THANKS, BETTY FRIEDAN
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Ever since the ring came in the mail I've been talking to it.
It's a beautiful ring, by the way, a pinkish gold wedding band with a design of delicately raised flowers. It was made - years ago by a distant relative on Canal Street in New York City - for my grandmother, my father's mother. I don't know if Grandma had another band before it, or, if she did, what might have happened to it. But this is the one I always saw her wear.
When Grandma died, her daughter, my Aunt Sylvia, wore the ring. And when Sylvia got sick, she decided that I should have it. It came in the mail last week.
When I put it on, I was not surprised to find that it fit as if it had been made for me. There is no question that the body I inhabit today is almost identical to the one my grandmother inhabited, and to the one my aunt inhabits now. We look alike, we think alike, and our internal plumbing works - or sometimes doesn't work - in exactly the same ways.
But one thing makes me different. In living my life, I have had choices that my grandmother and my aunt never dreamed of.
That's why I talk to the ring.
For example, last Thursday I took it to a concert in Northampton, Mass. The legendary Flatlanders were playing, and I had been waiting 20 years to hear them play together live.
I went with my friend Sheryl, who frequently rode shotgun for me during the five years I covered music for the Springfield Union-News in Massachusetts. No matter what the weather, Sheryl and I rode the highways together, down as far as New Haven and Hartford and east as far as Boston, searching for the next musical high.
At the Flatlanders' concert, I stood right up against the stage, watching with jaw-dropping awe as the three Texans made glorious alternative country music. At one point my idol, Jimmie Dale Gilmore (a mystic who looks like a cross between a Native American and a homeless person) looked deep into my eyes (there wasn't any way he could avoid me, really) and sang a lyric just for me. My knees turned to liquid and I swooned.
"You see, grandma," I whispered to the ring. "You can have interests that aren't your husband's interests. You can go to concerts alone, or with a friend. You can communicate with the musicians and dance like a wildwoman, even if you're 60 years old."
For most of her life, my grandmother stayed home. Her social life was mainly with her family. She never went anywhere without her husband. She never danced at a rock concert. Sheryl and I already have our tickets for the Springsteen tour.
The very next day, my husband and I drove over to Saratoga, N.Y., to the track. He likes to handicap the horses by studying track conditions, past performances, trainers, post placements and the like. So he stays pretty close to the track.
For me, racing is an aesthetic experience. I like to hang out at the paddock and admire the beauty of the horses. Every now and then a horse signals to me that he or she has something extra special going on that day. That's when I bet.
My grandmother never went to the track, much less stood alone at the paddock for hours, talking about horses with strangers. She certainly never bet.
"You see, grandmother," I whispered to the ring, "how tall and gleaming and muscled and beautiful the horses look in the paddock before the race? And look at them afterward. It's like they have shrunk. They're dirty, sweating, panting, and they look so ordinary they could be pulling a cart. Isn't that interesting?"
My grandmother may have lived a staid and respectable life, but she was lucky in her marriage. She met her husband in New York, but he was from the same town in Russia that she came from. He was a musician, 11 years older, and they were deeply in love.
My aunt likes to tell me that when she and my father were children, at night they used to listen to Grandma and Grandpa talking and laughing behind their closed bedroom door.
My aunt was not as lucky. In 1940, she was a pretty blonde woman with a job she loved and many friends. But the family was deeply worried because she was over 30 and still unmarried.
They found a man - any man would have done, really - and promised him a job if he would marry her.
Then they pressured my aunt into the marriage. He turned out to be half-crazy. He fought with people. He lost every job he ever had. My father slipped my aunt money secretly to keep them going. Her marriage was hell on a plate.
In 1964, I too married because I thought I had to. Then I read Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" and the world shifted.
I can sum up the new paradigm with a phrase that was popular back then: I could become the man I wanted to marry. Who knew that it would be a cross between Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac? The point was that I didn't need a husband; I could have my own life.
Soon I had left my husband and taken to a life of travel and adventure. (I believe I got my adventurous side from my grandmother, who escaped Russia on foot over the mountains when she was just a teenager.)
When I married for the second time, it was an unconventional choice, and to an unconventional man. We'll be together 13 years on Sept. 1, and we're very happy.
"I'm giving you the ring," my aunt said, "so you can be as happy as my mother and father were."
So now I take the ring on my adventures, and - in my imagination - show my grandmother and my aunt what it feels like to be on your own, to follow your dreams no matter what the risk, to explore the world, and maybe to help change it a little bit.
I've had experiences they never dreamed of, and I've made choices that might have set them free.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.