the math? God! Where were you when we were celebrating their wedding anniversaries and my birthdays, which by the way, always fell within five months of each other?”
Mary Ellen had always been a little out of the loop, a day-dreamer lost in the maze of her own head. Her parents were simply annoying creatures who never let her do anything. Their anniversaries were, like, nothing to her; she had no interest in how long those two had been married.
And she hated Catherine, whose perfection was always being pushed in Mary Ellen’s face: “Why can’t you be more like your older sister.” Or worse: “Catherine wasn’t allowed to XYZ so why should we change the rules now?” God, Mary Ellen hated her mother and father and Catherine!
So Mary Ellen used the weapon of her mother’s pregnancy (“Why should I listen to you when you were the one who screwed up and got pregnant?”) to do all the forbidden things that she wanted to do. She hitch-hiked part way across the country but never made it to Haight-Ashbury. She burned her bra. She dropped out of college and smoked grass “near” Woodstock, never quite reaching it either.
She slept around and stormed the Student Union of the college she no longer attended. She marched against the War and muttered curses at GI’s she passed on the street. She stowed the pitiful name Mary Ellen and answered to: MaryLiz then M.E. then Emmi then Mar-el depending on what the boyfriend of the moment chose to call her.
Then in 1975, Mary Ellen grew up, confronted with the reality that she was a tired, dirty, uneducated loser and that her boobs were sagging at the ripe old age of 25. Her dad, whom she had ridiculed for being “so Establishment” gave her the money for night school and her mother never told her of all the hundreds of nights that she had gone to bed crying and praying for her daughter’s safety.
Mary Ellen was invited to stay in the basement bedroom of her sister’s suburban home to earn some money by nannying the kids, while Catherine moved up the feminist ladder to the stained glass ceiling at Lance, Piggott and Wane. She suddenly felt clean and bright when someone called her Mary Ellen.
She fell in love with Charlie Stegeman, who was in her Tuesday/Thursday night psych class. He had been in Vietnam where he earned the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, which she only heard about from his buddy, Eddie, who always called him the Boy-Hero after he had a few beers.
She married Charlie when she was three months pregnant in a beautiful, cheery-teary ceremony in St. Dominic’s Church, given away by her dad and cried over by her happy mother. A few months later, her mother was with her in the delivery room next to Charlie, who kept whispering to his laboring wife that she was the bravest woman in the world.
Mary Ellen was forty-four when she was confronted by her own daughter, Lissa, who could not believe that her mother had been pregnant when she was married. Lissa was mortified! She would be a laughingstock if her friends ever found out! She was also slightly embarrassed that she had not figured it out sooner.
Mary Ellen resurrected some old hippie lingo and told her daughter to chill and kissed her on the nose. Lissa tried to be huffy but it was hard to maintain the attitude since her mother was letting her use the car. That seemed to be it.
But a stone had been overturned in Mary Ellen’s heart. She began wondering about her Mother’s unplanned pregnancy. She knew that the times were very different in 1944. No one thought a thing of the bump under Mary Ellen’s white wedding dress in 1976 and there is even one picture of Charlie lovingly caressing her belly as they posed in front of the wedding cake. What had her mother faced? It startled her to realize that she never thought of it as her father’s problem, only her mother’s.
Close as she had become to her mother, she was reluctant to bring up the subject. She thought her mother had some shame. Why else would she not have shared her story when Mary Ellen and Charlie announced their sudden engagement? Or in the days after Mary Ellen gave birth to Lissa, when the new Grandma was sleeping on the newlyweds’ couch to give the parents some rest?
Catherine was a mother, too, but she ran her life as efficiently as her career (the first female VP at LPW). When Mary Ellen asked her what she knew (after all, it was she who had been born “premature”), she showed no curiosity and argued for silence, “That’s in the past; it’s Mom’s business, leave it alone.”
So Mary Ellen, following Catherine’s lead, left it alone, though it nibbled at her as her mother aged. Their father died suddenly of a heart attack, having been a smoker since the World War II, when cigarettes were part of the USO packages sent to all the GIs in action.
She was helping her mother pack up the house to move to an assisted living apartment when the opportunity to open Pandora’s Box arose. Her mother was looking through an old album, its black heavy pages neatly arrayed with rows of wavy-edged photos. One picture had slipped loose of its corner adhesive and her mother held it up to the light and smiled.
“What’ve you got, Mom?” Mary Ellen asked, sitting down next to her mother on the couch.
“Dad and I…on our wedding day. We were so young.” She passed the picture to Mary Ellen, who looked at the picture for a long time then said, with a lump in her throat, “You can barely tell,” and touched the picture where her mother’s skirt stretched over her little belly.
“Oh, Lord, I felt like a blunderbuss…no that’s not the right word…anyway, that suit was all I had. Your Aunt Sue looped a rubber band through the button hole and I stretched it around the button. I couldn’t zip it but the jacket covered the opening well enough,” her mother said. She looked into Mary Ellen’s eyes and gave her silent permission to ask.
“Will you tell me about it?”
“I thought you girls would never ask,” her mother said. “Shall I start at the beginning?”
“Please,” Mary Ellen said and took her mother’s hand.
Her mother began, “It was August, 1943. We were in the War by then…”
She took a deep breath. “Your Dad and I were in love and planning to be married before he was shipped oversees. Everybody was getting married. It was so exciting back then that most of us didn’t think about how awful things would get. It’s true that girls wanted the wedding before the boys went overseas but no one really thought that it would be their house that got the awful telegram. Why, when my mother got the telegram about Robert, we were shocked.
It couldn’t be happening to our family. To her son. But that was later. Robert was killed on November 17, 1944 in France. I’ll never forget that date as long as I live. They say that God always takes the best ones first. I don’t know if that’s true or not but he was sure the best of our bunch. And handsome! That head of hair was something.”
She removed her glasses to wipe her eyes that glistened with memories. Mary Ellen was mesmerized, never having heard much about her Uncle Robert’s death in World War II. She rummaged for a Kleenex in her pocket, found two and handed one to her mother, keeping the used one for herself.
“Mom, are you up to this?”
“If you can stand listening to my adventure, I am most certainly up to telling it. Where was I? David was in navigator training school in Florida and thought that he’d be coming through Cincinnati on his way to being shipped overseas.
Isn’t ‘overseas’ an innocent word to describe being sent to war?” She paused, looking out and away. She gathered herself back to the present and continued.
“It seemed that every train came through Union Terminal in those days. David felt sure that he’d get a couple of days furlough and we’d be married. Mary Ellen, I’ve never spoken these words to another living soul except my sisters: I was in the family way. We needed him to come back here so we could be married.”
Mary Ellen took in her breath and almost forgot to let it out, “Oh, Mom,” she said.
Her mother went on, “I’ll never forget his one telephone call. It was difficult in those days to get calls through the long distance so when my mother called me to the phone saying it was your Dad from Florida I was thrilled, sure that I would be seeing him soon. That he would fix everything.
But no, what he called to tell me, and he only had three minutes to do it, was that he was being sent to California for advanced training before being shipping out.”
“Oh my God. What did you do?”
“Honey, my heart just fell into my shoes. He told me that he was going to wire me the money to get myself to California; that he was going to marry me come hell or high water. That it was all his fault that I was expecting his child and that he would make it right if Uncle Sam would cooperate but I had to get to California as soon as possible.” All of this came out in a rush as if it had happened only moments before.
“Now we both knew that I was as responsible for my condition as he was. I had always been an affectionate girl and with David…well…I just lost my head. God, I loved that man. Wasn’t your dad something?”
“You both were,” Mary Ellen said, remembering her dad standing close behind her mother as she washed dishes at the kitchen sink; the two almost exactly the same height; him nuzzling her hair, his hands around her waist. That familiar sight was repeated until her father died.
“There were more girls in my shoes back then than anyone has ever cared to admit, pregnant and with the boys shipping out.”
“I’ve never really thought about that,” Mary Ellen realized, suddenly ashamed.
“No one does. You young folks see us dried up old women and never think that we used to have blood running in our veins just like you do. There were lots of ‘premature’ babies and sudden marriages in those days. And talk about Dr. Zelman doing D&Cs.”
Mary Ellen pondered this, knowing it must be true. She also smiled at the thought of being one of the young folk. Her mother took a sip of water and went on.
“Now, I was a girl who had never been out of Cincinnati. You can’t count crossing the river to Kentucky a couple of times and going to a lake in Indiana once. How could I ever get on a train and make the trip to California? Alone. In the middle of the war. Hiding a pregnancy. It may as well have been the moon.
No one except David knew that I was expecting a baby, though my older sister, Ellen told me when I finally confided in her, that she suspected it. We shared a room and she’d heard me upchucking into a wastebasket in the morning but hadn’t wanted to say anything.”
“The money arrived from David. Where he got it, I never asked. We didn’t have two pennies to rub together. I went down to Union Terminal on the bus to try to get a train ticket to Oakland, California. I was determined but scared to death--and that was just getting to the terminal.
You can’t imagine the pandemonium, soldiers everywhere. Mothers and girls were crying their eyes out, boys trying to be brave but doing their share of sniffling too. The ticket counters had conga lines weaving in and out of each other.
An over-worked ticket agent, who listened to my sad story about getting to my wedding, took one long look at my belly, and finally managed to work out a complex array of tickets with the clear warning that I could be put off the train in any city along the way if the space were needed for troops. It would take me four nights if all went perfectly.”
“One week later, I boarded a train with one suitcase. I wore a pretty little gray suit that was Ellen’s. Nothing I owned fit me anymore. I was four months along. It was sweltering. You were lucky to have a seat. Many’s the mile that I rode sitting on that suitcase and I was glad to have it.
Everybody smoked like chimneys in those days. I always felt like I was going to be sick and I think sometimes it was just the knowledge that I was wearing my wedding suit that kept my dinner down. The trains jostled so, that you could work a bruise on your arm if you rested it against a window frame when you were trying to sleep. The only thing that got me through was the sure belief that David would become my husband at the end.” She stopped and smiled nodding.
“That and those conductors. You know that they were all colored gentlemen at the time. And gentlemen they were. King George of England had nothing on their manners. I had to change trains three times, the first time in Chicago. Why, I couldn’t count the times that one of those conductors would shame some worn-out soldier into giving me a seat. And watch over my bag if I dozed off. I hate to say it but there were some people on those trains that would steal a girl’s wallet right from her pocketbook if she fell asleep. Those conductors were my heroes.” She sat in silence, shaking her head. “Heroes, I tell you.”
“Every morning of that horrid trip, I washed up in the ladies’ room as best I could, my poor suit a shambles, having been slept in since I boarded at Union Terminal. I remember going into the toilet stall with a wet washcloth and towel from Mother’s bathroom.
I’d slip off my blouse, trying not to drop it into the toilet where, if you looked down you could see the tracks whizzing by under you. I’d wash my underarms and apply talcum powder all inside my brassiere. Then I’d put my blouse back on, take off my panties, garter belt and stockings, stand barefoot on that grimy floor, wash real good down there, put on clean panties that I carried in my purse, same garter belt, same stockings until the last day when I put on my extra pair. Ellen had given me her only pair as a going away gift.
She’s dead now….Everybody is.” She wiped away the tears that gathered in the little pouches under her eyes.
“I loved Aunt Ellen. She was so much fun,” Mary Ellen said about her name-sake.
“I couldn’t have made it without her. The hours that we spent whispering in that little bedroom before I left saved my sanity.”
“I hated that train and I loved it because it got me to David. When I finally arrived I thought I’d die when I wasn’t met by David but by Uncle Hank. He and Aunt Sue were stationed out there. They had a little efficiency in Oakland. That was where I’d be staying. David had to live in the barracks. I fell apart when I got off that train. I’m telling you, Mary Ellen, I just simply fell apart. Relief, I guess.”
She was silent a minute and in the silence Mary Ellen fingered the faded black and white picture. “Anyway, we got to Sue and Hank’s tiny little place in a car that Hank apparently sold his soul to borrow. The gas ration tickets alone were like gold.
David was there and I knew that everything was going to be okay then. We were married as soon as we got the license. I was able have my suit dry cleaned and I borrowed that fetching little hat from my sister, Sue. David gave me a nosegay of gardenias. They grow wild in California. And this little wedding band. Couldn’t have cost five dollars.” She held out her hand, her thumb spinning the sliver of a silver band.
“You know Daddy bought me this beautiful diamond ring for our tenth wedding anniversary?” She held up her right hand. “He was making good money by then. But I would never wear it on this finger,” she said, raising her left hand. “It didn’t seem right to replace this band that I had gone so far to get. We were married by a priest in the parlor; not in the church itself. You know your dad wasn’t Catholic and the Church was strict about that back then. I think that was the last time that I could fit into that poor little suit.”
“Catherine, God love her, was born five months later, exactly on time. Dad and Uncle Hank were overseas by then. Your Aunt Sue and I made the trip back home together. That’s another whole story. Imagine breast feeding a baby on a train full of soldiers. And cloth diapers! Ugh. It was a nightmare!”
She sighed and said, “I was braver than I ever could have imagined and I wouldn’t trade a minute of it for an easier time.”
Mary Ellen said, tears flowing, “Oh, Mom, I’m so ashamed. I always thought that you had it so easy, that you were pampered. That Dad took care of you and that you were, I don’t know, helpless, and perfect.”
Her mother laughed and said, “And now you know I’m not. And some day, Lissa will know that you’re not and on and on it goes.”
“Oh, God, she can’t ever find out some of the stuff that I did! Jesus, Woodstock! Well, near Woodstock anyway.”
Her mother surprised Mary Ellen by laughing. “Honey, we’re not so very different. It was the times that were different. Why I remember thinking my mother was scandalized that I was going to California alone, on the train, unchaperoned. I made Aunt Ellen break the news of my condition to her after I left. Mother told me when I came back with Catherine in my arms that she was proud of me. I almost fainted.”
She said, “We always underestimate our mothers by holding them in too high a regard. We forget that they’re human but especially that they’re women. Everything you went through made you the woman you are today. Me, too. Excuse the expression but…shit happens in everybody’s lives. I’m sure that my mother and her mother had their share of the shit!”
“Mom! You’re killing me with all these surprises today. You’ve never said shit before.”
“Huh! Just not in front of you. Why I even called your father a jackass a few times, God bless him.”
The shift from tears to laughter and back to tears was wearing the two women out.
Mary Ellen’s mother said, “You’ve always thought we were so different and it turns out that we’re cut from the same cloth.” She looked at her daughter for a long moment then made her decision.
“Wait right here.” She pushed herself up off the couch with her daughter grasping her arm. She stood for a few seconds for her blood pressure to stabilize and for the routine dizziness to go away then walked slowly, leaning on her cane, into her bedroom. Mary Ellen heard drawers opening and closing. In a few minutes her Mother came out with a small box. She handed it to her daughter.
“I was going to give this to Catherine but I think maybe you’re the right person for it.”
Mary Ellen opened the small satin box and out slipped a long gold chain with a charm dangling from it. A locomotive charm. The whole thing puddled in her hand.
She looked up at her mother, who said, “Your daddy gave this to me when he got back from the War. I’m ashamed to say that it was our secret. He wanted me to know that he loved me for meeting me in California to marry him. But once Catherine was born I wanted to forget the circumstances. I wore it for years under my clothing, never wanting to have to explain its significance to anyone. If they asked what was on the chain, I always said, “my patron saint.” That boring answer always ended the conversation!”
“Mom, you devil, you. I remember. Can I put it on?” Her mother nodded.
Mary Ellen put the necklace over her head and let it settle between her breasts. She lifted the little train car and touched its wheels which moved like the wheels of a real locomotive. “Can I tell people the story,” she asked.
“You can shout it from the rooftops, Honey. Anybody that I was worried about knowing is long buried. And now, I think I need a nap. It’s been a long trip.”
The two women, neither young, walked together to the bedroom and one of them lay down on her deceased husband’s side of the bed where she had slept every night since he died. The other one walked out, closed the door, stopped and spun the wheels of her golden charm.
Patty Writes about Another Strong Woman
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