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One of the nation's most renowned female conservatives, Midge Decter is known for her frequently ocntroversial stands on modern social issues. An Old Wife's Tale is her thoughtful examination of the lives...
One of the nation's most renowned female conservatives, Midge Decter is known for her frequently ocntroversial stands on modern social issues. An Old Wife's Tale is her thoughtful examination of the lives of American women and men over the last 60 years, as viewed through the lens ofher own life. From stories of her youth during World War II—when Dectoer and her friends learned that "only the class beauty and the class tramp had no difficulty with the dating system"—to a surprising and often hilarious picture of what the Fifties were really like, to an account of her later roles as single mother, publishing executive, happily married woman, political iconoclast, and doting grandmother, Decter paints a singular portrait of a life lived on the front lines of American culture.
My mother and father had three daughters. This was a circumstance, we children often heard it said, that my father did not mind in the least; on the contrary, my mother and he would smilingly insist, three daughters would one day bring him the happiness of having three sons-in-law. This was said so often, indeed, as to become suspect even to me, the youngest and hence by rights the most credulous member of the family. Will it surprise anyone to be told that when the time came, my father was in the end barely able to maintain civil relations with any of his sons-in-law?
My mother, before the weight of getting on in years began to stoop her shoulders, was a tall woman, one of three tall sisters, and, as it would turn out, taller than any of her daughters. She was also very nearly ominicompetent, with an overweening sense of duty. The youngest of ten siblings, she was left in her early teens in charge of the family household and of her old and ailing mother, and this experience clearly made its mark on all of her life. She did everything competently: cooked for multitudes, ran a household that continued to be a kind of gathering place for her scattered siblings, was a leader in several communal organizations, was a devoted and successful fund-raiser -- and, until she was no longer needed, she also worked with my father in his business.
One of my sisters and I would sometimes complain to her that she was never at home the way this one's or that one's mother was. But looking back on it, I have come to the surprisingconclusion that had she in addition to everything else been dutifully on hand with the milk and cookies every afternoon, it would have been an even trickier proposition to grow up in her shadow.
My father, at least before the process of growing old began to sour it (and except where his sons-in-law were involved), had a naturally cheerful and even playful disposition. It was he who provided the children's entertainment, out in the snow with us in winter and at the lake in summer. It was he who enjoyed sitting at the dinner table, or standing by the family piano, and singing. And it was he who could take a tease. As a result, many outsiders had the impression that my mother was the one who, as they said then, "wore the pants." But nothing could have been farther from the truth. Despite her endless displays of strength, family decisions were always as he made them, and things were always as he desired them to be. Summerhouses, for example -- on a lake only forty-five minutes from my hometown, St. Paul, Minnesota -- were bought, sold, bought, sold, and built all by him and all according to his desires and specifications; and as my mother got older and more and more easily tired, the houses over which he had decided she was to preside seemed to get bigger rather than smaller.
After she died in her late seventies, when like most elderly widowers he could not manage to live alone, he married a woman who completely reversed the direction of power in the household. She trotted him around, demanded everything of him, sometimes patronized him, and they quarreled and quarreled -- which seemed not to be too injurious to him at that, though it was painful for his daughters to watch, because in the end he lived to be ninety-two and died most gracefully.
Of the three of us daughters, I, as the last-born, came the closest to being a kind of honorary son. What I mean by this is that somehow more was expected of me and at the same time I was given a longer leash. To some extent this little extra measure of latitude must have been the result of the fact that, even in the most well-driven of households, by the time the youngest child arrives, the regimen is bound to slacken: the spirit is strong but the flesh weakens. But I am certain that the lessening of the starch in my early upbringing also had to do with my having represented the last disappointed hope for a boy.
In any case, there was always a certain note of turbulence -- "rein her in" and "let her go" -- in even my earliest childhood memories. I must have been annoyingly talkative, for example, because my mother often used to refer to me with the Yiddish word for "mouth." It was an expression half of pride, talkingbeing a true mark of achievement in Jewish children, and half of disapproval, because I didn't seem to "know my place." And as the years wore on, there got to be more and more of the latter and less and less of the former.
St. Paul was then a city large enough to contain far-off neighborhoods that one might never set foot in and small enough to impose the demand to conduct oneself as all one's neighbors do. My mother was born in St. Paul; my father came there to make his fortune, so to speak, at the age of seventeen. They met through their common interest in Zionism, became engaged, and when my father returned from the army in World War I, they were married and settled there permanently. My mother had a small inheritance from her parents, hardly enough to buy a kid a car these days, and my father lost all of it on his first business deal. But he kept going, and later on, in the years after World War II, made it back with huge interest.
My earliest childhood was spent in Depression time and Roosevelt time. As far as the Depression was concerned, there must have been a serious pinch in our household, as there was everywhere, but...An Old Wife's Tale. Copyright © by Midge Decter. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted March 8, 2003
An important book by a profound and wonderful writer and thinker who has 'been there, done that' as opposed to many who would rather polarize to win elections and take your money. Read this book to try and see past the political rhetoric and hyperbole. Also perhaps read this book to consider the radical thought that the story is not always about men (all powerful) against woman (victims) but more often about generally good people - sometimes working together against those that are not so good - trying to make some small, hopefully positive difference in an often contentious and always challenging universe.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.