April story — Only a Woman, After All

 

Eloise and I are having a quiet conversation. We’ve been to visit my mother in the hospital Rehab Unit where she is recovering from a stroke. We’ve had dinner at Eloise’s house and now we are sitting in her living room finishing the meal with an evening cup of tea. The room is small, but two love seats covered in a pale flower pattern and a large, comfortable tub chair fit nicely in front of a bay window that looks far out over Lake Erie. There are lights on the fishing boats coming in to port. One wall is filled with a bookcase housing a collection of figurines as well as books. Opposite is a fireplace with flames crackling at a low ebb. A glass-covered table holds a tea tray; silver sugar and creamer flank a flower-embroidered tea cozy-covered teapot.

My mother had made friends with Eloise some years before and asked her to look after her investments. Eloise did that and more, and after her stroke, Mother became Eloise’s hobby—with weekly visits and phone calls to me in the U.S.  reporting on Mother’s progress or lack of it. Eloise insisted I stay with her when I made trips to Canada four times a year. “No sense giving it to a hotel when I have a guest bedroom,” she’d say.

After re-hashing all the pertinent facts about my mother and coming up with very few new ones, we sit silent. Wondering what we’ll talk about next, I remember that Eloise lived in Washington, D.C. during World War II. So I ask her a general question to get her talking about it.

“I wonder how you, a Canadian, wound up in the States in the late 30s and what your life was like then?”

Eloise has a sip of tea and says slowly, “Washington. I first saw her there. Eleanor Roosevelt, she was my idol…” She looks off into the distance, reflecting on memories that have been triggered by my question. I wait for this turn of conversation to focus. No hurry, we have nothing but time.

“She had great courage and she was not afraid to speak her mind. I’ll tell you about her…” Eloise says.

“But first, how did I get to Washington? Well, after I graduated from school, I got a job with a bank. I was always good at math. We lived in Montreal. My family had settled there, but we were originally from England, so the French culture didn’t rub off much. I worked my way up at the bank over several years, and then applied for an administrative job when it opened up. It would have been a logical career step, but the bank executives all but laughed. The idea, a woman applying to supervise men in 1937? Never heard of it.

“At the same time, I was married, but several years had gone by and no children came. I had some problems and had gone to the doctor’s clinic for a procedure and…” she waves her hand back and forth, clearly not wanting to go into details.

“Afterward, the doctor talked privately with my husband, Daniel. That’s the way they did it in those days.

“Daniel never told me, but the nurse did. You see, after I had no more monthly visitation. I had gone back to the office to see what was going on—or, as it turned out, what wasn’t. She explained that instead of the simple procedure the doctor was supposed to do, he had expanded on it. He had said to the nurse, ‘She didn’t need all that stuff, anyway…’ The doctor had also told Daniel, but my husband’s a man of few words, you know. He’s a Scotchman, after all; silent and easily embarrassed. The doctor would never have asked me, of course, he had made the decision for me because I was only a woman.”

There was a silence between us for a moment, and then I was aghast when I understood what Eloise was talking about. “You’re saying the doctor never asked your permission to do drastic, permanent surgery? He gave you no choice, nor any information?”

“Just a woman.” Eloise shakes her head gently and looks down the hall, listening to the rise and fall of soccer match sounds from Daniel’s television in the study. “So, there could be no children and I could expect little from a career in banking, either.” Eloise’s voice is even, but her feelings come through.

“England was in that undeclared time, that false war with Germany. There were soldiers from every country in the British Empire, and especially, Canada, who were serving in the British war effort. Then, in 1939, when Britain declared war formally, I knew what would happen. I had been expecting it. Daniel was in a Canadian reserve unit but he was too old to be called up. The day of the announcement, when I came home from work, I went into Daniel’s bedroom and he was packing. ‘Are you off?’ I asked?”

“Yup. Volunteer.”

“He didn’t look at me, just asked for a pair of extra-warm socks to cram into the last empty corner of his bag. He left early the next morning and went to England with his reserve company on a ship. Except for short, cryptic cables and the rare note, that was the last I heard from him for a while.”

Eloise refills her cup, adds cream and sugar and signals by holding up the pot, do I want a refill too? I shake my head, no, and think, her tea is too strong for me. She smiles, reading my mind, and repeats her perennial joke, “Tea should be strong, you know—you Americans like it so weak it hardly pours out the spout.” I smile and wait for her to go on.

“Remember, the bank didn’t say it, that I was just a woman, but that’s what they meant. It really rankled. I could do the work and I deserved the job. I kept looking; trying to find something to turn my hand to. Then I came into a bit of luck.

The newspaper said the government of the United States was advertising for people to work in Washington on a special assignment. It was some cooperative deal between U.S. and the United Kingdom. No details about the work beyond good English and financial skills required. I applied.”

She chuckles and chooses a biscuit to dip in her tea. “Mother was upset. She was more than upset. She could not imagine me, the oldest child, her daughter, leaving the family and going far away. She put her foot down, she thought, but I was a married woman and I applied. Soon after, I got my answer and went south on the sleeper train.

“Our offices were right in the White House, and we were assigned to work on the Lend-Lease program. It was top secret and we were sworn not to talk—not to breathe a word. Public feeling in Washington was negative toward getting into the war at that time and negative towards England and anyone English because that friendship might get us in.

Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt’s aide, was our contact and clearly in charge. We were eight Canadians who were recruited and we were quite a group, quite a group.” She looks up, smiling, her eyes on this distant image—on a place and a time and on people whose memory makes her smile.

“Harry Hopkins, the President’s assistant, was serving his president well. They saw that England and Europe and probably Russia, could not withstand Hitler’s power without U.S. help. With German U-boats sinking ships at sea and England having no money left, they knew America had to do something. Winston Churchill was the main instigator, of course. The U.S. couldn’t get into the war right then, and the Germans had spent huge sums in gold in the U.S. to float propaganda to keep the American people convinced to stay out. Advertising and lobbying weren’t invented today, you know.

“Sending material aid—everything from food and clothing to warships—was popular, though, and the idea of the U.S. being paid back after the war was popular, too. It helped raise the country further out of the Depression, since the goods were made in America. Manufacturing was already onto a war-time footing and was pumping a lot of money into the economy and Lend Lease would push it farther. At least, that’s what the White House staff said would happen, and it did.”

I wondered aloud if Canadians might have been recruited to work on the plan since British accents were unpopular around Washington?

“Could be, but that all changed on December 7, 1941, didn’t it?” Eloise said. “From one minute to the next, Americans were ready to help anyone fight the Axis—even to side with the Russians—and our program was suddenly seen as vital to the success of the war effort and we had the Lend Lease bill ready to sign.”

“But Washington began shaping the program long before it was announced?”

“Yes, of course, it was an entirely new idea, you see. And there were many details to be worked out, and the American people had to be convinced that Germany was a danger to us; even an ocean away.”

Eloise looked into her teacup. No leaves to be seen; maybe she saw pictures in the swirl of cream. I nibbled a scone and waited, trying to picture her in Washington, D.C. in the 1940s. America was still shaking off the Depression, and I suspected not much was available in the shops in the way of fashion.

What did Eloise look like then? Thirty-nine years old, Canadian. Was she plain and British-looking as now, in the 80s? Did she wear her usual heavy stockings, serious small-heeled shoes, a gray Harris Tweed suit with a white blouse? Or was her clothing more current: a skirt cut in gores, a jacket with a peplum, perhaps? I picture her hair, now naturally softly salt and pepper; then, beauty-parlor curled. It would have been a light chestnut, the color was still reflected in her eyebrows, and maybe in a more stylish cut. Was she slim and still youthfully pretty? She has blue eyes, a clear, pale complexion—fair with pink cheeks, regular features, and a warm, generous smile, she was probably lovely, I thought.

“Harry Hopkins was the spark,” she says, “Harry was the one who seemed to start everything. But we didn’t just spend our time working, we went out. And did we go out. Washington was alive with excitement in those days. I remember plays and shows, and films, and of course, the Opera. The Opera, my favorite.

“We went to see the Opera and hear symphony orchestras and then a wonderful chance came along to hear Marian Anderson. Marian Anderson, the voice of the century. She was going to sing at a War Bond show, a fund-raising, to be held in Constitution Hall. We were excited, we ran over and bought tickets right away. But then the Daughters of the American Revolution, the DAR, who owned the Hall, wouldn’t permit an integrated audience and so she refused to sing. There was a furor, everyone got into it, including the First Lady. She became my heroine when she resigned from the DAR, along with a thousand others who agreed with her.

“Eleanor Roosevelt. A great lady. A lady who knew what was right and what was important—and that everyone was equally important. She was my inspiration.

“The organizers finally worked out plans for a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Our group went, you can be sure of that, along with seventy five thousand others. That was an Easter Sunday to remember, a Sunday when I saw her people dressed in beautiful clothes for the first time. Huge hats, colorful and stylish. I had only seen these same people either working as house and office cleaners and wearing their employer’s castoff clothing, or in maid or butler’s uniforms, or working on the trains, where Waiters or Porters wore immaculate, crisp, pressed outfits; but never one person in business or concert-going clothes, not ever.

“Here everyone at the concert was beautifully dressed and I was glad to see it. You know, in Canada, we hadn’t the silly rules that kept people behind a line—we didn’t have the prejudice that slavery had engendered, in fact, Ontario was a part of the Underground Railway. I’ll take you to see some of the graves over in Niagra-on-the-Lake.

“Following that huge concert success, Marian Anderson gave several other performances and we saw every one.” She pauses to savor the memories. Then she sighs. “There was one young man in my group who spent time with me—or, I should say, we spent time together. We were inseparable for those six years, but then he left before our time was up. He became ill and had to go home and it was difficult. I heard later that he died.”

I could see this was a story she had not told before. I decide we should move from that memory, she is obviously close to tears. “What happened to Daniel during the war?” I ask. She has made no further mention of her husband. “I know he was overseas from the first, but did he ever get home for some R&R?”

“Yes, Daniel.” She draws a deep breath. “Well, I always knew where he was stationed, we knew everything at the White House. He was in a supply unit, and when I found he was going from England down to the desert campaign in Egypt, I sent him the proper uniforms for that climate. He couldn’t get over it, sent me a note after to say, “Thank you and, how did you know?” It was a month before time when he received the parcel, but I knew everything before he did. I sent the outfit in a diplomatic pouch.

“And, R&R? When he had some time off, he went to visit relatives in Scotland. He could hop a flight up there from the front, so he never came home during his six years in service.

“And we were working long hours on the Lend-Lease act. I typed the rough drafts, and the later versions, over and over, hundreds  of times. No computer corrections in those days. There could be no errors, no erasures, even in the preliminary stages when it was shown for changes or crits as a working document. When it was perfect, absolutely perfect, checked and re-checked and triple-checked, and approved by Congress, it went to the President to sign. And he did, in March of 1941. At last, the American people responded to help Britain with war materiel of all kinds. Of course, the President had found ways, by Executive Order and such, to send ships and other equipment before that. By Pearl Harbor, the U.S. and Canada were in full wartime production.

“Those years, until the end of the War, were the most exciting of my life. But I had to go home to Canada when Daniel was released. We took up our old ways, and then we moved from Montreal because there was big talk of secession by French Canada in the early 60s. We settled in Ontario and I began working in another bank—no promotions there, either. But then a co-worker was starting a brokerage. We left our jobs and began the agency together. I had the opportunity with him to do the work I deserved and soon I became the top bond salesperson in the area. It wasn’t as exciting as war work, but I met all the well-put-together people in town and my partner and I ran a successful business. Who says a woman can’t be an executive now? I did very well, thank you. In fact, Daniel and I could afford to take a trip around the world when we retired.

She has a last sip of tea, then sits back and smiles, “When I think of it, I was not able to be a mother, but I love all my nieces and nephews. I might not have had a job at all if I had a family, and I really enjoy working. And what if the original bank had given me a chance? I would never have wound up in Washington being an observer and even a participant in a small way in world events. Moving to Ontario when our family had been firmly rooted in Montreal gave me a different life and a chance at the work they said I’d never get, being female. So, there you are, you never know what life will bring, you just have to be ready to grab it when it comes—and have no regrets.

By Mary Wallis Gutmann copyright © 2014