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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Non-Traditional Woman—Aunt Berl…

Good evening, Netizens...

Revisiting the message thread “Changing the Image”

After reading some of the many different opinions expressed in the message thread “Changing the Image”, and quickly realizing that some of our conversations had delicately slid into gender-based issues, followed shortly by a robust discussion of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, I decided to create a new thread to discuss traditional and non-traditional roles of women in American society and how they have changed in my 60-some years of living.

My favorite example of what I term “non-traditional women” began with my somewhat exotic but emotionally powerful Aunt Beryl. I will concede that traditional roles for women have changed since the late 1950's, but perhaps even by modern-day standards, Aunt Beryl might still create a bit of a stir.

There was that visual image, and I submit even modern-day men tend to react to that first. At six feet four inches tall, with powerful shoulders and well-muscled arms, Aunt Beryl tended to stand out in a crowd simply because she was so big and at first glance hardly typified what most men would define as “dainty femininity”. Adding to that visual image, she smoked a pipe, usually late in the day, and occasionally chewed Red Man tobacco, which further separated her from anyone's definition of the feminine mystique. She wasn't the least bit mannish at all, but just plain in the face, physically strong and yet gentle.Some family members insisted she was a lesbian, but I can state with total candor, she was not.

She spent most of her life farming a small homestead she owned in Southern Illinois and could drive, repair or rebuild almost anything with wheels. She owned a D4 Caterpillar she had used with great effect to shape and recover the rocky wasteland on which she lived to where it became a functional farm with 160 acres of tillable soil with the typical cycle of crops and livestock. She built her own house, with some technical assistance from her neighbors, as well as most of the outbuildings on her farm.

She was rock-solid, tough as nails and well-respected in the tiny community where she lived, although people, strangers from outside the community, often would stare openly at her and childishly giggle behind their hands like she was a freak in a side show. Perhaps it was because of her farmer's overalls, her homespun but assertive manner of speaking, but I assert it was that visual image she projected. Although she apparently had a classical education somewhere back in her youth, she could swear as proficiently as any man-farmer-jack-of-all-trades, and could easily put any man, woman or child in their places when she felt like it. She called a local politician an insouciant popinjay once and nobody knew what she meant.

Although she seldom spoke of it, she was also the first woman ever to be elected to the head of the Farmer's Co-Operative, in a day and age when women seldom were accepted by their male peers. The set of administrative and fiscal guidelines she created for the Co-Op brought it kicking and screaming into compliance with what were then modern business practices, and she remained its President until her death.

Despite her apparent expulsion from “respectable” family gatherings, over the years she became my friend. If I were to draw a mental picture of those days, I can still mentally see the picture of my Peterbilt tractor-trailer parked in the pasture behind her house, where she would inevitably come out with a freshly-brewed cup of Chicory coffee for me after I had slept coming off a long run, and we would sit beneath the ancient pear tree on the grass and talk when the weather was civil.

She never married, but did raise two children she adopted after a horrific tornado killed both their parents down the road a piece from her farm. When she passed on, the tiny church in her hometown was filled to overflow capacity, despite the fact that most of my immediate family members chose not to attend. I remember crying at her funeral because it was the first time I had ever seen her in a dress.


Spokesman-Review readers blog about news and issues in Spokane written by Dave Laird.