Mary Caperton Bingham: born on December 24th in Richmond, Virginia, fourth child and third girl in a family struggling to deal with the brood they already had. That birth placement, and that context, in the south still trying to cover from the Civil War, taught her survival skills not always expected, or obtained, by a girl of her class and generation: determination, outspokenness, ambition, all hidden behind the pretty blond persona of a Richmond debutante.
She would go on to become the first woman in her family to graduate from college, on scholarship, from Radcliffe, in 1928, and to obtain a prestigious fellowship at the American University in Athens for the following academic year—a professional future almost guaranteed in a university, but that, it turned out, was not what she really wanted.
She wanted romance, and was willing to pay a high price for it.
It always demands a high price, it seems to me.
To win my charming, handsome, intelligent father and access to his inherited fortune meant abandoning Greek and Latin and Restoration Drama—her fields—and the big world itself for a lifetime as a publisher’s wife in Louisville, Kentucky, and the mother of five children. The middle one, and the third child, was me.
I understand her decision although it causes me a spasm of regret, as all the dreams abandoned by women do: the great heap of the unrealistic and the unrealizable that lies alongside nearly every woman’s life.
I understand it because of Christmas Eve—or rather, because of the way our father chose to celebrate it, with a special dinner and a play produced by her husband and offspring while she sat, the sole audience member, in her velvet tea gown on a gilt chair.
How did I know—or did I know?—that this festivity was designed to erase her memory of a birthday seldom celebrated, in a chaotic family, on the day before Christmas?
How did I know—or did I know?—that my father understood, intuited, or perhaps was told that she needed this celebration to begin to heal the hurts of her past?
Whether she ever healed or not—her sharp tongue seems to mean she did not—she was awarded one day that celebrated her, one day when quarreling offspring and distracted husband joined to entertain her; and if it was not healing, at least it was a potent
gesture in that direction.
Who would not give up dreams of a professional life, inevitably at that period alone for a woman, for the momentary warmth of that Christmas Eve recognition?
I wish for all of us who work so hard today and tomorrow to provide solace and cheer for our families, a moment of congratulation and celebration, in honor of my mother, who had one such moment on Christmas Eve.