By Wendy Haskell Meyer
A caring woman. But with a lifetime of disappointments and tragedies. Her parents
divorced. She married my father at 18 to escape a bizarre and unhappy family situation.
Then she herself divorced when I was three. Kept a house for her physician father in a big
Commonwealth Avenue brownstone in Boston. Until he began acting strangely and was
eventually committed to a mental hospital with neurosyphilis. One of a series of challenges she accepted with good humor. During them all, she taught me the most enduring
lesson of my life: Laugh—at the world, at yourself, at your problems. Then you survive.
Memories of my mother. We have moved to the suburbs so I can go to good public
schools. She runs a knitting shop in our house and has married again to a very sweet person who seems to love me too. His business does not go well and she goes to work selling
printing to small businesses. It means walking all over Boston every day and she makes it
sound funny and exciting.
But how embarrassed, enraged, sad, mortified I am when my mother frequently
has too much to drink. I can tell her intake at a glance by the way she holds her mouth.
"Mom," I tell her in my most scathing voice, "your teeth are loose again." And I cry in
my bed at the top of the stairs one night when I hear her staggering and falling on her
way to bed. And I shout so only I can hear: "I hate you when you're like that!"
I kept having babies. Each pregnancy was a diaphragm mistake but welcomed by
my husband as another possible son and by me as something that happened. Another
child to love. Unplanned, unquestioned.
1 was rapidly finding a new role as the mother of— getting on the PTA board,
running car pools, and, before long, interrogating dates who by this time were calling on
my teenaged daughters. I was also becoming the wife of John, who worked long hours
and was much sought after in medical and social circles and shared his life with me as
much as he could. That was fascinating. It took me to the White House and to Europe
Funny, with all that going for me, I began to slip into depression. I didn't feel comfortable in suburbia where the other women seemed prettier and chic-er and cleverer than
I. Other people's kids conformed. Mine didn't and there just didn't seem to be anything
I was good at. I ruled out suicide only because I didn't think my five girls could manage
I started my secret journal that year. Sharing my agonies with it, pages of introspective misery and poetry. When my husband and I had a fight, which we began to have
more often, instead of telling him what I was feeling, I told my journal. That's how I
started writing—to survive. Like laughing, which I'd temporarily forgotten how to do (it
My worried husband sent me to a psychiatrist. I was expected to do most of the
talking, between sniffs, but he did say that the reason my self esteem was so low must be
that I'd felt rejected by my father when he and my mother divorced. I said I felt worthless because I was worthless: I'd never been anything but the daughter of, the wife of, the
mother of. And I wasn't so hot at any of them. Wendy Meyer wasn't anyone just
Memories of my mother. I suppose she disciplined me but I never recall a really
cross word. I wanted to please her and when I left her every summer to visit my grandparents in Maine, I had to run to the bathroom three times a day for the first week to cry
with homesickness. And when she was dying of cancer, and I was by then 35 and living in
Michigan, I felt myself torn apart, for I was 1000 miles away and had four daughters of
my own. I flew back to Boston at least three times when her doctor said her death was
imminent. She looked like a skeleton, her cheeks sunk in, her bones sticking out. She was
52. And still laughing. My husband would call me and say, "We need you. This could go
on forever. You'd better come home." So the day she died, I wasn't even there. And I
wondered then about loyalties—to your mother, to your daughters, to your husband and
to yourself. Who comes first?
Memories of my daughters who are so beautiful. But then I'm prejudiced. Looking
back to 1949, it was a marvelous atmosphere in which Jane and I had our rites of passage
together-1 into motherhood and she into life itself. It was at Grace New Haven Hospital
in Connecticut. Natural childbirth was the local obstetrical religion and I was an enthusiastic communicant. I learned my lessons well. "Take a deep breath, now push hard, no,
slow down now, take some short gasps," my obstetrician coached me. After I gave that
last grunt and pushed her out, I was as euphoric, as high, as I guess I have ever been before or since. I wanted to sing and laugh and shout to everybody—Look what I did. Look
at my baby. Look at us. And oh my God, was I thirsty for a glass of ginger ale.
Had I thought to choose motherhood? Of course not. It had never once occurred
to me in my first 25 years that I would do anything but get married and have a family.
That was what normal, desirable women did. Period. I remember the pall of pity which
enshrouded my cousin Cynthia. She had not conceived in two years of marriage. This,
in the Forties, was such a tragedy that we were all instructed not to bring up subjects
related to pregnancy or children in her presence. We all pitied Cynthia as a woman without a future.
About that time, I read The Feminine Mystique. OhmyGod, somebody else feels
the same way. Halleluja! Instant feminist. But a closet feminist for the first few years.
We moved to Houston in 1969. I started going to NOW meetings. I had some initial
anxieties at them because it appeared I was the only feminist over 40, married and planning to stay married. When I tried to discuss feminism with other married women of my
age, they said that either my head or my marriage was rocky, when, in fact, both were
doing very well, thank you.
I brought at least one dinner party to a screaming halt by suggesting to my host, an
airline pilot, that women be allowed to fly too.
I bided my time and made close friendships with young journalists in town, worked
on Houston Journalism Review, began publishing fairly steadily in Texas Monthly, the
National Observer and other markets—not the secret journals, but lifestyle and medical
stories. Once over his initial concern that my interest in a writing career camouflaged a
disinterest in our family, my husband became extremely supportive.
So here I am at 52, having recovered from that angry stage most middle-aged,
newly baptized feminists experience. Fm no longer blaming society or my husband or my
children or myself for keeping me down. In fact, the irony of my position is that I most
cherish what came out of those years down under. I have something my feminist daughters will likely not have themselves: five daughters.
And a 30-year-old marriage held together with love through the usual deaths and
rebirths of every marriage. Until all those shared joys and agonies have made it, if not impregnable, then certainly warm and comfortable. I suspect that our certainty since our
twenties that our marriage was for a lifetime became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Who
would make a dumb prediction like that today?
A household of women must be hard for a man to live in. A world of stockings and
tampaxes and breasts and curlers and dresses and high heels. And in our family, at least,
no car manuals. No baseballs. No lawnmowers. We kept our conventional sex roles. Now,
when my girls and I, all six of us, are together (which rarely happens), we are so close, so
full of inside jokes, of shared confidences and reminiscences, that it takes special care not
to offend/exclude husbands and friends present.
I look back and wonder about that stranger, Wendy Meyer, in her twenties and thirties. If I'd known then what I know now, everything would have been different.
And I'm not so sure I'd like that at all.
PAGE 12 NOVEMBER 20, 1977 DAILY BREAKTHROUGH