Public lives, private roles

When the beloved Southern writer Eudora Welty died last week at the age of 92, lengthy obituaries - some running 2,000 to 3,000 words - paid reverent tribute to this American literary icon.

Newspapers chronicled her early years as the oldest of three children of book-loving parents. They recounted her few forays away from the family home in Jackson, Miss., where she spent virtually her entire life. And they described her numerous awards and honorary degrees.

But what most obituaries failed to mention - or quietly glossed over in only a sentence or two - was a nearly 15-year period in the 1950s and 1960s when Miss Welty's typewriter gathered dust in her study. As the only daughter in the family, she devoted herself to caring for her ailing (and sometimes difficult) mother and her two younger brothers, whose health was also failing.

Noting that Welty wrote only two short stories, a children's book, and a few essays during this period, her friend and fellow writer Reynolds Price calls it "a hard time of near silence." Biographer Ann Waldron describes it as a stretch of "dark days." Worried friends wondered if she would ever write again.

She did, of course. After the deaths of her mother and brothers, she went on to write "The Optimist's Daughter," a Pulitzer prize-winning novel.

Caregiving of a different sort also played a quiet role in the life of another luminary who was buried last week, Katharine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post and Newsweek. In her Pulitzer prize-winning autobiography, "Personal History," Mrs. Graham describes a severe breakdown her husband, Phil, experienced, five years before he committed suicide.

During his yearlong recovery, she writes, "I was his only support system.... He was completely dependent on me...." She adds that her own life "evolved to accommodate Phil's changed one and the changing needs of my four children and my aging parents."

Even the rich and famous find themselves part of the sandwich generation.

Studies and polls can estimate the number of men and women helping family members in need. But numbers cannot begin to measure the devotion and sacrifice that go on behind closed doors, unseen and unheralded.

Caregiving remains a mostly private act. Like Carl Sandburg's fog, caregivers often come in "on little cat feet" - and leave just as quietly. Even friends and other relatives may not know the extent of the support a family member is providing.

"Your private life should be kept private," Welty stated in 1972, summing up the feelings of many caregivers who regard their silence as a matter of dignity and respect. Graham, too, explains that she and her husband kept his condition "very private; our one idea was to conceal what had happened not only from the world but from our friends, my family, and even our children."

No wonder caregiving, whatever the particular family circumstance, continues to be a well-kept secret in an otherwise tell-all age. Yet this silence, however admirable, conspires to keep caregiving in the shadows and on the margins, largely out of both public view and public policy.

No one will ever know what potential masterpieces Welty might have written during the years she devoted to her mother and brothers. But the literary world's loss was her family's private gain. She knew her priorities.

Welty and Graham will rightly be remembered for the rich public legacies each left in the written word. Both also deserve to be honored for a sense of private family devotion that sometimes goes unacknowledged.

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