Five days before my mother died, I was the daughter sitting at her bedside when she started talking about “Little Women.” I knew she loved the book – perhaps because she grew up in a time when it was, even more than now, a classic that all young girls read. Or perhaps it was because once she was grown up, she had four daughters to match the March family progeny. In this discussion, coming in the midst of in-and-out lucidity, she began with perhaps the easiest way to introduce a discussion of Little Women – “Beth died.” I murmured my agreement. She quickly followed with words of assurance to me, the third daughter of our family, “But you didn’t.” No, I said, I’m still here. There was a long pause, and I thought we might be past the discussion of Louisa May Alcott’s masterpiece, as we’d been moving from topic to topic, from memory to memory, pretty quickly. The next words were, “Jo was a writer.” It took me a long moment to understand that she had moved to daughter number two in the March family. Before I realized that, I assumed she was talking about her husband and my father, Joe, who had a long career as a newspaperman. So my immediate response was, “Yes, Dad was a writer – and so were you. You, Mom, were an amazing writer.”
And she was. I can’t begin to fathom the number of words she must have written before, during, and after her incredible career as a journalist. Far more words were written by Margaret than about Margaret – thousands and thousands of column inches. In tribute, I’ll share a few words by Margaret written in 1968 and words written about Margaret at the end of her life.
By Steve Barnaby, a former coworker
A lot is being written on the increasing influence of women in American society. I thought about the pioneers who laid the groundwork for this trend the other day after reading the obituary for Margaret Miller, one of my first supervisors.
Margaret grew up in the journalism business when a distinct psychological wall divided men and women in this country’s newsrooms. As progressive as newsrooms tend to be, they too are reflections of the greater society’s mores and values.
And while Margaret made a breakthrough early in her career, working as a reporter for the Associated Press, she, like many women of that day, found themselves back at the traditional women’s newsroom jobs after having children and re-entering the newspaper world.
Lucky for me, and many other young journalists of those days, we grew into better journalists because of our association with Margaret.
Margaret, working with a small crew of women journalists, was in charge of the “Suburban Life” sections, while writing a column “m.m. memos” that drew upon her family and personal life in Farmington, a community she loved.
Margaret and I struck up an informal relationship because of our shared passion for swimming and books. After deadlines were met and the vibrations of presses were reassuringly felt throughout the plant, we would sit and talk.
More than 24 years older than I, Margaret possessed more knowledge about journalism, suburban communities and life in general under her fingernails than I did in my entire body and soul.
Few worked harder or were more organized in getting the job done. She had little patience for shoddy writing and missed deadlines. She also proved a crafty artisan of newsroom politics that, in the end, benefited the newspaper and the community as a whole.
Daily she worked hand-in-hand with a less-than-enlightened group of male leadership when it came to the issue of women’s equity in the workplace.
Margaret never talked about the transformation … She just quietly continued to set a standard of the highest quality in journalism and occasionally asked those penetrating questions that made us strive to do our best. She was selfless in her efforts, but powerful in the legacy she left behind.
From a 1968 m.m. memo
I remember reading once that a major reason for current difficulties in American family structure is the fact that the evening meal is no longer a big occasion. Family members let other activities interfere with dinner get-togetherness, moan the worriers. Eat and run is the rule now.
But I’m not sure our family situation bears out this diagnosis. We eat dinner together most of the time, but how much it benefits family life I’m not prepared to judge. Most nights, four separate accounts of what went on in school are launched before we even get properly seated.
“In math today,” one girl will begin, and the tale goes on at a rapid clip until she runs out of breath. Then there’s a pause.
Into the conversational gap comes, “You know what?” from one of the others.
“I wasn’t THROUGH!” protests the first.
So we assign turns, and for a while the day’s news is reported in more or less orderly fashion. But suddenly everyone is talking at once, and we start over.
What we need, I’ve concluded, is one of those devices used in stores. The customers take a number to get served in turn. We could install it as a centerpiece, and everyone would present a number before speaking.
Definitely, I’ll tell the girls that’s what we’re going to do. As soon as it’s my turn to speak at dinner tonight.
Another 1968 memo
Two weeks ago my boss wrote in an editorial that he thought we in the suburbs should stop talking about the possibility of racial violence in our neighborhoods.
I nodded sagely in agreement, wished vaguely that he had suggested something more concrete in the way of counter-action, and let the matter slip from my mind.
Until a few days ago. Then I heard some of the most sensible people I know, with some inflammatory suburban literature in front of them, speaking of acquiring guns and determining escape routes “just in case.”
So I’ll use this space where I usually try to be clever, to state emphatically the feelings of one suburban housewife and mother.
They are simply this – that one thing we can do in a crazy world is refuse to be a part of deliberately-planted hysteria; that one thing we can believe, and teach our children by our actions, is that people of all races are just people, though there are extremists of both kinds who would have us think otherwise.
Of course I love my children and would do anything to protect them.
But I’m convinced that getting us to turn our neighborhoods into arsenals is just what the extremists hope to accomplish, and that if we oblige we’re asking for exactly the kind of horror we want to avoid.
From her obituary, written by Mary Miller
Margaret enjoyed playing bridge and attending plays, sewing and quilting and needlepoint, talking politics and playing Scrabble. She sang in church choirs and community choruses, and listened to classical music throughout her life. She participated in Campfire Girls as a child, and cheered for the Detroit Tigers far into retirement; she hosted dinner parties in Michigan, helped save turtle nests in Florida, and sang with the Ukes music group in Texas. Her mind stored long poems and all the verses of many hymns, her heart carried family histories and stories. She enjoyed watching Big Ten football, swimming and playing tennis, and reading good novels and biographies. She was a remarkable writer. She made and kept close friendships all through her life, and especially treasured time spent with her grandchildren, in whom she took tremendous pride. Her generous spirit, her integrity and open mind and commitment to social justice, her joy in life and her love for her family, will always be remembered.
From my Facebook page, September 13, 2012
My mother, Margaret Miller, led an amazing life. A talented writer and newspaperwoman, a wonder with yarn and macrame cord, a devoted friend to many in Michigan, Florida, Texas, and Washington, a loving wife, an amazing mother to four daughters, and a woman who never found a beach she didn’t want to walk on. She died last night at the age of 90. Rest in peace, Mom.