A BRIEF PORTRAIT
When Sara became pregnant in 1963, she chose a procedure called conscious cooperative childbirth. The procedure was given this somewhat unwieldy name partly to distinguish it from natural childbirth. With conscious cooperative childbirth, the mother would normally go through the whole process without using anesthetics. Anesthetics would be available if necessary and she would keep them to a minimum if she had to use them.
That sounds very uncontroversial today. It’s become pretty much the standard way to have children. Both our grandchildren came into the world via a modern version of conscious, cooperative childbirth, in special birthing rooms where all the standby equipment was hidden behind wooden paneling, and the procedure had the complete support of a female obstetrician.
They received the advantages of this kind of birth because of the pioneering efforts of women like their grandmother. In 1964, the medical profession viewed the whole idea with suspicion, and even downright hostility. When I attended one of the classes Sara was taking, I heard one women talk about her experience with a doctor who had assured her he agreed to the idea. When she was rolled into the delivery room, a nurse gave her a shot, and she woke up two hours later and discovered she had become a mother while she was unconscious.
Sara was the second woman to have her child by this method at Presbyterian Hospital in West Philadelphia. The first woman had been Sara’s friend Laura Burdelson Kennedy, who had been Sara’s classmate at McCormick Seminary. Thanks to them, I got to be the second father to be present in the delivery room. I got to experience that wonderful moment when we both, at the same instant, saw our son for the first time. I also acquired a lifelong respect for the gallantry of the childbearing half of the human species.
I didn’t know Sara was going to do this until she took me to one of her classes. It was her idea. I had nothing to do with her decision. Even if I had thought about it myself, I couldn’t have asked her to do it, since I obviously couldn’t try it out and let her know I thought she could handle it.
Sara went through pregnancy a year or two after the thalidomide disaster. Pregnant women had been given a new tranquilizer called thalidomide and the women who had used it during a certain part of their pregnancy had produced badly deformed children. I had read an article on the thalidomide episode in Scientific American and the author had concluded that pregnant women shouldn’t take anything they didn’t need to take. Sara even gave up drinking wine while she was pregnant.
This was also a time when we were concerned about the fallout from nuclear testing and the effects it might have on growing children and unborn children.
I naturally assumed thalidomide had been one of the main reasons Sara had made this choice. Thalidomide certainly played a part in her thinking. But years later-- many years later-- I learned there had been more to it than that. When Sara had been born in 1930, her mother had had her without anesthetics. Her mother had done this, furthermore, at a time when there had been no support groups or classes like the sessions Sara and Laura had attended-- a time when anesthetics and painless childbirth were still new enough that Sara's mother probably looked like a luddite. Winnie Mae Wescoat had reasoned that anything that knocked her out had to be a kind of poison, and anything that affected her, would probably affect her child. She had therefore concluded that it was her duty to have her child without anesthetics if she could. Thirty-three years later, Sara had felt she should do for her child what her mother had done for her.
Sara had a rigorous theology, which she had largely acquired, I assume, at McCormick. It was a theology I always respected, even if I didn’t share some of its assumptions. One of the best examples of that theology was a sermon she was asked to give when one of our friends died many years ago. She concluded by saying that she did not know what happened to us after death. But it was her faith, that whatever God had planned for us was the right thing for us.
Sara Wescoat was born on August 18, 1930, in Amarillo, Texas. Amarillo is located in the center of the panhandle, which is the part of Texas that sticks up into the Midwest, just west of Missouri. It probably had a population of around 100,000 when she was born, which meant it was the metropolis, the big city, of the panhandle. She liked to quote Carl Sandburg who said the only thing between Amarillo and the North Pole was a single strand of barbed wire. Her grandmother, on her mother’s side, had been one of the last women to cross the prairie in a covered wagon. Her grandfather had driven cattle up one of the famous trails, like the Chisholm Trail. There were still towns in the panhandle, when she was a child, that held parties to celebrate their twenty-first birthday.
She was the only child of Winnie Mae and Curtis Wescoat. Her father, as far as I can tell, spent most of his working life as a bookkeeper in a lumberyard. The Great Depression spanned most of her childhood, so she had a somewhat frugal upbringing. But she had dolls, which didn’t mean much to her, and books, which did, and a bicycle. She could remember big extended-family holiday dinners where there were so many people the children sat at separate tables and you worked your way up, table by table, over the years, to the adult table. She had five cousins in the service during World War Two and she read the war news primarily so she could see how much danger they were in. In high school, she was a member of the Honor Society and the debating team, which seems to have been a popular competitive activity in that area of the country. She sometimes said she might have been a lawyer, if she had been born later. But in those days, in that area, women did not normally become lawyers. She attended Amarillo Junior College for two years and graduated phi beta kappa from Denver University.
In her later years, she usually shrugged off her phi beta kappa honors on the grounds that she had taken a lot of creative writing courses. Her work at Denver had also included some serious religion courses, however. Somewhere along the line, she had decided to go into church work. Her mother felt that was an insecure occupation, so, to soothe her mother’s fears, she taught sixth grade in a school outside Denver for a year and acquired her teaching credentials. Then she went off to McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, one of the leading Protestant seminaries in the United States, where she studied with people like Hulda Niehbur, the sister of the great Protestant theologians Reinhold and Richard Niehbur, and acquired a thorough background in theology, church history, and similar subjects.
In those days, the men normally became Presbyterian ministers and the women became Directors of Christian Education, which meant that they ran the Sunday school programs in the local churches. Sara became the DCE at the Presbyterian Church in Pampa, Texas, in the panhandle.
The Presbyterians took their Sunday school programs very seriously, which surprised me when I met Sara. The Sunday schools I had attended had been much more casual. The curriculum for the Sunday schools was created in Philadelphia, at the Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, which was located in the Witherspoon Building, at Juniper and Walnut, in center city. If you go by the Witherspoon Building today, you can still see the inscriptions that advertise its original purpose. The curriculum was issued to the churches in a group of quarterly magazines, one for each age group, which contained the lesson plans for the quarter. Each lesson plan contained a 500 word essay on the lesson, and then the lesson plan proper. Sara started writing lesson plans freelance for the Board while she was in Pampa. They liked her work so much that, after about a year, when one of the editors resigned to get married, they asked Sara to come to Philadelphia and she became the youngest editor on the Board.
She had planned to resign after five years and return to Texas. She felt you couldn’t work more than five years at a job like that without getting stale. She did resign on schedule in 1962, but she resigned to stay in Philadelphia and become a mother. For the next five years, she freelanced extensively for the Board, so much she was essentially holding down a part time job at home.
When she reentered the labor force when Christopher started school, the Presbyterians were leaving the city, because of a series of denominational mergers. She took a job at Presbyterian Hospital and started a new career as a development writer and development officer. She became part of that army of people who produce the fund raising letters, fund raising brochures, and fund raising speeches and grant proposals, that keep our charitable and cultural institutions functioning. She was a development writer and director of annual giving at Presbyterian Hospital for twelve years. She filled similar posts for four years at the University of Pennsylvania Dental School, and for eight years at Episcopal Community Services, which is the charitable arm of the Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.
She was a working woman all her life, but when somebody once asked her what her ambition had been when she had been a child, she surprised them by saying her main ambition had been to be a wife and mother. She always said she had been glad she had stopped working full time when Christopher was a preschooler, because she would have hated to have missed seeing this little baby develop into a person. I probably should add, however, that while she liked being a wife and mother, she was not very interested in staying home and doing housework. And it would have been a waste if she had.
During one of the last times we went to a concert together, I found myself thinking I had been very lucky to have a wife who was happy to go to all the concerts a diligent music critic is supposed to attend. But then it occurred to me I might have found another woman who was willing to take in two or three-- or sometimes five or six-- musical events per week in the season. But would that same woman have been willing to go to the meetings of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, and the annual Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference, and the various events conducted by Science Fiction Writers of America? And if she had been willing to do both of those things, would she have been willing to hang around with the bicycle people when we were bicycling, and the karate people when Christopher was studying karate, and all the other kinds of people you meet in a big city, including, of course, the coffee house people, who gave us many of the friends we enjoyed for most of our marriage?
As I mentioned in the second chapter of the memoir I’m publishing on this website, Sara and I met, in November, 1957, at the Gilded Cage coffeehouse, which was located in center city near Rittenhouse Square. As I have often told people, the guests at our wedding, when we were married at Old Pine Church in November, 1960, mostly came from three groups: Sara’s colleagues at the Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, members of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, and habitues of the Gilded Cage coffeehouse.
My collection of Sara pictures includes two pictures of Sara at her ordination as a Director of Christian Education in Pampa and this picture, one of my favorites, which shows Sara smiling over a beer bottle at a Science Fiction Writers of America banquet in New York around 1970.
She liked cities-- Philadelphia in particular, and cities in general. We both discovered we were city people about the time we met but it was probably a bigger transformation for Sara. When she was living in her native land, she thought it was perfectly reasonable to get in her car and drive two blocks to go to lunch. When she came to Philadelphia, she saw where she and her roommate would be living, in a three story rowhouse in the heart of center city, and did something that would be unthinkable in her home culture. She gave up her car. She not only left it in Texas, she sold it to her father.
I was still in the Army when we got married, and I took a three week leave. We both agreed we would spend a big part of our honeymoon in New Hope in Bucks County, which we both liked, and finish up in New York. After three days in New Hope, however, which we liked, we decided we'd had all the rural living we needed and we got on a bus to New York, took a room in a cheap hotel on Times Square, and spent most of our honeymoon going to plays and movies, visiting places like the Guggenheim and the Cloisters, and eating in New York restaurants and Times Square cafeterias. We spent our honeymoon, in other words, in the same way we spent much of the rest of our married life.
When Sara resigned from the Board, her successor came a couple of months early, so she could help him get acclimated. One night we took him and his wife to one of the best known restaurants of the era, which was located in the Lebanese neighborhood a few blocks below center city. The senior member of the family that owned the restaurant started chatting with us when we were paying our bill. When he learned we were going to the Gilded Cage, he told us to wait a minute and came back to the counter lugging a huge salad for us to transport across town to Esther Halpern, who ran the Gilded Cage with her husband Ed. Sara received a package of apricot candy as a carrying fee.
Sara liked to tell people about the incident and she always noted that our guests had been wide-eyed. She felt it was a good example of the way people think cities are cold and impersonal, when they’re really crisscrossed with personal relationships.
She had a noticeable capacity for whimsy and playfulness. We had a professional soccer team in Philadelphia in the 70s and a bunch of us used to go to all the home games. When it came time to boo the referee, or some member of the opposition who had done something particularly dastardly, we all agreed Sara was our best booer.
She was five years older than me, and we once got to thinking about the fact that I was five when she was ten, and ended up playing with the idea that I had started receiving mysterious letters from a bossy little girl in Texas. The next time I had a birthday, my presents included a package with several of those letters, properly dated, and written in age appropriate styles, saying things like “Make sure you eat your spinach, little boy, so you’ll grow up to be a nice healthy husband.”
She liked children’s literature. We lived near the main library up until Christopher was about three and Sara and Christopher would visit the big children’s section about twice a week, and come home with stacks of children’s books for her to read to him. Curious George, Horton the Elephant, Little Bear, and all the rest of them, became a permanent part of our family traditions.
One of the great disappointments of her life was the six weeks she spent as an editor at Jack and Jill, just after she returned to fulltime work. That was practically her dream job-- being an editor of a national children’s magazine with some hope she might someday become The editor. Then, after six weeks, they told her they were moving the operation to Indianapolis. They would have taken her with them, but we decided that, on the whole, we would rather be in Philadelphia.
Her favorite children’s character was Mary Poppins-- the real Mary Poppins, the one depicted in the books. When she was working at Presbyterian Hospital, the first thing she told me when she came home one day, was that she had been riding her bicycle across the Penn campus, on the way to work, and heard someone say, “Look, Mary Poppins!”
She liked outspoken, assertive women like Mary Poppins and the kind of women Katharine Hepburn played in the movies, but she was, herself, the kind of person who avoided confrontations. When I became somewhat overheated during a political discussion when we were first married, she was the person who reminded me afterward that there was no point in winning an argument if you lost a friend.
I think she was a lot tougher than she thought she was. At critical points in her life, she made some very unconventional decisions-- decisions that were based on her desire to live her life the way she wanted to live it or thought she should live it.
She married me, even though her parents and many of her oldest friends couldn’t imagine how she could possibly make such a choice. She chose to live in the city when most people her age were heading for the suburbs. And she chose to have her child the way she thought she should, even though it was such an odd choice at that time that the nurses at Presbyterian Hospital kept popping into the labor room to see the woman who was doing this strange thing.
Her grandmother had gone west, to take up the opportunities and challenges of a new country. Sara left that country, which had become somewhat tame, and went the other way, to take up the opportunities and challenges of an American city in the second half of the twentieth century.
When I was a teenager, I used to think about the kind of woman I wanted to marry, and the kind of marriage I wanted to have, and I created a kind of outline in my head. Sara fitted that outline about as well as any individualistic, multi-faceted human could. I think the essence of that vision could be summarized in two bits of poetry. Over the years I put both of them on valentines and birthday cards I made for her. One of them is very familiar-- Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. The other is less famous. It’s four lines from a poem called The Ballad of William Sycamore by Stephen Vincent Benet. The Ballad of William Sycamore tells the story of a man who grew up in the bloody ground of Kentucky, went westward with the great migration, and did all the things the pioneers did. In the middle of the poem, there’s this verse:
I lost my boyhood and found my wife,
A girl like a Salem Clipper.
A woman straight as a hunting knife.
With eyes as bright as the dipper.
Home | Science Fiction | Music Writing | Essays
Bio | FAQS | Writers | Friends and Relations | Quotes | Bibliography