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The Women in Our Lives

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This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills. Well, spring has come in the door, fitfully and uncertain, like a child who has done something probably bad, and doesn’t know if you know it yet. A warm day or two and then a burst of snow, and another. Rain maybe, but where it will fall too much or too little no one knows.

Mother Nature is nothing if not fickle. Just like a woman, we say. Well, I’d like to say a little more about that.

We’re also just coming out the end of Women’s History month, with names handed around – Alice Paul, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams – that we only hear once a year and can only sometimes remember what they were famous For. They did something. We think it was important. If we’ve studied history beyond the headlines we know that women have always been far more influential than was ever acknowledged. Did you know that when they held the big celebration in the 1940s about economic successes of the New Deal the women who had been instrumental in that change were not allowed in the photograph? Actually one did sneak in at the side, but they cropped her out. When the leaders of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s rejoiced up on the stage at the March on Washington, the leaders who were women were not allowed on that stage.

But that whole line of thought set me to thinking about all the women in my Ozarks life, and probably yours. We had our stars, our Missouri Poet Laureate Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey, and the inimitable May Kennedy McCord, host of the longtime favorite Ozarks Radio show “Hillbilly Heartbeats.’ 

But there were others in these hills who were not famous except in their own families who just went about their business, did what they could and what they must, and never counted the cost. Never demanded that others ante up, do their part, give them their fair share, or a seat at the table. They were too busy fixing dinner, planting the garden, keeping up with the laundry.  

One of my most vivid memories of childhood was when my father came home early from work on a very hot summer afternoon. My mother was on the little utility porch in back, ironing. Because it was a secluded spot and a very hot job, she was ironing in her underwear. He thought she heard him come in. She didn’t. So when he stepped onto the porch and put his hand on her shoulder, she, in all her five foot one inch strength, brought her fist up from somewhere close to the floor, and decked him. They were both very surprised. And he looked very warily at her for a long time afterward.

She likely learned this from father, just like her sister, my aunt Juanita. It was understood in our family, you just didn’t trifle with Juanita. She wasn’t a mean person, far from it. No kinder little plump pretty lady you would never see. But she had, let’s just say, an enhanced sense of fairness. She was never cruel to anyone. But if you messed with her or anyone in her family, she could be very, very fair.

I am told that, having raised a family of five girls and one boy, my grandparents worried about their daughters’ safety. Then my uncle Roy was seriously injured trying to hop a freight train coming back from the Oklahoma broom corn harvest. So my grandfather was even more concerned, and he sat each of the girls down and had a talk with them. He told them to pay attention, to not put themselves at risk, and never, ever start a fight. But, he said, if a fight came to them, they would have to win it at any cost. My mother recounted his talk with her, when she, the smallest of them all, said, “but what if the other person is bigger.” Pick up a rock, he said. And that was that. Every one of the Gentry girls grew up fiercely independent, even though they  all followed the standards of the time, married, had kids, trained them all, husbands included, in respectable behavior and good values, and fiercely defended their separate broods. Aunt Juanita never had children. She had everyone else’s.

When her sister Neva’s husband was killed in a car crash, leaving her with a five-year-old, Juanita helped raise him. When my parents died, she finished raising me, and that took a very long time. She never faltered. She never lost faith in me no matter how scattered my wanderings or how wrong my choices. The women in our lives sometimes make all the difference in what kind of life we actually get to have.

So the next time you give a thought to Women’s History month, along with the many strong and memorable women who spoke up, who marched and who started and participated in great social change, cast a look back into your own Ozarks past and give a thought to those amazing Ozarks women at the center of it, who helped shape your future, and made the life you have possible.

Marideth is a Missouri storyteller, veteran journalist, teacher, author, musician and student of folklore focusing on stories relevant to Ozarks culture and history. Each month, she’s the voice behind "These Ozarks Hills.” Sisco spent 20 years as an investigative and environmental writer for the West Plains Quill and was well known for her gardening column, “Crosspatch,” on which her new book is based. Sisco was a music consultant and featured singer in the 2010 award-winning feature film “Winter's Bone.”