How much do any of us know about our parents? I thought I knew a lot, perhaps as much as needed, but discovery of a treasure trove of letters and documents, saved by my mom, Nell, over the period of her life, revised my understanding of her and why she chose Ben to be my future dad. Most of these documents were archived in an old defunct freezer chest at the family farm. My oldest brother, Paul, and his eldest daughter, Helen, had put these writings in chronological order, and in reading through I became part of my mom’s life starting a hundred thirty years ago when women’s roles were heavily influenced by Victorian concepts.
I lived through mom’s tragic loss of her mother when she was only seven, how she emerged from her father’s strong belief in the distinct duties of husband and wife as breadwinner versus homemaker, and how she tried out a teaching career while simultaneously searching for an appropriate husband.
Oh my, before settling on Ben, a budding lawyer and my dad-to-be, Nell’s letters document several other lovers, including Thad, a medical doctor in training, Leslie, a hopeful Broadway actor, and John, proprietor of a NYC shoe store. While scanning all those love letters, Nell’s almost daily written exchange with Ben showed me why she chose him, despite his admiration of her father’s Victorian views.
I’m putting together chosen excerpts with accompanying narrative about the time and place of my mother’s life. I think I’ll call it Intrepid Nell: How She Emerged from the Victorian Age.