What Might Have Been

What Might Have Been

Mara Fein

I have a photo of me standing next to my mother.  I am probably two or three years old.  It is a wintry day and my snowsuit envelopes me.  My right hand points up at the sky.  Perhaps at a bird, perhaps the sun, perhaps the faintest of moons.  I have no idea what my childish self saw.  But as I now gaze upon that moment of magical thinking, I wonder if it is good to let yourself stray from the path a little and follow your inner child, because you never know what you might find.

In Greek mythology, the Fates, a group of three goddesses, weave our destinies at birth.  Supposedly, they determine not only the length of one’s life, but also the allotment of joy.  Or misery.  You might think, since the Fates were women, they might have been kind to the women in my family.  Sadly, that was not the case.

The women in my family had no poverty of aspiration.  My father’s mother, blessed with a beautiful soprano voice and an offer to study music in Vienna, found that road closed to her because of her fearful parents.  As fate would have it, her parents had just arrived in America and refused to allow their daughter to return to the country they had fled, even if it presented the possibility of a stellar career in the world of opera.  Her life continued through an arranged marriage to a much older man.  A child followed, then his frequent absence, and his return leading to another birth, then another, and finally divorce.  In a limited education and job that wasted her talents. In a basement apartment in Brooklyn, where she could never fully escape poverty or loneliness. In perennial resentment towards my mother, never ever good enough for her son. In bitterness that made me a fearful silent child whenever my father and I visited her.  

Poverty crushed my mother’s dream of teaching. She grew up in Hartford, Connecticut and her parents offered to send her to the nearby New Britain State Normal School for teachers.  Too close to home for her.  She dreamed of college in some far-off place.  

Her sister Irene, the eldest, wanted to be a nurse.  But it was 1933, there were eight children, and the Great Depression being what it was, the family needed Irene to work.  So she took a job at the local department store and never left Hartford.  My mother escaped to New York City and the nursing school Irene had hoped for, one sister’s dreams cascading into the other’s.  

Nevertheless, they remained close.  When I was a child I often heard them on the phone.  Long conversations, often about their unhappy marriages, never about their careers.  Conversations overheard that determined me to never marry, because marriage would stunt my talents and derail my dreams.  

I was wrong.

I was a bit of a tomboy as a child.  I played every sport I could in high school and lettered in track and field, softball, and bowling.  My parents wanted me to go to college.  I wanted a career in sports.  Title IX, providing new opportunities in sports for women, was passed two years after I graduated high school.  Too late for athletic scholarships or women’s varsity.  Too late to imagine a decent-paying career in sports other than as a physical education teacher, a career I did not want.  The best I could do, as my college newspaper reported, was star in powder puff football, with “two interceptions … in the final game of the regular season.”

I loved sports, but I also loved theater.  Musical theater.  I inherited my grandmother’s voice, and what I longed for most of all was a life on Broadway.  

I attended auditions but was never cast.  One day my voice teacher said “music can always be an avocation, you know.”  I was stunned.  Slapped in the face.  Was she saying I wasn’t talented enough?  Would never earn my living with my voice?  I couldn’t ask.  But I now realize she knew, and perhaps deep inside I knew, that my happiness lay elsewhere.  

This detour did not result in bitterness like my grandmother’s, although I inherited her voice and the irony does not escape me.   This simply was not the star my inner child saw.

My mother was not bitter either, although a bit disappointed, I think.  She shared recordings of my voice with neighbors, queried them about children who were in “the business” and might “give me a break.”  

She was not disappointed by my next move.  A move that took us both by surprise.

My husband and I met at a swimming pool on a sunny March afternoon in California.  We marvel over the insistence of the Fates.  Had we made different choices, we might well have met and married in New York City, he taking the job he was offered there and I remaining to seek a career in musical theater.  Or even earlier, in Illinois, where we both strode the same campus at the same time, but apparently never crossed paths.  If destined to meet, we certainly made it quite difficult for the Fates to succeed.

After my mother died many years later, as I cleaned out closets long neglected, I found old family photos.  Of weddings, of days at the beach, of holiday parties, of old people sitting around and talking. Those photos gave me a clearer and more focused picture of my family’s choices.    

Divorced when it was still considered shameful, a single mother supporting three children and her own mother, the best job my grandmother could find was as housemother to student nurses in Beth Israel Hospital in New York City.  I found a photo of her at her desk, sitting ramrod straight, gaze cold, and lips stiff, as if she had just issued a reprimand.  Probably little different from her demeanor when my father told her he was marrying my mother, one of her former student nurses.

Mother was tough on her nurses too, but former co-workers told me she was the best head nurse they ever knew.  Perhaps that’s why a 1939 photo reveals her, just out of nursing school in starched uniform and cap, grinning at the camera.  Newly licensed.  Independent. Hopeful about the road ahead.

The wedding photos of my aunt Irene suggested that she was not hopeful about the road she was heading down.  She frowned in every photo.  Wedded bliss was not what she was expecting.  And not what she got, either.  She married an inveterate gambler more interested in the ponies than raising a family and uninterested in the children she so wished to have but never did.  Photos through the years show an increasingly worn and saddened woman.  Was it for this, she seemed to ask.  My mother must have agreed about my uncle.  She kept plenty of photos of her sister Irene, but few included Irene’s husband.

I noticed something else in those photos.  As Irene aged, she seemed to become someone else.  All the relatives did.  Like those high school reunion photo name tags, they became ancient witnesses to the people they had been.  But then, I thought, perhaps they actually became more themselves … perhaps after being on the road a long time, they simply knew themselves better, were more able to show their happiness, their bitterness, their disappointment.  

And I wondered if, as I had wandered down paths too numerous to remember, perhaps I too had become more myself.  More able to understand the triviality of my so-called failures and to cherish my accomplishments.  More able to understand the sadness of others and not hold grudges.  More aware of the immense love in my life.  Yet aware of questions I should still ask, of love I should still give.  

I found my intellectual path somewhat late in life, at least that’s how I felt in graduate school, a thirty-eight year old student, isolated from much younger hipper classmates.  I labored for six years for a doctorate in English Literature and loved teaching, but had no desire to teach in any of the places I interviewed.  A major press showed interest in my dissertation, but I did not follow up, my desire to labor on a book that appeared unlikely to get me a position in a field flooded with younger candidates fairly low.  Neither my dissertation director nor any other professor explained how the road ahead might diverge, offering other choices.  And earning a decent living loomed largest. 

But literature now colors all I see and I do not regret the worlds it opened up.  Books are my most trusted of friends and I sit down with them often.  When I am about to speak in anger, Jane Austen reminds me “good opinion, once lost is lost forever.”  When I think only of myself, George Elliot reminds me: “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other.”  I no longer bear grudges, because Charlotte Bronte reminds me “Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.”  

Robert Frost once said in a letter to a friend, “No matter which road you take, you’ll always sigh, and wish you’d taken another.”  I still wonder what life would have been like had I accepted a professorship and married another scholar or coached softball or been a star in musical comedy.  But these days I do find the time to read George Eliot, sing in a choral group, watch women competing in softball and basketball, and dream of what might have been.  And so those things have become, not my vocation, not the way I earn my daily bread, but my avocations, the things that bring light to a world that sometimes threatens darkness at any moment.  

If my grandmother had become an opera singer, she might have had a happy marriage and mentored me.  If my mother had been a teacher, I might have found my literary path sooner.  But I now realize the might-have-beens of three generations of women are not useful. Learning to be at ease with the life I have is what mattered most.

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