Tennessee Pitts

My mother-in-law was a strong and independent woman before women were supposed to be strong and independent.

Tennessee Pitts — isn’t “Tennessee” the best name ever? — passed away last week at age 95. She was born in 1918 — a year when folks used horses to get around, electricity was an out-of-reach luxury and World War I ended as an equally devastating flu pandemic began.

And American women couldn’t vote. Or, in many states, own property, keep the money they earned or divorce their husbands. And while American law and culture began to accept and acknowledge (shamefully, only white) women as Tennessee and the 20th-century grew older, a woman who wanted her own career faced plenty of challenges.

That was my mother-in-law, who lived a remarkable life of her own choosing in a time and place when most women couldn’t. Growing up in a large family on a middle Tennessee farm as her parents and their parents did before her, she married straight out of high school. But then the story gets interesting. When Tennessee Pittsshe discovered her young husband had been unfaithful, she made three decisions: To get a divorce, to get a job so she could support herself and to become a nurse. She did all three, taking classes in sheet metal to secure a “Rosie Riveter” job building fighter jets in Nashville and enrolling in the newly formed Cadet Nurses Corps. that the U.S. government organized to fill nursing shortages. As a registered nurse, she worked almost 30 years at the Veterans Administration hospital in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where she met Roscoe Pitts. They married in 1949 and eight years later, my husband was born. After her husband died in 1984, Tennessee moved from the family farm to a condo in town and indulged in her loves of traveling, reading and baking “treats” for friends and family. She loved her son and was fiercely proud of him. Self-sufficient and practical, she was not pleased when a stroke slowed her down in 2003. And although her doctor suggested in 2007 that we plan her funeral after a kidney infection, she — as usual — stuck to her own schedule.

I didn’t know her well. My husband and I dated in college but I only met her a few times then. And he and I reconnected  a couple of years before her stroke, although a friend of hers told me this weekend that Tennessee had said she liked me and thought my (then-teenage) daughters were sweet. By the time she had to live in a nursing home, she’d forgotten I was her daughter-in-law and saw me as a nice friend who stopped by to visit. But I’ll take it. High praise from a woman who pretty much faced down a wandering husband, World War II and the health-care industry — and won.

Thank you, Annette, Margaret and Lilly

This isn’t a well-researched scientific hypothesis or anything, but I’ve always thought that my generation of women — born in the late 1950s through the early 1960s — have had to be pretty nimble, culturally & sociologically speaking (although I really shouldn’t use words such as “sociologically” until I’ve had a second cup of coffee). Take “pretty,” for example. When we were little, our moms had no-strands-out-of-place bouffants that coordinated perfectly with the handkerchiefs and white gloves they took to church and to parties where the New Christy Minstrels strummed in the background. But by the time we were teenagers, hair was as free and flowing and unencumbered as cotton Indian tunics, incense and the White Album. Then as young married women, it was back to the salon for Madonna-style perms to go with our stirrup pants and oversized decorated sweatshirts that I still have nightmares about. (Shudder.) Today, in our 50s, we’re back at an awkward phase — this time trying to balance the fashion questions of is-this-too-young? with is-this-too-old? with can-I-play-with-my-grandchildren-and-then-go-to-a-board-meeting? Good times. Of course, my generation of women was buffeted not only by the fickle wind-gusts of style but by the turbulent weather fronts of expectations. Take Barbie, for instance. My Barbie (ONE Barbie — back then we only had ONE Barbie, the way nature intended. And we were grateful.) had a closet of June-Cleaver dresses, ski wear, formal gowns, tennis clothes and, for the days when she wanted to pretend, maybe a nurse’s and a stewardess’ uniform. Our dream – mine and Barbie’s together — was to go to prom, find the right boy, settle down and have babies. But by the time I was ready to get started on that, my senior class donated our prom money to Vietnam-war orphans and “settling down and having babies” was sort of frowned upon. Instead, we were supposed to Go Out into the World and Do Great Things. So I did, although my “world” was my hometown newspaper and “doing great things” was reporting on school-board meetings. But still. This didn’t last long, however, because why should we give up one thing just to have another??? So we realized we didn’t have to choose! We could do both!! We could settle down and have babies AND go out into the world and do great things!!! As head-scratchingly “duh” as this sounds today, a couple of decades ago it was revolutionary. REVOLUTIONARY!!! Back then, we called this stunning revelation “a new way of thinking” and “opening up opportunities for women.” Now, we just sort of call it “life.”

All of this to note the passing recently of three women who, each  in their own ways, influenced and shaped my generation and helped bring us to where we are today — where we can unashamedly smile and be sweet and kind while single-handedly and single-mindedly take charge of a chaotically lumbering mess and look joyfully sleek and pulled-together in a simple dress that’s equally stylish at the country club or the orange-juice stand. Thank you, Annette Funicello, Margaret Thatcher and Lilly Pulitzer. You showed us the way. We couldn’t have done it without you.

Books

loving-frank1You must put “Loving Frank,” by Nancy Horan, on your must-read list. It’s the story of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney and their clandestine and infamous love affair. The pair fell in love after Cheney and her husband commissioned a house from Wright. Both Cheney and Wright left their spouses and children for the other, but Cheney — an intelligent, educated and talented woman — suffered the most. She lost her children, was the subject of scorn and scandal and could barely support herself as a single woman. This is billed as an historic novel, but don’t let that put you off. Usually I’m irritated by authors who try to retell actual facts with their own creative spin, but it works here because of Horan’s extensive research and obsession with the truth. Horan lets Cheney’s voice — one that history and public relations seem to have silenced — come through strongly and authentically. This isn’t what Horan thinks happened, but what, as we come to know Cheney, must surely have happened. It’s a compelling love story, an intriguing look behind the historic facts and a damning treatise on the restrictions and injustices that hampered American women just 100 years ago.

Just a note here: In the interest of honesty, I did read this book. For one of my book-club meetings. Which I missed. Because I thought the meeting was on Tuesday night when it actually was on Wednesday night. But when I showed a night late at the house of my friend who was hosting the meeting, she graciously poured me a glass of wine anyway and we sat and talked about everybody who had been there the night before. In a good way, of course.