A woman who inspired me

Liz Sumner Progress 2 Comments

Fifty years ago today I was called to the office of the Dean of Women first thing in the morning. As I was sitting down she said, “I have bad news.” I said, “Is it my mother?” I don’t know where that came from. It was my first thought and it was true. 

Agnes Williams Spencer Sumner had been killed in a car accident. She happened to be driving a 1962 Corvair but that had nothing to do with it. She had skidded on black ice and hit a telephone poll. She had just turned 52.

Agnes was my stepmother. She married my father at age 40 and moved to the suburbs after living in Greenwich Village for 14 years. My memories of her are mixed but I’ve grown to appreciate her over the years.

One of the qualities I value about myself is that I’m a bit weird. Italians use the word particolare. I bet I got a lot of that from her– or at least approval to let it shine. One of my earliest memories is waiting with her for the bus to first grade. I’m not sure how the subject came up but she told me it was better to get A’s and F’s than all C’s. Mediocrity was to be avoided.

I never for a minute doubted that I could be anything I wanted. A graduate of Bryn Mawr and Smith, she always modeled women’s liberation. Once in 6th grade I was given an assignment to read and report on one of a series of books about different types of work. The choices for girls were “I want to be a Nurse” or “I want to be a School Teacher.” I chose “I want to be a Truck Driver.”

I also never had to rebel against stodgy conservative parents. They took me on Ban The Bomb marches at a very young age. I got to stay home from school on the air raid drill days in protest. The story goes that Agnes had sold contraceptives on the dorm at Bryn Mawr and sent the money to the Spanish Civil War relief effort. She was cool.

A Quaker and an activist, she worked for the Labor Department in Washington as a young woman. Informants told the FBI in April of 1942 that Agnes “attended Peace meetings prior to the outbreak of war between Germany and Russia” and had Communist leanings. One of them described her as “a raging Red.” She denied under oath being a member of the Communist party but the FBI continued to investigate her until 1960. According to her FBI file she was an uncooperative witness and said “I have nothing to say to you” in reply to their questions.

I didn’t know any of this when I was a little kid. I just knew she wasn’t a stay-at-home-and-bake-cookies kind of mother. She tried. I’d explain the kind of sandwiches she was supposed to make and ask to have my lunches in the square kind of paper bags, not the ones the liquor came in. She did her best.

I don’t think she was very happy. Suburban motherhood didn’t suit her. She drank a lot. Someone said she was struggling with menopause and maybe mixed alcohol and barbiturates. I found her passed out among the unwrapped stocking presents one Christmas morning and used to cover my head with a pillow so I wouldn’t hear her puking.

I missed the worst of it because I was away at boarding school. I’d gone home for the weekend shortly before she died. She surprised me by giving me the money to buy the Funny Girl soundtrack album and said, “This won’t happen again for a very long time.”

Agnes adored Paris. She had travelled there as a young woman with a man who was NOT her husband (!) and had wonderful stories including one where she caught lice in some Parisienne garret and managed to ask a pharmacist for a remedy for “petit gris animaux.” I remember her saying she wanted her ashes strewn over the City of Light.

I had the great pleasure, a few years ago, of attending a dinner party in Paris with a group of labor union members celebrating someone’s retirement. (An example of my weirdness– THIS was a highlight of my first trip to Paris). I mentioned to my friend who had invited us that my mother had helped organize the workers at Campbell’s Soup. My friend told the room full of French leftists and they gave Agnes a big round of applause. I burst into tears. She would have loved it.

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