In this week of 1914, my grandmother turned 15. I remember her saying to me when I was young that no one had ever heard of a “teenager” in her youth, or my mother’s youth either. I wasn’t sure what she meant, since obviously both of them had lived the ages of 13 through nineteen somehow. She seemed to mean more than “the word is a new use,” something like “We weren’t teenagers, even if were were 13 or 15.” She meant that the concept of “teenager” was unthought of, not just the word.
I am still not sure what that meant for her, or me either, actually. I was working on a piece of art last night and thinking of summer and sun, and because I was using some antique fabric, the idea of 1914 came along, and then I thought of Gram and what her life was like in 1914. She was still in school, although she didn’t finish high school. I know this because I have seen a class picture of Johnson High School from 1915, and she was in it, along with both her older brother and her younger sister. I don’t know why they went on to graduate and she did not – she was very bright. But she was also very shy and felt keenly that she didn’t have the right clothes for village enterprises. Perhaps she was bullied. She dearly wanted to go to art school, but there wasn’t enough money for that – although there was for Aunt Mattie to go to nurses’ training in Burlington. That seemed unfair to me, but Gram never said it was. I have heard that from other old-timers, too – that there was only enough money for one to finish school (often high school) and that was okay, although the standards of each family varied. In many families the more educated was a son; girls were supposed to marry their future, I guess.
So I go back to the idea of Gram at 14 or 15 and wonder, since there was not a concept of adolescence, if she was a child or an adult at that point. How did she feel, how did the rest of the family, the community think of a girl, a young woman, a child, of 15? My girls noticed when we read “Little Women” together that the March sisters were referred to as “children” much later in their lives than my kids thought was reasonable. You were a kid, then you went to work for your aunt or someone, and then you got married. Work didn’t make you an adult – child labor was a thing back then, and probably Gram was lucky not to have to toil in the woolen mill when she was 10 or 12. The farm was prosperous enough to clothe and feed them all without depending on money from a child’s job, although Aunt Mattie did serve in her aunt’s boarding house so she could live in the village.
But in the summer of 1914, how did she think of herself. Far away, a couple of weeks after her birthday, an assassination in Serbia would set off an unlikely series of repercussions that would have the whole world in flames before it was over. Did she hear about it? Most people didn’t notice it much, not even in Europe. A month later, before July was done, Austria had declared war on Serbia, and then a cascade of similar declarations took place one after another, on and on. When did she start to feel the tensions? In two short years Gram’s brother Erwin would be called up; in four her mother would be dead.
But on her birthday that year, child or woman, the summer must have rolled ahead, looking warm and busy and I hope the only cloud was that there was not enough money for art school.