There was no Father’s Day in my first years. The only time, in those days, that a father was officially honored was on his birthday, or when he got a promotion, shot a deer or caught a big fish.

Among the nine kids in our house, our father was “The Old Man.” He was a career naval office until his retirement in 1929, and that was the term for the officer who stood on the bridge and kept the ship on course.

Like all fathers, then known as the “breadwinner,” he came home on Friday, gave Mom the paycheck, took the trash out and cut the grass. And even all of that was relegated to his older sons.

Mom kept her place, changed the sheets, did the laundry and got supper on the table. Pop got a civil service job as chief engineer at the federal building downtown and kept his place at the head of the table.

J.P. Devine, the young boy at bottom left, is seen with his family in a circa 1941 photo. His father, Mathias, and mother, Veronica, are sitting in the center, surrounded by the other Devine children. Photo courtesy of J.P. Devine

Then something went wrong in the world, suddenly, brutally and disfiguring.

In 1930, maybe earlier in the big cities, everything went sour. My father, a born sailor who always hated being beached, kept his job through most of the Depression. But when I was 9, weary and missing salt air, he died. The doctors said as a result of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.

We knew it was a broken heart.

The fathers in our extended family were really old men when the Great Crash came. Uncle Pete who owned an iron factory that made ornamental fixtures for office buildings, lost the factory, went to his chair on the back porch with a case of beer and never really got up again.

Uncle John — who had started on the railroad as a brakemen, then moved up to engineer — became a victim. When his job was cut, he sat on the front porch waiting for one of the three daily papers to be thrown at him. John, who smoked two packs of Lucky Strike a day, finally gave in to emphysema.

Of course, this happened all over St. Louis, and eventually the world. Breadwinners stopped winning and starting losing — first jobs, then homes, respect, and finally, hope.

That was the real “Birth of the American Woman.”

Aunt Mamie got a job as a file clerk in a shoe factory, and by 1938 was running the office. Aunt Winnie struggled with help from her two sons who had part-time jobs.

Somehow, the Devines kept their shoes shined and shirts ironed. Things slowly got better, but in 1940, the unemployment number was still 14.6%. The Depression faded at Pearl Harbor, the descent into war began, and the role of breadwinner had been forever altered.

Men, who once fueled the home fires, disappeared into the armed forces, and moms were left with bills to be paid by meager allotment checks.

With Pop gone, his Navy pension and insurance exhausted and the absence of my older brothers, my mother, who had been a mom and housekeeper for 29 years, had difficult choices to make.

With my baby sister and me farmed out to older sisters, Mom got a job in the notions department of Famous and Barr Department Store and took nursing training at night. When you raise nine kids, nursing comes easy.

By the time I was in high school, she was a nurse and the breadwinner. President Woodrow Wilson christened Mother’s Day in 1914, and it became virtually an embroidered pillow of a flowers and candy day for years.

That all changed, slowly, but irrevocably. The breadwinners came home from the war and found their housewives in the factories, running businesses and with their own bank accounts. The papers showed record-setting divorces in the ’50s.

Today, all those “Women in White” in the house, the daughters and granddaughters of the housewife women of the ’30s, are themselves wives and mothers and strong independent breadwinners.

Now, the political leadership is still dominated by old white men with shambolic morals, enslaved by their leader. They are confused — not only by COVID-19’s ferocity, but also by the ferocity of the rising Black movement — and are stumbling in the dark. Meanwhile, women like Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are reshaping the political landscape.

I predict that in four years or less, America will inaugurate a woman of color.

Happy Father’s Day, gentlemen. Watch your back.

 

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer. 


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