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Born Too Soon

by Rose Madeline Mula

My nightmare has come true.  I've become one of those old fogies who say things like, "Kids today!  They don't realize how lucky they are!"


I'm jealous.  I admit it.  I envy the opportunities they take for granted; the advantages I never had:  Breakfast with Mickey and friends in Disneyland at six...a car at sixteen...a year of study abroad at nineteen.  And later, at least three weeks paid vacation...profit sharing...dental insurance...and a shot at VIPdom for every Jack and Jill.

Not so in the Dark Ages when I was young.  Back then, career choices were limited for girls.  (That's right, girls.  Not even our grandmothers were called women then.)  Except for the rare female who was aggressive enough to ignore the rules, most of us docilely trained to become secretaries, nurses or teachers.  I now find it incredible that we meekly accepted these boundaries, but at the time I didn't question it. 

I was so thoroughly brainwashed that though I had always loved writing,  it never occurred to me as a vocational possibility.  That was man's work.  I knew my place--at the blackboard, in front of the class; by the bedside, bedpan in hand; or in the board room, taking notes. 

First I considered teaching.  I thought about the satisfaction of molding young minds.  I thought about summers off and not having to go to work when it snowed.  I thought about dealing daily with bratty kids and irate parents.  I thought I didn't want to teach, after all.

Nursing I didn't even think about.  I have a germ phobia.  I get paranoid at the movies if somebody sneezes--on screen.  So I chose the only field that was left and enrolled in Boston University's Bachelor of Commercial Science program, a euphemism for Chauvinistic Serfdom (note the identical initials). I was convinced that my mission in life was to help some man rise through the corporate ranks and become president of his company.  My reward?  A puny (but private!) cubicle outside the Great One's spacious, windowed suite, and a china pot in which to brew his tea, rather than the aluminum ones used by the secretaries of lesser personages.

To achieve this wondrous goal, I spent four years studying shorthand, typing, and unquestioning respect for my boss of the future.  (N.B., "boss," singular.  When we agreed to work for someone in those days, it was presumed to be until death or mandatory retirement did us part.)
 
The only other acceptable reason for a woman to leave a job was matrimony.  In fact,  not only was she permitted to leave without stigma when she got married, she was expected to.  Everyone knew that a woman who hadn't managed to snag a husband in school worked only to meet an eligible man (again, singular) and get married.  Once she reached this pinnacle, she was supposed to retire to the kitchen and bedroom.  If for some reason she retained her job after marriage and became pregnant (is it all right to use that word for a mixed audience now?),  she was expected to resign immediately,  preferably as soon as the rabbit died (yes, a bunny had to be sacrificed to determine pregnancy back then), or at least before its funeral.  Why?  Because no respectable woman wanted to be seen in public in "that condition."  Everyone would know how she got that way.

Those of us who weren't successful (i.e., weren't wearing an engagement ring with our caps and gowns) set about meekly to serve our life sentences in the first company that did us the honor of hiring us after graduation.  Again, the brainwashing was very effective.  I stayed in my first job for fourteen years.  During that time, I never questioned being overworked, underpaid, and generally taken for granted.  When my boss's department's bottom line was bottoming out, he frantically hired more salesmen to generate more revenue, but never an extra secretary.  The budget, you know.  "Rose will do your typing," was part of his welcoming speech to each of those eager dynamos who were anxious to make themselves visible.  They did this by writing volumes of memos, letters, and reports--which, of course, I typed.  I also did their filing, tracked their appointments, answered their phones, made their travel reservations, and constructed their expense reports from whatever bits and pieces of information I could salvage from their attache cases (my first professional creative writing experience). I did this days, nights, week-ends, and even on several holidays.  And I did it without one word of complaint or one penny of overtime pay.  It was never offered, and I never asked.  Discuss money?  Not me.  I was a nice girl. 

But I was happy in my little world.  Hey, I was one of the privileged.  I worked for a department head!  Eventually I was rewarded with a promotion as secretary to my boss's boss, a division manager.  And the Idiot of the Century.  I do not bestow such titles lightly.  The man earned it.  He never dictated (couldn't think fast enough) but instead scrawled his letters in longhand and insisted I type them exactly as written.  He felt threatened if  I changed one misspelled word, misplaced punctuation mark, or ungrammatical phrase.  He knew I liked to write, you see, and he wanted to establish immediately that he could write better than I could.

I tried not to tamper with his prose.  I really did.  But I soon stopped putting my initials on his letters lest anyone think I was the stupid one.  Either he didn't notice, or he approved.  After all, my initials weren't on his originals.

One day he handed me a letter he had written to a nanny in England whom he was considering importing to look after his children.  "For the sake of convenience," his scrawl said, "I am sending you this letter instead of my wife."  Granted, it would have been much less convenient to stuff her into the envelope; but I knew he didn't mean that.  Though he didn't deserve it, I thought I'd do him a favor and try to slip one by him.  I typed, "For the sake of convenience, I am writing this letter instead of my wife."  I still wasn't crazy about it, but I wanted to change it as little as possible, hoping he wouldn't notice.  Silly me.  He had memorized every golden word.
 
He dove into my wastebasket and retrieved his longhand version.  "This is what I wrote," he said, his index finger stabbing the sentence, "and this is what I want you to type!"  Instead, I typed my letter of resignation and hit the road.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be a dead end lined with more secretarial pit stops.  But eventually, hallelujah!  I managed to tunnel through and land a job as Operations Manager of a theater chain.  I became a friend to the stars.  I negotiated contracts with Actors Equity.  Directors (who had no idea that my only prior stage experience was when I played Amapola at a piano recital when I was nine) asked my advice about blocking.   Who says there is no God?  I just wish She'd led me to glory two decades earlier, or arranged for me to be born two decades later.  Because young women today, they don't know how lucky they are.

 

Editor's Note: Rose Mula's most recent book, The Beautiful People and Other Aggravations, is now available at your favorite bookstore, through Amazon.com and other online bookstores, and through Pelican Publishing (800-843-1724), as is her previous book, If These Are Laugh Lines, I'm Having Way Too Much Fun.

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