About a year ago, the staff of this newspaper conducted a series of interviews that were never published. They were casual conversations with almost 40 people, asking about their lives. We did this exercise in hopes of better understanding the community we serve and as a reference point to guide us as we shape the future of this newspaper. Among the interviews were a few common threads, including a recurring story line of people taking care of their aging parents.
As I sat across from Maggie Woods on Monday, I thought of all those people – the professionals who put careers on hold to come back and care for their parents, and the newly retired professionals whose next chapter is dedicated to the care and welfare of the people who raised them. Woods is one of them.
Woods and I met at Cool Beanz in Rock Island to talk about life and politics for my ongoing column experiment, “What They Don’t Know About Us,” about what people believe and why they believe it. Woods is one of those intellectually energetic women who is always reading through a stack of book and articles and jumps easily and excitedly beyond small talk into the world of history and ideas. But as we talked, her responsibilities weighed on her. She isn’t one to complain, but I could feel her distraction and exhaustion as her cell phone buzzed and she apologized. “I have to get this in case it’s the Hospice nurse.”
At 70, Woods retired in 2016 from her career as an educator. She is raising her 16 year-old granddaughter (“I worry about her world, what we will turn over to her”) and is the full-time caretaker for her 96 year-old mother. Woods’ care allows her mother to still live in her own home, even though she is bed-ridden, living on a liquid diet of “Boost, ice cream and wine.”
“Her mind is still sharp. My mom has always been content, easy-going, happy and accepting. That’s probably why she’s still here,” Woods said. “I visit her three times a day. I feed her and change her.”
Caring for her mother has made Woods face her own mortality, she said. “It’s made me reflect on what I want moving forward.”
Woods grew up in a politically mixed home as one of eight children. Her father was a Republican and her mother a Democrat. “We didn’t talk politics,” she said. Woods’ first political memory is of a comment made during the Eisenhower vs Adlai Stevenson race. Of Stevenson, the Democratic nominee, her friend said, “We can’t have him as president. He’s divorced.”
Woods graduated from Alleman High School in 1964 and headed to the University of Maryland in the midst of a tumultuous time on college campuses. “I was not a rebellious child,” she said. “I tried to do everything right. I wasn’t a flower child, but I had a strong sense of fairness.” She was student teaching at Paul Junior High in Washington, D.C. when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. “I remember a janitor dragging chains to lock the doors.” The riots and National Guardsmen she remembers and Bobby Kennedy’s later assassination made her want to move back home to Rock Island after graduation, to be close to family. She’s lived here ever since. She’s been married 47 years and spent 35 years as a public school teacher in Moline. After retirement, she moved to St. Ambrose University to develop a master’s program for teachers and just retired from that role.
The first thing you learn about Woods – beyond her strong sense of family – is that she’s a voracious reader. Thought-shaping books she’s read in the past year are “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer, “The Undoing Project” by Michael Lewis, and “Thanks for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations” by Thomas Friedman.
She sees the world through her eyes as an educator. She thinks the pace of society and the inability for so many to keep up has led to the current, frustrated political moment. “If I look at the long term, there’s more poverty now, more single-parent families. It’s harder to make a living, people working two jobs to make one salary. The economy created this angst. There’s a yearning to go back.
“People are upset and worried and we are not giving them a floor,” she said. “We are not giving people the tools to learn new skills. The only people who can survive today are lifelong learners, creative people who are willing to change.”
Despite Woods passion for those kinds of conversations, she said it’s becoming more difficult to discuss politics. “There’s so much nastiness in the dialogue,” she said. “Well, it’s not really dialogue, just screaming at each other.” She said she has good friends who are Trump supporters (that’s not how she voted). “Rather than get in an argument, we don’t talk about it. Our friendship is too valuable.”