We could hear the anger in my father’s voice as him and my mother talked about our sister. The walls between the main room and the small bedroom I shared with my brothers were too thin to hide the noise. Most of the bedroom was filled with two large beds and couple of wooden dressers. Anthony and I sat on the bed we shared on the right side of the room; Michael and Nicholas both sat on the edge of the bed they shared only a few feet away. Our sister Madiola sat on the old green and brown rug, her back resting the against the small table between the beds where we put our candles and whatever books we were able to get our hands on.
The lit candle behind Maddy put a soft glow around us. I can only imagine what the others were thinking but I sat there with my arms crossed wishing it was light enough to work the fields. But, the late night hour and the fear of having to pass our parents on the way out the door kept us boys from moving. Maddy, a fierce tomboy who often stood up to our father more than us boys would ever dare, would probably spend the night on the dirty carpet rather than run into our parents on the way to her sleeping loft above the kitchen.
My brothers and I sat not knowing what we should do to stop the tears rolling down Maddy’s pretty cheeks or to straighten those hunched shoulders that shook uncontrollably with her quiet crying. The four of us sat feeling powerless. I wanted to reach out and comfort her but I didn’t know how. This was a horrible feeling for a young man who prided himself on being strong. Maddy wanted to travel alone to a large town two day’s away on the back of one of better donkeys to attend a new nursing school set up for young women. Her goal was to become a war nurse, an educated and independent woman like Florence Nightingale.
My father flat out refused to let her go. He had made a deal with the farmer whose property was right next door to our farm years ago. He thought that the marriage of Maddy to the farmer’s only son, an average looking boy with scrawny limbs and a laugh that sounded more like one of our swine, would be good and he never dreamed that she would have any complaints about his plans for her. Our father’s booming voice cut thru the walls was as easily as a knife thru butter. We could hear his fist as it slammed with great force on to the eating table and the words “Never!
” We could hear our mother’s softer voice, slightly muffled, and I could picture her gentle hands on the brawny shoulders of Father in a useless attempt at calming the tension. She always tried to make sure that everybody would wind up happy. Tonight she would fail. Despite her best attempts, the five of us listened to his furious rantings and unbendable will. There is no way his daughter would leave the village on one of his beasts; knowing she would never have a way to travel without it or the money to go to the school without the selling of the animal once she arrived in the great city.
His daughter would not embarrass the family by abandoning it or her duties. Maddy would marry. She would produce children for her husband, and she would do it all with a smile on her face. I reached out my hand and touched Maddy’s soft dark hair and hoped that she would feel my love for her. I also silently wished the night would simply end. Present Day America Our well-lit kitchen easily accommodated our large family with ease. My brothers Nick and Mike sat on the blue tiles of the center island facing the kitchen table. I sat on the bench behind the table with my sister Madeline to my right.
On the chair to my left sat my mother, my father occupies the chair next to Maddy. As we all spoke at the same time, a habit in our family, I notice how tired my father appears. At least he seems to be taking in the bombshell of news fairly well. Maddy, always one of the most adventurous of the family, has just broken the news that she is entering the United States Army as soon as she graduates from nursing school two months from now. She has already signed up and is expected at boot camp just 3 weeks after the graduation ceremony.
She intends to become a war nurse in the Middle East where the war on terror is still going strong. Mom of course already knows, as do I. Anthony has known for a while as well, but as he recently transferred to the west coast he could only be involved over the telephone. We probably won’t need to pick up the phone, but at some point we will; Anthony does not like to be left out of anything. The afternoon shines in through the oversized window and highlights the water in our father’s eyes that he is trying so hard to hold back; he’s doing a terrible job.
He raised us all to be strong, independent people. He raised us with strict morals and drilled into us the importance of education, hard work, and community service. And still here he sits wishing he could tell his daughter that she simply cannot go. I can tell he wished he could put his foot down and demand she graduate and go to work at Morristown Memorial Hospital like she had planned to do. I know he wants her to meet a nice doctor, maybe get married in a few years, have a few children, and be basically happy with it all.
Dad should know by now that what he wants and what we want don’t always end up being the same thing. Maybe it’s just different because Maddy is a girl. Mom holds dad’s hand in a way that leaves her thumb free to rub the top of his fingers. The back and forth motion across his knuckles is a sweet gesture. The comfort and strength she is able to pass on to him through a small touch show their love for each other. I am sure our mother doesn’t want Maddy to go that far home, alone, and to such a dangerous place, anymore than the rest of us who love her do.
But, Mom has always understood our individual needs and personalities and she can be counted on to be supportive in most cases. Dad has always tried to do the same, though he is not always successful. Maddy has called the family together for this meeting as a way to share her news with everyone. This gabfest is basically an opportunity to share our thoughts and feelings with Maddy. We can offer her our opinions, and our family has a lot of those, and she will listen with her head slightly at a tilt and her dark eyes focused only on whoever is speaking.
But in the end Maddy will do whatever she feels like doing. Dad wants to know why she would even think about doing this, even though he has asked this many times in the last twenty minutes; he does not understand the answers he gets. His free hand is balled into a tight fist and rests on the red Formica tabletop, his veins popping every few seconds as he clenches it tighter and tighter. I don’t think it really matters what answer Maddy gives. We all know she will go. Differences Between Then and Now A hundred, a hundred and fifty years, I can imagine our family as a strong unit.
Our mother may have held a certain amount of power but she would have little choice but to follow along with whatever our father decides. Our father who would have had the last word every time. Major discussions would have involved our mother and father alone. They would have had almost no privacy to hold their discussions and his word would have been final. Feelings and emotion would have little to do with the decision process. Pride and duty would have meant more in the decision process. Going against our father’s decision may have been unthinkable even if we wanted to.
If we did we could have ended up being kicked out of the house or maybe even the family. Back then women seen as less intelligent than men and they were considered by almost everyone to be second class citizens. They had to do what their husbands said to do or their fathers if they were not married. In today’s world, I see things are in almost reverse. First of all, we would hold a family meeting. I think that at the very least my sister would have been included in every part of the decision process and what she wanted, how she felt, and what she was capable of would have been a major factor in the final outcome.
My brother’s and I, depending on our age may have been a part of the meeting or not (for the purposes of this discussion, we are all old enough to be included). I think mostly that our being at the meeting would depend on whether our sister wanted us there for support. Our parents’ roles would have been much different today. Our mother’s opinion would carry as much, and possibly more, weight than our father because women of today are considered equal to men and sometimes thought to be even smarter than today’s men when it comes to understanding their children.
Of course, in our family, our father’s thoughts would be seriously listened to as a sign of our respect. But, it would not be as if his opinions were the only ones that mattered. Then and now, our family would be one of love. But back then, a family worked together and the man ran the house because that is how they survived. Today it is more like everybody is expected to do their own thing. Careers are more equal today. And old-fashioned fathers can sometimes be full of pride even if they are scared of their daughter’s modern choices. The macho attitudes of these men today have come a long way 100 years ago.