Doris shouted a perfunctory goodbye as as Jim departed for the golf club that evening. She volunteered at an organization which supported victims of domestic violence and had spent the afternoon at the thrift shop, assigned to unpack and sort donations with a bouncy young lady of her daughter’s age. She was ready to sit down and relax.
“Hi, I’m Lily,” the new volunteer had said, proffering her hand. “Nice to meet you. Just tell me what to do and I’ll have at it.”
Doris had smiled, enjoying Lily’s self-confidence. It was a stark contrast to her own painful shyness at that age.
“Okay, put your gloves on and let’s start.”
They began sorting out clothes, books and bric-a-brac from the assorted bags and boxes of donations, laughing companionably at some items, exclaiming at others.
“Yuck! Dirty underwear. That’s gross. What is wrong with people?” Lily said, tossing the offending item into the trash. “And look at this broken doll. Who would ever buy that?”
“That’s why you need the gloves. Some people are too lazy or inconsiderate to care,” said Doris. “Easier to give it all to us and pat themselves on the back for being generous. I think we’re done now. Let’s go for a drink at the café next door. My treat.”
She had ordered a cup of tea and Lily a complicated herbal concoction.
“So, are you a victim too?”
Doris almost spluttered her tea all over the table.
“Of abuse? Of course not, dear. Whatever gave you that idea?”
“Sorry. Just wondering why you volunteer there,” Lily said, watching in concern as Doris regained her breath after a fit of coughing. “I was. A victim of domestic violence, I mean. Well, not directly, but my mother was. My dad killed her.”
Doris almost choked again.
“I’m so sorry.”
Lily had shrugged.
“Don’t be. He’s in prison. My grandparents raised me and I’m doing okay. I’m in college studying social work. Maybe I can help other kids who are in the same situation. What do you do?”
Doris had thought for a moment. What did she do?
“I’m retired. I suppose I’m a housewife, or a homemaker as they say now, as if that makes it more glamorous. I worked in an office when I was young, straight from school. That was where I met my husband. I basically raised the children. Jim didn’t want me to work outside the home. ‘I might be a self-made man, but it will not be said that I can’t support my family,’ he’d say and that was that.”
Lily had blinked in surprise.
“Sounds a bit dictatorial. Were you okay with that? No way my partner's telling me what to do. We both work and we pay the bills together.”
Doris had sighed.
“That's nice but it wasn't common back then. A lot of men felt that way. It was a matter of pride for them to show they could provide for their family. Most women stayed at home after marriage and kids if they could afford it. He provided well for us, mind you, nice house and all that. He was gone most of the time with work, so I was busy with the children and the house. I had too much time on my hands after the children were grown and gone, so I started volunteering.”
“What did your husband think of that?”
“At first he said it was stupid. He didn’t understand why I’d rather be sorting secondhand stuff than joining him and his mates and their wives up at the golf club. He even offered to increase my dress allowance so I could get tarted up to join them. Well, he said I should buy some nice clothes, but his taste runs to the tight and short which I think is tarty. I don’t play golf and I don’t have much in common with the other wives. A lot of his friends are on wife number two or three. A couple of them are young enough to be my daughter. I’d rather go for a root canal than sit there like an old dowager. But then he realized that I really enjoyed volunteering. It's nice to feel useful .”
Lily had looked at her incredulously.
“Dress allowance? Children get allowances. Didn’t you have any money of your own?”
Doris had smiled ruefully.
“My goodness, those must seem like prehistoric times to you. No, I didn’t have my own money and he was tightfisted. Always wanted to know where the money went.”
“You realize those are signs of abuse, don’t you? It isn’t just physical violence. Telling you what you can do, controlling your money, putting you down. You deserve better.”
Doris had bridled indignantly.
“I suppose we had different expectations at the time."
“I’m sorry,” Lily said, suddenly embarrassed. “It’s none of my business. I'm always putting my foot in my mouth. Please forgive me.”
Doris had smiled, mollified.
“No problem, dear. I can understand why you’re passionate about it, but Jim's not a bad man. For better or worse, that was the way things were. He wouldn't ever have hurt me. I certainly did know about wife beating as it was called then, and it was as wrong then as now. I'm trying to do my part by volunteering."
Doris carried her glass of wine into the living room and settled in front of the television. She could not get the conversation out of her mind. Though young Lily had a point, she did not think Jim intended to be abusive. He was a much a product of his time as she was, a direct man who assumed that that the way things had always been was the way they had to be. He simply took her for granted. She thought about the nest egg she had carefully squirreled away from the housekeeping money over the years, as many women of her generation had done. It would probably seem as weird to Lily as the rest of her story. She laughed to think of Lily’s reaction if she knew how recently it was that married women were allowed to open bank accounts in their own name. It was good that she would never encounter such barriers. Doris was not accustomed to introspection, but she suddenly wondered what her life might have been like if she had been as feisty as Lily at that age. It was true that Jim was inclined to be bossy, but then she had never challenged him.
She took a long drink of wine and pondered. She might be a bit old for a mid-life crisis,but perhaps it was never too late to change. Picking up her phone, she called her sister Frances.
“Frances? How are you? I'm fine, thanks. Sorry it’s been a while since I called. Are you sitting down? That cruise you’ve been talking about us going on for so long? I think I'd like to do that. Why don't we start planning? What did Jim say? He doesn't know yet. Well, it doesn't matter if he does object because I'll be paying for it myself. I'll come to your place in the morning. What happened? Oh, it's a long story, but I'm going to do some things differently from now on. From now on, I'm going to think about what I want before I think about what Jim will say. Tell you all about it when I get there tomorrow.”