By Maddie Ellis
Dancers, artists and actors surrounded Kathleen Monegan in her masters of art education program at The Ohio State University. Kathleen was in her 40s, born in Akron, Ohio, a mother of three, and was married for 27 years. Even though she never finished the program, she still thinks about those classmates. Hearing what they had done, what these people had accomplished, she found herself at a juncture.
Kathleen met Laszlo — who went by Louis, the Americanized version of his traditional Hungarian name — at age 22. They lived in the same neighborhood by their college, The University of Akron. After Louis finished his accounting major, seven months after they met, the two were married.
After they walked down the aisle, Kathleen and Louis moved to Cleveland, Ohio, the home of Louis’s family.
Louis got a prestigious job working for a large accounting firm in the city. Kathleen got a job working as a secretary for the Standard Oil of Ohio. But she didn’t know anybody in the city, outside of her husband and her in-laws.
“That was a very kind of strange, lonely time for me,” she said.
She had her first child, a daughter named Beth, in 1966 — eighteen months after she was married.
“And I did know about birth control,” she said with a laugh.
She had her second daughter, Julie, four years later. Then a son, Dana, four years after that. This timing wasn’t planned, rather an example of her “knee-jerk living,” she said.
Marriage wasn’t everything to Kathleen. But her husband’s job working in college administration did offer her the opportunity to find her own passion: learning. As her family moved around Ohio, she took classes at local colleges. Some at Ohio Wesleyan University, some at Ohio State, some at Kenyon College.
She was still taking classes at local universities into her 40s. Then, she went to New York City.
Living in a house off of a highway in Chelsea, she worked as an administrative assistant in the arts through an internship program. She spent three months doing the work behind-the-scenes. But through all the calls, emails and tasks, she studied the operations of a nonprofit organization supporting artists.
The Cinderella Hoax
Her exposure to these mentors, the city, and then choosing to pursue her masters in arts education all converged around the time that Kathleen thought about ending her marriage.
After looking at her situation for so long, she realized she just had to do it.
“To me, it was like getting on top of a high dive and heading down towards a cold pool,” she said.
Once she made the decision, she didn’t go back.
“It wasn’t that Cinderella myth that I had grown up with in the ‘50s, that I had bought into,” she said.
Her first marriage wasn’t her happy ending.
“Have you seen Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Into The Woods?’” she asked.
In finding the strength to make one choice, one choice to leave her traditional marriage and family life, Kathleen let any semblance of her faithfulness to the Cinderella myth shatter, like broken glass over a marble staircase.
Kathleen’s granddaughter Rowan McDonald, 18, said above all, her grandmother has taught her that change is OK.
“You could have a bunch of different careers and still be successful, and you can live a bunch of different places and still be successful, and you can stay in one place and still be successful,” Rowan said.
Violet Kehoe, 19, grew up in Medina, Ohio. Many of her early memories with Kathleen revolved around the question, “Where’s grandma now?”
When she wasn’t there for family gatherings, Kathleen always sent a cardboard box with gift bags inside for each grandchild, meticulously labeled. Violet still remembers receiving a small backpack in the shape of a black bear, sent with love from New Mexico. Years later, she spotted a matching backpack hanging in her grandmother’s room.
The backpack is one of many remnants of all the times Kathleen traveled the world. In finding the strength to leave her former marriage, she gave herself the opportunity to make endless choices — all visible in the stamps on a creased and worn passport.
After she retired, Kathleen lived at Yellowstone National Park for seven months, working in lodging and campground reservations. She spent her days in a cubbyhole, staring at a screen, on the phone speaking with customers.
“It was a pretty crappy job,” she said.
When Violet was 10, she visited while her grandmother was working at Yellowstone. They drove throughout the park in Kathleen’s blue Nissan. At one point, Kathleen slammed on the brakes as a herd of buffalo passed in front of them through the road.
“I just remember it being so beautiful in the air, when I looked out the window,” Violet said. “Like that’s the first time I had ever seen mountains before.”
Kathleen admits she’s made mistakes in her life. But this decision, to leave her feelings of dependency and her life in Ohio, is one she doesn’t regret. She actually describes it as one of her life’s successes.
“It modeled a lot to my children, who had grown up in a pretty confusing household, because their mother was not happy pretty consistently,” she said.
Kathleen lives in Carrboro now, close to Violet, and they get brunch almost weekly. Over Violet’s winter break, they watched the Netflix show “Bridgerton” together.
“What I thought was funny was Violet’s reaction,” she said. “I wasn’t embarrassed, I think she was just embarrassed that I was there.”
She doesn’t anticipate traveling as much anymore. Instead of choosing places on a map, she browses the magazine racks at Barnes and Noble.
“I may keep a section of the paper for two weeks, reading through the obituaries,” she said. “It’s really crazy, nobody would do that, you know?”
She looks through the New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal. She likes to skip around, to have options.
Edited by Kyle Mehlman & Makayla Williams