Ellie — OK, kiddo. Time for a little family history. I want you to understand your more distant roots so that, someday, you’ll have an idea where you came from. I’m hoping it will be meaningful to you when you’re older.
November 9, was my mother’s birthday. She was born Charlotte Clift in Newkirk, Oklahoma, in 1924.
That was only 17 years after Oklahoma became the 46th state in the union. More important, it was only four years after the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified and women won the right to vote.
Funny to bring up the issue of women’s suffrage and then immediately realize I have no idea what my mother’s mother or any of my female ancestors thought about getting the vote. I’m sure they always voted (they were good, solid citizens), but did they feel they could make up their own minds? I’m not sure. In those times, not so long ago, men were thought to be stronger and smarter than women.
(Good grief — can you imagine? But these beliefs were widespread and entrenched, and they marked men’s and women’s lives for decades to come. I have many strong opinions about that, but I’ll save them till later.)
I’d love to tell you the women in my mother’s family were rabble-rousers, storming the state capitol and demanding equal rights. But they weren’t. I suspect their own lives were so demanding, they didn’t have the time to think about the rest of the world.
Think of it: Small-town Oklahoma in the 1920s, a few thousand people, a scattering of buildings and stores and houses and schools and churches on the edge of the prairie. The women worked all the time, cooking, cleaning, canning, mending, minding children and babies, going to church every Sunday. They frequently died in childbirth, but effective birth control wasn’t widely available.
In these small towns, they had paved streets, some new highways, electricity, party lines for their phones, mail, a newspaper, and telegrams. But they were so distant from the rest of the world — no TVs, computers, smart phones, internet. Their lives were more immediate, tangible, and local. We’d call their lives more narrow and limited, but that’s at a distance of almost a century. Who knows what our descendants will think of our lives in 2115?
Anyway, the world intruded on their small-town Oklahoma world in dramatic ways. A few years before my mother’s birth, the U.S. had entered World War I, then known as the Great War, in 1917. Two million Americans fought in Europe.
Among them were my mother’s father, William R. Clift, and his three brothers. They were Oklahoma farmboys who had probably never been anywhere before — and here they were, crossing the Atlantic Ocean and fighting in a bloody, brutal conflict in distant countries they’d never see again. My grandfather was blinded for a month with mustard gas used in the trenches. He returned home embittered and angry; he was never the same person, my grandmother always said.
I thought of him when Opa (your grandfather) and I toured museums commemorating World War I in Paris early in 2015. The war devastated Europe and killed more than 17 million people. All these years later, the reasons for this massive carnage are murky. And what did it accomplish? Many historians agree that the punishing conditions for peace made the Second World War inevitable.
I’m stopping here — trying not to overload you with long-ago events and numbers. I originally wanted to tell you about my mother, Charlotte Clift. But I ended up trying to describe the world she was born into so you could understand her better. Oddly, thinking about all of this helped me understand her better — something I failed to do in her lifetime.
Again, she was born in 1924. She was the second child and daughter brought into a society that didn’t really value girls that much — even if women had finally won the right to vote. And, in so many ways, the circumstances of a person’s birth affect the rest of her life.
OK, that’s it for today. Next time, I’ll write about something more cheerful. I promise. Love you, CocoXO
(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)