colby caldwell

Susan Alta Martin - Day One

colby caldwell
Susan Alta Martin - Day One
 Unknown Photographer

Unknown Photographer

I am starting my story about 15 years after the above picture was taken. It is 1959 or ‘60. I imagine my mother hurrying home after work–not enough time to even take off her heels or stockings–to get to the mail before my father came home from school. They were living in a squalid basement apartment in Boston (maybe she was pregnant with my sister, their first child?) while my father went to grad school at Boston University. But it could have been before that, maybe the summer right after she graduated from Carroll College in Wisconsin. Was she in her childhood home in the backwoods town of Portage, WI? Either way, she kept the letter a secret. 

When she saw the letter did she take it to the bathroom so no one could watch her open it? How did she open it? Quickly to get to the answer, or slowly to savor the anticipation? The secret? She had applied to Boston University’s Law School and, as she found out, she had been accepted. 

I have become somewhat obsessed with the picture above. It shows her (front row, all the way to the left) at the age of eight or so. It was at about that age that my mother became enamored with a woman in her town who had become a lawyer. It was unheard of for a woman to have such a career, and the possibility opened new worlds for her (I like looking for those possibilities in her youthful eyes).

But years after this picture, my mother kept her acceptance letter a secret. She made the decision to not go to law school alone. She must have had to balance her own desires to be what she wanted to be (fueled by the promise of the new and rising feminism, that her efforts would lift all boats) with practical realities of known and comfortable expectations. It would have taken an extraordinary woman to row against the tide. She was no stranger to adversity, but maybe she had struggled enough. She became a wonderful mom and exceptional secretary (we call them office managers now). She told me about the letter maybe two years before she died. Looking back, it is easy to spot those times when that decision (and many other compromises like it) haunted her. She must have replayed the opening of that letter millions of times.