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Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

Pursuing happiness

Independence Day

Happy Independence Day—whatever that means to you. Because when it comes to history, there’s what we know to be true, what we think to be true, and what we or someone else has invented to support what we wish to be true.

Nobody really knows what Thomas Jefferson and his pals meant when they changed the text of the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress  from “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence.

In 1884, the Supreme Court declared it meant the right to pursue any lawful business or vocation, in any manner not inconsistent with the equal rights of others, which may increase their prosperity or develop their faculties, so as to give to them their highest enjoyment.

That’ll satisfy the conservatives among us. But it’s not good enough for me. I like to think there’s another level of emotional fulfillment involved, one that comes with following the leadings of your own particular spirit, with being compassionate and practicing "the habit of small kindness."

For my grandmother, pursuing happiness meant fleeing unhappiness. Not outrunning pogroms or famine, but leaving behind a life that nearly buried her in misery.

The details, a mystery before this, fell out of a small booklet in my mother’s files yesterday.

“Her classmates wondered why Miss Violet Dooley was not in class, having no excused absence,” the tiny, undated newspaper clipping gossiped. “When she returned to school the next day, it was learned that she had been joined in matrimony in Sioux Falls to Mr. Selmer Nelson of Canton.”

That’s not the happy part. That’s the start of the misery part.

Four months pregnant at 17 or 18 in 1921, Violet did what other girls did when they were “caught.” She married my grandfather, a handsome, taciturn farmer. I’ve changed the names, not from shame but to evade identity pirates.

For a couple months, she tried. Her Bride’s Diary has empty pages for gifts and parties, but there are budget entries: $12 for groceries that first month, $1.38 for clothing, $.55 for “investment,” $.45 for entertainment. After May, no more entries.

The family legend is that Selmer’s mother, my great-grandmother, made Violet’s life miserable. Hid her violin, set her to sewing curtains. The curled recipes cut from packages that Violet stuck in the diary are recipes no one with any domestic notions would ever have saved. She was an artist and a dreamer.

In August, a few isolated entries start in my mother’s baby book. Like the marriage, they began in Sioux Falls. “Baby weighed 8 pounds; 25 inches.” That can’t be right, but it’s what’s there.

“Baby is real good. Sleeps through the night.”

Then this, under Baby’s First Trip, apparently in November or December: “She is enjoying her journey to the coast with the Dooleys: Jimmy Schaeffer drove the car for Papa.”

Violet’s mother, father, and sisters rescued her, I think. They pulled up roots and drove her far away to start a new life, settling in Portland. In that same compressed single year was a divorce and another marriage, this time to Jimmy. The couple moved to California to live happily ever after, which turned out to be all of a year. Then my grandmother, who I hope was happy now, died suddenly. Jimmy drove the tow-headed baby girl, now walking, north. With her grandparents and aunts and neighbors raising her, she was a wild and happy child.

It’s hard to imagine the kind of unhappiness that would lead to such radical acts. But I do understand the love of family that allowed Violet’s kin to wrap themselves around her in a time of great need and do what they believed necessary to help her.

One of America’s great gifts to us is the freedom to follow through on our inspirations to acts of compassion. To go where our hearts lead us--in pursuit of property, in pursuit of vocation, in pursuit of what it takes to do more than just survive. Even if no one understands.

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