My forebears gaze at me, neatly arrayed in the sepia tones of 1936. In the center sits the patriarch, my great-grandfather, Francis Hyde. His eyes appear to regard me from under a fez-like hat, but I know he sees nothing. He has been blind for many years. His hands rest on his thighs, encircling the much smaller hands of his two youngest grandsons, both in short pants. To his left is five-year-old Frederick. To his right is my uncle John, barely three and clutching Big Brown, the stuffed dog bequeathed to him by his older sister. To the left of young Frederick sits Francis’s sister, Jennie, clad in a dark dress better suited to the previous century. Sitting on the floor in the front corners of the photo are the two older grandsons, and I consider for a moment my Uncle Jim, just turned ten. It’s clear even in his cross-legged seat that he will be a very tall man one day. Standing in a straight row behind Francis are his sons and daughters-in-law. We can pass over some of these, the great-aunts and great-uncles. But on the right end of the standing row are Harold and Claire, my grandparents. Grandpa looks sternly at the camera, vest buttons gleaming and white pocket square breaking up the somber black of his suit. The Grandma I never knew looks back at me with a sardonic cock to one eyebrow. She’s ready for this photo session to be over.
Which leaves only the young women, bookends of the row centered by the patriarch. On the right of the row is Peggy. Granddaughter of Francis. Daughter and oldest child of Harold and Claire. Older sister to Jim and John. My mother. She looks straight ahead, squinting a bit through round wire glasses. Her well-tamed brown hair is neatly parted in the middle. She wears a satiny blouse with a wide Peter Pan collar and buttons down the midline. Her hands fold primly in the center of her simple skirt. Her legs, encased in black tights, cross at the ankles. Mary Jane shoes, of course. A straightforward and symmetrical girl. She is 14 years old, but appears to be barely out of single digits.
On the left of the row is Jane, Peggy’s cousin. Her mouth is lipsticked and her eyebrows shaped. Her side-parted hair tucks back in tight coils. She wears a boldly printed dress, with dark scarf accent, that drapes below her crossed knees. Jane, at 17, is not plain. Decades later, when a visitor peered at the picture hanging on the wall of my mother’s assisted living apartment, Mom described the photo from memory – she had been struck with macular degeneration, just like her grandfather Francis. After trying to explain the familial connections among the various Hydes, she concluded with what was likely the most pertinent detail for her when she first saw the photo.
“My cousin looks so glamorous. That’s Jane, who was three years older than I. Then you see that frumpy girl on the other side – that’s me. Not a very attractive girl.”
The visitor politely objected. “I don’t think you look frumpy.”
“Well, I do,” said Mom. “She was the glamour girl.”
Peggy spent most of her childhood years in a light yellow Dutch colonial on Illinois Street in northwest Detroit. It was a brand new house in a brand new neighborhood, fronted by a cement stoop complete with porch swing and an awning for protection from the summer sun. Downstairs was a living room with fireplace, formal dining room, and kitchen with a breakfast nook. Three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. A basement with a furnace, coal bin, fruit cellar, laundry equipment, and a tool bench. When Harold and Claire moved in with four-year-old Peggy and infant Jim in 1926, they felt thoroughly established.
Every morning, Harold took the bus to his downtown bookkeeping job and Claire stayed home with Peggy and Jim, having left her job as a kindergarten teacher when her first child was born. She tried – when Peggy was in first grade and Jim was a toddler – to go back to teaching at a private academy. But when the spring brought an outbreak of whooping cough to the school, she scooped up her children and left, never returning to either that school or the teaching profession. For Peggy, it was back to the neighborhood school in September of 1929.
A month later, the market crashed and the world changed. In the Hyde’s small corner of it, Harold lost his job. The bank threatened foreclosure, but an alternative plan was devised. The Hydes rented that brand new yellow house on Illinois to a slightly more fortunate family and moved in with members of Claire’s family, the Jessops.
There’s no sepia-toned photo available to assist in my description of this side of the family. If there were, I suspect it would have been less formally arranged than the Hydes. I know it would have been less male, for the Jessops living in the upper flat of a house on Lothrop Road were known collectively as “the Aunts.” Aunt Alice, Claire’s oldest sister, pretty much supported everyone on the Detroit scrip she brought home as a first grade teacher. Aunt Fee, Claire’s next-oldest sister, pitched in – but not much – by teaching piano. Aunt Rose, who was not really an aunt at all, cleaned, cooked, and tended the garden. Harold tried to contribute to household expenses by selling insurance contracts. Each day, Peggy and Jim met their weary father at the door of the flat. “Did you sell any contracts, Daddy?” Little surprise that in this early year of the Depression, the answer was almost always no.
The Hydes only lived with The Aunts for one year, but the upper flat on Lothrop remained a haven for Peggy for many years. It was there that she listened to the talk of her mother and aunts, absorbing gossipy tidbits about movie stars and wisdom from the positive thinking of Unity Church. She slept in the attic with Fee under a warm electric blanket. In the music room, she found piles of sheet music and Golden Song Books, and sat for hours poring over them, memorizing songs that would remain with her for her entire life.
I know all of this because my mother wrote an accounting of her childhood in the early 1990s. I examine the typescript now and try to absorb both pertinent facts and the essence of Peggy. Who was this girl? She reports squabbling incessantly with Jim and mothering John. She reports that after some problems in elementary school she was a smart and successful student. She reports on weekend breakfasts of pan-fried shredded wheat, devotion to the Campfire Girls, the clothes she made for her Patsykins doll, and her love of reading nurtured by Louisa May Alcott, Nancy Drew, and the Bobbsey Twins.
I look for other clues about Peggy on these pages, though, and I find them. There she is, playing jacks alone on her front porch. The younger kids that Jim hangs around with aren’t interesting to her and the older girls in the neighborhood are mysterious and beyond her social reach. There’s Peggy, struggling in gym class, jealous of Miss Buckeye’s favorites, who get to sit on her lap. There’s Peggy, looking at her page in a Slam Book during junior high. Each page is headed with a student’s name, then the books are passed around for comment. On Peggy Hyde’s page: “Thumbs down.” “Phooey.” “No good.” All in sloppy boy’s handwriting, but still.
So what to make of this childhood in Detroit, one that my father always called “genteel poor” in contrast to his “dirt poor” upbringing in rural Illinois? Mom’s overall conclusion was that she had a happy childhood in a loving home, and this is undoubtedly true. With houses full of aunts and elderlies just blocks away, Peggy was ensconced in family to an extent almost unheard of today. She had friends and excelled in school. But she was also a girl stuck between the too-juvenile concerns of younger brothers and the too-mature interests of older aunts. She was the girl who loved singing but never joined the glee club. She was derided in anonymous comments before the days of social media. So yes, she was happy. But also a bit lonely, a bit unmotivated, and (okay, I’m going to say it), definitely a bit frumpy.
As I was growing up, it was always clear when someone had known my mother since childhood. To these relatives and long-time friends, she was Peggy. To everyone else she was Margaret. Did Mom make a conscious choice to change this form of address? And if so, when? In her high school yearbook, the text below her solemn senior picture reports that she is Margaret, but, of course, that was always her formal name. Did classmates know her as Peggy? Hard to be sure, as there are no autographs to examine in the spiral bound volume. So it is possible that by these late teen years, she was Margaret to those outside of the family sphere. However, I prefer a different narrative, one imbued with intention and agency.
I like to think of my mother in September of 1940, considering the fall semester class offerings at Wayne University. Mom stands with a group of incoming freshmen, regretting that she’s only a bus ride away from home but reveling in the very fact of being on a college campus on a brisk autumn day. She is dressed as she thinks a smart co-ed should, in a crisp white blouse and navy A-line skirt, the sleeves of a cardigan tied over her shoulders. Another young woman turns to her and says, “Goodness, I don’t know what I should take! By the way, my name is Lois.”
Mom looks up from the course catalog. “I know,” she replies, “there are so many choices! And my name is Margaret.”
The question of what to take that first semester at Wayne was a bit of a conundrum. Margaret didn’t have any clear career goals, other than to NOT be a teacher or nurse. Perhaps she would be an English major – she had always loved books and reading – so she turned to that page in the course catalog. First requirement for the major – Freshman Composition. A discouraged sigh escaped her lips; diagramming sentences and looking for noun-verb agreement was not her vision of college life. Then Lois spoke up again. It turned out she had an older brother who knew the particulars of the offerings and requirements, and he said that a journalism class could be substituted for Freshman Composition. Well, Margaret thought, she had been on the Dial staff at Mackenzie High, and she’d enjoyed it well enough. So, yes, fill in one of those class slots with introduction to journalism.
In that journalism class – and in the newspaper offices of the Wayne University Collegian that seemed the obvious next step – Margaret found her people. Norma Nikrant, frizzy-haired and wide-smiled, immediately befriended her. Norma’s recently graduated older sister had been a Collegian staffer, too, and she introduced them to the ins and outs of working on the paper. Margaret and Norma quickly pulled Ralph Dorazio and Mary Redding, two other new freshmen, into the group. There had never been any alcohol at the table of the Hyde family – Claire fervently disapproved of drink – but Margaret quickly let loose of any compunctions and joined in when the Four Roses and ginger ale flowed at parties. Margaret went to her classes, of course, but later in life she ruefully confessed that she didn’t care much about any of them. What allure did a professor’s lecture hold when she could be reporting a story, planning an issue, or just hanging out at the often-rowdy Collegian offices?
If the shift from Peggy to Margaret initially occurred when Mom arrived on the Wayne University campus, surely the meaning of that identity coalesced around the desks and comfy couch where the newspaper was planned and produced. When I was in high school, I was a band geek and found the core of my being in the French Horn section, marching 8 to 5s on the football field, and spending weekends playing pinochle and drinking way too many wine coolers with fellow band members. When my daughter was in high school, she found her home in the auditorium of her sprawling school, diving into on-stage and backstage aspects of each theater production. I never played the French Horn again after high school and my daughter never tried out for any college plays. But our identities and comfort with ourselves were forged in those adolescent gangs. Mom didn’t have this sense of belonging on Illinois Street or at Mackenzie High School, and this lack probably made the camaraderie of the newspaper staff that much sweeter. Indeed, there are names from the Collegian masthead that graced my parents’ Christmas card list for many decades. And Norma Nikrant, that first acquaintance in the newspaper office, was always known to me as Nikki, Mom’s lifelong best friend.
The invasion of Pearl Harbor shattered the tranquility of campus life as the fall semester of Margaret’s sophomore year came to a close. As men enlisted and were drafted, as the realities of rationing books, defense bonds, and victory gardens took hold, changes could be felt all over campus and in the offices and pages of the Collegian. By dint of their talent, hard work and (perhaps) the shortage of men on the staff, Nikki and Margaret were leaders at the paper during their senior year – Nikki as editor and Margaret as managing editor. In an early Collegian issue that fall semester of 1943, Nikki decided to forego the “traditional greeting” of “This is your new home—Wayne U” and directly address the strangeness of the campus transformed by war, including its 20 to 1 ratio of women to men. She suggested ways students could contribute to the war effort and “equip themselves well for the greatest task ever to face a student body—the task of preparation for a world after war.”
Nine months later, the second page of the Collegian featured Nikki’s “Editor’s Farewell for ’43-44.” After four years, she and Margaret had put their last issue to bed and would soon walk across the auditorium stage at the Detroit Art Institute to receive their diplomas. Page three of this final issue featured a large advertisement from the U.S. Army with the headline, “‘Your help really counts when you’re a WAC!’ say America’s college girls.” The ad included testimonials from the likes of Sergeant Anne MacIntosh (“My job is one that any college girl would be proud to do – intelligence work at an Army post!”). Margaret and Nikki saw the ad in the paste-ups, but didn’t give any thought to signing up. They had other plans. They had both lined up jobs at the Detroit office of the Associated Press.
In taking these jobs at the wire service, Mom and her best friend were part of a huge movement. For more than a year, the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter had been used to represent – and recruit – women in the war effort. Over six million women joined the work force during World War II, many of them employed for the first time. Asmen shipped off, Rosie and her sisters took up their spots on assembly lines in the aviation industry and munitions plants. But women joining the work force during the war did more than rivet – Rosie was also a reporter. When Margaret and Nikki started their jobs at the Lafayette Avenue offices of the AP, they were among the first women to be hired at that bureau. Throughout the nation, other women were taking on jobs in newsrooms and on reporting beats that had always been the bastion of men.
When they were hired, these women journalists knew that they were placeholders, signing pledges that they would leave their positions when veterans returned from the front. Some of the women did lose their jobs and switched to positions in public relations, or in a secretarial pool. Many quickly married one of those returning soldiers. And some women displaced from the journalism jobs they had performed skillfully during the war even trained the less-qualified veterans who took their places. Apparently, though, the Detroit Bureau of the Associated Press forgot about the pledges, as both Margaret and Nikki held onto their jobs for many years after the men returned.
From my vantage point many decades later, I often think about the radical transformation to women’s lives that began with these Rosies – both riveters and reporters. And I consider one final photograph, a wide shot of the AP newsroom during the 1940s. Mom is the only woman in this photo, surrounded by five shirt-sleeved men, Royal typewriters, teletype machines spewing out copy, and wire baskets brimming with newspapers. Mom is grinning widely, engrossed in her work. It is in this photo that I know that societal changes are rooted in the individual lives of our mothers and grandmothers. It is here that the transformation from Peggy is complete. This is Margaret Hyde.