My nana, whose name was Mildred, which she hated and made me promise never to name a child "or even a cat," even though I think it's a beautiful name, and who was called Mil, was a working woman. She worked as a secretary for a Lutheran high school, in a room with other secretaries who were ladies with names like Mildred, and I thought visiting her at work was the most exciting thing ever when I was a little girl.
Her workspace was filled with all kinds of office supplies and ancient office machines I found fascinating. This was long before computers, or even copiers, were commonly found in any high school office, no less that of a parochial school, and the secretaries did their work on typewriters, surrounded by mimeograph machines and slot-punchers for old fashioned student IDs, which seemed like the height of technological sophistication. The room smelled of correction fluid, montan wax, and Avon perfume.
I loved being there.
At home, Mil had an office, too, which served as my sister's and my bedroom when we visited. There were two desks in the room, and one typewriter, and a cup with pens and pencils, some of them old and mysterious. I asked her if I could keep a tarnished mechanical pencil with four different colored leads I found one time, and, when she let me, I was thrilled, wildly giddy, as if it were a priceless antiquity.
I still have it.
I spent countless hours at my grandmother's big wooden desk, investigating its huge drawers that seemed endless to tiny hands. It was full of the junk that adults stuff in desk drawers—free calendars from the bank, old checkbook covers, stamps that are a penny less than it costs to send a letter. Rubber bands and paper clips. Plastic rulers branded with a dry cleaner's business name and address. Scrap paper.
The scrap paper was always there for keeping score during a game of cards, or jotting down a grocery list. And it was there in case my sister or I wanted to pull out the crayons and have a little doodle when we were visiting. Just junk paper that would otherwise be thrown out, something on one side but clean on the back—dittos from work that went misaligned, overprinted inserts from church bulletins, half-page fliers and one-sided adverts pulled from the paper.
At about six or so, I wrote my first book on the backs of a stack of half-size yellow paper, on the other side of which was probably an expired list of specials from a local Italian take-out place. It was a multi-page story with words and illustrations, and I stapled the pages together and I sold it to Mil, or maybe my mom, for ten cents.
Mil, like my mom, was always encouraging of my writing. She told me my stories were fabulous, even when they weren't, and complimented me on my artistic talent, though I had none. She kept paying those dimes, as long as I worked for them.
Sometimes Mil was brusque: She wanted what she wanted, and wanted it the way she wanted it. I don't remember ever feeling hurt by her directness, but I do remember, when I was very young, occasionally being surprised by it. She spoke to me like an adult, like I heard her talk to other adults. She challenged me to live up to her expectations.
Which is not to say she didn't indulge me. She did. Mil, with whom I watched my first episodes of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, listened to my playing Weird Al Yankovic tapes for her way longer and with more interest (possibly feigned) than any lady owes any child. Just because it was important to me.
Mil was very determined that my mom would go to college (she did), and she was very determined that I would go to college (I did), because Mil hadn't, and that's why, in her words, she was "only a secretary." She insisted that I get "an education," and at least twice she referred to herself to me as "uneducated," despite the fact that she was cultured, curious, and well-read.
I tried to tell her once, when I was a teenager, after she'd told me not for the first time that she wasn't as smart as I was, that I thought she was one of the smartest women I knew. She told me exasperatedly that I didn't know what I was talking about, lol. Too stupid to know how smart I was. Classic. Mil was funny like that.
She would almost certainly have rolled her eyes at me and possibly even made a disgusted noise of some sort if anyone had called her a feminist. Mil was a Republican, you know. (When I was allowed one piece of jewelry from her box after she died, I declined her elephant brooch in favor of a simple necklace with a scripted letter M, since we shared our first initial.) But her example to me was of a feisty, opinionated working woman who pushed the women around her to do more, who encouraged them to develop their talents and to succeed, who could be independent and still generous with her time and herself.
That's a pretty good feminist example. Intended or not.
I feel lucky and proud that she was a part of my life, and is a part of me.
Mama Shakes, by email: These were taken in June, 1975, so you were just a little over a year old. What a doll! Even then you got a kick out of putting hats on people. I love the pin curls in Nana's hair in the one photo where she is wearing your hat. In the other, you are wearing yours in a very rakish manner, while Nana sports a white paper bag turned into a chapeau for the occasion.