Veteran Feminists of America
|SHERRI CHESSEN, RICH LITTLE POOR GIRL
SHERRI'S STORY WAS TOLD IN THE SISSY SPACEK MOVIE "A PRIVATE MATTER"
There I stand, Emmy Award in each hand surrounded by Hollywood actors including Peter Falk and the Walter Cronkite of Phoenix, Ray Thompson. The headline that accompanies the picture predicts: “Sherri’s Fame Rising Steadily.”
Little did anyone know that within my body already lay the seed that would make that prophecy a truth, but not for my television work. Newly pregnant with my fifth child, I was about to take the teratogenic drug known as thalidomide!
We were dysfunctional, poor and Jewish, not an easy route in Midwestern America in the 1940’s. Luckily for me, I was completely unaware of what should have been roadblocks and plunged boldly forward wherever I cared to go.
But an activist? How, with no prestigious parents who taught at Yale or Harvard, or no Seven Sisters education? But I do know one thing….I came out of the womb directing traffic! It was July 21st, 1932.
My first act of ‘activism’ (and indicative of what was to come,) took place at Jackson Elementary in Duluth, Minnesota when I was 5 years old. I loved being cast in the Christmas pageant as Jewish kids were made to feel left out of this glorious holiday until ‘society’ made Hannukah/Chanaka/Channuka/Hanaka the ‘Jewish Christmas.’
We were on stage, audience in place, when fourteen 5 year olds each got to hold up a big cardboard letter in the words MERRY CHRISTMAS. I had the first M and as I looked to my left I saw that the boy that was holding the A had it upside down. I turned (and probably gave a huge sigh) and marched in front of all those kids and turned the letter around. The audience clapped, I curtsied, and a ‘career path’ was born.
As the eldest of 5 children (three brothers and one sister) of Mary and Norman Chessen, I was blessed with an angel for a mom. She was an anomaly in the 30’s, a college graduate, in chemistry yet, but ‘throwing it all away’ to marry a ‘rogue’ of a man with an 8th grade education who embodied all the ‘con’ in the world.’ Daddy was a fight promoter wheeler/dealer and we kids knew the meaning of the word ‘gate’ long before we went to school. Our prosperity thrived or fell on that word.
My Dad set up (and probably ‘fixed’) boxing matches. I had an instant repulsion for the ‘game’ and the people who thought that punching each other senseless was ‘sport.’
As the eldest, I was left to do pretty much whatever I wished and I quickly became someone who was her own thinker meshed in a very independent soul.
I don’t remember feeling the ‘pangs of inequality’ as a young girl. I’ve been trying to remember the one event that led me to believe that girls were getting the short straw in life. It probably was in 8th grade where the boys took Shop and made wooden step stools, or Auto Mechanics and worked on cars, while the girls were required to take Home Economics and make full body aprons with rickrack trim and our names embroidered across our bosoms. As the kitchen was never my favorite room, I rebelled…to no avail. That rick-racked apron became a symbol of what I would soon know were inequities against women and an activist was born, I was 11 years old.
After graduation from Duluth Central High School and being active in enough organizations to earn a diamond studded pin from the National Honor Society, I saw it taken away from me as several of us girls decided to support our basketball team when we won the State Championship in Minneapolis (140 miles away) and we managed to party with the team after our 10p.m. curfew. (It was worth it as my boyfriend was on the team, and is still my friend and much more memorable than the status and pin I was forced to forfeit.)
Then, my Dad’s youngest brother made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. He offered to pay for any college I wanted to go to, except The Pasadena Playhouse, Of course it was the Pasadena Playhouse where I wanted to go, but I chose the University of Wisconsin where Uncle Jim graduated from Medical School. (Why couldn’t Mom have married him ?)
Sororities gave me my first run-in with prejudice as I wanted to pledge Kappa Alpha Theta, but when they called Duluth and talked with my mom, she said they had a great conversation and the sorority seemed very pleased with my plethora of accomplishments in High School until the question came up of where I went to church. The answer that we were Jewish ended the conversation as Theta had met their quota. (1951, remember) by pledging Lenny Epstein (yes, I still remember her name) to become a sister.
I felt that my hands were tied, but was in the mood for a good ‘fight.’ So, three girlfriends and I turned our attention to the football field where
only the ‘guys’ from the tumbling team were allowed to be cheerleaders. We jumped through a lot of hoops, figuratively speaking, and 4 of us became Wisconsin’s first girl cheerleaders!
We were, however banned from the field house because of the day I was returning the megaphones and ran almost smack into a stark naked left tackle (and yes, I remember his name, too:) (remember it was 1951.) The football team also gave me the man who would become my husband and the father of my six children….Bob Finkbine!
After graduation we decided to move to Indiana, his hometown, but 3 kids later we opted for more ‘neutral ground’ and eternal summer in Phoenix, Arizona. Bob became a High School history teacher and coach, and I auditioned for and won the ‘role of teacher’ on a TV show called Romper Room on the NBC affiliate, KVAR-TV.
Being on the air an hour a day, plus personal appearances, etc. and babies 3,2 and 5 months old set me on a treadmill that really never ended. Life was blissful and I even managed to have a 4th child during this time.
Two years later and baby #5 had only just begun when we’re back at the picture that heads this article.
Bob had been in Europe escorting high school kids, when a big fracas erupted concerning former teachers and students on a similar trip. When they got to London, he went to the Dr. seeking a tranquilizer and received a prescription for Distoval, the generic name for thalidomide. He used a few, and brought the remaining pills home in his cameral case.
I can still see him putting that nasty little bottle way up high above the kitchen sink where little hands couldn’t reach. Unfortunately, my hands sought it out when I began having morning sickness….no surprise and definitely not confined to the morning.
As I wanted to continue doing Romper Room as long as possible (we needed the $70.00 a week) I thought, “Aha, I’ll use those tranquilizers that Bob brought home from England.” So up I climbed onto the counter and into the cupboard for a small bottle of pills that would not only change my life but would change the world.
My story has been documented ad nauseum and perhaps one day I’ll even capture all the innuendoes and incredible journey myself. HBO did a movie called “A Private Matter” which depicted some of the drama, but as it was written by a male and a Catholic at that, I felt that my feelings and actions were somewhat ‘watered down.’ Sissy Spacek played me and yes, I loved being that thin.
My quest for the termination (I never used the word abortion) led to the opening of a dialogue on the subject that persists to this day. (50 years and one day later as I write this.)
Sarah Weddington would say to me ,”you made my job much easier.” Her job, being of course arguing Roe v Wade successfully before the
Supreme Court! (Yea, Justice Blackmun)
It’s ironic that someone as child oriented as I am would become known as an abortion advocate, or precipitate what would become the devisive Pro Life/Pro Choice movement. Perhaps it helps to quell the idiotic suggestions that only women who hate children or men, want to end pregnancies.
After the abortion which took place in compassionate, comforting Sweden, we had 3 more pregnancies, resulting in 2 children and one miscarriage.
Bob and I divorced when our youngest was 3, and I basically became not only a single mom to 6, but mother and father, too, as his financial help was negligible. So, with $750.00 and 6 kids, I moved to La Jolla, CA, not exactly the low rent district, but on the ocean where we all thrived.
18 years later I would marry David Pent, an OBGYN who knew more about my case than I knew myself as he was on the hospital staff that decided not to let me be operated on in Phoenix. The marriage lasted 11 years and 3 days until I found him one morning dead of an apparent heart attack /stroke on the floor in his study.
I‘ve always preferred working with children in the ‘fourth trimester’ (yes, it’s a joke) and being in a stable marriage allowed me the comfort to begin writing children’s books.
The books are very didactic and issue-oriented which has had me immersed in guns (yes, I’m against them) bullying and sexual abuse. I’d love some help as I’m a lousy marketer, so anyone reading this far, come to www.thegorp.com and see where the passion is these days in my professional life….still with the kids!
Personally, I believe that the 3rd time is the charm and I am privileged to be spending my 3rd act with a remarkable man named Bob Tauber. Here we are on July 4th of this year (2012) where he was honored for being a purple heart recipient……hence the red, white and blue stars around my head and the peace and love in my eyes.
Thanks to all the readers who have managed to get this far. Thanks for your activism, and your many accomplishments. I really believe the old adage that “None of us is as strong as all of us.”
I have no idea who said it first, but I like it.
Contact Sherri: firstname.lastname@example.org
Comment: Jacqui Ceballos: email@example.com
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