"THE SHARING OUR STORIES PROJECT"
Our June story is Terry Callahan’s beautiful analysis of her mother Marjorie’s influence on her development. Terry’s vivid description of her mother’s childhood and then a view of her mother’s skillful mothering of Terry and her 5 siblings, allow us to really experience what it felt like to be this mother’s daughter. Marjorie, was a true Vermonter who was one of 7 children raised on a farm in East Putney, Vermont during the Depression. Marjorie’s no-nonsense approach to funding her own education to become a public health nurse and her wise day-to-day management of her household of eight show us how a strong and independent woman can promote and nurture her own development and ultimately influence the development of her strong and independent daughter. Terry is retired from her work in education, as an entrepreneur, and as a manager in an education non-profit. She is enjoying her retirement along with the freedom of having time to focus on projects, gardening and spending time with family and friends.
Love, Carol and Vv
Terry’s Story: Reflections on my Mother’s Influence
We were forewarned that the Presidential Inauguration on January 20, 2021 would be strikingly different than all previous inaugurations throughout US history. That warning played itself out with a fanfare that impressed so many viewers this past January and particularly me. What surprised me most was how truly inspiring this year’s inauguration event unfolded. What emerged was a fresh new look and feel. Most evident to me were the number of women speaking on the dais in powerful and prominent roles. A big change from the past and one I imagine was as profoundly felt/noticed as it was uplifting, historic, and welcomed by our own citizens and by the observing nations around the world that celebrated with us.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the youngest justice on the court, officiated the swearing in of Kamala Harris, first female Vice President in the US. Senator Amy Klobuchar introduced President Joe Biden and welcomed him as our new President. The young poet extraordinaire, Amanda Gorman, delivered a stellar and electrifying speech as she summed up the previous 4 years of rancor, racism, and political division that permeated our politics. She spoke words that needed to be spoken as she illuminated the struggles facing our country’s racial history and how that constant struggle has kept the US from becoming a nation that walks the talk and delivers equitably on the constructs of our constitution. She was passionate speaking from her own life experiences and expressing her hopes with strong conviction for what could be different in our future. Her message touched so many of us and her call to action affirmed the hard work needed to bring changes in our nation. In doing so she raised the bar on the possibilities for a better America.
We are halfway through 2021 and I still carry the good karma that this year’s inauguration generated in me. My own history allows me to recognize the power of women at the forefront in influencing change for a better world. Inspired by the words of the women who spoke I have taken the time to reflect on the key influences that supported my own growth and development, a long and enjoyable working career and the many opportunities and good fortune that have followed me throughout my 60 plus years. It was my mother’s significant influence that affected me most growing up in a small Vermont town in the sixties in a loving family of eight, with an attentive and present mother who made a difference. Her influence had a powerful impact on my transitions during my early years and as a young teen. That influence manifested itself in a focused presence in my life as it did for all 5 siblings. As I reflect on some key influences my mother instilled throughout my youth and adolescence, I am grateful now to celebrate the precious gifts they became.
My mother Marjorie Stockwell was born in 1925 and grew up on a farm in East Putney during the depression. My grandfather purchased a 200-acre farm in the 1920’s with the income he saved while working as a machinist in Connecticut in his youth. The farm had two work horses for plowing and planting the fields in spring and for collecting sap buckets at sugaring time. A large garden and stock animals (mostly chickens and pigs) kept the family well fed during the rough years of the depression era. Mother was proud to tell us that their family had enough food throughout her youth but not much money for “extras”. We all knew they were poor. My grandfather drove a horse and buggy to nearby Brattleboro to make a living selling potatoes, produce, meat, and syrup to local markets back in his time. The hard work that goes along with farming was expected, a given, and my grandfather and the family soon earned the right to consider themselves true Vermonters.
As a child Marjorie walked to her East Putney primary school with her 6 siblings as they lived and worked the farm doing daily chores and working the land. I imagine both school and farm work meant long days as it still does for most Vermont farm families and still, I imagine this scene with idyllic longing, an antidote to the pace of life post-internet. I have some cherished photos of the schoolhouse mother attended in her youth; photos that reveal the hard scrabble life that was endemic to the times. Lined up on the porch steps of their school I can pick out all 6 of my aunts and uncles still in their youth. This picture is the best window I have into to my mother’s early years, and it speaks volumes to me about her way of life and the circumstances that guided her to adulthood. Growing up my mother and all of her siblings entertained themselves making their own music. They learned to sing, play guitar, banjo, and piano, bringing joy and sustaining their family well over many years.
I still long for more details about my mother’s youth and wish too that I knew more about my maternal grandmother, more details than the fact that she died when my mother was 16 leaving her family of 7 to carry on. I expect this trauma must have affected my mother deeply. And yet Marjorie along with her two sisters Hazel and Arlene were permitted to leave the farm after their mother’s death to move to Brattleboro to complete secondary school at St. Michael’s Catholic High School. Each of the sisters were paired with a Catholic family for living accommodations close to the school; an arrangement that was in exchange for doing light chores to pay for their keep. My mother and her two sisters were serious students during high school and each sister pursued a paying job in the area that allowed them to save money to support their continued education after high school.
In 1944 few women from Vermont farm families had the resources or support to pursue education through high school, let alone beyond high school graduation. In spite of this my own mother’s resourcefulness and determination helped her to devise a plan which included saving most of her earnings to pay for her RN nurses training at a Catholic nurses training school in Massachusetts. The fact that she persisted with her desire to become a nurse given the challenges of losing her mother at 16 was quite remarkable. I know that she loved her training and excelled at academics at the same time she worked to support her tuition and room and board. During summer breaks from nurses training she returned to the farm to raise chickens to sell as meat birds. This effort covered most of her costs for her RN license. Her luck back then was that education was affordable without the need of excessive loans.
My mother’s greatest influence on me was her humanity and her kindness toward others in our community. She valued her work, caring for people as a public health nurse in our small community, giving her the freedom she craved to have a focus that was beyond family. She delayed her nursing career while we were young and started working as we entered high school, at first one day a week and soon fulltime. She used to say this brought sanity first and then salvation; she clearly was stimulated by both her work and human connections she made.
My mother’s even temper and her innate ability to stay calm with 6 children under foot created a safe haven. I do not recall ever hearing her raise her voice. Her love of family and her focused priority in nurturing that pursuit became the cornerstone for a secure and loving upbringing. She supported me always lifting me up, guiding me, NAGGING me through my teen years, providing “helpful” reminders. She was never pushy, always permitting ME to do the work and to reap the benefits. When I was in 8th grade, she supported my own plan to bike from Brattleboro to Canada and back with 5 of my girlfriends. She was my “influencer” and her work on my behalf in support of “no chaperones” for this trip was a big part of what we considered a successful plan. She came through again at the tail end of 11th grade when I announced my plan to live in Ireland for my senior year of high school to attend a day school in Galway. A picture I Iove has me standing between my parents just prior to boarding a flight to Shannon airport from New York. I am wearing a wide smile and looking like the cat who swallowed the canary. Perhaps it was just a nervous smile. My mother’s support and nurturing of my independence carried me into adulthood and allowed my own confidence to bloom during this time.
My mother was money wise and savvy and she gets all the credit for teaching me how to live on a budget. Her skills were legendary and her system for money management was effective; no financial planner needed. Her system included “used” white envelopes stored in the kitchen cupboard among the spices. Each envelope had the weekly or monthly cost to be paid to the appropriate vendor, the milk man, egg man whose name we all loved, Danny Wodowutz, groceries, church, and so on. Her grocery list included the items with exact amounts to be paid for each item, for example 3 cucumbers, 29 cents. She would total her list, say $35.69, and provide a reminder not to exceed that total at check-out since you were given only enough cash to cover her total within a few cents.
My mother’s frugality ruled our household and she perfected it managing our family of 8. I have come to appreciate the fact that while growing up in our rambling 3 story house on Oak Street in Brattleboro we never owned a dishwasher or a clothes dryer. After all there was no need for these items with six kids all trained young and expected to help out. A main chore was the laundry basket, always a mile high, it beckoned daily. There were 3 “handmade” wooden clothes racks in the 3d floor attic where we hung wet clothes with few complaints. Washing and drying dishes, hanging and folding laundry and ironing endless shirts, dresses, and school uniforms were all part of our daily routine almost around the clock as my mother shopped for food and prepared three meals a day in between getting us all to appointments and lessons or early jobs. As kids we were oblivious to the benefits of doing this work throughout our early years. Soon enough though it was evident that it was groundwork for securing the paid jobs we were lucky to have throughout high school. It was Mom who drove all six of us everywhere we needed to go and this must have been a time drain for her as we all were running somewhere always. I was thrilled to be hired for my first “real” summer job picking strawberries at Harlow’s Farm. Mother would drop us off at 7am and pick up by 11:30am. My pay was $28 dollars a week and I decided right then that I liked working along with the benefits of having my own cash to spend. All kids who worked for pay in my family were required to save half of all earnings and open a bank savings account for college. This house rule was strictly enforced. Today I value and practice my mother’s lessons in both frugality and money management as they have served me well for years.
Mother was our best teacher. She taught us about nutrition and how to cook. Sugar was a rare treat and though she taught my brother how to make donuts when he was 9, he was only allowed to make them twice a year. It was a half day project with the kitchen table draped with brown paper bags laid out to soak up the grease as he pulled donuts from fryer.
She taught me how to drive a standard and never once got frazzled even when I left her stranded at a red light on the Main Street hill to walk home because I couldn’t get the car into first gear. She taught all of us how to sew first by hand and once that was perfected, we learned to use the Singer treadle. We started making bean bags at 10 and we were cranking out aprons and dresses in no time. My own interest in sewing grew fast as did my skills and I was making a dress a week by the time I entered middle school. She gave us an appreciation for art and the arts with music lessons and dance. She taught me how to be independent, how to be less selfish.
While she agonized over leaving her beloved career in Public Health at 60, she was ready to be done. Once again, she had purpose and plan for more learning that would consume her time over her last 25 years of life. Now she would indulge her hidden talents as art became her focus. With ample time to devote to new interests, she excelled at photography, exhibiting her work around town. She took classes in clay, metals, and learned the lost wax method of sculpture and casting. Each of these pursuits allowed her to grow and explore which she did with much joy and pride to the very end of her days. It has been 10 years since her passing, but my mother speaks to me still through the many treasures she created and shared with me during this period of her life. Today I cherish some of her creations passed onto me over the years, a funky coffee cup, an unglazed hand sculpted clay seahorse that sits on a bathroom shelf and intrigues my granddaughter when she visits, a photo she took of a snow-covered barn that reminds of the old farm in East Putney where she grew up. These items bring me joy and wonderful memories today as they are the material treasures that remind me of her and her value to me along with the precious gift of being a great mother.
There is still no clothes dryer or dishwasher at the family home on Oak Street. The same 3 wooden clothes racks are still performing 60 years hence for my 96-year-old dad. This fact too I find remarkable as the racks have outlasted the life span of at least 3 clothes dryers.