Great Aunt Marie

So about my Great Aunt Marie…

I grew up in Parkersburg West Virginia which was the hometown of my grandmother and her three sisters, including Marie. Marie was an important woman in my early life. I was impressed that she worked as a writer and as a reporter, including a stint as an overseas reporter for the American Red Cross during World War II. Back then, it was rare to know of a woman who had a professional job. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, my Great Aunt came “back home” to Parkersburg to work for the Parkersburg News, the paper that had given her a start when she was a young woman. Marie covered local news and wrote a column titled “Scribbled on a Reporters Pad.” at the time that Marie came back to Parkersburg, she was in her sixties—a time of life when most people retire, yet she was as vivacious and vibrant as a woman half of her age. She was a beautiful woman who always wore high heels, dresses and lipstick.

Her articles and photos appeared every week and I felt that we had a bit of a celebrity in our midst because of her work. Although Great Aunt Marie was a fine writer and reporter, her life was not an easy one. She worked at several papers throughout the southeast and it seemed she was often the first to be fired if the papers were ‘cutting back.’ I believe she was also paid less than her male peers. I do know she was always short of money. She worked full time most of her adult life, raised two fine boys on this salary (their father was not really in the picture), and could never afford to own her own home.

I will never forget a visit I made to her to discuss what it meant to be a writer. I was in college, so Marie would have been in her seventies. My mother, her niece, brought me to her house mid-afternoon. Marie was still in her robe and slippers, just having woken up. She was still working and working the night shift—which she’d done for most of her life. The living room was filled, floor to ceiling with books. It was an awesome and eclectic collection, showcasing her range of interests: books on the beginnings of aviation, on the nuclear bomb, the Second World War, West Virginia history, chronicles of past presidents, politics and many many other subjects. The books were wonderful yet the room was dingy. It was hard to find a place to sit that wasn’t covered with papers, or hairs from her enormous—friendly, but enormous—dog. The kitchen was tiny and dark and the sink was filled with dishes. In fact, the house was tiny and in need of paint with a yard overgrown with weeds and vines.

Although we had a good talk, and she shared many interesting stories of her years as a reporter, I could not ignore the unkempt nature of this house. Also, she seemed so tired and I wondered if she really wanted to be working or if she “had” to in order to pay the rent. I left with the impression that a working woman’s life was very hard. And who was doing the housecleaning? This may seem silly to you, but West Virginia is not a wealthy state. And poverty showed itself in dirt, in broken appliances left on porches, in dishes left in oily sinks, and greying underwear on a line by the side of the house. Floors were swept but nearly immediately gritty with red clay tracked in by children and animals. Light bulbs were dim and flickering and always a television set blared on. I was conscious of wanting a “better” life—one where I could afford to fix broken appliances, one not dependent on duct tape for repairs. I wondered if working as a “writer” was worth it. I left that house fearful of the sacrifice, the possible poverty and the difficulties of such a life.

I was primed for these concerns by my reading about other “artistic” women who did not seem able to manage to do their work and to raise their families. The suicides of two poets in my mother’s era—Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton haunted me. As a young woman, I devoured the novels Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, as well as those about more contemporary life. Each of these books were by a woman and yet, not one of those women had children. I knew of very few contemporary women writers who were married, or who were mothers…expect, that is, for Great Aunt Marie.

Who was your “Great Aunt Marie”?

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One Response to “Great Aunt Marie”

  1. Courtney Says:

    My “Great Aunt Marie” was my mom’s best friend Donna Guthrie, who is an amazing children’s author and first gave me a sense of what it was like to be a woman writer in the world. I am still close to her–forever indebted for the visual she gave me of what the writer’s life is like. I can’t remember who said it, but it reminds me of a quote I heard once: “You can not become what you cannot see.”

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