I am so glad to be alive in 2001. One hundred years ago, my mother went to the Pan-American Exposition. Fifty years ago, she was still talking about it. This year, I marched in the opening parade marking the centennial celebration.
It was a thrill to be able to celebrate one of Buffalo's big moments in history, and to try to recapture some of the excitement she must have felt at the time. It seems that was all I heard as a child: the Pan-American Exposition. My mother was a talker, and I was the youngest, so she told me many stories of her youth many times, and answered every question I asked.
She talked about the parade, about the pavilion and other buildings, about the whole area lit up at night "like broad daylight." The exhibits, the booths, the carnival atmosphere - all of it was exciting to a child of 11 seeing the marvels of electricity for the first time, imagining how different life might be when she grew up.
She recalled walking with her older brother from Madison Street up Humboldt Parkway to Delaware Park, in the shade of the elms, maples and sycamores that were the signature of Buffalo. They dreamed that someday they might have electric lights in their house and a motorized bicycle to visit their cousins in Rochester. And maybe someday someone would figure out how to fly, and they could learn, too.
The exposition, like all fairs, invited people to dream of a marvelous, exciting future. The reality of life in 1901 was often just the opposite. Seeing members of the League of Women Voters dressed in long white suffragist costumes for the parade this year, brought memories of mother's stories about those long dresses. She hated them. As a child, she loved to climb the grapevines for their bounty. Long skirts were confining and cumbersome, and difficult to keep clean. Streets were often muddy, horses and carriages splashed as they passed, and crossing the street meant stepping off the wooden sidewalks, if there were sidewalks at all, and into the muddy ruts. The dresses dragged, along with the numerous petticoats beneath.
Then came the drudgery of washing everything by hand, unless a family was lucky enough to have the "newfangled water-powered" machine, which eased some of the drudgery of "wash day."
The expectations placed on women were stifling in many ways, but the worst for mother was not being allowed to make her own choices. Although she was eager to learn, her father would not let her attend school beyond eighth grade. In his mind, girls married and their husbands provided, so they had no need for a means of making money. At 14, she went to her first job, sewing vests at the M. Weil Co. factory.
The widespread use of electricity that was boosted by the exposition led to numerous work-saving inventions, all of which mother bought as soon as she could afford them. To her they meant freedom from the many time-consuming chores that were the lot of the ordinary woman at the turn of the century. That was what she really wanted: Freedom to explore and learn more about all kinds of things.
As I contrast my life now against my mother's, I can hardly believe I'm here. Our two lives spanned 100 years, millions of inventions of work-saving gadgets and almost unlimited opportunities for women.
LEONORE S. LAMBERT lives in East Aurora.