During all the years between my birth and leaving home to attend university, I witnessed my mother crying once, and once only. To my shame, it happened after I made a cruel remark accusing her of being responsible for our family’s poverty.
I was 17 by then and, since I’d never seen her cry before, I had up until that moment naively assumed there was nothing in this world — no misfortune, no tragedy, no evil — that could move her to tears. When the tears came I was at a loss of what to do, so I did nothing. Instead, I sat in my chair shocked into disbelieving silence while she sat in her chair simultaneously crying and apologizing to me for having lost control of her emotions. Apologizing just as if she was committing some outrageous, inexcusable offense.
Looking back, I think the event should have taught me volumes about how great and deep was my mother’s sense of responsibility for our poverty. But instead of fully reflecting on the event, I went into denial of its significance. That is, I didn’t deny it had happened. But I denied it was important or meaningful.
That was my way of handling the terrifying thought that some aspects of life could overwhelm her. I was not at 17 fully conscious of the fact that my mother was the source of my strength, but conscious of it or not, I still deeply needed to believe there was nothing in life she couldn’t handle, and that by implication, there was nothing in life that I myself couldn’t handle just as well.
Consequently, she and I never again brought up between us the subject of our family’s poverty, and so I did not discover from her the proper causes of it.
One of those causes was that she was the sole breadwinner for our family of four. My father had died relatively young, leaving mom with the burden of fending alone for me and my two brothers. My older brother was only four at the time, so of course she had the added burden of very young children to raise.
Women back then had few job opportunities. In 1960, only 38% of women worked outside their homes, and most of them were limited to working as teachers, nurses, waitresses, clerks, or secretaries. Exceedingly few were in management. Yet, my mother became one of the exceptions.
After my father died, she moved us from the city where we were living to the small town that she herself had grown up in. Her move was a strategic decision: She needed the support of her friends and family who still lived there.
Her decision paid off.
When a job as the CEO of small housing and apartment corporation headquartered in the town opened up, some of her family and friends went to work successfully lobbying the board of directors to hire mom. That’s how things are so often done in a small town. Your friends and/or family go to bat for you by talking with people they know who are in a position to hire you — or even talking with people who know people who are in a position to hire you.
The company had been operating in the red, but mom succeeded in turning the company around, and putting it in the black, where she kept it for the rest of her long, forty year career.
By the time I graduated from university, the company was being written up in industry magazines as a model business, and mom had become modestly well known within those circles not only for her competence in running the company, but also for her willingness to mentor other executives at non-competing companies around the nation.
Yet it was not until near the end of her career that she was paid much more than was necessary for our family’s survival. In 1960, the average family income in America was $6,691.57. Mom, who is a very private person even in many ways to her own family, has not told me how much she herself earned in 1960, but I have ample reasons to believe it was less than the average for an American family, let alone less than the average for the family of a business executive.
One pound of round steak cost $1.06 at the time, much more expensive than hamburger or chicken. Because of the expense, I didn’t know what round steak — or any other steak — tasted like until I was 11 years old, when I became the first of my brothers to eat a steak. One day my best friend happened to mention that his mom was preparing T-bones for his supper that night, so I naturally asked him if T-bones were any good, because I didn’t know. His mother overheard us and kindly decided to invite me to supper.
Strangely, it didn’t occur to me until I was in my mid-teens that we were a seriously poor family. I always knew we weren’t as well off as many families, but there were still poorer families than ours. Besides, we never went without a meal, there was a roof over our heads (thanks entirely to my aunt, who bought a house for us to live in), we were clothed, and we had books. For some reason that I’m sure of, the books upon books in our house assured me that we were doing just fine.
Consequently, I simply assumed up until the age of about 15 or 16 that most of the signs of our poverty were due to my mother’s tastes. Few toys for Christmas? That was, to my mind, because mom thought toys were mostly frivolous and unnecessary. No family vacations? Another frivolous thing. No expensive foods? Mom has no appetite for them. And so forth.
Sometime in the late 1960s or very early 1970s, I quite bluntly demanded of mom to know how much she earned. To my surprise — because this wasn’t the sort of thing she was usually willing to reveal — she swore me to never tell anyone outside the family, and then she all but whispered a figure to me. I can no longer recall what that figure was, but I do still remember that it sounded like a lot of money to me, and that I came away thinking we were solidly middle class.
The only other thing I now recall about that figure was that — back when I still remembered what it was — I was surprised when a professor mentioned in a class the same figure as the poverty threshold for a family of four in perhaps 1970 or thereabouts. In short, my family had that time been living at the poverty line. But I didn’t learn the reason for that until I was 22, the year my aunt died.
I came home for the funeral, but couldn’t stay at my mom’s house because the bedrooms were to be used by out of town family members. One of mom’s best friends, however, had some bedrooms for the three of us nephews, and so we stayed the evening of the funeral at her house. The next morning, she made breakfast for us.
I have no recollection of what prompted Ann to tell us the story that morning, but she did. Over pancakes and sausage, she told us how troubled our mother had always been in the years we were growing up.
Now except for a few phrases and sentences, I can no longer recall the exact words Ann spoke that morning. But I am fairly confident that I still remember the points she made — and sometimes the manner in which she made them. To me, the conversation my brothers and I had with Ann that morning is one of the most significant conversations of my life. What follows is part recollection and part re-creation. However, I have left out some things that I suspect might have been said, but which I’m not confident enough were said.
Today, I don’t remember what prompted Ann to start off, but she began something like this: “Were any of you boys ever aware during your childhoods of how constantly worried your mother was about your poverty?” We all said “no”.
“Some evenings your mother and I spoke for hours about it. You see, it never left her mind that you boys were always one step away from disaster. She knew all that had to happen was a major illness or an accident befalling any one of you, you or her, and she could be reduced to the poor house, maybe see you all split up. She had nothing to fall back on, no savings.” I seem to recall Ann pausing then, and perhaps taking a puff off her cigarette, before going on: “She was paid jack all the years you were growing up.”
Someone asked why.
“Do you want to know the truth?” Ann responded. Then, placing an equal weight on each word she spoke, Ann said in an unusually emphatic voice: “Because. Ike. Bachmann. was. a. bastard.”
I recall the word “bastard” was mildly jolting coming from Ann, who was more than a decade older than mom — and therefore presumably even more conservative than mom in her opinions about the impropriety of swear words — and who was also quite active in the Presbyterian Church. Bachmann must have been a real bastard for Ann to call him that.
Even now, I can still see her slowly searching each of our faces for comprehension, perhaps trying to see if we could now put two and two together for ourselves. Her manner gave me the further impression that she was determined we would remember the words she’d just spoken for a very long time, maybe even the rest of our lives.
Still, I was confused. What did Ike Bachmann have to do with any of this? In my recollection, mom had not once spoken ill of the former chairman of her board. In fact, she had seldom spoke of him at all to us, and when she did, she had usually called him, “Ike”, as if he were a familiar friend to her. He’d died not more than two or three years before my aunt’s death.
My older brother broke the silence. “What did Bachmann do?”
“What didn’t he do?” Ann replied. “He treated your mother like a slave, for one thing. But mostly he was one of those men. What’s that word you young people use for ‘those men’ nowadays? Male something…chauvinists! I’m not one of those feminist women, but they do have a point about men like Bachmann.
“Bachmann was just as old-fashioned as country outhouse. He was hot-tempered. It didn’t take a lot to set him off. And when he got angry, he was raw, nearly unrestrained. Arrogant, too. But mostly he was a bastard. A pure bastard.
“Your mother, you know, had to deal with him until the day he retired, about a year before he died.”
“Would it be alright if I asked now exactly how he was a bastard?” I said, “I mean I don’t doubt he was a major one from what you say, but what exactly did he do?”
“Ike Bachmann.” Ann began. “Well first there was no telling him that your mother could do just as well as a man in her job. It didn’t matter how well she did, he always went about telling people that if he could replace her with a man, that man would do better. And I know there were times he came close to replacing her.
“Now and then some man in the town would get interested in having your mother’s job. Then like as not, he’d start talking to people, telling anyone who’d listen, that it just wasn’t right your mother had her job when there were men out there who needed to support their families. It happened several times over the years, and that’s how it usually started. With talk. Did you boys ever know any of this?”
We shook our heads.
“I know. Your mother never told you. She didn’t want you scared, of course, you were just children.
“Anyways, word would sooner or later get back to Bachmann that someone wanted her job. Or maybe someone would just straight up tell him they wanted your mother’s job. But it usually started with them politicking about it, trying to gather supporters, and put a little pressure on Bachmann and the rest of her board. The thing is, Bachmann never once stood up for your mother.
“Some of the other board members now and then did, but not her chairman. Not even once. Well, I don’t know about every last time a man came looking for your mother’s job, but the times I do know something about it, Bachmann offered them her job.”
I think at that point, my older brother said, “What?” in disbelief. My younger brother in anger hammered out the word, “Damn!” And I’m pretty sure I stared at Ann with my mouth nearly slack-jawed in shocked silence.
“To my knowledge, only one thing — only one thing — stopped Bachmann from replacing your mother. And that was Bachmann’s greed.
“You see, he was too greedy to pay even a man more than he paid your mother. Your mother was fortunate, very fortunate, that none of those men accepted Bachman’s offers. You’d have been in serious trouble. All four of you.”
After what seemed like quite awhile, my older brother asked, “Did mom ever talk to you about getting a different job?”
“At least a few times each year! But what kind of jobs are there for women in this one-tractor town? There were plenty of reasons your mother couldn’t just quit, and that was one of them. Maybe another day we’ll have time to talk about them all.”
Ann fell silent for a moment as if making a decision, then, “I want all three of you to promise me that you’ll never tell your mother what I’ve told you today. She’d be embarrassed to death, you know.” We responded with our promises.
Regrettably, I never did get a chance to question Ann about all the reasons mom didn’t just get a different job. But whatever mom’s reasons, I’d lay money they weren’t frivolous or light ones. Mom was just as rational as she was stoic. Even now, forty years after the conversation with Ann, I still have yet to meet more than a relative handful of people who are as consistently rational as mom was before dementia set in when she was around 94 or so.
As for Ike Bachmann, his attitude towards women was in most ways commonplace in that town. That is, some jobs were commonly thought of as “men’s work”; women lacked whatever it took to do them as well as a man; which was one good reason to pay them less; and so forth.
But I think that when Ann called Bachmann a bastard she was not just referring to the attitudes towards women that he shared with so many other people. I later learned a few more things about Bachmann, and it now seems probable to me that he was misogynistic. Ann was probably right: Ike Bachmann was a bastard.