Duty Calls

My mother was sharp-tongued and, perhaps I am as well; we were not particularly close. But reading Ann Althouse’s post today, I recognize and salute an attitude. It is true that my mother wanted to leave the village in which she grew up; it is true that she worked her way, first through high school and then college. The Waves, as the service is for so many, was a way out and up. But she joined the Waves in the first months of the war because she embraced duty as she embraced rights. As her mother had “demonstrated” because she thought women deserved the vote, my mother enlisted because she wanted to ensure that right. I was shocked when a woman in my Sunday School class described her work as a nurse during WWII in terms of oppression – we weren’t given the same money as the men, we weren’t. . . and I thought how such an idea would never have occurred to my mother. She felt lucky to serve.

She remembered those years fondly because she traveled the country; she met and worked with politicians and a variety of women, all of whom wanted to give. She spoke with pride of the women she recruited. One had parents who invited my mother to dinner and fervently said that their daughter didn’t want – and they didn’t want for her – a “feather dusting” job. She wanted to serve. She spoke of African-American girls with all the qualifications for officers who wouldn’t, yet, be enlisted into that route (she held back for a couple of weeks one such application, hearing that officer training would be soon integrated; her African-American enlistees were then put early on that fast track.) In Oklahoma, in the forties, she worked late in old office buildings, following communication paths.  Fifty years later, when she died, a group of Waves, now, too, in their late seventies, drove the hundred miles and paid their respects at her funeral.

She wasn’t in combat; she didn’t risk her life. She did not see first hand the horrors of the War. But she did her duty; she volunteered where she saw a need. My father enlisted; my mother did. And that equality of response was a model for her daughters. But I think the essence of it was that she thought women, too, lived in this country; women, too, could speak and write as they wished; women, too, could vote. These were all not just rights and freedoms she took very seriously, but duties as well.

My mother wasn’t always happy; in fact, I think she was seldom happy. But I think what happiness she had was derived from the breadth of her vision. She applied it to people, ideas, the world. And that meant that underlying her appreciation of her rights was a sense that they had little substance if they weren’t always paired with responsibility. Rights are obligations, but their heaviness as well as beauty arises from intertwining them with the work of daily, incremental actions. Now we speak of rights of marriage, of bearing children, of voting, of free speech. But these are obligations as well: fidelity to one’s spouse, the raising of children (which included, for mothers like mine, endless carpools and waiting for lessons to end; endless sewing and cooking and cleaning), thoughtful choices at the ballot box, a responsibility above all to find the truth and speak it.

My mother recognized that often the duties of a Wave and a mother may be different than those for men; others, like the vote, are not. Women may express their rights and obligations in different manners, but the essence, my mother saw and always assumed, was the same. For that women, like men, should be grateful. And I’m grateful that she was the kind of person who answered yes to so many of those obligations, but, more, that she framed them with such a wide and generous frame when she spoke of them to us.

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