By Ritta M Basu
Maddie gazed at the yellowing pages of her mother-in-law’s yearbook. The embossed lettering on the front cover read “Warren Harding High School.” The year was 1933.
That was the same year Maddie’s grandparents followed the dust from their barren South Dakota wheat fields to the Stockyards of Chicago. Maddie’s mother had been 16, just old enough to tickle the fancies of gentlemen who frequented the speakeasies up town.
She mingled and danced and did her best to sound as if she’d been born in the big city rather than in the meandering vastness of the Great Plains. Secretly, Delores Redling hoped to find a man who had more than her daddy’s hog slaughter stench to bring home.
Delores eventually caught the eye of a New York banker who wanted a wife but no bother. Maddie was born in a Manhattan hospital two years later, and now, 54 years later, sat in her mother-in-law’s attic, going through the remnants of the woman’s miserable life.
Descended from Hungarian Jewish grandparents who emigrated to New York City among the Forty-Eighters in 1849, Eva Zukor had been married, through her father’s arrangement, to a successful real estate mogul after her graduation from Warren Harding High. Her husband moved Eva into in a lush Sherry-Netherland apartment on Fifth Avenue, from which she could see the bustle of the city but was never allowed to go into it. Instead, she was expected to entertain landed gentry in her powerful but impotent husband’s presence. He wanted to ensure himself a son of good stock to carry on his legacy.
When James, the boy who would become Maddie’s husband was born, Eva was sent back to Connecticut to live in her father’s house, while a male nanny raised her son into the man her husband expected him to be. He was allowed to visit his mother three months a year and forbidden to speak of her at home.
During those three visits, James had felt his mother’s love and warmth and clung to the feelings throughout their time apart. Eva taught him to play piano, read to him about the great artists, and never spoke of her husband. But when he turned 16, she did tell him that one of those great artists was his father.
As Maddie read the motto ascribed next to Eva’s photograph on the yearbook page, her heart ached, “Women are the only way the world will change.”
“And what a change you made,” Maddie whispered, thinking of the beautiful mural James had been commissioned to install the following week in California. He had dedicated it to his mother, who made her home there overlooking the expansive Pacific.