Nana’s Story: The Value of Independence


Posted Sat, Aug 6, 2016

Liz sits on the porch of her house. [Photo: Debbie Rose

Liz “Nana” Sauter sits on the porch of her house. [Photo: Debbie Rose]

DENVER — Born during the Great Depression—and experiencing a childhood shaped by a nation at war—Elizabeth (or “Liz,” and, to me, in the spirit of full disclosure, “Nana”) Sauter learned early the value of independence.

“I just never wanted to be a nobody,” she says, her strong voice and steady tone belying her 80 years. “I wanted to be a somebody, at least in my own mind. And that meant utilizing whatever I had to work with. And every decision I made, I would hope would be a betterment.”

As the second-youngest of seven children raised by a single mother in rural New Mexico, Liz’s life didn’t always provide the opportunity for independent decisions, but it informed her worldview and nurtured a fortitude that would epitomize the progress of a nation struggling with the concepts of gender equality, and major societal shifts in the family and workforce.

Liz grew up in a small adobe home with no indoor plumbing on the property of an unused cotton gin. Her father, a man she admired as a young girl, but who she describes as “troubled” and “an unknown man to my mom,” was often absent. He committed suicide when she was 9 years-old, by drinking carbolic acid, a then over-the-counter chemical used as an anesthetic that was, in the early 20th Century, the leading cause of poisoning deaths in the United States.

“It was a traumatic death,” Liz says. “All pandemonium broke loose in the house. For a long while I think I lived in a kind of never-never land. I think I lost a period of time in there.”

No caption Photo credit: Debbie Rose

“My ambition really was to be able to go to college.” — Liz Sauter [Photo: Debbie Rose]

An Absolute Tomboy

Liz’s hair is short, much like her stature. But her presence is commanding, her brown eyes knowing. She’s a spry and active octogenarian—the silver-haired pixie cut emblematic of a woman resistant to stereotypes.

“By then I was developing more ambitions towards being an absolute tomboy,” Liz explains, laughing, of her time at Holy Cross Catholic School in Las Cruces, N.M. Her mother managed to land her and her sister spots at the private junior high school by doing odd jobs around the parish. Liz had a penchant for basketball, and worked too, picking onions and pecans.

In high school she had a job at a retail shop. “I had a feeling of reverence for my mother,” Liz says. “That was always uppermost in my mind.” Liz wanted to buy her the things she admired in catalogues that came in the mail.

“I can remember buying my mom dinnerware…that’s what I gave her for Christmas from money I had earned; and that was a good feeling. At the same time, as I’m getting older and observing how things are going with my family. I’m thinking I never want to find myself in the situation that my mom is. Even in my teen years I was thinking like that.”

Liz with grandson Jonathan Rose in the UK. [Photo: Debbie Rose]

Liz with grandson Jonathan Rose in the UK. [Photo: Debbie Rose]

Bigger Ambitions

Liz has an easy grin and is always ready with a quick retort. A sense of humor is an invaluable asset.

In 1950 only a third of American women worked outside the home and only 5 percent held a college degree. The nation’s feminist movement was in a lull between the suffragists and second-wavers, the latter of whom would shake the patriarchy in Liz’s daughters’ formative years. The idea of ambition in a teenage girl was still an American novelty. Liz was an early adopter.

“My ambition really was to be able to go to college,” Liz says. “To get into something that entailed…sort of engineering type stuff. That was one thing that really interested was how things work and what makes them work.”

Liz graduated high school, took a civil service test, and landed a clerical position at White Sands Missile Range, where she met the father of four or her five daughters.

“This young MP would come out to check the area,” Liz says. “He caught my eye and I caught his. And that’s where my first marriage got started. And so, then it was just boom-boom-boom kids.”

The first, Debbie, was born in 1958, Jackie in 1959, twins Patty and Pam came in 1961. “I had almost like quadruplets, really,” Liz chuckles.

But the charming military cop couldn’t handle the father thing.

“One day he was gone,” Liz says. “And that was it. Didn’t pack a suitcase or anything like that….there were some really dark years after the children’s father left. It was terrible. It really was.”

Liz with her grandkids [Photo: Debbie Rose]

Liz with her grandsons. [Photo: Debbie Rose]

Liz found herself a single mother of four in an era when single motherhood was anathema. The family spent time on welfare. Indeed, these dark circumstances affirmed Liz’s early ambition; she realized that her desire for independence and education was rooted in a basis of reality.

“Whenever a woman becomes the object of her worth being from the support that her male partner gives her,” she says, “it’s worth nothing.”

Shortly thereafter she was accepted at Coronado Technical Institute—a trade school in Albuquerque with a focus on drafting. Liz found herself one of three women enrolled, yet excelled, graduating with nearly perfect scores.

A Career Woman

You’ll typically find Liz in jeans and sweatshirt, or maybe a T-shirt, perhaps picking pecans or apricots off of the trees growing in her backyard. The house is hers. The tree is hers.

Liz fell in love with a professor at the institute and they married in Albuquerque in 1967. Soon after, in 1968—a year of massive social change in the United States—her fifth child, Mickey, was born. “After that,” Liz says, “things didn’t go too well. And I was out of there.”

Luckily, Liz had developed a relationship with the drafting department at the Physical Science Laboratory in New Mexico State University, and was able to land a job almost immediately upon her return with the children to Las Cruces.

Liz and Jonathan

Liz and grandson Jonathan enjoy spending quite times together.

“I absolutely loved the work,” Liz says. “I loved communicating with some of the intelligent people up there. Very few—some—female engineers. It was nice being able to talk to people who could appreciate the abilities of a woman striving to, you know, compete in a man’s world. And I did well.”

Nineteen sixty-eight was the year that federal affirmative action policy was extended to cover sex-based discrimination, but even in a progressive university environment, the obstacles were abundant. Women couldn’t wear pants to the office, men objected to working with her, she was sexually harassed.

“You just learn to blow some things off,” Liz says, “because if you don’t it gets really ugly. Did I ever get the raises the guys got? No. Not ‘til the very end.”

And now, in 2016, nearly six decades after the birth of her “quadruplets”—one world war, a cold war, and a cultural revolution later; and as the Democratic Party nominates America’s first female presidential candidate in Hillary Clinton, the story of Liz’s life is that of a changing nation whose progress and success has been anything but linear or inevitable.

“It’s been tough,” she says. “It’s been discombobulated. It’s been a piece here, a piece there. A success here, a failure here. And in the end I wonder—I’m 80—and I wonder sometimes: ‘How did I get here?'”

About Jonathan Rose

Jonathan Rose is a Denver-area freelance writer.

View all posts by Jonathan Rose

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