I’m a Generation Xer. I say it loud and I say it proud. Yep, I’m from the generation that started the technology revolution and brought you big hair, hip hop, and MTV. We’re known to be independent, educated (sometimes too much), and family-oriented.
And I won’t lie. Sometimes, I have a hard time bonding with Generation Z or, as I like to call their kids, Generation Z Squared. Each generation has its own set of values and behaviors and even trying to explain one to the other can be a challenge. A fellow Generation Xer posted on Facebook recently that she tried to explain the stick shift car to her children and they didn’t get it.
But different generations can teach each other new things. One of my ESL students told me recently her company always puts older and younger employees on teams so the older ones teach the younger ones the value of their expertise and experience and the younger ones teach the older ones a new perspective and new technology.
Several of the stories in my post-World War II short story collection, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, are about the lessons the older generation has to teach the younger. The 1950s and early 1960s were vital for women’s place in America because the dissatisfaction and inertia many women felt at that time led to the second-wave feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. I talk more about how women felt in these post-war years in my blog post about the “Occupation: Housewife” Era.
But there are stories in the collection that work the other way around too. It’s the younger generation that teaches the older one something new. One of these is the last story in the collection titled “Two Sides of Life”.
It was one of those writerly moments where an interesting anecdote my mother related to me became the germ of the story. When she was in her 50s (the age range I am now), my father took her to a nice restaurant for her birthday, as usual. They had a great time and when the check arrived, the server informed them the bill had already been paid. It turned out my father, who was working as a quality control consultant at the time, befriended one of his younger assistants who recommended the restaurant. The young man surprised my parents by paying the restaurant bill in advance.
I wrote the story as a contemporary work of fiction and posted it for a while as a freebie on my website. When I made the shift from contemporary to historical fiction, I took the story down, meaning to revise it. Toward the end of 2019, when I rewrote my first book, Gnarled Bones and Other Stories, to what became Lessons, I removed the title story (as it didn’t fit with the themes I had planned for Lessons) and went searching for another story to take its place. I realized the story I had written about my mother’s birthday dinner (then titled “A Birthday Gift”) would fit nicely with the new collection.
I retitled the story “Two Sides of Life” and kept the incident of the birthday dinner but moved it (reworked in mood, theme, and emotion to fit the collection) to the background. “Two Sides” became more about the dysfunctional relationship between the protagonist Leanne and her husband of twenty years, Calvin, and the lessons the young wife of Calvin’s assistant, Arlene has to teach her about life and women’s place in society.
Leanne, like many suburban housewives of the mid-20th century, had been indoctrinated into the feminine mystique and, like many of these women, had become frustrated by what Friedan called “The Problem That Has No Name”. The story opens on the day of her forty-second birthday. Her husband Calvin (an intelligent but emotionally distant professor) “suggests” she head over to one of their neighbors (Paul, Calvin’s lab assistant) and offer to help with his six-year-old son’s birthday party. Leanne agrees, though reluctantly. The party proves to be a turning point in her life, as she bonds unexpectedly with Paul’s wife, Arlene. Arlene represents the familiar sort of young woman we imagine started the second-wave feminist movement: The “do it all” woman juggling a career and family, determined to make use of her full potential in the home and out of it. Leanne, like many older women of her generation, judges Arlene pretty harshly at first but comes to realize her judgment is misplaced:
“Arlene says women today can have a career and a family too, if they just make sacrifices and balance everything correctly,” he said. “It’s what she’s trying to do, and so are most of the girls who graduated with her at Mills College.” He looked at her again. “Do you think a woman who has a job can’t be a good wife and mother too?”
She felt the breeze around her turn into waves, returning the strange chill she had felt that morning. The noise of happy children dimmed, replaced by the loud caw of birds. She realized they were standing under a nest where baby birds chirped out their starvation. She saw the head of the mother, its grim beak set and its gorging eyes searching the ground. She recognized the basic instinct of a mother on her children.
“I think any woman could do anything, if she sets her mind to it,” she said softly. “And I can see Arlene has her mind set on it. I’ve no right to judge her, and I’m sorry I did.”
Later, Leanne sees how she and Arlene are trapped in the same cage of feminine expectations, though their lives are very different. Their unexpected bond leads to some unexpected twists to the original story my mother told me.
You can read “Two Sides of Life” as well as the other four stories in the collection which speak to the idea of bonding generations of women when Lessons From My Mother’s Life is re-released on March 29 with a completely new cover!
If you love fun, engaging mysteries set in the past, you’ll enjoy my novella The Missing Ruby Necklace! It’s available exclusively to my newsletter subscribers and you can get it here. By signing up, you’ll also get news about upcoming releases, fun facts about women’s history, classic true-crime tidbits, and more!