Oral History Essay
"I made it on my own"
Jackie has been part of my life since I can remember. When I think of her, I can picture her smile, hear her laugh, and feel her sweet hugs. I describe our relationship as her being my third grandmother. She has vacationed with my family. She has attended all of our high school graduations, and she spends Thanksgiving at our house, when she is not out of town, visiting one of her sons out West. She is sweet, strong, funny, intelligent and most of all, a wonderful friend to me and my family.
This past weekend, my mom and I drove down to Richmond and met Jackie at her house. She lives on a quiet street outside of the city, where the trees hang over the street, allowing just enough sunlight through to brighten the day. She met us at the porch with her pet dog, Muggie, and she laughed as she opened the door, tickled to see us. We all hugged and as my mom and I found a seat, Jackie ran around collecting cookies and drinks to offer to us. Her hospitality is only one of the things that make her delightful.
We sat for a while and I listened to my mom and her gossip as I organized my thoughts in my head. When they realized that I wasn’t saying anything, Jackie asked how school was going and wanted to hear all the details of my assignment so she could be as helpful as possible. I rambled on for a few minutes and then finally got to the point, reading her the statement of the assignment.
“Oh my,” she sighed, “I don’t know if I will be much help.” She seemed to let herself down before I could even begin the interview. I laughed; I had a few questions to ask and the interview could go where it wanted to. My plan was to take from it what pertained to our class and the assignment. As we began she seemed to relax, knowing that my purpose was to gain some insight through her experiences.
Jackie was born on May 20, 1928, in Richmond, Virginia. Her twin sister died in childhood, making Jackie her parent’s only child. She spent most of her early years in the country, living on a farm in Hanover County. When she was six years old her family moved to Henrico County, which bordered the city of Richmond.
I began our conversation by reading the first set of questions included in the assignment outline. “What were your experiences at school and your community? What did it mean to be a girl in the times when you were growing up?” I asked. She brushed her short gray hair behind her ear and said, “Rachel, I don’t really know that things like that stuck out to me. I never thought about it that way. I had a very unusual upbringing.”
In their Henrico home, her next-door neighbors, the Todds, who Jackie says influenced her parents very much, had three children, two of whom were boys. All three of the Todd children were older than Jackie, but they all played together and had the best of times. She laughed to my mom and me as she recalled moving in. “The first time they came over to visit, I remember hiding my dolls. I didn’t want them to laugh at me.”
Hiding her dolls and becoming friends with her next-door neighbors was a very significant thing in Jackie’s childhood. Just as it did to her, it stuck out to me that she hid her dolls in hopes of befriending these little boys and playing their games. She wanted to be part of their group and she thought her dolls would hurt her chance of friendship. This did turn into a close friendship. The children attended Dumbarton Elementary School together.
“How was school?” I asked her to recall. She explained that she was never very good at math, but she did enjoy and take part in the minstrel shows. Her recollection of the county schools was that they were not very good, which led to her parent’s decision to send Jackie into the city for high school at Thomas Jefferson. Her parents did not want her to go to Glen Allen High School and felt that attending T. J. would help her get into college.
“High school was not easy. The group of us from the county had to work very hard. I remember the girls from the city being quite cliquish and I was never in their group,” she explained to me. “I had my close group of friends from the county, but I made it on my own.”
Jackie was on Student Council and sponsored the Cadet Company that was started while she was in high school. She graduated in 1945, the year World War II was over, and following her graduation she attended Virginia Commonwealth University and began dating her husband, Arnold. In the sophomore year in college, she was accepted at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. At the time, women were only allowed to attend Chapel Hill during their last two years of college. Jackie decided not to go because of Arnold and no one pushed her to attend. In 1949 she and Arnold were married, although her parents were not happy with the decision.
Throughout the interview, Jackie made comments referring to her mother and father. She loved both of her parents. She felt that her mother was extremely overprotective, although she allowed Jackie to visit with relatives and playmates on a regular basis, but only with people her mother trusted. Jackie described herself as a trusted and obedient child. “I loved my father more than words could say,” she told me. “He didn’t deal with all the details though, mother did.”
When asked who her biggest influences were she did not say her parents, her Aunt Helen and Aunt Janie were. Both women were married but neither one had any children. Every summer Jackie would visit Virginia Beach with her Aunt Helen and her husband. Her uncle taught her how to swim in the ocean. She remembers spending lots of her childhood in their Richmond home, where she now lives.
Her Aunt Janie and her husband, John, lived in Ashland. Janie had a love for books, which turned into a love of Jackie’s. During her adolescent years she would frequently visit the couple. John would pick Jackie up on Friday afternoons and she would spend the weekend in Ashland where she had many friends, some of whom she dated, but always in a group atmosphere.
After Arnold and Jackie were married, they moved around a little bit. While Arnold was in hotel school at Cornell, Jackie had a few jobs before she got a job at the library. She worked at the circulation desk, and when the children’s librarian retired, she took over the position. She loved her job but had to leave once Arnold graduated. In the years following, Jackie had two sons, Mark and Greg, who are now in their forties. Arnold became the Director of Food Services at Princeton and they lived there for eight years, returning to his family’s hotel in Virginia Beach during the summers.
In 1964, Jackie brought her two sons back to Richmond after she divorced Arnold, due to infidelity and alcoholism, something that I have learned from my mother over the years, not from Jackie. Her family helped her with everything from finding a home to taking care of her two boys. She took a job with the library in the city and in the fall of 1965 she was hired at the Fairfield library, the first in Henrico county. This is where she has spent the rest of her adult life.
I look at Jackie after her interview and see that she is a strong, intelligent woman. We did not discuss her divorce. Although I had questions about it, I know that it is a part of her life that she has come to terms with and the closure doesn’t need to be discussed. Jackie’s opening statement has taken on new meaning to me now. She did have an unusual experience. As a child she was given opportunities that were not open to all women. Her mother wanted her to attend college; she wanted Jackie to be educated, which ended up saving Jackie later on in her life after her divorce. On the other hand, she was given the opportunity to be educated at a higher level, but when the decision came to stay at VCU or go on to UNC, no one pushed her to go to the elite school. No one wanted her to marry Arnold, but no one said that she didn’t need to get married. It was assumed that marriage was more important. She told me that although her favorite time of her life was the time she spent in Princeton, she also has one regret. She wishes that she had taken advantage of the situation and gotten her Masters in library science. Instead, she stayed home with her children and didn’t think about it because at that point in her life, women were not being pushed in that direction.
Not only did the gender issue affect her education, it affected her with her relationships throughout her life, beginning with her childhood friends continuing through adulthood. When Jackie got divorced, it was not common. She was put into a situation where she had to be strong and had to work hard at work and at home.
I am proud to know this woman. I am proud to think that her mother pushed to have Jackie educated at the highest level. I am proud to think that two of her role models were women. I am proud to think that Jackie was able to stand up for herself and get out of an unhealthy marriage for herself and her children. I am proud that she worked hard and provided things and didn’t depend on a man. I think that her comment referring to high school can be applied to her whole life, “I made it on my own.”