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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Education and an old-fashioned recipe for marital bliss

Published: Tuesday, April 2 2013 3:39 p.m. MDT

Irvan Choate, right, helps his wife, Fleeta, cuddle their son, Bill Choate, in the early 1940s.

unknown, Choate family records

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There was a time in my life when the idea of a man opening a door for me made me cringe.

My feelings were the strongest while I was in college, in my late teens and early twenties and I was still figuring out the relationship of equality between men and women. If I went on a date with a guy, I felt uncomfortable if he opened the car door for me. I felt awkward entering a building while my date stood to the side, holding the door open, and I took it as a commentary on my inability to do it myself — a statement on how I was inferior.

As I grew older, I realized that probably wasn't the case. Whether they thought I was inferior or not, I decided to take the act of door opening, or other chivalrous gestures, as an act of respect. In fact, I realized I liked to have my door opened for me. After I got married, I suggested to my husband that perhaps he could open my door a little more often, even.

I've learned a lot since college, but I confess I still mull over gender equality and what it means for me. My convictions about how women should be treated in the workplace are clear, but when it comes to defining gender roles in the home, dividing responsibilities becomes a little more murky in my mind.

As I've learned more about my grandmother, Fleeta Choate, who died before I was born, I've been impressed that she didn't follow a traditional female trajectory for her day. Yes, she did have children, and yes, she sewed and cooked and cleaned as was customary for a woman born in 1911, but she also worked full time. She pursued an education, and she got her master's degree when she was 55 — something that was almost unheard of at the time.

While I've focused on her accomplishments as an example to me as a woman and mother decades later, I never really paid much attention to how she did it. Or who she did it with, I should say. As little as I knew about Fleeta before I started writing this column, I knew even less about my grandfather, Irvan Choate, her husband.

Irvan was born in 1901 in Texas. He married Fleeta in 1935 when he was 34 — she was 24 — and he died in 1972. From the stories I've heard from my dad and uncle, after I finally started asking about him, I gather that Irvan was pretty laid back. He let Fleeta call him "daddy" as a pet name, and because he was a decade older — and looked it — people sometimes thought he really was Fleeta's father.

He had an entrepreneurial spirit, always finding a way to make ends meet. At one point in his life, he taught high school history and football at the local school. At another point he invested in real estate properties as a landlord, and another time he repaired typewriters for Remington Rand. It seems he followed Fleeta where her employment took her, and when he arrived where they were going, he found a way to make a living, no matter what it was.

My dad and uncle say their parents were great at being a team. She'd say to him, "Come on Choate, let's do the laundry," and he'd hop to it. They did everything together, from hanging the laundry to dry outside to cooking dinner. They laughed often, spent a lot of time with each of their extended families and never took themselves too seriously, my uncle says.

With that in mind, it makes sense to me that my grandfather was a big part of my grandmother's success. In fact, it turns out my grandmother gave him most of the credit for her degree. In 1966, Fleeta was interviewed about her educational achievement by a small newspaper in Oklahoma, and the resulting article had the words, "Degree laurels extended to hubby," written in big letters across the top.

"Women … have been getting the laurels for helping their husbands through school long enough," the article says. "It's time now for men, husbands in particular, to receive a little credit."

The story goes on to outline the 10 years it took for Fleeta to earn her degree, including her affirmation that she "wouldn’t have 'stuck with it’ ” if it hadn't been for Irvan. Despite working swing shifts as a nurse the entire time, raising a pre-teen and a baby, and dealing with some health issues that Irvan had, somehow they pulled together and made it through. In the end, Irvan even drove her to school every day to make sure she got there, and I love knowing that.

I love knowing that my grandmother was part of a pair. Everything they did, they did together, and as my husband and I consider the best path forward for the roles we play in our family, I take comfort that I can look to their example as a recipe for happiness.

Up next: how education brought my grandfather to Oklahoma from Texas in the first place.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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