The Heroines

Linda Bell Gebert

is honored with a Brick from Catherine Balbierz.

 Linda Bell Gebert There's a certain type of book or movie where the characters live through every cliched turn of national history-- Young Republican to hippie to investment banker. But there really are families like that, I guess, because looking over my mother's 60 (as of this writing) years, she seems to have embodied so much of 20th century American womanhood that one is tempted to send her out for bronzing.

Early pictures show a cute blonde moppet who wouldn't have been out of place in a chorus line with Shirley Temple. Ah, the innocent childhood of pre-Elvis America, you say. But her parents, married in the early 30's, felt the cold of the Depression enough that they didn't have a child until 1938; and one can only imagine what it must have been like for a three-year-old when the day after her birthday turned into a day of worried panic among the adults, as the radio kept talking about a place called Pearl Harbor. Likewise, Emporia, Kansas, where her grandparents lived, might seem as far from war and as deep within the peaceful heartland of America as you could get-but one of her playmates on visits there would be the real-life war orphan made famous in the book "Journey For Margaret."

In fact, the innocence of 40's and 50's America was always a veneer--her parents (and even her proper and high-cultured grandparents) listened to Tom Lehrer and to Oscar Brand's albums of bawdy folk songs, and she read Mad magazine and tuned her AM radio late at night to the risque rock 'n' roll being beamed from high-powered stations just over the Mexican border. The artistic streak in the family subverting 50s conformism, I suppose, and not the least of her achievements was passing both the creativity and the subversive sense of humor on to me and my two sisters. In her own case it led her to study painting and enameling, doing especially fine abstract work in the latter medium. My baby photos are not like anyone else's-- not just because she liked to pose me in front of her abstract paintings, but because even the more normal snapshots show a house with hipster touches like elongated glass bottles and driftwood on the wall.

At the same time, married to my oilman father, the pictures show a gradual progression from Capri pants and black cat's-eye glasses to bouffant hair and cocktail dresses. Ah, the patriarchy crushing her female spirit, you cry-- yet while Dad was hanging his Nixon inaugural invitation on his office wall, Mom was doing enamels of Janis Joplin and Joan Baez at home. Neither of them were really squares, they just played them on TV.

By the mid 70's she was helping bring order to the countercultural chaos of Wichita's first feminist newspaper, Equal Time; as I recall she volunteered to help with the design a little and was running the thing a year later. At the same time, she owned a feminist bookstore/art gallery, which was initially called Je Suis Femme but changed to Free To Be after too many calls asking what it had to do with Jesus. The new name, Free To Be, caught the attention of a fundamentalist religious group who showed up unannounced at the bookstore one day to pray for these "daughters of darkness." (They were politely but firmly removed from the premises!)

Our movie of cultural ironies continues as Ronald Reagan is elected president and now single, she supports her art with a day job for the military-industrial complex at Boeing. The ironies keep piling up as she later goes to work as a graphic designer for the Junior League-- proper at last? No, more independent-minded earth mama than ever. Active in feminist and other liberal causes, a teacher of enameling and silversmithing at WSU and the Center for the Arts, a writer of fiction-- and in general one of those American grandmothers with a thousand interests who prove that, once the kids are packed off to college, there most certainly are second acts in American lives.

Written by Michael Gebert for Linda Bell Gebert
Gift of Catherine Balbierz