In Honor of Jane Mitchell’s 90th Birthday

I took a selfie with my grandmother today.

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I held the phone in front of our faces and our images were filtered through its tiny lens, digitally encoded, and displayed back to us on the screen. I took a selfie with my grandmother and the only thing she could say at the sight of herself was “Good God! That face!”

When my grandmother was my age, the world was fighting a war. She lived in New Jersey, and in high school, Jane and her boyfriend George had won “Best Couple” in their senior class. But that boy, along with the rest of them, had signed up for training and now were learning how to defeat Nazis. Jane’s father, my great-grandfather, thought she’d find a new beau soon enough, and before long would be a happily married, stay-at-home mother, as was common at the time. He didn’t consider it worth the money to send her to a four-year college, and instead sent her to a lady’s Finishing School in Virginia. I picture her packing her bags dutifully, concealing her worries about the war, about George, and about her future with feelings of hope. Virginia was a whole new world.

But that didn’t mean it was a perfect world. In Virginia, at a school where she was supposed to learn how to walk, talk and eat like a polite, civilized lady, Jane encountered her first taste of Southern racism. Grandma told me she couldn’t believe it when she first saw the segregated bathrooms and drinking fountains. Compared to her life growing up not far outside New York City, the “bathroom situation” was an outrage. She spoke out; she joined protests, she expressed her dismay as well as a polite, dutiful young girl can, but ultimately, she left the school after a year. She had by then gotten a wide enough taste of the world, and she was determined to earn her degree.

Jane transferred to Syracuse University. Despite her father’s grumblings, she succeeded there. She double majored in Art and Psychology and rose to become president of her sorority. She worked as a waitress to help pay her tuition and — Grandma looks at me as she says this — her favorite people, the ones she learned the most from in school, were the ones that had to work their way to a degree.

After college she took her skills as a painter to a factory that made thermometers. From morning to quittin’ time she painstakingly handpainted each line and number on the little glass tubes. The other employees were Polish refugees who liked to gossip about the things that entertained them back at home, before the Nazis had invaded. With wry smiles they told Jane stories of the hidden, underground culture of Warsaw, of forbidden, clandestine meetings in the night time. It was all very scandalous. “I came home every day with eyes as big as saucers!” Grandma says in her characteristic New Jersey accent which, still present after nearly 60 years in the Midwest, pronounces “saucers” as “sawsuhs.”

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But the war ended eventually. A victory! George came home in one piece, reunited with her and married her. They moved to Chicago where Grandpa George could finish out his education under the benefits of the GI Bill. In the late 50’s, Jane gave birth to twin boys. Later on, in 1963, she had a baby girl. She held her daughter close to her chest and wept as she listened to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” live on television.

When the kids were old enough to take care of themselves, Jane returned to work as a secretary. As far as I know, she enjoyed the job, but didn’t care so much for the pay. Noticing a discrepancy in wages between men and women doing the same job, she demanded equal pay. Grandma chuckles as she recounts how many people were sent to “deal with” her, but ultimately no one could break her one-woman rebellion. She left the job eventually, but she must have made a lasting impression. Years later she ran into her ex-boss’s son, who still remembered her as “The Famous Jane Mitchell.” The mischievous gleam in her eye as she tells this part of her story make me think that she’s intentionally leaving out a few sordid details, which only makes me look at this classy, kindhearted lady with a new respect.

 

My grandmother has seen a lot and done a lot. She lived through depressions and recessions, protests and presidents. But now it’s the 2010’s, not the 1940’s. Now the Nazis no longer control Europe, and more women than men attend 4-year colleges and earn degrees, and we have an African American president, and I’m holding in front of her a device as small as my hand that can perform nearly every task imaginable, including snap a simple selfie. And yet, at the sight of her own face on the screen, at the sight of her white hair and sunken eyes, those eyes that have seen and done so much, all she can say, is “Good God! That face!”

Proving once again that, no matter how much we see the world around us change, nothing surprises us more than the changes in ourselves.

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