"THE SHARING OUR STORIES PROJECT"
Michele Delhaye is the author of our sweet and very thoughtful August story. Michele’s grandmother died in the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, leaving behind Michele’s mother who was just two years old. Michele’s story chronicles her mother Geraldine’s journey from her start as an orphaned two-year old to her career as a respected Ob-Gyn nurse and nurse-educator and mother of two daughters. Her thoughtful reflection on the strong women (and men) in her life allows Michele to better understand their influence on her own strong and lovely way of being in the world and provides us with a powerful story about resilience and the importance of support and encouragement.
Love, Carol and VV
Michele Delhaye grew up in the Hudson Valley in the small town of Cornwall, New York. She received her BA degree from Castleton University and her M.Ed. from University of Vermont. She worked as a: social worker, employment counselor, Adult Technical Education Coordinator and a postsecondary education counselor. She earned certificates in Adventures Based Counseling (ropes course leadership) as well as ropes course rescue. Michele and her husband are now retired and live in Rockingham, Vermont and camp in the summer in Danville, Vermont. They currently have three dogs and a cat. Michele enjoys traveling, kayaking, gardening, knitting, quilting, x-country skiing, and yoga.
Michele’s Story: Motherless Child and Childless Mother
Letta Allen Pennington was pregnant with her second child when she died in the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918. She left behind her beloved husband Albert and their first child Geraldine aged two. Geraldine, my mother, was sent off to various relatives for a while as her father mourned and regrouped. One of the relatives was her mother’s sister Maude. Aunt Maude was widowed with six children. Her husband had died from untreated diabetes. Insulin wasn’t made available until 1921. My great aunt Maude was a feisty gal and managed to raise her children somehow without any governmental help. There was no welfare or social security death benefits. She was unskilled but forced to find work along with her older children. Aunt Maude was a lady despite rumors of her “swearing like a trooper”. I always thought this was a slur against state troopers. I know two retired ones (and I’ve never heard either one swear), so I’m a bit embarrassed to use this phrase. I’m not sure any slur is excusable these days, but I’m just reporting what was said. I took the time to research this phrase and found that it’s a reference to cavalrymen in the 1700’s who were known to use vulgar and foul language! I don’t remember Aunt Maude using bad language! She always dressed well and showed my older sister how to enhance the ambience of a dress or suit by cutting off the cheap buttons and replacing them with more expensive looking ones. As a woman forced to live in poverty, she was a clever woman! My mother said that while she lived with her Aunt Maude none of the children ever went hungry! If one needed a snack there was always bread and butter available.
My mother’s father eventually remarried. He married his brother’s fiancé after the brother died unexpectedly from a gas stove leak. It was before an odor was added to propane to help with detection of leaks. Maybe they mourned together and found solace in each other. Together they made a new life, married, brought my mother home and had four more children- all girls! My (step) Grandmother Mae always referred to my mother as her first daughter. And, my sister and I always referred to her as our grandmother. Albert worked at the B & M railroad. He went to college at night to earn a degree in engineering. He believed in the power of education! Grandfather Albert died when I was young, so Mae was the only grandparent I ever really knew. She was big hearted, kind, intelligent and loving.
When my mother Geraldine “Jerre” graduated from high school, her father told her that she should continue her education. He believed that women needed to have a skill to fall back on- if ever needed. I’m sure this came about from watching his sister in law Maude struggle as a young widow! Many women in the early 1930’s believed that they had few choices for training: nurse, teacher or secretary.
My mother chose to become a nurse. She completed a three-year program leading to an RN license. She had a long, successful and fulfilling career as a nurse. I think the two most rewarding aspects of her career were working in the OB-GYN ward and teaching new nurses. She was very respected by the doctors she worked with and was often left in charge of a birth.
Jerre was very open with her daughters about sexuality and reproductive issues. She didn’t want her daughters blindsided like some of the young women she saw, who didn’t understand the why and how of their bodies or what their reproductive options were. I’m grateful to her for being so open, honest and educating us!
Like her father before her she encouraged (expected) my older sister and me to pursue higher education. There really wasn’t any other option discussed than college. A few times when I got discouraged or frustrated with college, my mother would wisely say to me “Oh, that’s O.K. dear, you can quit college and come home. Of course, you’ll have to get a minimum wage job at Woolworth’s as a cashier and we will expect you to pay us room and board.” What a great deterrent to quitting college! My sister and I both went on to earn master’s degrees- which I’m sure was gratifying to her (and our father). It’s also interesting, I think to look back and realize that the most rewarding job in my life was working in a federally funded TRiO program at VSAC promoting higher education and training to those people less fortunate than I (many of them were low income women).
What I loved most about my mother is that despite her worries, fears and insecurities she applauded and encouraged her daughters to be independent. She taught us to save money and said that a woman should always have a savings account in her own name, so that she could afford to leave a relationship if she ever felt the need to.
I was a willful child from the beginning. My mother said that as a baby, she’d try to cuddle me, and I would push her away (poor woman)! But she was very smart! She and my father used psychology to keep me from harm. They knew that if they said “no” to me, that I would rebel and defy them. For example, when I was sixteen, I had already been going out of state to religious conferences with the LRY- Liberal Religious Youth at the Unitarian/Universalist Church. So, when the Woodstock Festival presented itself, I wanted to go with my friends. My parents never said “no, you can’t go”. Instead they reasoned with me about why they thought it would be a bad idea. I always felt respected as an independent, intelligent individual. I truly feel blessed to have had these parents who taught me about accepting and respecting others even if they are different than us, and how to discuss a challenge rather than making mandates.
So, here I am at the end of the day at age 68 and childless. I’ve had a happy and fulfilling life despite not having children. Did I miss a big part of life? Probably, but I have no complaints. Having children never was a strong desire of mine. I suppose I have used some maternal instincts towards other beings and people in my life. I am the mother of dogs! Many, many dogs over my rich and interesting life. And, I’m blessed to have several younger women in my life. I’m not their mother, but maybe more like an aunt. One of them is my late friend’s daughter Leah. I have known her and loved her since she was a baby. Now she has babies of her own and although I’m not a grandparent, I’m an “auntie”!
I’m loving life, feeling blessed for those women (and men) who helped shape me and grateful for all the wonderful people in my life!