Defying societal expectations of what it means to be a lady
Wilma Zentner Scholbe (1909-1998)
This is the third post in a series about 65 women who have shaped my life. For more posts, visit Accidental Mentors, a publication of Marquis Mojo.
Wilma, my mom’s sister who we called Aunt Babe, became a role model for me in my adolescent years, when the pressure to “act like a lady” came to bear.
Aunt Babe and Uncle Paul ran Scholbe’s Cackle Farm, a chicken and egg farm located on sixty acres outside Ann Arbor, Michigan. In the 1950s and 60s, they had a regular egg route where they delivered fresh eggs to doorsteps and businesses throughout the area.
When Babe and Paul settled on the farm in the late 1930s, they only had time to build a garage and a chicken house before the need to plant the fields outweighed their desire for a spacious home. Season after season, they dreamed of the house that never got built.
To make do until that day might come, they divided up the garage into doll-house sized rooms, including an eat-in kitchen where they would stuff themselves around a red steel table wedged between the stove, window, and a metal cabinet they used as a pantry. They washed off the dirt from the fields in a compact bathroom with a tin-stall shower and rusty water heater. On holidays, they entertained in a dining room where a table for eight and a large credenza (one that hid a stash of Hershey’s Chocolates in the top drawer) left little room for people who had gorged on farm cooking and home-made pies to wedge their bodies through.
In the living room, they watched a black and white TV from a sofa and one armchair. Inside a table-top clock situated on the TV cabinet, two kid figures clicked off the seconds and rang out the hours as they swung—a relentless noise that kept me awake any time I tried to sleep on that sofa. The “guest room” where I might have slept was piled ceiling high with boxes of beads and baubles Babe used to create intricate, award-winning, jeweled eggs for wedding cake toppers, jewelry boxes, and Christmas ornaments.
In Babe and Paul’s bedroom was a double bed, two dressers, and barely enough room to squeeze between them. In all the years they lived there, they never slept apart. Even when Paul retired from farming and got a night-shift job at the university, Babe would drive twenty miles one way to bring him a hot supper and then stay awake until he got home, so they could draw the curtains and cuddle up together for a well-deserved sleep.
I never heard Babe and Paul complain about their garage-turned-home. They spent most of their time in the fields, the chicken houses (later converted to peacock houses), and the egg house where Aunt Babe would gently wash and sort the eggs each morning, the cold water rising from the deep well over her callused hands. At the end of the day, after Babe had cooked a hearty supper, Babe and Paul would sit outside under the apple tree and play with the twenty or thirty cats that roamed their property.
Babe referred to herself as “Rough and Ready Scholbe.” Although she occasionally put on a simple dress and costume-jewelry earrings, her life as a farmer meant she worked hard, laughed hard, and always ended the day with a piece of pie al a mode.
I looked forward to my visits to the farm because I could count on Babe to let me run free outdoors where I would crisscross the fields, climb the mountains of corn in the crib, and not worry about the mud that inevitably accumulated on my clothes.
When the smell of earth wafts up from my garden, I send a prayer of thanks to Babe for letting me play in the dirt. Babe taught me that what’s important in life is not the house or the possessions you own but relationships with those you love and, most importantly, being yourself, even if that self defies societal expectations of what it means to be a lady.
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