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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: Parallel Lines and Parallel Lives
March 18, 2010 - 9:53pm

If you took Geometry in High School, you almost definitely learned it as a subject based on rules and axioms discovered by the ancient Greeks. The details of this subject, which I must admit was probably my favorite class in High School (what a geek!), reflected the world view of the ancient Greeks, including the perception of the world as a flat surface. On this flat surface, triangles have exactly 180 degrees, and parallel lines go on forever and never intersect. This is called “Euclidean Geometry.”

A fascinating branch of Geometry has developed which relaxes the statement that parallel lines don’t intersect, and asks what geometry would look like in such a world. This creates what is called “non-Euclidean Geometry.” One type of these non-Euclidean Geometries is called “Elliptical Geometry”, and might be imagined as the geometry that is appropriate on the round surface of the Earth. There it is possible for triangles to have something other than 180 degrees and for parallel lines, such as the longitudinal lines on the globe, to eventually intersect. Imagine the parallel sides of the road going off to intersect at a point on the horizon, and it is easy to believe that, on our round world, parallel lines can indeed, intersect. I thought of this recently as I reflected on the life of a woman I know who is drawing close to her 100th birthday. For, in many ways, her life, which has intersected with my own, has also run parallel to mine. As Women’s History Month unfolds, the story of her life is one that is worth telling.

Although she is more than fifty years older than I am, it is amazing how many experiences we share across time. Like me, she married later in life than was common for women of her time. Like me, her hard-working husband ran his own business and, like me, she experienced some health problems that interfered with her ability to conceive. Like me, she took (the 1930s version of) medicine that was designed to help her have a child- she tells me that it was injected by a visiting nurse and was made from the urine of pregnant horses. She was joyful for me when I eventually found myself to be pregnant, as she had, and, when the heartbeat disappeared at ten weeks, she told me of her own miscarriage so many years ago. We shared our stories and cried tears together as those around us begged us to stop talking about one of society’s last taboo subjects.

When my husband and I fell in love with a baby girl who needed a home, we spoke to her of her own adoption, entered into in the days when such things were seen as shameful. Although such terms were not used at the time, she actually participated in what today would be called a “foster to adopt” situation, in which she raised her child into grammar school before signing the final adoption papers. It was what would today be called an “open adoption”, where regular contact was maintained with the child’s birth parents. Hearing what she had done in order to build her family made us more willing to take the child who became our daughter into our home and to enter into what we hoped would be an open adoption of our own.

But it was not just her child that she accepted into her home, for, as the Great Depression raged around her, she found herself to be one of the only families with resources to spare and took in not only her parents but also several other families of friends and relatives when they found themselves in need of a place to live. When her husband died many years ago, someone pointed out the number of people at his funeral who had lived for some time under their roof. Indeed, in her (rather old) home there is still a room designated as the “play room” filled with toys left by or bought for children who had stayed there for a while, some for months or years and some only as long as it took for the women (and it was always the women) to cook or clean up from dinner.

Several weeks ago, when I could do little more than lay still and will my bones to heal, I watched an edition of Oprah Winfrey in which she interviewed Roger Ebert and his wife. His wife has done much to assure that this well-known film critic would survive cancer, and was still going to great lengths to improve his life as he deals with the aftermath of his illness. As the show closed, Oprah turned to his wife and told her that “you are someone who makes me proud to call myself a woman”. When I think of the life of this almost centenarian whose life both intersects and is almost parallel to my own, I find myself saying the same thing.


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