At an age when most of her friends had settled into routines of knitting sweaters and booties for grandchildren, Olivia Ann Westerly got married for the first time— to a man ten years her senior. “Are you out of your mind?” Maggie Spence shouted when she heard the news. “You’re fifty-eight years old!”
Of course doing the unexpected was something that could be expected of Olivia. In 1923 when she was barely twenty-five years old, she went off on her own even though her father insisted it was scandalous for a single woman to be living alone. “What will people think?” he’d moaned as she tossed her clothes into a cardboard suitcase. But that didn’t stop Olivia. She got herself a two-room flat in the heart of downtown Richmond and a job working at the switchboard of the Southern Atlantic Telephone Company. “That’s shift work!” her father said. “Some of those girls come and go in the dark of night!”
“So what?” Olivia answered. Then she volunteered for the night shift, because it paid an extra sixty cents per day. Long after any respectable woman would have been snuggled beneath a down comforter, she’d paint her mouth with red lipstick, pull on a cloche hat, and trot off to the telephone company.
“Have you never heard of Jack the Ripper?” her friend, Francine Burnam, asked. “Have you never heard stories of women alone being accosted?” Married before her sixteenth birthday, Francine already had three children who clung to her like bananas on a stalk and a husband insistent about supper being served at six-thirty on the dot.
“That girl will be the ruination of our family!” Mister Westerly told his wife, but Olivia still stuck her nose in the air and went about her business. A year later when she was given a three-dollar raise and appointed supervisor of the night shift, her father disowned her altogether. The last thing he said was, “I want nothing to do with a girl who carries on as you do. A respectable daughter would be settling down with a husband and babies!”
“I’ve plenty of time for that,” Olivia answered, but by then her father had turned away and refused to look back.
“How much time do you think you have, dear?” her mother asked. “You’re twenty-six years old. What man would want to marry a woman of such an age?”
Olivia knew better. With her green eyes and a swirl of honey blond hair curled around her face, she had no shortage of boyfriends. Herbert Flannery, district manager for Southern Atlantic Telephone, had on three different occasions proposed marriage, the last time in the spring of 1929. That particular proposal followed on the heels of the worst winter Richmond had ever seen—months and months of ice crusted to windowpanes, and milk frozen before you could fetch it from the doorstep. In late December Olivia crocheted herself a wool scarf so oversized she could circle it around her throat three times and tuck her nose inside. Although she’d bundle herself in layers of sweaters, boots, and that scarf, she’d come in from the cold with her nose glowing like a stoplight and her feet near frozen. That winter there were few parties and people did very little socializing, so Olivia spent most of her evenings at home swaddled in a chenille bathrobe as she tried to stay warm.
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Genre – Literary Fiction
Rating – PG13