blog description

Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Friday, August 31, 2012

My Legitimate Rape

At age  18, I take a ride with a guy I kind of know through some friends. We are going to meet up with them at a bonfire by the river. When he pulls into a dark path along the railroad tracks, I know something is wrong. When he turns to me and says, “Get undressed,” time stops and my mind starts racing. Can I outrun him? Where will I go? How will I get home? Then a car going the other way on this narrow lane stops to ask if my driver needs help… with me.  So I am grateful when the other car leaves, and I quickly undress and hope it keeps me safe from something worse. And it does. And I go home.
I sit in my room and decide to just go on as if it didn’t happen, so I don’t hear someone say it was my fault and go insane or kill myself.
At 19, it doesn’t matter who I have sex with. At 32, I get married and I am glad I will be with only one man for the rest of my life. At 34, I sometimes feel uncomfortable having sex with my husband in spite of the fact that I love him very much and trust him consciously.  At 38, I begin to have depression and anxiety attacks and don’t know why. At some point I remember my experience  and start to learn about what that did to me emotionally. I talk to my friends and learn that many of them have been raped. Fathers, uncles, brothers-in-law, step-fathers, boyfriends, even husbands turn out to be rapists. I wonder if I know anyone who hasn’t been raped. I begin to think there might be a potential rapist in every man alive. I study  men and realize it probably isn’t true of them all. Just too damn many. Just one is too damn many.
At 53, I hear a man talk about definitions of rape. I am not surprised by this because some men are what they are – potential rapists. (A man who has neither knowledge nor concern for the health and emotional well-being of women in general is a potential rapist in my estimation.)  I think about what this conversation means to me. My rape was not ‘forcible.’ I wasn’t restrained or beaten. I didn’t get pregnant, but at the time I knew I could have. I felt that God spared me that because I never could have gone for ten months with my rapist still inside me. The fact that people might have said my rape was not legitimate kept me from admitting it to myself. I don’t know how much that had to do with the distortions in my views about sex. I do know that many of my problems are closely related to post-traumatic stress disorder.  And I know now that my rape was ‘legitimate.’
At first I want to grab this man who is having this conversation in the news and rub his face in shit, like a dog that needs to learn a lesson.  Then I want to scream until I can’t scream anymore. But, once again, I stop myself because I don’t want to go insane and kill someone else. And I realize it is all in vain. There will always be men and women who have no concern for others and believe that anything they say is true. Having never experienced rape, they will minimize it and blame it on the victim. And these egomaniacs will say these things and young women will hear them and think that they are right.
I just want a world in which people who care for others and take responsibility for what they say are given equal time to share on a global stage. And I want a world in which every woman knows that rape is whatever she says it is. The rest of the world may not define it the same way, and may not prosecute her rapist – after all, there is no justice for this crime. But rape is anything that defiles her sense of self. And it matters.  And I want every woman who has been raped to tell another woman, and make sure she understands. So we can heal.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Lactation in the '60's

I wanted to breastfeed for many reasons, even though it was a minority choice in 1965 America. First, I’d heard horror stories from one of my aunts whose babies were allergic  to all but the most exotic formulas. Second, it was an “old-fashioned” choice, and my love of all things  “historical” was in this case a powerful motivator. Moreover, my husband and I—both of us 19-- were receiving grudging charity from relatives. Money was in short supply, and so breastfeeding also seemed a practical notion, a cost-saver and proof of commitment.

Fortunately, a lovely lady Chris had baby-sat for let me borrow her copy of the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, from the La Leche League, or my knowledge, when my son was born, would have been just what I could glean from reading the few pages devoted to it in Dr. Spock’s Baby & Child Care. There was a battlefield aspect to a decision to breast feed back then, which started on the delivery table where, as soon as my baby delivered, a nurse came at me with a needle.

“What’s that for?”

 “To dry up your milk, honey.”

“No thank-you. I’m going to breast feed.”

 Long pause, hostile glare. “You wait! You’ll be sorry.”

You probably won’t get this out-front negativity from a delivery room nurse today, but there remain plenty of obstacles to nursing. First and foremost, I think, is the easy availability of formula. Formula is much improved over fifty years back, when they were just beginning to pre-package it. The hospital sent me home with twenty-four 4 ounce bottles—just in case.  As I’d never even held a baby before I took this one home, I was understandably unsure about my ability to handle the job.

I’d had my baby in a Boston Woman’s clinic and roomed with seven other women who’d also just given birth. We had curtains which could be pulled for privacy. Nurses brought me my baby at the appointed time—every four hours--and I’d  stare at him, wondering when the milk would come. Poor guy—he lived on sugar water for a couple of days. Finally, as both baby and I wept, an elderly nurse came in to ask me what was wrong. I was afraid my milk would never come, I said—this with boobs like rocks and a steady leaking of something creamy. The nurse said, “That’s it, honey. The colostrum! Here, do this...” and she helped me get my boy latched on.

When we left the rigid routine of the hospital—five days, back then--things got easier. I could pick my son up whenever he cried, and as feeding was about all I knew to comfort him, he was fed. My husband still had a scale on which he’d weighed his model airplanes, and this was now pressed into service for the baby. We still had a bottle bred fear that he wasn’t getting enough, simply because we couldn’t see milk going in. The scale, my husband reasoned, would solve this. We would weigh him before, and again after, he nursed. It didn’t take long to lose our fear that we might starve him. Sometimes he would gain as little as three ounces, but more usually, he’d gain five or six.

Early on I had a cracked nipple, but I used a salve made of sheep’s lanolin, and, as La Leche League instructed, carried on through the pain. A public health nurse who came for the first couple of weeks was encouraging and helped me through that.  Our apartment—this was during the hottest summer in Boston in 90 years—was crisscrossed with laundry line, on which I dried one or the other of my two nursing bras and a host of pocket handkerchiefs which were doing duty as nursing pads. (You could find pads back in 1965, but again, they were expensive.) We were saving Chris’ small salary—he was in charge of a mini-computer at a bank--to help him get back to college, and also paying our apartment and food expenses.

How proud I felt the day I gave my bottles of formula to the gal across the street for her baby! It may seem like a small thing now, but, despite the cloud of cultural doubt which surrounded women who nursed in those days, successful breastfeeding represented a big step toward self-reliance in my new role as a mother.

Monday, August 13, 2012

You Have to be Tough to Get Old

A Guest Post from BWL Author,
Lorrie Unites-Struiff

Many of us Crones have (or are working through) this one. The kids grow up and leave but your caregiving responsibilities are far from over. Suddenly, unexpectedly, you find yourself in charge of one or both of your parents, or, maybe even your spouse.

For some people, “The Golden Years” are not the relaxing, traveling and fun years televisions and magazines say will be ours when we become seniors. Many have said this to me. Now I find myself in full agreement.

My mother had Parkinson’s and I took care of her in my home for three years. Eventually came the time I could no longer help her and placed her in a care home. She died six months later on Christmas Day.

Two months ago, I had to place my husband in a care home. I could no longer take care of him properly, even with the help of in-home hospice care. You see, he has Alzheimer’s, COPD, ruptured disks in his back and horrible stenosis of the spine. Together, these diseases cause him much pain, and sometimes he falls when he walks. I couldn’t pick him up, nor knew what would happen next in the middle of the night with his Alzheimer at home.

I’m sure many of you have gone through this and know what I’m writing about. As he got worse, I became scared, exhausted, tired of the arguments, and so much more. I couldn’t function as a human being anymore.

Now, I go visit him almost every day. The care home I chose happens to be a very nice one. I see how the staff treats the other patients with kindness and smiles. At times, they must use the sternness of authority. But never in an unkind manner.

When I enter the home, I see John lying in his horizontal wheelchair who can’t move a muscle except for his mouth, and I watch the uncontrollable movement of his arms and hands.  He’s such a sweet guy who loves when I sit near him and we talk. He smiles and we have a small conversation until his wife comes in to sit by his side. He has a great attitude. Jane appreciates me taking the time and is such a sad woman. We chat occasionally. We are both visiting a loved one here every day; it makes us sisters in sorrow.

There is Mary, curled up on a couch in the big living room, sound asleep. The other couches and chairs are occupied by men and women in various degrees of  withdrawal and illness. Some stay in their rooms. A man goes by with a walker that has a bunny rabbit attached to the grip. He looks so mean, but is really nice and says hello to everyone.

And oh, there is Sally who is seventy-five years old. She came into my hubby’s room one day and asked if I had a phone. She said she had to call her husband to make sure he picked up their young son after school. I told her I didn’t have a phone. Five minutes later, she returned with the same question. I gave the same answer. The next time she came into the room, I immediately told her I didn’t have a phone. Sally put her hands on her hips, gave a snort, and said, “How did you know what I was going to ask?”

Minnie the Moocher, as she is called, is always asking visitors for cigarettes. If you bring in a big bottle of soda pop, she’ll come in with a glass of ice and ask for some. How can you say no?

They all wear ankle bracelets that set off alarms if they open an outside door. Then you see the aides come running.

When my grandchildren go to visit Pap, our eighteen-year-old grandson likes to walk the unsteady patients down the halls and back. Did I tell you I’m proud of him? My seven-year-old granddaughter feels it’s her duty to go around and give everyone a loving hug. Seeing the patients’ eyes light up when she does it is a joy. Then we have our seven-month-old bruiser of a baby boy whom everyone wants to hold.

My daughter will allow it, but she keeps a steady two hands on him while they do, for safties sake. He’s a lively baby but endures the handling by strangers and gives them big smiles.

These, my friends, are not the “Golden Years.” They are the sorrowful years to watch your loved ones fade away slowly. My aunt has a saying with which I will end my story:

“You have to be a tough bird to get old.”

Lorrie Unites-Struiff—author

Gypsy Blood available at Amazon.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Civil War Doctor

Mary Walker
Even during a sesquicentennial year, most people think of battles and generals when the Civil War is mentioned. Like all wars, it seems that women are all but forgotten. Originally, I had planned on blogging about the roles of women during the war, but I discovered the topic was too broad. Many of the heroic women deserve their own story. Last time, I wrote about a female soldier, and I'll continue with Dr. Mary Walker. She was the only woman who served as a surgeon and was the highest ranking female during the war. She is also the only woman in history to have been awarded the Medal of Honor.

Born in New York, she wasn't the first woman to graduate from medical school, but she was the only woman to graduate in her class of 1855. She married another medical student and kept her maiden name, which was very much against tradition during the era. She and her husband set up a practice together. Like many feminists of her time, she began wearing bloomers and tossed out her corset.

After four years of marriage, Dr. Walker and her husband separated. Divorce was almost unheard of, so years passed before it became finalized. In the meantime, she moved to Iowa. When the war broke out, she volunteered for the Union Army. In the 1860s, no female doctors existed in the army, and she was allowed to practice as a nurse.

The war dragged on, and Dr. Walker went to the battlefields of Tennessee, where General Thomas accepted her as a surgeon. Men of all ranks protested. In spite of the complaints, she was commissioned as a first lieutenant and assistant surgeon. She frequently crossed enemy lines to give aid to civilians. In April 1864, she was captured by the Confederates.

As a prisoner of war, Dr. Walker was sent to Richmond, Virginia. Later in the year, she was included in prisoner-of-war exchanges and released. Afterward, she worked in a female prison in Kentucky and a war-related orphanage in Tennessee. At the war's end, she was awarded the Medal of Honor for her service.

After the war, Dr. Walker went on the lecture circuit tirelessly working for women's suffrage and other women's rights. She had taken to wearing men's clothing and was arrested for it on several occasions. Ahead of her time, she was often considered too extreme by many of the well known suffragists.

In 1917, the U.S. Congress created a pension for Medal of Honor receivers, and in doing so, they withdrew the awards from many of the recipients. Dr. Walker's award was one of those withdrawn, but she continued to wear her medal for the rest of her life. She died two years later. Despite the controversy surrounding her choices, she remained proud of her achievements as a physician and women's rights advocate.

In 1977, Dr. Walker was posthumously rewarded with the reinstatement of her Medal of Honor.

Kim Murphy