Barbara S. Thompson's My Life is a journey into a modern
woman's soul; torn between tradition and expectations and her own developing sense
of personhood, she shares her innermost thoughts and reactions to the tragedies and
joys of life played out against the Great Depression, World War II, and the Nuclear
by Barbara S.Thompson
"After the Bath" by Mary Cassatt from the book
100 of the World's Most Beautiful Paintings, 1966, RTV Sales Inc, publishers
Home to the family for a little while,
before going to Ohio State again, to finish as fast as I could. Presently with letters,
with the narrowing of expectations to Stan (no dreams of career for me; I didn’t
believe anyone would hire me for the lowliest job - not that I didn’t try for a scholarship
in English, which I didn’t get, at Columbia, or work not too intensely on the Vogue
Prix de Paris contest, in which I didn’t get anywhere - not yet writing in any commercial
form, or any form, for me life seemed increas-ingly unfulfilled without sharing it
directly with him. So presently marriage. An escape. An avoidance of coming to terms
with my-self. With the world. A horrid, frightening place anyway, the world. I wanted
the shelter of Stan’s arms. No more struggling against a baffling, unsympathetic,
unaware, unwelcoming world.
Besides it was such an acceptable way to withdraw from the struggle. Marriage. Success
in a sense, after all I should have some acceptance and approval in my choice.
We were married simply and quietly in Marajorie’s apartment on 123rd Street. Mother
and Grandma went to New York with me, and Katharine was there, and Edith, and Carl’s
sister. No more than I wished; although I should have liked the stability of a real
home and community, real friends to have as bridesmaids; I felt like a stepchild
to the world, and feeling thus, I was glad that our wedding was so small. Fewer to
watch. I was so deeply un-sure of myself, and what a wedding meant, in terms of the
com-munity, was hollow for me. Within my limitations I had done well, and marrying
Stan was right and good, but my vague hopes of what the world would bring to me were
ever to be unfulfilled. Marriage was an escape, partly from my strange background,
not quite jelled, not quite acceptable, and from the demands of being alone, in a
world basically and perplexingly hostile. (What had I done to deserve it? followed
the rules as best I could, interpreting them conscientiously, except of course for
a few transgressions which society pointed out to me usually through my parents,
and which I then tried to correct - ah the misery of the morally right child.)
Beginnings. Again I was seduced, as I was to be time after time, by the lure of the
new, the pristine, the unsullied. Marriage was a new picture, perfect, untouched,
complete, and would solve all. I was to be made anew, once I possessed the label
From such a height (of achievement; marriage was a state, not a process; I knew nothing
of growth; we were in love; we found each other mutually desirable; life separately
was more than I could sustain; therefore all was to be forever after serene and joy-ous)
there could be no descent.
Descent there was, with me an unwilling accomplice. I brought impossible demands
to this state of marriage. I wanted things to remain in a condition of perfection.
I refused to believe in change as natural, as desirable.
For our three days of holiday, our honeymoon, we went, of all places, to the farm.
I had planned to go to Grey Rocks, and live in isolation in that cold, wintry spot.
That turned out to be unfeasi-ble, even to me. Stan's mother wrote to ask us to their
place. We went. When I think how full of potentials it would have been to have stayed
in our tiny apartment in Mt. Vernon, enjoying each other's company after these months
of separation, exploring New York on our limited funds (after all we had enough for
the train ride to Blairstown), it seems a curious thing to have gone to his family
for our first three days together. Prophetic perhaps; the pull his family had for
him, my preoccupation with "ideas;" I had an idea that we should have a
honeymoon; going to Blairstown for three days was apparently a honeymoon.
I remember escaping from his brother and sisters once, and walking up through snowy
woods with Stan. Otherwise I only remember Robert and Evie creaking open the door
to our bedroom early in the morning when we should have liked to sleep late. Righteously
indignant, I wondered why their mother might not keep them quiet, or at least away
from our door, which would not latch tightly. Rigidly right, again.
They had resisted the notion of his marrying, so young, some-one they hardly knew,
except for that brief visit I payed them the summer before I went to Mass. State,
someone with a background so different, with interests unlike their own. Once they
wrote some kind of a letter, which I never saw, but which Stan believed they were
sending to me; he wrote to me, urging me to ignore it; he loved me best, and first.
I should have realized how deep was his devotion, to have put me before his family;
instead I wrote back some business about his making very sure that he really believed
in this step we were planning; using this situation as a tool, for my own benefit.
However they sent the letter to Stan instead; perhaps it was a token defiance of
his decision to marry; they protested against the marriage of each child; he was
to see that "it wasn't so bad after all." I did not know how much he was
still tied to them; how hard it was to repudiate them and their judgment in this
case; to leave them, and to choose me.
Neither of us knew what we believed in,
aside from the reality of our love for each other. He was working, and the urges
of young life made the future, so foggy, so formless, take on the color of hope.
The first time I spoke of "my husband" in a store in Mt. Vernon, was an
effort. I felt both daring and guilty; had I a right to speak of a man as my husband?
did I deserve this change in status? Status again. A state. I must have shown my
hesitation, for the shopkeeper remarked that I had not been married long (I don't
know why it was mentioned).
Thus marriage. A two room apartment. A husband who rose at three a.m. and left in
the darkness. Returning early, but we never seemed to be able to work out a satisfactory
way of his get-ting enough sleep; apparently I fed him a dinner when he re-turned,
around 2:30 p.m. and although he should have slept for a while, then joined me for
an ordinary evening, I don't believe we ever arranged it properly. He was fortunately
healthy, and man-aged to get through those two years of long working hours and short
He had a few friends there; a nice young couple also working for Continental Baking
Co., and the couple we met in Canada on our hosteling trip, the Pattersons, who lived
in a dazzling level of society as far as we were concerned. The young couple invited
us out to dinner at their small apartment. We dropped in to see the Pattersons now
and then. Once they came to dinner at our house; I served baked ham and brown bread,
and fruit salad, and Stan had some of his mother's elderberry wine. Schuyler was
most ap-preciative; I remember little of what his wife said.
My first lunch was for Katharine and Marjorie, and I made an elaborate creamed dish
and served it in a bread case (I saw it in a woman's magazine picture). K. looked
at my china, which I had picked out with such care; no flowery pattern for me; Marjorie,
who gave it to me, would have chosen something fussy; so I hunted all over New York,
and bought at last a white set with a chaste gold band. Severe. Anyway K. tried to
admire it, and turned it over, and said "what a nice insignia" on the bottom
(the Chechoslovakian mark of the makers).
My standards were of the utmost simplicity, almost stark, in decoration. The silver
set I finally found was much like Mother's, severe, no markings, only our initial.
I believed I was pleasing Stan; his taste was to be mine.
On other matters I was not so sure. I could not appreciate the heavy bedstead, walnut,
carved, oppressive, in which we slept. Nor the caned chairs, with their Victorian
feeling, nor the marble bureau with its niches and shelves and carved pulls. Perhaps
I felt guilty for not sharing his enjoyment of these antiques from the country where
he had lived, and since repudiation of another's taste meant for me repudiation of
him, I could not face it, and searched instead for all the points on which we could
come together. So when he said he liked simple designs in silver and china, I took
him literally, and bought only the starkest patterns.
The Child Study Association was one outlet for my interest and need to be sharing.
Through them I learned of a nursery school, in which I volunteered, helping with
the children all that summer. Rewarding, although again I was careful not to do too
By this time I was pregnant, unexpectedly.
As it was something of a failure to become pregnant so quickly, I did not mention
it to the family for some months, and then prepared the way -- with little references
to how nice it would be to have a baby, when Stan was occupied with long hours, etc,
etc. It's hard to believe now how I thought anyone would be taken in. Inwardly of
course I was rebellious; I had only begun to be freed for living, for finding my
way a little in this harsh world; now to be confined by the demands of motherhood,
when I scarcely had any idea what a baby was like.
In the fall I took a course at the Child Study Association, which reconciled me to
my lot in a way; all of us were pregnant, and deeply concerned with what lay before
us. It was exciting; I knew that; I merely wished to dictate to life, to make it
hold off, a while longer.
I went, on the advice of Julia, to the clinic at the big New York Women's Hospital.
I never entirely liked the idea of having my baby in a clinic, but with the threat
of pyelitus ever with us (and treatments in New York were $25 each - fantastically
beyond our reach) it seemed like a sound idea. And certainly most interesting. A
different doctor every time. Mrs. Sanger’s son was there once, maybe more.
During the summer we saw a play or two. Something frivolous, "Yes, my Darling
Daughter." Once we went to a heavy Shake-spearean play, "Richard II,"
and after rising at 2 that morning - Saturday - Stan could not stay awake; I would
punch him before a particularly dramatic scene, so he should not lose all of it;
he slept as best he could in those uncomfortable chairs. After that we gave up the
theatre; Stan's working hours made it difficult.
Change should probably be the keyword of marriage. I brought to it expectations with
considerable rigidity. The state of our feeling for each other, compelling and vital,
was to remain the same; I could conceive of change as only something less; not that
there wasn't room for small improvements, not affecting the essence of what we were
to each other. If Stan, for instance, should lose his tendency toward depressive
moods, then things would be considerably improved. He would not really be changed,
Naturally I became more and more critical as time went on, and it was increasingly
apparent that my dream was not to be magically transformed into reality. Stan could
not live up to my dream of what a man should be and began to rebel against this constant
He withdrew into his depression, in which I could not reach him. As one of the most
perilous situations for me was of being left alone, these moods were a terrifying
threat to me. Their effect on me was so strong it was hard to believe he didn't use
them as a weapon; yet weapons seemed beneath him.
Meanwhile I tried to be all things to
him. I was going to be all those wonderful things a woman who turned into a wife
could be. I took over his tastes. I hoped he would like my tastes as well, but when
sometimes he didn't care for an author, I had no techniques for give and take in
discussion, nor had he apparently, perhaps because I promptly made an issue of it,
so that arguments broke down. I walked out of our small apartment once, in a flurry
of indignation because he had not been enthused over one of my dutifully learned
enthusiasms. It seemed to me he would be will-ing to make up when I returned, having
simmered down, but of course he wasn't; he didn't know how to resolve a falling-out
ei-ther; the situation became miserable.
Thus our first few weeks. The first real knowledge of a break came when I called
him in to take a shower. He didn't come. I grew impatient, and called again. Imperiously.
"I spoke to you." This time he came. But one look at his face - my world
crashed about me. The stoniness. The male disapproval. My father's authority, turned
against me. This was all I had, of creation, of the universe; this male with the
thunderous look. I hid my face against him, propitiating the gods of wrath, of doom.
"Don't say anything." Not words to align him with my father, all the evilness
of cruel, rejecting authority. He relaxed. Apparently he had frightened off the danger
of female authority taking over, for the moment. But I was thoroughly rejected; the
shower itself was a shared experience; I was ready; he had, I felt, rejected all
the new, wonderful realm of sensuousness. I was rejected as a woman (rightly of course,
for usurping a male role with my voice - authority), and especially as a sensuous
woman (an area in which I had doubts and misgivings anyway).
At Christmas time we went to the farm. I remember talking about it to Marjorie beforehand.
I was not eager to go, for I was in my last month, and there were difficulties or
at least inconveniences, made more so by the cold weather. She suggested another
view; something about the way I felt about my husband -- this was one thing I could
do to make him happy; she had found that she could go to the farm with Carl, and
it increased his enjoyment, and her own inclinations became of less weight in the
matter. This was helpful in a small way, but I was more preoccupied with whether
we "should" do this and that, or whether it could be asked of me, the rightness
of a situation than I was in the possible dynamic quality of a relationship. I suppose
I really had no idea as to what constituted a relationship, nor its potentials as
a strong, growing process.
Then on January 18  our son was born. Our Malcolm. There was a long period
before, filled with frustration, when I was at the hospital, and unable to leave,
although nothing much happened, nor to communicate with Stan.
I was dispatched to the labor floor, and placed in a small room overlooking the street
which ran down toward the East River. And there I stayed. I believe I ate a meal
or so, chiefly tea. Pains began to come at last, and I timed them by a large clock
over an arch between the labor and the delivery ends of the hall. But they took a
long, long time.
Later during the night I remained on my bed, growing more uncomfortable as the hours
passed. I had no idea of what was to happen, only that it was growing increasingly
intense, and wouldn't stop.
As I look back, one of the things which strikes me as curious is the disbelief I
had in the whole affair. One of the nurses, when matters were pretty far along, said
she could see my baby's head, and that he had dark hair. I wasn't in the least interested;
all I wanted was for things to stop. "If it would only stop" - a short
sighted view surely, or at least one which would indicate that I was not fully aware
of what the whole meaning of the process was.
Finally I was taken into the delivery room. It was 3:30 by the clock overhead. There
was an anesthetist, and I grasped at the hope from her presence as a drowning person
seizes anything at all. But she had just assisted in a delivery, and had to make
out a report. Finally the anesthetist, and I sucked in the ether, only to see the
whirling, throbbing stars pounding away, then to come back - push again - and more
ether. And finally the stars stopped pounding, and there was a period of actual unconsciousness.
When I was once more aware of events in the room, I could hear a baby crying, and
someone must have told me that I had had a boy. Going downstairs in the elevator,
there was a little old man who operated it; I asked him whether I had really had
a baby. I put my hand on that mound which had sheltered the baby for so long; deflated,
It was 4:30 or so in the morning. Stan could not come until visiting hours that night.
It had turned cold, and blowy in the time I had been there. When he came, the first
one in, off the elevator which I could see from my corner bed, and turning down the
hall (I could have called out to him; but not me; gentility bred in me, or at least
reluctance to make a scene, even in a good cause), then returning in a few moments,
entering the room - still vivid; his face alight from the cold; his black overcoat
on, no hat. His cheek cold against me. That moment. Real. Essence of our life to-gether.
That short, short visiting hour was one of the most joyous of all my years of living.
Our closeness. Our sharing of the fact of the miracle that had occurred since we
had last seen each other. A lifetime ago, for there was indeed a new life in that
span of time. Stan listened to all I had to tell, after first placing his hand on
my changed outline beneath the bedclothes. I could live through the day before, triumphantly
now that the doubts of myself had been laid to rest, eagerly for the drama, the newness
of what I had expe-rienced, and with him now, sharing with words what could be shared
of those hours. Here, I found, was what it took to make us truly united. As simple
as that - having a baby.
So my new picture was put up. This was at last, finally, and without any question,
the masterpiece that I had been searching for. This held the key to all the difficulties
I might have had be-fore. No longer. This was the beginning of a new era. With this
accord, this vital thing between us (and that fabulous new baby in the nursery down
the hall), we had all the ingredients. The magic formula for, at last, the happy
life. I was ecstatic. I had not known life could be so full.
Stan went down the hall to view his son for the first time at the proper viewing
time. He came back. "He's beautiful." We were both awed at what we had
done. This life. This perfect baby. This son. However had it happened that I had
had a male baby? I had not really dared to look at the possibility of a sex for the
baby before birth. Now I had done what my parents had been unable to do; produce
a son. The strangeness of life, that this should have come about.
Days passed. Too slowly. And while I enjoyed being pampered in bed, bathed and rubbed
by pretty young student nurses (such service as I was not to experience again in
a hospital), and found my hospital acquaintances interesting, two of them already
having children at home, so that they were authorities for me and the fourth of our
small group, I grew anxious to be home once more. Stan could see me only at intervals,
according to that ruthless schedule of visiting hours. Marjorie visited me, and brought
a sleeping blanket for the baby. Julia had a fancy baby bonnet for him. Mother wrote
me numerous letters, as well as a telegram the first day, and a check. I basked in
all this attention. My star pattern expanded. So this was how it was done; merely
by having a baby, and then relaxing while others showered me with attention.
Finally we did go home. Stan came to get us. We went late, after supper. The nurse
dressed our baby in the clothes Stan had brought. This tiny son was something unknown
and fascinating. The nurse lifted him up, all dressed, and held him out to Stan,
who said "Well, I don't know" doubtfully, but once holding him, grew fairly
Then home. A long ride in the dark and cold up the Parkway. Our baby slept on a pillow
in my lap. It was late and I was trying to recapture the thrill of a new experience;
Stan and I, with our new miraculous son. Together in the enclosed safety of the car.
Symbolic of life ahead. Then the car sputtered, and came to a stop. We had run out
While Stan went to search for the nearest gas station (some miles back as I remember),
I waited in the car. The cold settled around me. This was not at all as I anticipated
my return home. The baby slept on his pillow.
Anticlimax was one of the things I dreaded, and which followed, often, perhaps because
of my fear of it. Here was another example. Why had Stan neglected, this night of
all nights, to make sure there was sufficient gas in the car? I felt miserable, rejected,
and thoroughly inadequate to the care of this new life, now sleeping in the car with
Finally he returned. We continued our trip home. At our small apartment his mother
and brother and sister awaited us. When I first heard that the children were to be
there, I was appalled. This was to be my homecoming? to a house of two rooms, packed
to overflowing with children? I was uneasy enough about having my mother-in-law,
but still more uneasy to think of handling that new baby on my own. But for her to
bring the children! Now, I can realize that she couldn't leave them very well, although
I believe Edna was at home; perhaps at 8 and 9 they were too young to be left. My
impression at the time was that they begged so hard to go that she took them, and
Stan had to acquiesce, or felt he should. I had a struggle with indignation; this
again was not at all what I had in mind when the idea of Stan's mother coming had
been discussed. My plans had the virtue of being neat, and well organized, it seemed
to me, yet people were forever messing them up.
The first night was hectic. The baby cried; I got up, and fed him. I had the bottles
from the hospital, yet nothing I did satisfied him. Things went wrong almost from
the start. By the next day I was thoroughly weary.
I had meant to bathe him myself, but when the time came, I was relieved to have Stan's
mother there. She sat in the little rocking chair, and washed him, while we all stood
around him and watched, utterly fascinated. This must have been Sunday, for Stan
was there too.
Things finally worked out, over a period of time. Our little Malcolm finally started
to gain, and on the advice of a woman doctor to whom I took him, I gave up the bottles,
and fed him every three hours, instead of the prescribed four. He was not at all
a placid baby, but he managed to adapt himself to us, or we to him, within reasonable
limits. I can remember cold nights, getting up to feed him, in that small apartment.
Stan's mother went home with the children. Edna came and stayed for awhile. She was
more enjoyable to have around, and there was only one extra person in our two rooms,
instead of three.
Spring advanced. In April, it snowed one day. I took Malcolm
to the window, and showed him the snow. One sunny day I took pictures of him on the
porch, stretched out on his tum on a table; his head still wobbly as he lifted it;
his little bare feet uptilted.
We thought him a wonderful baby. Full of unexpectedness. We had a small car and he
rode in it, out to the farm, like an angel. There, when we arrived, Stan's mother
took him, and held him; she turned her head away, because "she had a cold."
Everyone in the family found him exceptional. My family were east sometime in the
spring, and admired him quite as much as I could wish.
In May we moved, to an unheated, oddly arranged apartment on the Bronx River Parkway,
in Yonkers. The other tenants were primarily Italian. Sometimes I took Malcolm out
onto the Parkway, for sunning on a blanket. But I found housekeeping, and his care,
In the fall, we first noticed his rattling breathing, and Stan took him to the doctor
we had had while at the farm. I don't believe he found anything wrong; I didn't go
along for some reason or other, quite trivial. Moreover at this point I was convinced
it was all right; his rattle was just a kind of curious way of breathing he had.
We were absorbed now with thoughts of Stan's finding another job. I too started to
search, partly because it seemed as though I could then tide us over while Stan looked,
and partly because I had not got my fill of the world before motherhood kept me at
home. I have no idea what I thought would work out with Mal-colm; perhaps something
with my neighbor upstairs; she had two little boys, and I kept them from time to
Several factors began to bring pressure. One was the heat; our apartment was obviously
going to be hard to keep warm, with the empty store beneath us.
Moreover I hated to see Stan enter another winter on the bread route. We had been
unable to save this year, although our first year we had done quite well, repaying
Stan's college bills as well as paying our medical expenses and buying a small car,
and paying higher rent. It would have seemed wise to stay on, saving some money,
and planning toward a new job, perhaps in an entirely dif-ferent field. He wasn't
at all sure he wished to go into business, the bread business, even if he should
be advanced, moved from the route into an office. He was registered with some employment
agencies, and once was called in, and left work as though it were an emergency (he
did receive a telegram). Only to find that it was another delivery job, this time
having to do with soft drinks, or something similar, I believe.
In the midst of our doubts over the plans, I suddenly got the idea that we should
close up, move all our things to the farm, and Stan would then be free to job hunt.
We solved the problem of the cold apartment, and his inability to take time to hunt
a job, all at once. Stan could not have been too reluctant, as he agreed. He quit.
We told his family that we were moving in with them, and borrowed the truck for a
few loads of furniture. This was about the first of December. Stan's father came
back with one load, criticising us for such a light load. The reason had been a mirror....he
did not feel that was an adequate reason. Poor packing. I was indignant, in silence;
no way of accepting criticism.
Finally we were moved to the farm. I do not know what I expected. There would soon
come a time when I would be thoroughly ill at ease there, particularly closed in
as we were by cold weather. And all the care of a baby, with diapers and bottles,
and no running water in the house.
Then came a letter from Mother, suggesting we come to Chicago and stay with them,
while Stan looked around for a job. Stan said all right, let's, and we left most
of our possessions and drove out in the middle of December to Chicago.
An interesting trip. Snow covered most of the ground. We drove across Canada from
Niagara Falls to Detroit. And to Chicago. Malcolm was not well; a low-grade infection
and fever. Once in Chicago he began to perk up.
The parents made us welcome, and we took
M. out for rides in a sled to the Midway. Much snow that winter. I met a neighbor,
Mrs. Jackson, who had a number of children, and who made me feel as though I belonged.
That winter in Chicago Malcolm learned to walk. His first birthday came while we
had been there a few weeks. We tried to get pictures of him reaching out for his
candle. He padded around the house on hands and knees, picking up whatever looked
interesting and popping it in his mouth. Once I took out a needle.
Chicago was a hard place to keep a baby clean. His diapers got grimy as the weeks
passed. I washed them by hand in the old tubs down cellar, and didn't get all the
grime out. Mother sent some of them to the laundry to whiten them again.
Stan was job hunting all this time. Temporary jobs appeared; one for distributing
some sort of advertising material to stores, for $5 a day. That seemed bountiful
after a stretch of no income.
Perhaps I wished to return to the easier days of my girlhood, when responsibility
was less mine than my mother's. I even wanted her to call the doctor about Malcolm's
illness. Somehow I should be taken care of. As his asthma became more severe, we
consulted a German doctor the family had had for some time. He didn't know what caused
it, but thought we ought to go south, out of this climate. This was not easy at that
time, or rather, we didn't realize the severity of the situation.
The other doctor impressed us more by his thoroughness. We had ephedrin to give Malcolm
when his asthma became noticeable; we had no idea that he might build up a tolerance
for it. Doctors carried for me great authority, and I felt they knew -- in some all-inclusive
sense -- what was proper. Drugs should make one well; a drug had a magical quality.
I had no deep misgivings about my little son's welfare, for I was sure that he would
be su-denly, and magically, well.
Stan came home one day, and we talked over a possible new job with a man named Geldmeier,
who had written a course for movie projector operators, and wanted to hire Stan to
drive around to unions in different towns to try to sell them. We talked, I remember,
on our bed in the large upstairs front bedroom; the only place for privacy. Malcolm's
crib was in here, and we woke each morning to the sound of his carolings and monologues.
He took the job, and traveled somewhat with Mr. G., later alone. On one trip Malcolm
and I went too, and stayed in a hotel; it was awkward to make bottles (I wonder why
M. couldn't have been on straight milk by then). It was spring then, but still raw.
Our room was chilly too, and in an unattractive place; we found the sheets had not
been changed, nor the heat turned on. Stan said something about a time coming some
day when he hoped we wouldn't have to watch every penny this way, and stay in such
third rate places. I felt close to him, and on the defensive for him.
We got home, and M. was sick. Severely so. He recovered, after a high fever. I prayed
then, willing God to make my baby well. Despite the asthma, which came on more frequently,
we had no suspicion that it could have been psychological. Had anyone suggested such
a possibility, I should have been so terrified that I would have closed my mind against
it. The idea that we were causing it? Such guilt then, of such a massive sort, that
I should not have been able to withstand it.
Stan went on a trip to southern Indiana. During that time M. grew sick again. Asthma
without stopping. My father came home, and told mother that we “would not be able
to raise that child.” The first doctor had been there, but M. was no better. I sat
up most of the night with him. In the morning I had a chart of his illness, which
made me feel better, having done something.
We talked of giving him a shot of adrenalin. My father looked at him, and refused
to do it. We called the other doctor. We should have told him, surely, that he had
had a shot of ephedrin. It seems to me we were foolish to have called a second doctor.
The first, during his earlier illness, had said perhaps he ought to have gone to
the hospital. No one suggested it this time.
I held Malcolm while the doctor gave
him a shot of adrenalin, in his arm. At the time it seemed to me it would be better
in the hip, but I was not accustomed to question doctors. The shot was over, and
I expected him to get better at once, settle down, be at peace. After a moment or
two, he suddenly stiffened, and moved in my arms. I said, “Doctor, something’s the
matter.” We put him on the bed. He was rigid, after a contortion. The doctor said
to give him artificial respiration; he did first, then I did, while he got out a
heart stimulant. I talked to M., telling him we needed him, he must get well. Once
I thought he moved.
Finally it was apparent that he was not going to come to. The parents, and Janet
were in the room; Janet apparently left when Mother took her out. I began to freeze
inside, almost as though now he should not come alive again. Over and over again
a refrain went through my mind, “I’ll have another baby, I’ll have another baby.”
Affirmation of the life force, even though this particular, this unique life was
We laid him in the crib. After a bit, he was already stiff; I was going to change
his clothes, but his stiffness shocked me. I could not touch him. (Why didn’t we
call the fire department to administer oxygen? I never knew about it. Nor even how
to give artificial respiration. I asked the doctor if I was doing it right.) The
police came, and asked questions; my father answered most of them, and indicated
me as the child’s mother. Perhaps I had some questions to answer.
The doctor told us, when my father asked him, what funeral parlor to call. They came,
and took my stiff little baby away. I should never see him again. I began to pack
up all his things, with Mother's help. I sensed that to do it now, when I was still
frozen with shock, would be easier.
My father called the hotel where Stan was staying, or perhaps he telephoned a telegram.
Stan found it late, that night, and drove madly home. A blowout along the way. He
arrived about two. I was in another room, a back room, as my parents felt I should
not stay in our room with an empty crib. I was awake. I went to meet him. Feeling
a sense of drama. He came bounding up the stairs. He held me. Then “where is he?”
I had to tell him that we had moved him to the funeral parlor. He wanted to see him.
We spent the night mostly awake. Stan in the bathroom had found a diaper, still damp,
redolant of life, and had broken down, although when he returned to me he was under
control again. I don’t remember my own tears; they came occasionally. Not at the
very first. I was still stunned. Sometimes I would think the pain would go away,
and I sould awake again, and it would not be true. Stan told me that night about
a show he had seen in what-ever city it was he had been in. Joan Davis was in it,
and I have always remembered her with warmth because he told me of her humerous acts,
that long, long night. He was comforting in those hours. My pillar of strength.
The next day we saw him at the funeral parlor. Not “prepared” yet; they had not expected
us yet. There was a blanket over him, and he was still in his little rompers. A sort
of bruise on his temple. Disintegration already. The reverence with which we touched
I don't remember when we drove out to the place for cremation. I only remember riding
in the back seat, with him in a box; so small. He had on a yellow romper. I kissed
his small nose; the curve remains in my memory. So still. So beautiful.
And then -- nothing. We must have left him there. It is a blank to me. We must have
My parents planned various things, to help me get over it. A trip away to the Dunes.
A trip to Columbus. I asked Mother to write to my friends but ask them not to mention
Malcolm’s death. Strange thought; of course I could not face them. But any plan to
get away Stan vetoed; he felt we should be about the business of living.
At least Malcolm was at peace. These were not words of comfort, for I felt we should
have found what was causing his wheezing after a time. I could feel guilt for having
been restless, for having wanted to work, for having chafed under the ceaseless care
of a baby.
Once I had come home from an afternoon off, and had seen him at the window before
he had seen me. He was looking out, and suddenly it struck me that he looked infinitely
lonely. Forlorn. Yet when I spoke to him and he saw me, he came to life instantly,
and vibrated with pleasure, as babies do. My heart went out to him. Yet there had
been that moment, and it is the one I remember now, when I try to visualize him.
There were other times. Holding Stan’s hands, and walking down a snowy sidewalk.
Walking around the dining room table, holding onto chairs, chewing on an orange segment
till nothing was left but fiber, then putting it into my hand, and accepting another
orange slice. His calm. His sense of discovery. His joy on seeing Stan. His weight
in my arms. His first words, in that final month.
Walking in the park, when I would take him in the carriage, and then he would get
out, even though the ground was still damp, and pick up sticks and acorns. Endlessly
fascinated by the world about him. Climbing on the stairs. Sense of accomplishment.
Peering at us from the landing above, through the railings. Taking off his shoes
when I was undressing him, and dropping each into the tub, accidentally. Taking a
All the small bits of life that had taken on fresh meaning with him.
How does one reconcile death with such vitality?
About this time we were hoping to go
to the West Coast, selling instruction courses along the way, and bought a small
Ford. The plan outlined by Mr. Geldmeier was to cover some cities in Iowa and Nebraska.
Beyond that, we should see.
Things did not work out as we had optimistically hoped. Some of the towns we found
had already been approached by Mr. G; there were few sales. Stan finally wrote a
letter which practically guaranteed action of some sort, pointing out that he was
having difficulty when the territory had already been covered earlier. There was
a terse telegram in reply, telling us to come back, and sending $10. This was the
decision, and we started west with it in-stead.
No longer did we feel we could sleep in motels or hotels, ex-cept rarely, when washing
needed to be done, and it seemed neces-sary. While Stan got in touch with a member
of the union, to try to arrange a meeting to see and discuss the courses, I waited.
I wrote a little, having both the typewriter and a big notebook. Sometimes there
were long waits sitting in the car.
We discovered some western country for ourselves; snow first seen on a mountain above
Casper in Wyoming. We responded to the ruggedness of this country. In Yellowstone
before the tourist season, we awoke in a snow storm, and heated food in the hot springs
which were quite our own in a sense, and saw a hugh buf-falo bull as we entered the
park, and bears for the first time. One memorable morning on the Yellowstone River
we watched eagles moving about, returning to their nests, flying out over the canyon,
presently settling down for indefinite stays on tall dead trees, or on a nest on
a rocky pinnacle.
We had hoped to find jobs, of any sort, in the park. But no en-couragement; summer
jobs seemed to be arranged long in ad-vance. Our willingness was not enough.
On we went. Through the Rockies, down toward Spokane with wild roses along the descending
highway. The first of June. Our first impression of Spokane, with its flowering gardens,
was favorable. We thought perhaps we might stay. But after Stan met with no sales
at the union, Spokane looked less inviting. We needed something with which to get
started. The nights we spent sleeping in the car in a park on a hill above the city.
On across the state. At Grand Coulee we thought again to find jobs, but construction
jobs were all that might exist, and neither of us had special training, which would
make us useful. Meanwhile we enjoyed and savored the strange country through which
we drove. We hoped someday to live nearby, somewhere on the west coast.
In the western part of Washington, we visited several cities, and Stan sold a few
more courses, sending the money back, minus his commission, to Mr. G; who was thoroughly
upset over our western jaunt, and sent letters to each large city (registered), general
delivery, alternately firing Stan and then giving him directions as to how to proceed
to sell more.
We went as far south as Eugene and Salem, then decided against going on to California.
Seattle had appealed to us most, and we resolved to stay there. Both of us went to
the State Employment Office. Nothing specific or too encouraging. I wore a blue wool
dress of Janet's, too narrow really to look well. (But I was economizing. No income;
therefore I had to do with what I had. The fact that a becoming dress might have
been a capital investment did not occur to me.)
The only thing that resulted from the Employment visit was an invitation from the
young man who had interviewed me to have dinner that night with him and the writer
friend whose apartment he was sharing that summer, while the friend's wife was in
Europe. Tremendously encouraging. I had been flattered by his interest (the fact
that he was primarily curious about such an odd pair, who slept out in their car,
and came here to settle with no promise of a job did not occur to me). This was a
beginning. Seattle was to be our home. A place of good fortune.
We arrived for dinner; our first real
contact with people, as potential friends, since we had left Chicago. As oddities
we were in the limelight, and enjoyed it. Jack Pollard was a mine of informa-tion
about Seattle and Washington, being a historian.
We were also a good audience, for we were fascinated by what we might learn about
Seattle, and this inviting country, new to us. Our enthusiasm may have warmed both
Jack and John Howard. We went to the market with them. And in our car we all made
a trip to Desperation Point, and swam in the frigid sound, entangling ourselves with
the long brown fronds of kelp. It was a picnic, and we were all soothed by a day
No jobs for a time. We made one trip to Vashon Island, sent by the Employment Office,
to pick strawberries, but the strawberries were not ready yet. So back again; ferry
fares both ways. Later a job at Sears for Stan. Again I was too naive, and muffed
a chance to be hired. Two people in the same family could not be hired; I had learned
that I had to have a security card; I might have got one in my maiden name, but instead,
I used my married name.
For a short while I worked in Al Smith's place, a small restaurant. He wanted someone
to take the place of his regular girl; it was soon evident that I was too unsure
of myself to qualify.
Stan had a number of jobs that summer. One with a typewriter company. Later on he
and a friend washed and cleaned paint off of the windows of new houses. By this time
I had rather given up, and settled for taking shorthand at the high school, and typing
While in Seattle, and so close to the University of Washington, we had begun to think
of the possibility of Stan's taking engineering. Stan talked to Dean Lowe, and found
him discouraging. I waited meanwhile, and was depressed too, at the report. Stan
was in one of his low moods. I could not combat it. But underneath I was convinced
that the potentials had not been explored. We con-centrated on work during the summer.
Stan was not one to deliver an expected mood or view. When he finally did sign up
for engi-neering, I felt in a celebrative mood, he seemed rather depressed. As though
the future, which I could feel in its promise, showed him its darker side.
Our destiny was to be in Seattle, and Stan surely would go ahead in engineering,
or at least get started. I meant to support him meanwhile. At Sears, I managed to
get a job on Saturdays, in his place -- there was an exceptionally pleasant personnel
girl there then, who soon left, and unfortunately for me, an unsympathetic older
woman took her place. Presently I was not called into Sears on Saturday.
Stan began courses. We moved to a Mrs. Walker’s place, where we got our rent free
for some janitor work. She expected me to be there all day, which of course I had
no intention of doing. She was not too satisfied with us, and Stan found the daily
cleaning too long (he cleaned the halls before class each morning). I forget whether
we left because we chose to or because she asked us to.
At the University employment office we
made numerous appearances. Margaret Berkencotter was one of the staff, and we got
to know her quite well. A job or two came along, one washing dishes for Stan in a
restaurant. I had hoped to avoid caring for children, yet finally that was what I
took, working twice a week at housework, and caring for a little girl of fifteen
months. Sally. The age, the same as my Malcolm, seemed cruel irony. Yet in the months
I worked there, I found much healing. Four dollars a week. Mrs. Peterson trusted
me. I had the satisfaction of being liked on a job.
Later on came another job, at the bookshop, helping the woman who did the binding.
This job lasted quite a while, three days a week, while on the other two, I worked
at the Petersons.
Through Margaret at the University Employment Office, we heard that a house next
to hers might be for rent; the young couple who had it now were soon to have a baby,
and wanted to have a larger house. Presently we rented the house, for $15 a month
from them. So we moved in the first of January, 1940, I think it was.
Our small house. Under the hill, and perpetually damp. A living room, a kitchen,
a bedroom behind it. Mildew in the closet. A lavatory in the middle of the house
- no ventilation. Our very own home. A wood stove in the kitchen. A tiny heating
stove in the living room. We lived there for a year and a half.
By this time it was apparent that I was not a spectacular success as a wage earner.
Here we were, next door to a university, and I was ignoring whatever opportunities
existed for me too to be pre-paring for a larger kind of work. Presently I read about
the social work school, and suddenly I knew what I wanted to do. But when I investigated,
I found that I had not the basic requirements for entry. No sociology, and practically
no psychology. If I took two quarters of preparatory, undergraduate work, I should
be eli-gible to request entry for the next year.
First I got an NYA job, and as I was a graduate student, my pay was the magnificent
rate of $.50 an hour. Was it ten hours a week I worked? Anyway I was assigned to
the Social Work office, to my pleasure. There was no longer any doubt in my mind
that this was the beginning of a new and purposeful life.
Yet there was still from time to time a feeling of guilt, of having failed (I had
intended to support Stan through college, and so far I had been useful but not truly
I had tried. Now with relief, and a relatively clear conscience I could start in
at the university. We rose in our cold little house, fixed a breakfast on the hot
plate, and heated just enough water for washing and Stan’s shaving, then dashed out,
and up the steep hill to the campus. Together.
My classes were easy enough, except for statistics, which I managed to get through
with Stan's help. I enjoyed my hours in the social work office, and could type adequately
enough (it's hard to believe now) and only once do I remember having to use shorthand,
and then I just made it. One of the women teachers dictated a letter to me; I suppose
she thought I was a bit slow.
I don't recall much social life, although we often visited Margaret, whose little
boys we became most fond of. Eventually I told her about our baby, and then while
Stan carried on the conversation, I went into the kitchen to regain my composure;
threatened rather than inundated. This was the first time I believe that I spoke
I was caught in an image of motherhood. It was not too diffcult, with Margaret next
door. There were times when I could not bear waiting. At one time I had persuaded
Stan that we should have a baby by the next Christmas, although he would still have
almost a year of schooling left. (Who was to support us? again my father I suppose;
he began sending us $25 a month that first year, $30 the next; I had some vague notion
of repaying it, but only the vaguest). That month I didn’t happen to become pregnant,
and by the next, we were temporarily resigned to waiting, again. Once more I felt
that all would be “solved” by one act; this time it was the birth of a baby to us.
Stan began to work increasingly, besides his class work. Particularly during his
second year, he tutored a pleasant gentleman who had worked in Alaska, Victor Clausen,
and worked for the ADT [American District Telegraph] which kept him away from home
a good bit, especially at night, and there were occasional other jobs; those we could
count on. Some drafting. And map making.
The second year I had to give up outside work, as the Social Work School ruled it
out. The two quarters in the school had many rewards. I enjoyed being caught up in
something with considerable life of its own; I moved with the current. The interviewing
was interesting, and not too alarming. The evaluation of my work seemed to suggest
that I was doing well enough. Not brilliantly, not poorly. I should, they felt, make
an adequate social worker.
Early in the fall I heard a lecture in one of our classes (medical information for
social workers) on obstetrics, given by the dynamic obstetrician I had been treated
by last spring. Having a baby seemed the most creative thing in the world. That night
we abandoned caution. By the time, a few weeks later, that I realized I was pregnant,
my feelings were mixed. I was becoming absorbed in my work at the School of Social
Work. I could emotionally afford to wait a while. But nature was not given to waiting.
I managed to stay in school, not too obviously pregnant, until the end of the winter
quarter. Then home, to wait the final months.
Much had happened by then. Stan's doubts had cleared up over his classes; even the
fitting in of the numerous courses he had to take to finish in only two years was
gradually working out. I did much of the standing in line to get his schedule approved.
And I sat in one day a week on a law course for him, where he had a conflict, and
could attend only the other two days. When he had begun I had had some doubts; I
did not know how good a student he was; his record at Amherst had had some lapses.
Guiltily I had wondered if he was as able as some students (and to be "good
in school" was a desirable attribute - not a mere skill - but something one
was magically born with - or was not; it would be devastating to discover I was married
to a man who really was not among those who are potentially "good in school."
Another burden of the past). There was no doubt any more; he was getting through
most creditably, and carrying a load of outside work as well.
Just before Christmas he was interviewed by a man from Westinghouse, and was offered
a job. The only one to be offered a job, I believe. When I asked him what he had
said, he said he had told him yes. He was a little excited about the whole thing.
Pittsburgh, I thought. I had no desire to leave the Pacific Northwest. Back, I sensed,
to problems in the east.
That spring was a period of pleasant waiting in some ways. I felt that I was engaged
in something large and praiseworthy. My parents were apparently overjoyed. Margaret
was concerned and interested. It was true that I had felt uncomfortable in having
to announce my change in plans to my advisors at the Social Work School, yet they
were forebearing, and made no reproaches.
Meanwhile our plans for moving were endlessly discussed and changed. Stan was working
on his transmission, which was a wonderful operation, with molds and castings. I
assisted occasionally at the shop, and took some pictures of him and Barney with
the separate pieces of the transmission. When it was finished, and tested, and after
our baby had come, we would go east.
One day when we were looking for some reason at cars in a display room I had my first
pain. Presently we realized that the time had arrived, when our long anticipated
baby was to come.
We drove down to the hospital, Margaret being suitably excited about the situation
as we departed. My reception here was quite different from what it had been at the
clinic in New York. Presently my private nurse arrived, a calm and pretty young woman.
Stan was allowed to stay for some hours; then when the pains became strong enough
so that all my energy would soon be directed to meeting them, with none to spare,
I felt perhaps he should go; it may have been the nurse who made the decision.
There was a period of increasing intensity, with drugs to assuage the pain. Later
I learned that I had been conscious throughout; probably, but my memory of the experience
had been removed. This seemed to me unfair.
Early in the morning I began to revive, and with Stan by my bedside, wandered a bit
in my mind. I asked the nurse politely for a bubble bath, and later requested some
"Campbell's tomato soup." Then presently I wanted to know when the baby
would be born. Stan assured me he had been. It was a boy. When I really came to,
it was to a sense of extraordinary well-being. A boy. We had never quite seriously
imagined a girl. A boy; life was perfection.
A nurse came in with breakfast. I could not eat; Stan had my breakfast beside me,
while I watched in a kind of joyful haze.
The days in the hospital passed easily, and full of expectation. Stan came twice
a day; I was spoiled; our ability to communicate had expanded. We were entranced
by our baby. Most of the time he slept; occasionally he uttered a loud wail, more
like a roar; a deep-pitched baby voice. This time I was convinced I should be able
to nurse him as I had Malcolm, yet I had even more trouble, and started him on bottles
as soon as we left the hospital.
Stan reported progress on the transmission. Finally one day he and Barney attached
it to our old Studebaker, and tried it out. He came to the hospital. I could hardly
wait for news of it. "It didn't work." I had believed so thoroughly that
it would that I had difficulty taking it in. He smiled. He had found out what he
wanted; he had built it, and tried it; in testing it, it had turned with things rather
than against (or something equally plausible, now that he had seen it in action).
If he was deeply disappointed, he did not let me know it.
We went home together, with our new son.
Margaret was there to welcome us. I felt fulfilled. Back to our small house, for
the last month or so before leaving for the east.
Finally our journey to the east. Many an adventure, none wel-come, befell us on that
long trip. The car refused to climb the first hill beyond Seattle. Stan worked on
the fuel line, and got us back into motion. Then the same thing happened. I remember
looking down the road toward a river (was it the Columbia?) from a point on the road
leading up along the side of a cliff on the east side. Would we ever be able to cross
the state of Washington, let alone drive 3000 miles?
There were other disasters after the fuel pump was fixed by Stan. A rear axle broke,
fortunately just as we were leaving a tree surrounded camp. We spent a second day
at our cabin. (What if it had happened out in the desert?) Much of Washington still
A tire blew out. And so did the one we bought to replace it. I remember standing
beside the car and thinking, this being August 9, that "this was the damndest
way to spend a birthday."
All our possessions were in the car, or in a large wooden box attached to the back.
Our tires were undoubtedly overloaded. Bruce had to sleep in his basket, behind and
above me; I had to tip the basket to take him out.
In North Dakota we drove all night once, in a downpour, because the last tourist
camp we tried seemed to us too expensive, and it was the last. For many a mile. All
our clothes in the suit-cases fastened to the front fenders got wet; we had to have
them cleaned. Stan had lost his temper at the door on my side, slamming it shut (it
worked hard) and broke out the window. That rainy night I had to hold up a blanket
to try to keep the rain off Bruce.
Finally in Eau St. Claire, while I had been out doing a bit of washing for us, Stan
made a discovery. Stan had been talking to Bruce, and he had responded. Both of us
hung over our baby, the most miraculous baby in the world. That tiny, new, fleeting
smile, really and without question an answer to our voices.
Then to Chicago. My sisters, Janet and Constance had whooping cough, so my father
rented a little apartment for us next door. Here he visited us. Mother was at Grey
Rocks, helping Katharine dispose of all the furniture and possessions. My grandmother
had died the October before; I had inherited some money from her, which had paid
the expenses of having Bruce.
We drove on to Pennsylvania. In Pittsburgh
we spent a day, while Stan checked in. It poured all day, and I stayed in the car
nearby with the baby. Once a gentleman in a black suit appeared at the door with
an umbrella, urging me to come in. We had a little trouble making each other understand.
I declined, feeling somehow that I must wait for Stan. When he did eventually return,
we were again invited in; to the house of a Greek Orthodox priest and his wife. They
had set a lavish table for us. Best of all, there was a bathroom. We relaxed in the
kindliness, the warmth of this couple. Both in black. They had been moved to concern
for me, watching me from their window.
We drove on. Stan had to buy a raincoat there, and somehow one of our few Travelers
checks seemed to be missing. We never accounted for it.
On the Turnpike a piston broke, and the car chugged along. Had we stopped for more
than a brief time, Stan was sure it would stop forever. So on we plodded, at twenty
miles an hour, the length of the Turnpike. The car lasted until finally we reached
Essington. And then it gave up. We had driven all night.
Stan spent the day in the Westinghouse plant. I sat in the car, and wandered about
enough to get hot water for making bottles (I used evaporated milk in tiny cans,
diluted with boiled water) at a drugstore, but failed. Presently Stan returned, and
we took our baby in his carriage, and started hunting for a place to live. After
a time we found an apartment, upstairs in a narrow house near the Delaware River.
Mrs. Oberg, a thin old woman, with a white-haired scrawny son whom she called “Sonny”,
made us welcome. While we were away (Stan got someone to push the car to the house
where it sat for some time in the street, powerless to budge) she and Sonny brought
down a bed for us from their attic. We had expected to sleep on the floor. Later
we meant to get our furniture from the farm.
That night we slept as soundly as ever we did in our lives. When I fed the baby,
I left the light on to be sure I wouldn’t fall asleep with him in the bed with me;
much later I awoke, the bare light shining in my eyes, Bruce asleep tucked up against
My Life by Barbara S.Thompson
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||Grosse Pointe Park
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