I’ve always been attracted to bodacious women, bold, audacious and strong-minded ladies who also like men and want to link up but are not interested in second class citizenship.
As we enter the Obama Administration’s second term, I am reminded of the old adage that behind every successful man is a strong woman. From what I’ve observed and read, I’m convinced that our current president is blessed to have Michelle as the strong yet independent wife and confidant that he needs in these challenging times.
In thinking beyond our current time and of the role of First Ladies in general, Abigail Adams, wife of our second president, immediately comes to mind. With this prompting, I’ve gone back to look again at my copy of John Adams, a book by David McCullough who presents a powerful image of Abigail.
When they married, as McCullough writes, “Adams’ life was made infinitely fuller. All the ties he felt to the old farm were stronger now with Abigail in partnership. She was the ballast he had wanted, the vital center of a new and better life.”
In learning a bit more of this lady who was born in 1744–two centuries to the year before I was born–I am forever indebted to McCullough who reprints many of her letters to her husband. These letters are treasures unto themselves in their clarity and for their literary prose. They project her charm, her concern for her family, her every day worries and her vision for a better future. She was loving and kind and could be playful. But she was also formidable and determined, engaged in the events of her time.
As she wrote,
“I begin to think, that a calm is not desirable in any situation in life. Every object is beautiful in motion; a ship under sail, trees gently agitated with the wind, and a fine woman dancing. . . . Man was made for action and for bustle too.”
In the dark days of the Revolution, she told her husband, “We live, my dear soul, in an age of trial. What will be the consequence, I know not.”
Adams himself knew how fortunate he was to be her husband. She was his partner, but she was also his conscience and soul whose well-formed and reasoned opinions helped him articulate many of the founding principles of our country.
Just as importantly, though, he was always her greatest champion. He recognized her many special gifts and was never reluctant to step aside in her favor. As such, he was her “strong” presence in the background who encouraged her to be a complete person in her own right. They had formed an equal partnership, but he paid her the ultimate act of love by not interfering in her own journey of self discovery. Although they shared the lead traces in their private and public lives together, he knew when to give way to her initiative and give his blessings in spirit and deed so that she could travel at her own pace and direction when opportunity appeared.
I think our current president gives his wife, Michelle, the same kind of respect.
Since I’m predisposed toward strong women like my own wife Jody, not to mention Abigail and Michelle, I cannot proceed without mentioning my own maternal grandmother, Julia. She was also a bodacious babe like Abigail from another century who was independent and not at all reluctant to join in the fray. Leaving a genteel life of well-to-do farmers in northern Ohio in 1906 to journey across the country in her early 20s to join Alexander, who would become my grandfather in the wild west of Oklahoma, this lady was also articulate and literate in her letters home.
My grandfather had been born right after the Civil War and like my grandmother also raised on a farm, his in the northern Shenandoah Valley near Winchester, Virginia. He became a schoolteacher but continued to help on the family farm for practical reasons. But he was restless and finally found the excuse to break with his father over a disagreement about his skill at plowing a straight row in the midst of the stone outcroppings that dotted their poor farm land.
Legend has it that he stormed off and went up the trail to the railroad town of Martinsburg, West Virginia, to catch the next train west. When he waved a fistful of dollars in the clerk‘s face, he got booked no further than Findlay, Ohio, not far from the farm of my grandmother’s parents. Although it took some time and false starts to get their romance going, she also eventually whupped up the nerve to defy her parents and leave the nest to follow him on her grand adventure.
But life was harsh on the Oklahoma prairie where my grandparents lived in a sod hut. To their great horror soon after getting established, a grass fire swept through their homestead killing all their livestock and destroying their shelter. Her letter home is heart breaking. Within a short time, they had swapped their farm sight unseen for one in the hill country of southern Ohio and moved back east to try to recoup.
Sadly, my grandmother’s life played out very differently from what she had expected. In the ensuring years, Alexander contracted TB of the bones and would die a shell of his once robust self. A few years later, her only son would be killed in a traffic accident. In the face of such adversity, I stand in awe of her bravery and determination. I marvel to this day how she never gave up or lost her gumption and sense of involvement in her own destiny.
With Julia’s tale fresh in mind, Jody picked up on our discussion with a story of her own where another young strong-minded woman is deracinated from her home to follow a man to a different land in search of a new life. Jody’s grandmother Frieda was a lady born in the 19th century like Julia, but in a remote village in a distant Swiss canton. Jody’s cousin recently sent us a copy of Frieda’s restored passport picture dated 1917 when she passed through New York City.
Jody’s mother Ruth, another bodacious lady in her own right, interviewed Frieda a few years before she died in 1985. In the tape, Frieda talks of her childhood in Switzerland and how she was expected as a little girl to get up at 5 in the morning to help with various demanding chores. She then tells how she was farmed out a little later to a butcher’s family to earn some extra money for her poor mother, who had been forced to take in wash, since her alcoholic step father did not earn much.
Her future husband had been a resident of the same village but had left earlier to find a more promising life in the new world. True to his word, he also fulfilled his promise to send for her when he was established in the Swiss community that had been formed earlier in southern Wisconsin. It was there that he had become a cheese maker and later a dairy farmer.
En route to Wisconsin, though, she had to travel by train from Bern to Bordeaux, France, to board the ship to America. WWI was still raging and she and her girlfriend were terrified of the French soldiers who were also on the train and were “rough talkers.” Later, when she was on the ship, she was forbidden to speak German despite her protests that her language was Swiss! For the day or two she was in New York City after docking, she and her girlfriend, neither of whom could speak any English, were afraid to wander too far from their hotel for fear of getting lost. And then finally, there was the eventual loneliness and homesickness she felt once the newness of relocating to southern Wisconsin had worn off.
So in this rich and colorful tapestry of life that has spun out for well over a century, we both marvel at the roles played by our fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers who made certain critical decisions so many years ago and then set something in motion that finally brought Jody and me together. These were people who, like Abigail and John or Michelle’s slave ancestors, endured hardships and dangers we cannot fully appreciate in the rather sheltered and protected lives we enjoy today. But they chose to be participants rather than just part of the passing parade of those caught up in events. They struck out on their own and risked their all in search of a destiny they were unsure of.
As Abigail told John, “We live, my dear soul, in an age of trial. What will be the consequence, I know not.”
In coming full circle round in this story, I marvel at my ancestors, both male and female. They were all strong people, but I think the women were especially strong and became the bedrock of their families. They bore the children, often losing their own lives in creating new life, kept the families coherent, instilled their children with the values that are the seams of society, reached out to others in need, provided comfort and stability to those around them, and lived lives of example for others to follow. They were the musical notes that kept others in tune, they had the breadth of vision to make dreams come true, they had the generosity of impulse to know how to do the right thing at the right time.
I embrace all these people, especially the ladies, for giving me the life I cherish today.