Learning To Be A Woman

Valentine's Day In ChinaAround this time each year I think about my mother-in-law Mary who would have been ninety years old on her February birthday. She has been gone for thirteen years now and it seems as though I miss her a bit more with each passing year. She was a very wise and intellectual woman, a feminist before anyone had even coined that term. She was, however, not exactly like many of those who march today. She was someone who believed that the true definition of a liberated woman was someone able and willing to do and believe whatever she wished. She never restricted her possibilities with narrow platforms of acceptable philosophies. She was a trailblazer in her own right but she felt just as strongly that every other woman should have the right to live without judgement according to her own desires.

Mary attended Rice University when it was still known as Rice Institute. There weren’t many young ladies there at the time and some of the professors were hell bent on discouraging those who dared to invade the ranks of the male dominated student body. Ironically it was a woman who gave her the most grief, believing that the women in her mathematics class had little or no right to be there. Mary didn’t hold it against the university. In fact she was always quite proud of studying there and was an ardent alumna for all of her life. She enjoyed taking continuing education classes there and loved to exuberantly share stories with me about the things that she had learned. The two of us huddled together on so many memorable Sunday afternoons. She would prepare a pot of tea in the manner that she had learned from her English mother and we would sit at her mahogany dining table while she regaled me for hours with fascinating facts and bits of information.

She especially enjoyed courses on history and politics. Her knowledge was years ahead of everyone that I knew. She predicted events long before they happened based her studies. She kept me informed so that I was always able to vote rationally rather than just with my heart. I so looked forward to those Sunday afternoons when she demonstrated her encyclopedic grasp of the world.I would love more than anything to hear her views on today’s political scene. I have little doubt that she would study each situation with an eye to discerning the truth. She would excitedly tell me the history and the psychology of how we have arrived at the present impasse and such dramatic divisions. In fact she hinted at the possibility of such things almost twenty years ago.

I always thought that she would have been a remarkable teacher but she chose a career in business instead. She had been inspired by her mother who successfully managed an electric company in an era when most women had little idea of how to do such things. Eventually Mary kept did the accounting for a variety of companies and even a wealthy church with a very complex set of books. She was as meticulous and interested in her work with numbers as she was in learning about the ebb and flow of history.

Ironically her very best friend Rosemary shared the same February birthday. Rosemary might have seemed more traditional than Mary at first glance but she also had an incredible story. She grew up in Chicago, the daughter of a plumber. She studied to be a nurse and joined the military where she met her husband, an Army cardiologist. The two of them settled down in Houston where he became one of the most renowned doctors in the world and she raised five independent minded and high achieving daughters. She encouraged her girls to dream big and all of them did, becoming superstars in their respective fields. Rosemary herself is an accomplished world traveler literally able to converse with kings and potentates as easily as she does with me. Rosemary is still spreading joy and uplifting all of us who know her, but she is much older now and somewhat frail. Still her inner spirit continues to radiate her positivity lighting up any room where she is found.

When Mary and Rosemary were together they were like an inspirational power couple. I so wanted to be just like them, women of the highest distinction who were unafraid of anyone or any situation. I liked nothing better than sitting quietly and observing them in the mode of watching and learning that my mother had always urged me to do. 

As I prepare myself a cup of hot tea each afternoon I invariably think back to those lovely times when I shared a cup with those two. They were the best of times. I can almost hear Mary providing her well researched opinions on all of the topics that dominate the news today. She would have been well prepared to state a definitive point of view about each. She often mentioned that her secret goal in life had been to move to Washington D.C. to be a translator and a diplomat. She would have been gloriously wonderful in that regard but I am selfishly happy that she changed her mind and stayed here in Texas where I was able to make her a central figure in my life.

Mary was what some refer to as a pistol in a very complimentary way, a twin of women like Ann Richards. I don’t think she was afraid of anyone in her entire life. She had a way of raising her eyebrow when she was displeased that would have stopped the devil himself. She brooked no hysteria nor senseless chatter. She went straight to the point like a championship debater and had a persuasive manner that was difficult to ignore. I like to believe that I developed much of my gumption under her tutelage.

Mary and Rosemary were two larger than life women when ladies were not yet acknowledged so much for their intellect as for their beauty. They successfully challenged the status quo without being overbearing or insensitive. They expressed themselves as independent thinkers and individuals without feeling a need to demean the men that they knew or women who chose other paths. They respected and loved  people with such passion that their feelings were invariably felt and returned with immense gratitude.

February is a time when we think of love and remember great leaders in history. It is also fitting that it is the month when I always fondly recall the two women who have had such a profound impact on the person that I am today. From them I have learned how to think for myself, ferret out the truth, make wise decisions and most of all cherish the vast diversity of ideas, religions and cultures in our world. They showed me how to live life by saying to all, “I see you. I hear you. You matter.” That is what makes a mighty woman.



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