Two of my neighbors died within the last year: the husband of one couple and the wife of another. No, this is not a fairytale about the remaining survivors forming a new union. (Ironically, they all knew one another well and shared a mutual loathing.)
I liked all four of them for different reasons, but I bonded with the wives over our love of fashion. I felt very little generational disparity between us. Although the wives avoided each other like the plague, both of them had a great deal in common.
Born into first generation American immigrant families, they were very well read and highly intelligent. They were also college graduates, somewhat of a rarity for women in the 1940s, and like so many others, worked while their husbands were away at war. Still, often I wondered why they were both so bitter. I got some hint one day when I made what I thought was a clever comment to one of them about how I had hated a home economics class in High School. (It involved a humiliating attempt at pie crust.) But immediately, when I saw the hurt expression on her face, I shrunk inside.
I learned that this was her area of study in college. Her husband explained, with some pride, that she was actually a chemist. In those days the area of home economics was, in fact, chemistry. It also encompassed food preparation and was part of a curriculum designed by the US Department of Agriculture, initially to give meaningful work to farm women. My neighbor actually received some notoriety for her work. And my other neighbor was one of the most well-read persons I have known. She had been an English teacher and librarian.
They each gave up their full-time careers once their husbands came home from the war. Although I liked both husbands, it was pretty obvious they were profoundly chauvinistic. They enjoyed the privileges of their status as breadwinners and as men who were highly regarded in their respective fields who got more glory, more time in center stage, more community accolades.
The wives simply wanted to be respected and taken seriously, two things that were -- and in some quarters still are -- in short supply for the job of housewifery. In their private conversations with me I discovered their depth of their resentment. They confided how difficult their marriages were, especially the years of enduring the silence that became a part of their husbands' post-war personalities.
So, as they relinquished their own careers to raise families they became involved in social and community groups. They handled the family finances, very well, in fact. But they also became highly judgmental and critical of anyone who disagreed with their opinions. They assumed a new role: standard bearers of what they considered a righteous life. (I think many women of their generation did this. That veneer of righteousness began to crack when women began to drink too many martinis and consume too much valium.) Their silent rage laid the groundwork for a new generation that burned bras and broke glass ceilings when they stood up for themselves, and by proxy, for their mothers.
Still, I see no villains here. One of their husbands, a Sergeant, was injured in the Battle of the Bulge. He bore the emotional scars both of his physical wounds and of the loss of many of his young charges for the rest of his life. These days we call it PTSD and take it more seriously. Maybe the silence, typical of men of the Greatest Generation, may have been how they brought some sense of order and control to their lives after the horrors of war.
I don't know how the next generation of men and women envision their roles in the world or with each other. There are some of clues among the young people I know. They tend to travel in loving and supportive groups rather as couples and are marrying much later. But one thing I do know: the relationship between the sexes will never again be as lopsided as it was for men and women like my neighbors, my parents, and their entire generation.