Having celebrated making the decision to move to Michigan, we now need to actually move to Michigan. That means sorting, wrapping and packing all our worldly goods. During our 42 years of marriage, Mr. Smith and I have moved more times than your average bear, but we haven’t packed ourselves for a move since before the birth of our youngest son who is now 36 and an accomplished mover in his own right.
Where does all this stuff come from??? We have downsized and edited our possessions several times over the years, donating and selling as much as possible, trying to avoid landfill contributions. I have come to believe “stuff” is sneaky. It finds its way into your home when you aren’t looking. One morning you look up from your steaming cup of coffee and wonder hey, how did I accumulate all this shit???
There are, of course, different schools of thoughts on why we have so much stuff and why it’s so hard to get rid of things. Some of the most common reasons for holding onto things are – it was expensive, it was a gift, needing to find a good home for it, or my sister’s personal favorite – I might need it SOMEDAY!!! I think she has a lot of stuff, but I imagine she will think the same about me when the moving truck starts to get unloaded.
Mr. Smith, my sister and I face a unique challenge in that we are combining two households into one happy home. We will each have some private space, but a fair amount of communal space where we will have to combine our treasures to create a décor that works for all of us. Luckily, our aesthetics are not far off.
With the combined wisdom of our collective 200+ years on earth, we know there is nothing we own that is worth fighting over and are prepared to purge and compromise. That said, we also agree that each of us has a few items that are dear to us and wouldn’t easily be discarded. For instance, I can’t imagine parting with my good friend.
Apparently, we aren’t the only people thinking about how to spend our dotage. The Pandemic and its corresponding lockdown has led people to think about creating new ways to grow old. We enjoy our independence and the ability to eat, read or sleep whenever we want, but our year of isolation has reinforced the value of companionship.
Other countries are ahead of the U.S. in creating cooperative housing options for older women. Babayagas’ House in Montreuil on the east side of Paris, is a self-managed social house project created and run by a group of female senior citizens who want to keep their independence but live communally. “To live long is a goodthing but to age well is better,” says 85-year-old Therese Cleric who dreamt up the project back in 1999. Eighteen years of planning and fundraising resulted in England’s Older Women’s Co-Housing made up of 26 flats. And a group of Canadian women are currently creating their own version of shared housing, calling it “Radical Rest Homes.”
Our Golden Girl version is slightly different as ours includes a Golden Boy, but the intent is largely the same. My sister will teach Mr. Smith and me to play mahjong and keep us engaged in politics and world events, enhanced by her experience of living abroad. Mr. Smith will keep our home filled with music, make us delicious dinners and revisit his gardening skills. And moi, I will plan it all!
How do you see your golden years? Statistically women outlive their spouses by six to eight years. Would you want to live alone in your 70s and 80s? Would you be happy living with one of your children or would you prefer to live with a group of fabulous women? While I hope to share many more years with Mr. Smith, this is something I think about.
The date on the calendar may be April 14, but here in our neck of the woods we have already had several days of beautiful warm weather that could fool you into thinking summer had arrived. On our daily walks around Kirby Park, Mr. Smith and I have noticed more people gathering on blankets and at picnic tables, sharing conversation and food. With large indoor gatherings still questionable, heading outdoors for a picnic has never been more enticing.
Al fresco dining is one of the great pleasures of summer and if you are looking to fancy up the experience a bit this summer, you are in good company. Yet I still long for the time when I can give an indoor dinner party complete with eye-catching tablescapes and party favors, but until then, al fresco it is!
I don’t have a footman standing by to lug rugs, pillows and hampers packed by the kitchen staff to the pastoral picnic setting, but I can still make it special. One of my first dates with Mr. Smith was a walk and picnic at Kensington Metro Park in Milford, Michigan. I did have a tablecloth, but not much else. I remember spending an inordinate amount of time in a fancy kitchen store at Kerrytown in Ann Arbor, choosing just the right cloth napkins for our outing.
Once you have your perfect napkins and have chosen the location and date for your picnic, I have just a few simple tips you may want to follow:
In a nod to Mother Earth, forget about paper and plastic. If you are concerned about breakage or the weight of your ceramic dinnerware, you could go with enamel. I love the charm of mixing a bit of the formal – cloth tablecloth, napkins and special dishes – with the rustic atmosphere.
Keep the food simple and picnic friendly. Points for anything that doesn’t need onsite prep. Kabobs, salads, cheeseboards, the possibilities are endless. I found several things I want to try in 22 Summer Recipes for the Perfect Picnic from The Spruce Eats. I see mini cheesecakes in a jar in my future.
Nature = bugs. Plan for this and have a strategy. Containers with lids or mesh screen bowl covers could save the day.
Take along a good cooler. No bad mayo or lukewarm drinks on your picnic, unless of course it’s red wine.
Bring something to do. The scintillating conversation may lag at some point. That is the time you could pull out a simple trivia game, coloring books for adults and kids or a frisbee.
I appreciate the allure of the romantic picnic blanket. A bottle of wine, perhaps a book of poetry and of course no bugs would dare invade my fantasy. But my 65-year-old body prefers to sit in a chair, or at least a bench at a table. I also understand the attraction of a fancy picnic basket, but it is not a necessity. I owned a simple antique basket with a handle that I packed our picnics in for years. Sadly, the handle gave out last year and I haven’t replaced it yet. Last road trip, I simply put the items I wanted in a reusable wine bag that was a giveaway at our local grocery. I cut out the inside bottle separators and packed my plates, glasses, napkins and tablecloth. It worked just fine, but I am keeping my eye out for another basket.
This may be the summer of picnics, but I believe it will also be the summer of road trips. Mr. Smith and I are road warriors from way back, and whenever possible we pack a picnic to have along the way. All road trips need a break so you can stretch your legs and refresh. For me, there is nothing refreshing about being stuck with whatever fast food you might find along the way. Apps like Roadtrippers can assist you in planning your road trip and finding cool “off the beaten path” places along your route.
The English word picnic derives from the French pique nique. The meaning was similar to today’s meaning – a social gathering where everyone brings a share of the food. And we know the French know how to gather and eat. And they also know how to dress. I’ll be on the lookout for some fabulous pink picnic shoes of my own! Ooh la la…
Has this ever happened to you? You’re going along, minding your own business, tending to your life when out of nowhere, bang, there appears the proverbial fork in the road.
I was putting away groceries one day last week and thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my afternoon when Mr. Smith made a surprise midafternoon appearance. My reliable women’s intuition knew something must be up! For the past 13 years he had been working diligently for an extremely wealthy, mercurial, old-world Greek who recently died of Covid at the age 87. NK was a looming presence and a temperamental mentor. His death was the end of an era and we knew there would be changes at work, we just didn’t know when. That morning, Mr. Smith had been told with the business in flux, he was too expensive to keep on the payroll without specific assignments from NK, so there’s the door, don’t let it hit you in the butt on your way out. Well thanks…
It was startling but not unexpected, but still suddenly real. So, the next adventure, what should it be? We ordered a pizza, uncorked a bottle of wine and started brainstorming about our future. What would most enhance our quality of daily life as our “golden” years approached?
Over the past couple of years, we had flirted with the idea of house sharing with my sister. We saw it as our own little artists’ colony in a small artsy village. Mr. Smith with his easel set up out in the yard, painting his next masterpiece. My sister and I wearing flowing caftans, sitting and discussing (arguing) whether or not a particular sentence needed a comma.
We all saw it as mutually beneficial. She would have a second (and third) set of hands to help around the house and yard allowing her to live independently longer and Mr. Smith and I would have a home base and be able to travel or visit grandchildren to our hearts’ content.
But even more important than the practical aspect was the family aspect. The two most influential and important women in my life are my beloved Aunt Ruby and my sister Jeanne. I would give anything to have more time with Aunt Ruby, but that isn’t possible. But I can have time with Jeanne. So, Mr. Smith and I have decided to seize the moment and move to Michigan. He is a native son and I feel like a cherished adopted daughter. We met and fell in love in southeast Michigan. We married and had two of our sons there. In many ways, it already feels like home, full of sweet memories and comforting familiarity.
In this age where individualism seems to be valued over anything else, we realize the concept of home sharing may be unpalatable for many but having considered the pros and cons in our particular case, the pros certainly win out by far. We are not naïve about the challenges that will most likely arise, but feel confident in our ability to meet and conquer what comes our way.
Mr. Smith and I are thrilled at the prospect of living closer to our middle son for the first time in 13 years. And our granddaughters! When I was growing up, the highlight of my summer was spending a week with Aunt Ruby. I can’t wait to have my girls come and stay with me. Our new home is 30 minutes from our oldest son’s wife’s family farm, so they are looking forward to being able to visit both sets of grandparents in one big trip. The wild card is our dual citizenship granddaughter, Eleanor, but know that FaceTime and grandparent love will keep us connected whether she is living in Pennsylvania, Texas or Taiwan.
How do you react when you are faced with a sudden major life decision? While we have often grappled with choices in the past, this one seemed to serendipitously fall into place. It is not how I saw myself living at this point in life, but my life has taken many twists and turns along the way and that is part of why it has been interesting.
“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.” Joseph Campbell
We are three old people set in our ways or three stars in the cosmic universe, take your choice. We are choosing to make our own path, complete with flower borders and party lights. My sister is a woman of consequence in her own right, and I believe we will all three be richer for this adventure. I have no doubt our grand social experiment will provide much fodder for future blog posts, just as I have no doubt Aunt Ruby would be pleased.
This past Sunday’s New York Times included a fun article, The Evolution of the Book Review. I appreciated reading about how it developed and changed through the years. For 125 years, it has been a celebration of literary journalism.
Becoming Duchess Goldblatt, A Memoir by Anonymous
My sister sent me this book several months ago, but it kept going to the bottom of my pile while I plowed through library books that I wanted to get returned on time. Luckily, I finally picked up Becoming Duchess Goldblatt. The book is two stories. One of a real-life author who is suffering through a life crisis. Her husband has left, she loses her job and is in a custody battle over her son. The second story introduces us to the fictious but fabulous Duchess Goldblatt, a Twitter persona, who dispenses worldly wisdom in 280 characters or less.
“Are children still taught to diagram sentences? Are sentences allowed in schools, or is it all smiley faces and snuffling about for treats?”
“What’s that beautiful Japanese word that means both “regretting your lost youth and beauty” and “too hungover to make coffee”?
This is not a self-help book, but the story of how the author heals herself through the process of creating Duchess Goldblatt, her alter ego who is more forthright in her commentary than her, and gathers a community of loyal readers that includes her secret crush, Lyle Lovett. It may sound a bit confusing, but I assure you it is a splendid book. I found it magical and enchanting and I highly recommend it.
My personal favorite Duchess wisdom:
“Sometimes I tie your words in linen with a little lavender and mint and use them as a poultice for my weary old heart.”
AN ENTHUSIASTIC FIVE GRANDMAS:
The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd
When I asked my friend Cindy if she had read anything lately that she would recommend, she quickly responded with this title. The Indigo Girl is historical fiction based on the life of Liza Lucas. During the mid-1700’s, she was a key contributor to the development of indigo crops in the American south.
In 1739, 16-year-old Eliza is left in charge of the family’s three plantations in South Carolina while her father goes off to pursue his military ambitions while he bleeds the estate dry in the process. Meanwhile, her brothers are being schooled in England and it is assumed that they will eventually take over as women aren’t allowed own land.
Knowing how much the French pay for indigo dye, Eliza realizes that growing indigo and producing dye is a way to save her family. I found it fascinating how a teenage girl produced indigo dye, which became one of the largest exports out of South Carolina and laid the foundation for the incredible wealth of several Southern families, but not for the slaves who did the manual labor. This is the struggle for me. I greatly admire the 16-year-old who had the vision and fortitude to follow through on her dream, but I also know she wouldn’t have succeeded without a reliance on the labor of enslaved people, a historical example of white privilege.
The book is well researched and uses excerpts from Eliza’s own letters, The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pickney. In an Afterword and A Note from the Author, Natasha Boyd shares what is fictional in the book and what she found through her research.
It introduced me to a part of history I wasn’t aware of and made me think a lot about the institution of slavery. While Eliza is portrayed as a kind person with strong opinions against slavery, there can never be such a thing as a benevolent slaveowner. For making me think, it receives four grandmas.
PUBLIC SERVICE ANOUNCEMENT!
The CNN Original Series “The People V. The Klan” from Blumhouse Television, premieres Sunday, April 11 at 9pm ET. The four-part miniseries tells the story of Beulah Mae Donald, the Black mother in Alabama who took down the Klan, featured in my blog. I’ll be watching…
I have discovered the three secrets of life and I did it over coffee.
Last Monday morning, Mr. Smith and I sat savoring our steamy, fragrant morning lattes. I don’t remember exactly how we got on the topic, but we started discussing “if I knew then what I know now.” We talked about lessons we had learned over the years that we wished we could pass on to our grandchildren. Perhaps a top ten list of grandparents’ golden nuggets of wisdom. We realize they probably wouldn’t really listen any more than we listened to our elders back in the day. But that didn’t stop us from thinking about it.
At the ripe old age of 65, I am grateful to have let go of some of the ropes that held me back in the past. I worried way too much about what other people thought, when in reality, they weren’t really thinking all that much about me. And for the most part, I have stopped comparing my life to others’ and try to operate on the premise that everybody is just doing the best they can. I do fear my grandchildren getting caught up in the social media world where everyone else’s life can look perfect in an Instagram post. I want them to understand it is often smoke and mirrors and things are frequently not as they appear.
Mr. Smith is not one to ruminate about the past. He focuses more on what he has learned through all his life choices. But if he could pass on any wisdom to his grandchildren, he would make them aware of the reality of the class system and that they should not be intimidated by it. Your class does not define the type of person you are or how you live your life. His only true regret is that he didn’t take his education more seriously earlier in his life. But through discipline and perseverance, he managed to graduate from college before his sons did!
Our discussion started me thinking about others in my life, people who had made an impact on me. I proceeded to text a couple of bosses I had in the past to seek out their thoughts on the subject. I wasn’t sure they would have any regrets but wondered if they had any sage advice for the younger generation.
I was a fledgling paralegal when I was hired by Brian and his lessons were invaluable to me. I saw him as a preeminent family law attorney in our community and a wonderful mentor. As he begins to think about retirement and what is next for him, he shared his thoughts with me. “When I graduated from high school, I had a choice of attending my local college or going on campus to Indiana University.” He stayed at home with his family and while it did save his family tens of thousands of dollars, in retrospect, he thinks the compelling reason was to stay in town with his then girlfriend! “In hindsight, it was a mistake to not attend at least one year on the Bloomington campus. I think of everything that I missed including, but not limited to, the college culture, lifestyle, people I could have met (from all over the world), and the temptations that all students on campus experience.” Like Brian, I also regret not taking a bigger leap out of the nest when I was younger, but luckily we have both found our wings.
Years later, when we moved to Pennsylvania, I took a position at a personal injury firm. Jim was often viewed as the office curmudgeon, but I was able to see the kind heart just below the surface which he tried to keep hidden. His response made me a little misty eyed. “I should have taken more chances…I was the ant who slowly and methodically worked to accomplish. I should have been a grasshopper.” A grasshopper symbolizes courage, resourcefulness and creativity. I see all those qualities in you, Jim, and think your grasshopper days are right in front of you.
Tenzin Kiyosaki, a former Buddhist nun who now works as in interfaith hospice chaplain for Torrance Memorial Medical Center in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, spends her days listening to the concerns of the dying. She found the top three to be: 1) I did not live my life of dreams; 2) I did not share my love; and 3) I did not forgive. She wants us to remember that death doesn’t only come to the old, and urges us to resolve or prevent any regrets now. And that is what I want to do.
So, over morning coffee, I believe I discovered that the three secrets of life – and a peaceful death – for me are courage, kindness and discipline. And using these tools to follow your heart. Be the grasshopper.
Good morning and welcome to this week’s Midweek Mélange, a random assortment of things that have caught my eye. This list may give new meaning to the word random, but I hope you find something that piques your curiosity. And I hope you are also seeing some signs of spring and hope wherever you are.
Have you seen this 2021 Golden Globe winner for Best Motion Picture – Drama? Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Jessica Bruder, Mr. Smith and I recently spent a Sunday afternoon with popcorn and the incomparable Frances McDormand.
It tells the story of post-recession contemporary nomads who have taken to the road, living in their vans or cars. From a sugar beet harvesting plant to an Amazon fulfillment center, they move from place to place seeking seasonal work, generally with low wages.
While Ms. McDormand’s character Fern is fictional, the director, Chloé Zhao, cast several non-professional actors, the real-life nomads, to play versions of themselves, including Swankie, Linda May and Bob Wells. Bob Wells has been a full-time camper for over 12 years and is not only the founder of the website Cheap RV Living, he has his own Youtube channel with more than 400,000 subscribers.
Mr. Smith and I were both blown away by this fictional account of a fascinating woman and the reminder that there are so many people out there with fascinating stories to share.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” McDormand says. “It is not a romantic idea. You have to plan, and you have to be very confident that you can be alone. Like Swankie says to Fern,’You can die out there.” I love to camp and I’ve been on the road many times since we made the movie. But I am definitely a dabbler.”
Though you may not relate directly to the struggle, you hopefully will see the beauty in the simple things – a dip in the river, a kind gesture from a stranger, or a spa treatment while sitting in your folding chair in the middle of nowhere. I found the movie to be both tender and starkly realistic and well worth my time.
When Mr. Smith came across Aleksander Doba’s obituary in the New York Times earlier this month, he said it was like “…reading the final chapter of a book you hadn’t finished and being blown away by the ending.” Mr. Doba died on February 22 on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro at the age of 74.
Mr. Smith first became aware of Aleksander Doba as the Polish Pensioner Adventurer who crossed the Atlantic in a specially built kayak three times, the first two times in his 60s and the third time when he was 70. Having gotten into kayaking relatively late in life, age 34, he went on to become Poland’s “pensioner adventurer.” His custom kayak when fully equipped weighed more than 1,500 pounds. While difficult to maneuver in high winds and heavy surf, it was built to handle the challenges of an open ocean crossing and equipped with emergency beacons, radios and navigational gear. Along with jars of his wife’s plum jam, he subsisted on freeze-dried goulash and porridge, chocolate bars and homemade wine. When his salt-water drenched clothes became too irritating, he stripped down and navigated the rest of his trip buck naked.
Having crossed the Atlantic three times, Mr. Doba began preparing to knock another item off his bucket list, he wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. For training, he jogged up and down the stairs of a high-rise building with a heavy backpack and took long daily hikes.
On the morning of February 22, he reached Kilimanjaro’s summit with two guides. He took in the view, sat down on a rock to rest, and died. His son shared, “He said many times that he didn’t want to die in his bed.” He got his wish.
I have often wondered where my “golden years” will take me, how my story is going to end. Mr. Doba’s tale certainly reminds me that we have a shelf life and inspires me to get about planning my final chapters.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
After many long winter months of indulging Mr. Smith by watching Nordic noir, I decided it was time for something completely different! I felt behind the times in that I had never watched The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel so I put it at the top of our queue. If like me you haven’t found time to watch this hilarious and heartfelt series, I highly recommend it. It truly is a love letter to the 1950s.
Miriam “Midge” Maisel is a content wife and mother whose perfect life takes a sudden turn when she discovers 1) her husband’s infidelity, and 2) she has an unknown talent. I delighted in this romanticized cultural tour of the 50s and 60s from the viewpoint of a privileged, upper west side, Jewish family’s viewpoint and am thrilled to know Season 4 is currently being filmed. And then there’s my favorite part – the fashion! It may not have been a comfortable era to dress in – girdles and high heels – but I loved seeing the many people dressed up just for every day. No one was wearing jammie pants to the store. Midge has no problem with dressing in a way that says, “Here I am world!” and inspires me to try and live in technicolor.
Happy Sunday! Please enjoy this guest post by my always poetically prolific sister.
Secret signs of Spring
How do we say goodbye to this long cold sad winter and discover the small signs of the anticipated return of warmer days? It has been a particularly gloomy winter of illness, death, isolation and depression. We long for a change.
This March morning, I am drawn to the soft yellow light streaming through the winter filmed window panes. The warmth pulls me closer reminding my tired old carcass of the approaching season. I so long to drop this winter cloak, so each recent bright green spike pushing up in the front door garden gladdens my fancy. My wild birds are gorging themselves at the feeder then diving into the corner hedge to busily construct new nests. Early purple and white crocuses have emerged under the trees and pots of sunny jonquils appear near the apples at the market. My old maple trees are covered in crimson leaf pods. School bound teenagers are trading their overstuffed puffy coats to colorful thinner team jackets. Scarfs and mittens are tucked away until next fall. One rugged townsman even arrived at the bank sporting his favorite plaid shorts. I know it may snow again…spring is like that. It teases us before finally accepting our RSVP.
But flirt that she is, I still love Spring, Primavera in Spain, Printemps in France, and Frühling in Germany. Hope is the raison d’étre for spring, the anticipation of the new, the promise of a do over. This year I’ll finally get at that garden, I’ll paint that wall or have a long overdue purging of stuff. Garage sales will abound. We feel the constraints of the lockdown loosening and we can stretch out our arms and do. It helps to have received those long-awaited shots in the arm and a lowering infection rate. Sadly, the scourge of COVID continues but hopefully waning as we all yearn for signs of normalcy.
Clearly this old woman is excited that April then May will arrive in weeks not months. I’m pumped. I can hear my Irish grandmother in my head saying that if I start packing away the wool sweaters that will only invite old man winter to return with some late snowy prank. I know grandma, but I’m just eager to lay out the welcome mat for Lady Spring.
I have long acknowledged the importance of libraries in my life, but I doubt Elizebeth Smith was aware of the life-changing effect a trip to the Newberry Library in Chicago in 1916 would have on the course of her life and that of our nation’s history.
Born in Huntington, Indiana in 1892 to Quaker parents, Elizebeth was number ten of ten children. Her mother was worn out, her father considered her a difficult child, and as a bookish child who wrote poetry, she always felt out of place. After high school, she persevered and finally convinced her father to allow her to attend college, agreeing to pay him back every penny at 4% interest. Though she longed for an adventurous life, after college she accepted one of the only positions available to women in those days, that of an elementary school teacher.
Elizebeth taught for one year in a small Indiana school, but knew it wasn’t her calling. She quit her job and moved back in with her parents. She quickly remembered how challenging it was to live at home and in June of 1916 she forced herself to be brave and took the train to Chicago. Staying with a friend, she spent her days searching for a job, hopefully in literature or research.
After a week with no leads, no money and no connections, she begrudgingly agreed to return home, a promise she had negotiated with her father. Before boarding the train, she decided to make a stop at the Newberry Library which owned a rare copy of the First Folio of William Shakespeare. The book had intrigued her when she first learned of it during her college years because it was rumored to contain secret codes. A young woman librarian noticed how enthralled Elizebeth was with the book and asked if she was interested in Shakespeare. The two got to talking and realized they had much in common. The librarian had grown up in Richmond, Indiana, not far from Elizebeth’s hometown. The conversation was comfortable enough that Elizabeth mentioned she was looking for a job.
Enter George Fabyan, a wealthy Chicago businessman who visited the library often to examine the First Folio. The librarian was familiar with his obsession. She also knew he was looking to hire an assistant. She contacted Fabyan who came directly to the library where he stunned Elizebeth when he inquired, “Will you come to Riverbank and spend the night with me?” Despite being taken aback by his question, she decided to trust this stranger.
Elizebeth did not use her return train ticket to Indiana. Instead, she accompanied Fabyan to Riverbank Estate in Geneva, Illinois. He had used his great wealth to create an eccentric kingdom, a playground for scientists. At Riverbank, Elizebeth worked on a project involving looking for the secret messages supposedly hidden in the plays of Shakespeare, written in cipher.
In a bit of kismet, William Friedman, a Jewish geneticist from Pittsburgh, worked with Elizebeth on the project. They married within a year, forming a strong life-long bond. Quite simply, throughout their life together everyone thought they were made for each other.
It didn’t take the couple long to figure out that Fabyan’s theory that Sir Francis Bacon had actually written Shakespeare’s plays was crazy and that Fabyan was crazy too. But their work would become invaluable. Computers hadn’t been invented yet but working with graph paper and pencils and drawing on each other’s strengths, they discovered methods that became the basis for modern cryptanalysis and none too soon.
When America went to war in 1917, there was no intelligence community and very few people in the entire nation knew anything about code breaking. Elizebeth and William were two of them. George Fabyan saw an opportunity and offered their services to the U. S. government. William eventually served in France, but Elizebeth spent the war years at Riverbank, providing invaluable service solving messages that had been intercepted from Germany and Mexico.
After World War I, the Friedmans, weary of Fabyan and the oddities his vast wealth allowed him to indulge, left for Washington D.C. There William went to work for the government while Elizebeth stayed home, raising their two children and thinking about writing children’s books. That is, until government agents began showing up on her doorstep asking her to break codes, refusing to take no for an answer. She eventually launched and headed a new code breaking unit within the Coast Guard, initially trying to enforce Prohibition. Liquor smugglers may have been gangsters, but they were smart gangsters. They used sophisticated codes and ciphers to hide their operations, until Elizebeth broke these codes. She subsequently testified in court cases against gangsters, including three Al Capone lieutenants. During the trial, she grew impatient with the attacks on the validity of her science, requested a black board for the courtroom and clearly and expertly demonstrated the code breaking system. Through all this, she was mostly unaware of the squad of plain clothes agents deployed to protect her.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Elizebeth left the Coast Guard to work for the U.S. Navy Department. Due to the misogyny rampant at that time and despite her vastly superior skills and experience, she was assigned to work under an inferior uniformed male officer. Elizebeth did not allow it to deter her.
Her target now became the Nazi spy network in South America, where a large influx of German immigrants supported fascist regimes who were working to open a new front in the war. In one instance, Elizebeth’s code breaking saved the Queen Mary ocean liner and the 8,000 men on board. Due to her perseverance in unlocking the Nazi transmissions, the captain was able to maneuver the ship out of the path of German U-boats. Recognized as the FBI’s secret weapon, she was pushed aside by its egotistical director, J. Edgar Hoover, who stole full credit for all the work done by Elizebeth and her team. He further designated all the decrypts the property of the FBI, effectively erasing her and her team from the official record. Her records were stamped “TOP SECRET ULTRA” and classified for 50 years. Elizebeth, like so many of her female counterparts, was told that as a patriot, she should go home and keep her lips zipped or face perdition.
After all that the Friedmans had sacrificed for their country over the decades, the government did little to reward their dedication. The forced secrecy was hard on their marriage and William suffered from chronic, long term, serious depression. Although William was closely involved in the early days of the National Security Agency, when he began to question that perhaps it was becoming a bit too secretive, the agency turned on him. In 1958 they sent agents to the Friedmans’ home on Capitol Hill and confiscated dozens of papers from their library, some so old they went back to World War I, leaving them angry and humiliated that the government would treat them as security risks after they had spent their careers serving their country.
Elizebeth died in 1980 at age 88. Her files were not declassified until 2008, requiring her to honor her Navy oath and take her secret life to her grave. In 1999, she was inducted into the National Security Agency’s Cryptologic Hall of Honor, as “a pioneer in code breaking.”
Just as she belongs in that Hall of Honor, she belongs of my Women of Consequence list. I marvel at how from a young age Elizebeth, a young Quaker girl from small town Indiana, found the courage within herself to expand her horizons. Without higher math training or the assistance of technology, she helped win both world wars by breaking enemy codes, while laying the foundation of American cryptanalysis and raising two children. She was certainly a Woman of Consequence for William, caring for him through years of mental distress until his death in 1969.
And she is certainly a Woman of Consequence for the 8,000-member crew of the Queen Mary and their descendants. Her amazing story makes me wonder – how many other extraordinary female heroes have been buried by secrecy and sexism. Hers is a story I will share with my granddaughters, including my granddaughter who shares her name – Elizabeth Smith. I want them to know her story because while things are better for women than they have been historically, women have yet to achieve true equality and our world suffers for it. I hope when (and if) my granddaughters have granddaughters, this will no longer be true.
If you want to know more about this fascinating woman, you can check out The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone or tune into the amazing PBS, American Experience, The Codebreaker.