At an age when most of her friends had settled into routines of knitting sweaters and booties for grandchildren, Olivia Ann Westerly got married for the first time— to a man ten years her senior. “Are you out of your mind?” Maggie Spence shouted when she heard the news. “You’re fifty-eight years old!”
Of course doing the unexpected was something that could be expected of Olivia. In 1923 when she was barely twenty-five years old, she went off on her own even though her father insisted it was scandalous for a single woman to be living alone. “What will people think?” he’d moaned as she tossed her clothes into a cardboard suitcase. But that didn’t stop Olivia. She got herself a two-room flat in the heart of downtown Richmond and a job working at the switchboard of the Southern Atlantic Telephone Company. “That’s shift work!” her father said. “Some of those girls come and go in the dark of night!”
“So what?” Olivia answered. Then she volunteered for the night shift, because it paid an extra sixty cents per day. Long after any respectable woman would have been snuggled beneath a down comforter, she’d paint her mouth with red lipstick, pull on a cloche hat, and trot off to the telephone company.
“Have you never heard of Jack the Ripper?” her friend, Francine Burnam, asked. “Have you never heard stories of women alone being accosted?” Married before her sixteenth birthday, Francine already had three children who clung to her like bananas on a stalk and a husband insistent about supper being served at six-thirty on the dot.
“That girl will be the ruination of our family!” Mister Westerly told his wife, but Olivia still stuck her nose in the air and went about her business. A year later when she was given a three-dollar raise and appointed supervisor of the night shift, her father disowned her altogether. The last thing he said was, “I want nothing to do with a girl who carries on as you do. A respectable daughter would be settling down with a husband and babies!”
“I’ve plenty of time for that,” Olivia answered, but by then her father had turned away and refused to look back.
“How much time do you think you have, dear?” her mother asked. “You’re twenty-six years old. What man would want to marry a woman of such an age?”
Olivia knew better. With her green eyes and a swirl of honey blond hair curled around her face, she had no shortage of boyfriends. Herbert Flannery, district manager for Southern Atlantic Telephone, had on three different occasions proposed marriage, the last time in the spring of 1929. That particular proposal followed on the heels of the worst winter Richmond had ever seen—months and months of ice crusted to windowpanes, and milk frozen before you could fetch it from the doorstep. In late December Olivia crocheted herself a wool scarf so oversized she could circle it around her throat three times and tuck her nose inside. Although she’d bundle herself in layers of sweaters, boots, and that scarf, she’d come in from the cold with her nose glowing like a stoplight and her feet near frozen. That winter there were few parties and people did very little socializing, so Olivia spent most of her evenings at home swaddled in a chenille bathrobe as she tried to stay warm.
In March, a month when she expected the crocuses to pop up from the ground, there was a six-inch snowfall and the wind rattled the windowpanes so loudly that sleep became impossible. When it seemed that spring would never arrive, Olivia began to question the emptiness of her life. Three weeks later Herbert went down on one knee and offered out a small velvet box. She nodded and allowed him to slip the diamond ring on her finger.
Olivia was genuinely fond of Herbert, and when she promised to marry him it was with the utmost sincerity. But that was before they started to discuss the aspects of their forthcoming life together. “Won’t it be wonderful?” she said. “We can walk to work together every day.”
Herbert circled his arm around her waist and pulled her to him in a way that tugged her blouse loose from the band of her skirt. “Umm,” he hummed in her ear, making the same sound as a bee when it drains the nectar from a flower. “We’ll do just that,” he cooed, “until you’ve a bun in the oven.”
“Bun in the oven?” she repeated.
Herbert grinned and affectionately patted her stomach. “A baby,” he said, giving her a sly wink. “You know, a little tyke. A Herbert Junior.”
“I know what it means,” she replied testily, “but aren’t you rushing things just a bit?”
It was impossible not to notice the downturn of her mouth so Herbert smoothed the situation over by claiming he was, of course, referring to such a time as they were ready for the thought of raising a family. He kissed Olivia, but when she closed her eyes there in back of her eyelids was the image of a woman with the look of hopelessness on her face and a bunch of babies clinging to her skirt. Olivia’s eyes popped open, and she snapped her head back. “What if I don’t want babies?” she asked rebelliously. “What about my job? There’s a good chance I’ll be promoted to the central office.”
“Babies are something every woman wants,” Herbert said. “It’s the natural way of life. Men work and women have babies.” He gathered her into his arms and held her close. “Don’t worry, sweetheart,” he whispered. “When the time comes you’ll be itching to grab hold of a baby just like every other woman.”
Although she let it go at that a feeling of uneasiness started to settle in, and Olivia couldn’t dismiss it. Three days later she telephoned both of her older sisters and asked if such a thing was true. Yes, indeed, they’d each answered. She then telephoned her mother and asked the same question. “Of course it’s true, sugar,” her mother said. “As a young girl I used to imagine that someday I’d be singing at the Opera House in London, England. But after I married your daddy I got the itch, and then along came Robert. The following year it was Albert, and after him Bernice.”
“But, Mama,” Olivia interrupted, “didn’t you think you’d missed out on something you truly wanted?”
“Think?” Her mother laughed. “With eight little tykes hanging on to me, I didn’t have time to think!”
It seemed that no matter who she asked it was the same story. “Bounce a baby on your knee, and you’ll forget about everything else,” Sara Sue said.
“But,” Olivia questioned, “weren’t you planning to be a newspaper reporter?”
“At one time, maybe,” her friend said. “But once Willie came along…”
As the days went by Olivia started to imagine a heavy weight tugging at the hem of her skirt, and at night when she closed her eyes and waited to drift off to sleep she could hear a baby crying. One night she dreamt of sitting at the switchboard with a stomach so large and round that, try as she may, she could not reach across the tandem board far enough to connect a call.
The following Saturday Francine Burnam stopped in for a visit. Eight months ago she had added another one to her litter, and she was accompanied, of course, by all four children, the youngest of them howling like a banshee. “He’s teething,” Francine apologized and jiggled the baby from one shoulder to the other. Olivia was about to suggest that Alma Porter used a piece of ice to soothe her baby’s gums, but before the words were out of her mouth Francine, who already looked like a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, started to wail. “Oh, Lord!” She flopped down onto the sofa. “What have I let myself get into?”
“The baby crying has probably gotten you a bit frazzled,” Olivia suggested. “Once his tooth comes in, everything will be just fine.”
“Fine?” Francine exclaimed. “Fine?! Maybe for you! You’ve got a job where you’re appreciated! Try taking care of four kids, and then see how you feel!”
Olivia was taken aback by the outburst. “But surely Joe helps?” she said.
“Oh, yeah,” Francine answered. “He helps—helps himself to a piece of pie and tells the kids to shut up because the noise is giving him a headache. He’s got a headache. Ha, that’s a joke! He’s concerned about his headache, never mind that I’m the one who listens to their carrying on every hour of every day.”
“That’s not even the worst of it! Now that he’s got me knocked up with a fifth kid, I find out he’s carrying on with some redhead who works in his office. He bought that little whore a fur coat,” she moaned. “Imagine that! A fur coat, when I’m wearing dresses older than the kids.”
“If I were you, I’d divorce him,” Olivia growled.
Francine started to cry even harder. “Oh, yeah,” she sobbed, “and just what am I supposed to do with all these kids?” Just then Joe Junior, the eldest of the bunch, punched his brother in the face, and a new level of wailing ensued.
Suddenly Olivia could see the bars of an invisible cage, and she told herself that this was the truth of what happened. First came the itch, then the babies, then a woman was forever locked into a lifetime of drudgery. It happened to Francine, a woman who’d once worn chiffon dresses and polished pink fingernails, a woman who’d read poetry and loved music. It happened because Francine allowed it to happen. She’d donned a white satin gown and pranced down the aisle like a happy cow unknowingly headed for the slaughter house. If it happened to Francine, it could happen to anybody.
Two weeks later Olivia slipped the diamond ring from her finger and returned it to Herbert. She claimed that although she cared for him, marriage was simply out of the question.
“But, sweetheart,” he said bewilderedly, “have I offended you? Have I done something to cause such a change of heart?”
“No,” she answered. “I’ve simply come to the realization that marriage and children are not for me.” She then kissed poor Herbert and escorted him to the door, saying it was her hope they could remain friends.
“Friends?” Herbert replied, but by then she’d closed the door.
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Genre – Literary Fiction
Rating – PG13