The Four Sibyls
Sibyl Carter was born in Buffalo, New York to Frank and Ruth Carter. At age 4 she developed type I diabetes, but insulin was around then so it was treatable. She grew up on Arkansas Street, where Ruth and Frank ran a boarding house along with Frank’s socialite sister Marietta. She did kid things, liked drama and literature, was rather bookish, and eventually went off to college where she studied social work. Diploma in hand she departed Buffalo with it’s miserable winters and hot, muggy summers, for San Francisco where she got a job working for the Social Security administration. In the course of things she met Max Metheny.
Sibyl and Max were both members of the Beat generation. They arrived in San Francisco just in time for Herb Caen to coin the term Beatnik so they were OBs, Original Beatniks. They read poetry and Russian literature and Jack Kerouak. They went to lots of parties. They certainly drank a lot socially and for all I know they did drugs – it wouldn’t have been uncommon given their subculture at the time. They both smoked.
As such things do, they fell in love and got married. Sibyl gave birth to a son, Edmund. But things didn’t work out, Max left. They got a divorce. Sibyl went back to school to get a teaching degree in Home Economics. She graduated and after considerable searching found a teaching job in Oroville. She moved there with Edmund and spent the rest of her life in Oroville.
This was my mother’s life as it was known to me until I was in my 30’s.
But if you read the first essay, you know it wasn’t true.
Sibyl Crickmore was born in North Carolina to Ruth Crickmore, a young, light-skinned black woman. Though Ruth’s skin was fair and Sibyl’s fairer still, they were both considered Black – “Negro”. The Episcopal Church helped Ruth and Sibyl move to a new place – Buffalo, New York – and get a new life as a scullery maid at a boarding house. Eventually one of the owners – Frank Carter – fell in love with Ruth and married her. Sibyl grew up there and had her share of problems from Frank’s sister Marietta because she was black, because her mother was black and a scullery maid. When it came time for her to go to college, Frank adopted her, and with her adoption she suddenly became white. She was white forevermore.
This second Sibyl was secret. Very secret. Secret enough that it was NEVER talked about, and I did not even get hints of her existence until 8th grade and didn’t find out the full story until I pieced it together in my 30’s. This Sibyl was never to be discussed with outsiders, never even to be mentioned if not absolutely necessary. Secret enough that when I heard the first hints of her existence I was sworn to secrecy too – instructed not to tell my friends, my teachers, my mother’s friends… nobody.
I blabbed of course, but my story isn’t until later.
Sibyl Metheny was what Sibyl Carter turned into when she married Max. It was what she stayed after she divorced him for “irreconcilable cruelty” (which is not as bad as it sounds. Back then there was no such thing as a “no fault” divorce and courts were somewhat reluctant to grant divorces – so there had to be a reason and it had to sound horrible and “irreconcilable cruelty” was popular. To the best of my knowledge Max never hit Sibyl or was in any way abusive. A more accurate reason for the divorce might have been “irreconcilable thoughtlessness”). After the divorce a part of Sibyl Metheny’s life, the part that led to her becoming Sibyl Metheny, was walled off and also became secret. At no point in my life were the reasons for the divorce ever explained to me – not by Sibyl, not by Max. The entire time I was growing up it was a completely taboo subject, always diverted by excuses such as “I’ll tell you when you are older.” or “it really isn’t important.” What I know about it can be summed up as follows: one day my mother went off to work at the Social Security office, and my father packed his things, left a note, and departed.
That’s it. End of story.
Back to Sibyl. Sibyl married Max. In the course of things Sibyl got pregnant. Being a type I diabetic and being pregnant did not mix well back then. Sibyl had a very difficult pregnancy and eventually gave birth far too early to Jason Tobias Metheny. My brother. Jason died about six hours after birth and my mother nearly lost her life. She was admonished by her doctors never, ever, ever to get pregnant again, for should she do so she would surely die. Complicating the whole pregnancy process was an Rh incompatibility between Sibyl’s and Max’s blood, which had a 50/50 chance of making future pregnancies more difficult.
One thing that Sibyl certainly inherited from her mother, Ruth, was a stubborn streak. She wanted a child. So within a year she was pregnant again.
I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, this pregnancy was me. Without this pregnancy I wouldn’t be here. On the other hand I simply cannot imagine myself being Max and saying “Sure honey, lets have another kid. It doesn’t matter that the doctors say it will most likely die and take you along with it this time.” It just seems crazy to me.
But again I digress.
This pregnancy worked out better, in part because 6 weeks before term the doctors performed an emergency c-section to end the pregnancy and save Sibyl’s life. Her child came out in what Sibyl would later describe as “the most beautiful shade of robin’s egg blue, small enough to fit in the palm of my hand.”. Sibyl was allowed to hold the newborn for a moment before it was whisked off to be put in an incubator, which was itself then whisked off to the chapel where the infant was given immediate last rites. Sibyl meanwhile was whisked off to intensive care. Max was briefly treated for sympathetic labor pains. And everyone waited for the infant, and possibly the mother, to die.
Six weeks later Sibyl triumphantly emerged from the hospital with an undersized but no longer blue infant wrapped in a blanket, and set about the task of being a mother. And things were good for about four years.
Then Max was gone.
It took Sibyl two years to get her life back under control. Ruth and Frank would fly out periodically from Buffalo to help out. One of Frank’s aunts, Gertrude Phillips, came to stay with Sibyl and help take care of her infant son while she went to school and looked for work. Sibyl got a teaching credential and started looking for work. San Francisco was getting quite expensive, so she looked outside the Bay Area – Stockton, Davis, Vacaville, Oroville….
In Oroville she got hired as a teacher of Home Economics at a local High School, so off she went along with Edmund and Gertrude. They got used to the hot weather, Sibyl made friends, Edmund started school, and Gertrude watched a lot of tv. They got a dog. They got some cats.
Sibyl had secrets.
In those days being divorced still had a stigma to it. The Episcopal Church, for example, condoned it grudgingly – it was an “if you must” sort of thing. There was a smell of scandal about the whole thing, particularly if you were a woman. The tacit assumption to many, particularly those from Ruth’s generation, was that if you were divorced it was because you had done something wrong – something dirty or awful that could never be discussed in public, but could be endlessly gossiped about. Working motherhood was much the same, though Sibyl largely got around that problem by having Gertrude around.
She had been in Oroville less than a year when she had a conversation with Edmund about this – Edmund was 7. Edmund had questions about why all the kids whom he had been meeting at school seemed to have two parents around while Edmund only had one he lived with and one who took the bus up to Oroville to see him occasionally. Edmund got the standard kid explanation. But Edmund also got an admonition that he was not supposed to talk about this issue with other children – it was a family matter and no one else’s business but ours.
I suppose we could debate the merits of Sibyl’s warning to Edmund – was it good parenting or bad parenting? Was age 7 too young? Should it have been done sooner? At this point it doesn’t really matter – what’s done is done. But let me talk about it from Sibyl’s perspective for a moment. At the time that this came up, she was well-versed in secrecy – Sibyl Crickmore was still vividly in her past, and she understood all too well the doors that would be closed to her if Sibyl Crickmore ever reappeared. She was less than a year in her job, was sole breadwinner, and had a child to take care of. And if it came out that she was a divorcee she could lose her new job and if that happened she was FUCKED. It is true that times were slowly changing and America’s perception of divorce was softening. But it only took one person in a position of authority to destroy EVERYTHING and Sibyl was not willing to roll those dice with not only her life but the life of the child she had nearly died to bear on the table. Sibyl had been to college. Sibyl knew what had happened to Ruth.
So it became a family secret. Sibyl never told Edmund to lie about it – to make up stories of how his father was dead or somewhere far away (Edmund made them up anyway for awhile) – but it was made very clear that it was not something he was supposed to talk about, and that it was important that he not talk about it. So he didn’t.
Eventually Sibyl got another secret – one more noble than the previous one. You see, in those days there were some gay people in Oroville (this may come as a shock to people who grew up there, and even more of a shock to people who didn’t). Sibyl met some of them. Having spent some years in San Francisco, having been a beatnik, and being a feminist and a true blue liberal, Sibyl didn’t really care that they were gay. Being a person who understood dangerous secrets she had a pretty clear understanding of what could happen to those people if it became widely bandied about in the community that they were gay.
Being a Home Economics teacher and someone who read “Sunset” and “Ladies Home Journal” and the like, she liked to entertain.
So Edmund had gay men around the house periodically growing up. Sibyl would invite them over and have cocktail parties or buffet parties or wine tasting. Sibyl got to entertain for friends and enjoy company. Her friends got to relax and not have to worry for a few hours about their being gay getting out and destroying them. Win/win.
But of course this was another secret. Edmund got another talk about it. No talk of men kissing or naming names or anything of the sort.
Then there was Sibyl’s final big secret and it was this – Sibyl was a normal, more-or-less healthy woman in her 30’s. Sibyl was not a nun. Sibyl wanted love and affection, to be in a relationship again, to have a partner. Sibyl wanted to date. And shock of shocks, Sibyl still wanted to have sex again before she died.
Sibyl Metheny was pretty much alone from the time Max left when Edmund was four until the time she met Art when Edmund was twelve. Eight years. But during that time she did date sometimes. She did try to meet people and did have some relationships. Not often – she was far too busy most of the time raising a child and working. But it did happen every once in awhile. And again Edmund got a talk. First of all Edmund was not to think of any of these men as being a replacement for his father. Second, he wasn’t to talk about these things with others. Again, it was family business and no one else’s.
By the time of talk #3 Edmund was pretty good at this sort of stuff. It was easy enough to grasp. There was family stuff that was not for others to see or hear about. That was just part of being family, that there were certain things that were sufficiently intimate and internal that you didn’t share them with others. All families have these of course – Sibyl’s just encompassed a bit more than some others.
Eventually, when Edmund was twelve, Sibyl met a man that she fell in love with and who fell in love with her. Art was a divorcee with two sons in their late 20’s. He lived in Chico where he worked in Plant Operations at Chico State University. He was funny and caring and kind.
They got married, and it was the sort of love story which, had they been famous or rich or important, would have inspired a generation. The remainder of Sibyl’s years would be enriched and happy because of her relationship with Art. And so we reach the fourth Sibyl – Sibyl Olsen.
Sibyl Olsen bloomed like a chrysanthemum. Like Ruth before her marriage offered her stability, support, and both physical and emotional intimacy that had been lacking in her life. She loved it. And she loved Art, who loved her right back. She started being more active in her union, travelling more, and became more outspoken on social justice issues, particularly feminism. She walked picket lines, and wouldn’t cross one for any reason – if a local business had strikers outside it was 100% off limits to everyone in the household. The only exception was her being admitted to the hospital once when the nurses were on strike, and she was not happy about that. I could go on and on about this part of her life, because it really was wonderful and she deserved it after all she had gone through. Someone really ought to write a fairy tale about it – “Once upon a time…” to “…and Sibyl and Art lived happily ever after.” But of course “happily ever after” always leaves out the end of the story. Because everyone dies.
Sibyl had a hard death following a failed kidney transplant. It took 8 months. It was bad, and again there are lots of stories that could be told about it. But she didn’t die alone. She had Art. She had Edmund. She had good friends. She even had Ruth, who flew out from Buffalo to stay with Art when it was getting towards the “imminently terminal” part of Sibyl’s illness. And she died knowing that she had 26 years of life and a child that every expert told her she would never ever have.
Between them the four Sibyls had to deal with several “-isms” in their lives. The first, Sibyl Crickmore – had to deal with the stigma of being a black child born out of wedlock. This was her reality during her entire childhood, and only once she was ready to go to college did her circumstances change. Sibyl Crickmore was a smart kid – smart enough to go to college anyway – and she must have understood that a piece of paper with the word “caucasian” on it was in no way going to deter racists if they learned of the previous birth certificate that said “negro”. So when Sibyl Crickmore became Sibyl Carter, the first Sibyl got buried, though the unquiet ghost would be a source of secret shame and anxiety to her for most of the rest of her life. Only when she finally became Sibyl Olsen did her fears fade at last.
Sibyl Carter, aside from her anxiety about Sibyl Crickmore, lived life pretty freely so far as I can tell. College educated, she traveled as far away from Buffalo NY as she could get, settled in a bastion of liberal thought, and dove into a counterculture that talked of equality and peace and brotherhood (also beat poetry, but she can be forgiven – she was young). After Buffalo, and after a childhood growing up black, being in an environment where a) she could pass as one of the privileged and b) people openly discussed the idea that there shouldn’t BE privileged, must have seemed magical. She was exposed to literature and ideas that never would have appeared in the Arkansas Street boarding house of her youth.
Then Sibyl Metheny came along. Initially she was a lot like Sibyl Carter – feeling a sense of freedom, optimism, and hope. She would not be denied. Despite two hard pregnancies she got the child she wanted. And things were pretty good until Max left. When that happened a good deal of her privilege left with him. She was still white for all intents and purposes (though in the back of her mind the secret must have loomed large) but she was suddenly a single woman with a child in an era when society had not yet accepted single women with children as anything other than scandalous. Though racism haunted her, it was sexism that became the major “-ism” in her life. I don’t know for a fact that she ever suffered from the most overt forms of sexism, but she was certainly concerned enough about the possibility to keep certain aspects of her life quiet and personal because they didn’t fit into the mold of proper female behavior. At the same time she was still willing to put herself out on something of a limb to help out her gay friends and give them a safe space to be, where they weren’t judged but welcomed. She had a childhood of being judged and found wanting because of a word on her birth certificate, but the background, education, generous nature, and bravery to understand the unfairness of it, and the empathy to apply that understanding to others being unfairly judged.
However, the entire time I was growing up, we never to the best of my recollection, had a black person in the house. Ever. Black people were not thick on the ground in Oroville, but they weren’t nonexistent either. Coincidence? Lack of opportunity? Too close to the big secret? I just do not know.
Eventually Sibyl Metheny gave way to Sibyl Olsen. It must have been a great relief. Suddenly all the privilege was back. She was a wife again, with all the security that provided. And moreover she found love and happiness and companionship and that was probably the best thing that had happened to her in years. After her marriage to Art she became more outspoken on social justice issues again. She didn’t have to keep her head down as much or go along to get along. She also traveled abroad, something she had always wanted to do and which the California Teachers Association was happy to help out with.
Her very first trip abroad was to Africa. And she loved it. She brought back all sorts of souvenirs of the trip (forever after we had a rather ghastly tanned monkey hide on one of our rocking chairs), huge numbers of slides, and memories she would bring up for the rest of her life. Again, was this coincidence – the trip that just happened to be available when she decided to take a trip? Was there more to it? No idea, but it does raise interesting questions.
Some of Ruth’s luck rubbed off on Sibyl. Ruth’s luck in finding Frank extended the umbrella of his privilege over her when it was time to go to college. But much of Sibyl’s success in life was determined by her own determination, skill, and bravery. Much of what she got out of life, the things that really mattered to her, she got because she wanted them, was determined to get them, and fought and worked hard until she did. Frank’s privilege got her into college, but it was the perseverance of Sibyl Crickmore that got her the grades to go, it was the independent spirit of Sibyl Carter that took her to California, it was the bravery of Sibyl Metheny that got her the child that she wanted and allowed her to take care of him, and even allowed her to put herself out again to meet Art and eventually become the woman she hoped to be – Sibyl Olsen.
It followed her, though. She was brought up in racism’s shadow and it dogged her steps for the remainder of her life. As someone brought up with less privilege, who then got more privilege and then lost some of that, she had a keen understanding of the difference. I assume that she knew it wasn’t fair – she was certainly active enough in social justice issues in her later life. But she had a child to think about – a child she had almost given up everything for. That had to come first – very few parents would think otherwise – and she knew that growing up with privilege was a superior way to raise a child than growing up without it. She did what she could, because she really believed that equality was right and just – but there were risks she wasn’t going to take with a child in the house. And there were parts of her past that she just couldn’t make a public part of her until late in her life. And that’s a shame really, and maybe she could have taken more risks or been more open. But using the children’s book metaphor again, if the moral of Ruth’s book was “Black Woman, You Need a White Man”, the title of my mother’s would be something like “Woman, You CAN Do It!”.
Sibyl was a great person – she never changed the world, but she changed the trajectory of a family, and that’s quite a bit.