- Building Blocks That Make a Doctor, 1920 –1938
I look to the past with the hope of understanding what the essential sap is that flows from one generation to another, enabling us to survive and even flourish in this most difficult world. Our ancestors have passed on to us courage, strength, indomitable spirit, faith, and the expectation of a better future for our children. But what is it that makes it possible for these traits to move from mother and father to child? Pondering this problem as I consider the incidents I am about to relate, I realize that the essential ingredient is love: parents' love of themselves and of each other, their love for their children, their love for humankind.
Though I did not know my paternal grandfather, I absorbed his presence when we visited the family farm. Harvesting was a communal affair. Standing in the hot sun in the wagon as the oats built up around my bare feet amidst the blowing chaff and the chugging of the gasoline engine, I was happily alone, safely surrounded by the laboring neighborhood men. My maternal grandfather, as a young lay preacher, traveled West on the train to conduct revival services. A woman sitting next to him said: "If you run into my son, tell him to please get in touch with his mother." One night at the end of the conversion service a man approached him. "I am that woman's son." To my grandfather, that was God's sign that he should make ministry his life's work. [End Page 524]
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It is 1926. I am approaching my sixth birthday. We are standing on the concrete porch of the parsonage in Brimfield, Illinois. My parents, my two older brothers, my mother's mother and I are saying good-bye to guests. A woman turns to Arthur and says, "Little boy, what do you want to be when you grow up?" He, affronted by this intrusion from a stranger, declares, "I'm going to be a butcher!" There is silence. No one speaks to me. I shout out, "I'm going to be a nurse!" From the background my grandmother quietly says, "But Bobbie, why don't you be a doctor?"
I was saying to these people who towered over me—whose coats and arrogance obliterated me—that I was not going to be overlooked because I was a girl. Even at five, I knew that I wanted to be "somebody" when I grew up. As my mother talked about her youth, I heard the voice of a woman who had made her own decisions about what she would and would not do. She had become a Greek and Latin teacher, a career that was intellectually stimulating and gave her money to pay $10 for a hat. As she did the dishes, we learned new words from playing hangman on the blackboard, and arithmetic from Flinch and dominoes on Sunday afternoons when she would set her work aside and devote herself to us. That we all would be somebody when we grew up was taken for granted.
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My grandmother's suggestion lay dormant for many years. My junior high school social science teacher, Isabelle Terrell, was a fine violinist who was making her bread and butter in the classroom. She asked us to write about what we would like to be when we grew up. By the age of 13, I knew I did not want to be a teacher. That seemed so dreary. I did not want to be a housewife who worked like a beast of burden. I wanted to earn enough money to support myself, but I had no idea how I was going to do it. I remembered reading a fascinating book called Ant Hills and Soap Bubbles, an introduction for children to animal behavior and physics. Perhaps I could be a scientist and work in the laboratory of a soap factory. As I was engrossed in writing how this future job might be, Miss Terrell came walking up the aisle. As she glanced over my shoulder, I could hear her struggling to control her laughter. At first I was humiliated, but when she...