This is national Women's History Month, which has significance far beyond the reference point I have in mind: a church gymnasium last July in Port Arthur, Tex.
The occasion on that typically sweltering Gulf Coast day at the Procter Street Baptist Church was my grandmother's 97th birthday. Grandma was clearly the headliner, but the added attraction was that five generations of women in the family were, for the first time, going to be in the same place at the same time.
I'd been awaiting the moment with more gleeful anticipation than anything else. "It's going to be neat," I told friends. So, when mid-party came and the five of them posed for a photo, I was caught off guard by the raw emotion captured in the instant the shutter clicked.
Seeing the five of them there--Grandma, my mother, my sister, my niece and my niece's 3-month-old daughter--I got the proverbial lump in the throat and misty eyes.
Perhaps it was nothing more than contemplating history's sweep; after all, Grandma was born in 1896, and it's not inconceivable that my niece's daughter could live until 2096.
Two hundred years of family history. Five generations of women's lives--already a tapestry partly unfolded but with so much more to come.
Imagining what these women knew, what joys they'd had, what secrets they'd kept, what they'd had to put up with . . . well, on the one hand, it's nothing more than this thing we call "Life."
On the other hand, it's a staggering compilation of laughter and tears, of choices and non-choices, of opportunities and demands.
Grandma was born in rural Louisiana, outside Baton Rouge. She taught elementary school but quit to raise four children. Those plans were dashed when she was widowed in her 40th year and, with kids still at home and needing money, she began a new career as a nurse.
Mom was born, with a midwife attending, in the backwater Louisiana house she would live in. As she reached her mid-30s in the early 1960s, she didn't have lofty designs on being a professional woman, but family finances dictated that she become one. Choices? What choices? Year in and year out, going to work with no real prospect of major advancement, she did what had to be done. When she retired, her colleagues lauded her beyond all proportion, yet I have no doubt that she was, in the classic post-World War II tradition, perennially underpaid.
My sister, now in her late 40s, bridged the eras. She joined the labor force right out of high school, worked on the cheap, but later benefited from the Bell system owning up to its responsibility to female employees. Over the years, she has carved out a successful career, but she also had a luxury in middle age that our mother never had--being financially able for a few years to take a sabbatical.
The gift of choice has been handed down to my niece, who, at 25, has chosen to stay at home with her baby. So far, her best-laid plans haven't gone awry. Her husband is a well-paid machinist who thinks it's great his wife doesn't have to work.
And what about that fifth-generation baby Jessica, hurtling toward her first birthday next month? How will she look back on her life in 30, 50 or 90 years?
I wonder if the dramas of the women in her family tree will seem as huge to her as they do to me. I say they're huge, and yet they are no more than representative of the spectrum of women's lives in America. Grandma was prematurely widowed; mom was married for 48 years; my sister has tasted divorce; my niece suffered through her parents' divorce and eventually married her stepbrother. All rich stories, interspersed with days of quiet pathos and rich rewards.
I suppose that's why, maybe on a subconscious level, I was moved while watching the five of them together last summer. At some point, they were all baby Jessicas, born into a world that, unbeknownst to them, would be both promising and unfair.
I wish it could have been easier for all of them. I hope Jessica breezes through. Failing that, I hope her elders teach her not to settle for things, not to see her life in limited terms and not to blame others for the turns it takes.
One of my favorite songs is the Stevie Nicks tune "Landslide." The lyrics have always touched me, because it seems she has hit on the eternal questions:
Mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
When these four women and one little girl do their reflecting on their lives and ask themselves whether they did, indeed, handle the seasons of their lives, I hope with all my heart that their answer is:
"Yes, I handled them."
Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.