Mother’s Day is a bittersweet holiday for me, bringing up very mixed emotions spanning seven decades. Were it not for a good relationship with my own daughter and a generally positive experience as a mother myself, my feelings concerning the celebration of motherhood would be much more negative, because my childhood was not marked by a very nurturing environment. Especially in my teens the level of conflict and estrangement between me and my mother was notably high. It was only shortly before her death that we achieved a species of friendship. In this light I can remember her as a person to be admired and respected, a talented, articulate professor of English literature, a scholar of great intellectual acuity, a valued member of the many organizations in which she participated, and a person of exceptional integrity. That parenting and familial relationships are not on the list does not reflect a memory or perception on my part that they were disastrous (after all, she successfully raised three children and remained married, albeit not precisely happily married, for thirty-nine years), but rather that they were merely adequate alongside achievements that were stellar, or might have been given free reign.
My mother’s legacy lives on mostly in my memory and in a large collection of papers and photographs I rescued when my father’s estate was broken up and the family home sold in 1995. Among those papers, in the back of a file cabinet with copies of income tax forms and correspondence relating to university governance, was the manuscript of an unfinished novel, “The Club for Women”, which my mother painstakingly typed out on onionskin, with carbons, in the early 1950’s. If she were a known author or someone in whom the world at large had an interest, this unique document would be the subject of intense conservation efforts, and perhaps a definitive edition bearing the imprime of a prestigious university press. If an established academic or celebrity writer determined this manuscript was worth showcasing, it would likewise achieve prominence.
It is not the intrinsic quality of an achievement of this nature which makes it valuable, but the marketing of it. My mother wrote beautifully. The book itself describes eloquently the position of an ambitious female academic who achieved a certain amount in her field during the Second World War, only to be sidelined in the early 1950’s. It’s a common tragedy of professional women in her generation, both for the women themselves and for the loss to society of contributions they night have made had they been allowed to continue, especially if society had been a little more open to women combining career and families.
This story becomes my story as well. I cannot say I remember my mother working on this manuscript, though I remember her typing away in the room she and my father used as a study, expecting a kindergartner to be able to amuse herself for long periods of time. I do remember her being an angry, bitter woman, jealous of my father whose career the university nurtured, resentful of being a housewife, and contemptuous of the mothers of friends who were more comfortable in their roles.
The novel is not particularly fictitious. Perhaps none of it is. It describes my mother’s experience as a graduate student at Yale in the 1940’s. Many of the episodes and characters were stories she told me as a child, along with reminiscences of growing up in a working class immigrant family in New York City in the 1920’s and early 1930’s.
In my mother’s words “General idea: The novel is supposed to illuminate the personality problems resulting from the conflict between intellectual interests and the sex drive in ‘modern woman’. The action does not propose a solution to the conflict. Rather it is meant to suggest that current social patterns, which decree that a woman may achieve prestige in her field, but almost invariably at the expense of a normal emotional life, make such conflict anthropologically inevitable.” At the time the Kinsey Report had just come out and sex drive was prominent on everyone’s radar.
My own recollections flesh out the story, adding the circumstances under which the book was written and the family dynamic which shaped my character as a very bright girl growing up in America in the 1950’s. My mother was determined that I should succeed brilliantly in the academic environment where she had very nearly succeeded, and pushed me into a scientific career as one offering more prestige and better job prospects than literature. In a typical family at the time my brother’s future career would have taken precedence, but he was not academically gifted and my father was less determined that his children make their mark on the world than my mother was.
I believe the whole narrative, including the novel my mother wrote and my own reminiscences, do have value, and to that end am creating a digital copy of The Club for Women and hoping to distribute it somehow together with my own reminiscences of childhood, so that they are not lost to posterity. This task occupies me as I sit at home conscious of my own mortality, quarantined due to an epidemic which purports to be particularly dangerous to old people like me, and knowing that all I bequeath to the next generation in terms of stories and the lessons to be learned from them had best be consigned to paper, because my memory will perish with me and purely electronic resources are also ephemeral.
Photos are courtesy of Martha Sherwood – All Rights Reserved
The photographs are from my family album, possibly taken by my father John Sherwood.