There is usually a steady flurry of mail in drifts along the edges of my desk. But a recent column on Sen. Edward Boorke's divorce seemed to seed one of those abrupt changes in weather: Suddenly, there was a blizzard.
Some of it was predictable fallout: the letters in defense of the senator or in sympathy with the wife, the letters deploring the state of politics and those worrying about public knowledge of private lives.
But the bulk - and I mean the bulk - contained long, personal tales by or about other older women who were also divorce statistics. They bore testimony to the syndrome that Tom Wolfe once described as "wife-shucking," or what others more politely label "the plight of the displaced homemaker."
There was depressing sameness to the stories - new variations of old themes. "My mother was one of the women who grew up obeying all the rules of the game," wrote a 30-year-old daughter of a newly "shucked" wife from Indiana. "When she was 56, the rules were changed. Life really isn't fair."
"I am a member of that [Mrs. Brooke's] generation of women," wrote a Houstonite. "I call us discards. It's like being a skilled worker when automation takes over. I have all the old skills and nobody wants them anymore."
Those portraits, testimonials of a generation's worst pain, had a cumulative effect on me, as a reader. In fact, I think that it is impossible to overestimate the impact of this massive role model of despair - the bereft older homemaker - on younger women and one the general society. It seems to determine many of the anxieties we live with, and the decisions we make every day.
The most widespread and dramatic of these decisions can be read in black and white, in numbers and percentages. Sometime this summer, for instance, the Census Bureau, clicking away like that old population clock, will register a new American reality. On that day, half of all the adult women in the country will be holding jobs. The largest increases in this figure have come from the younger women. The biggest percentage jump in any category has been among mothers of pre-school children.
The reasons behind the figures are, I know, largely those of economic need. But there is an emotional component to the 50 percent - a very human search for security.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow once suggested that there is a hierarchy of human needs. At the most basic level, along with the necessity of food and shelter, is the need for safety: sameness. But what has happened it that, slowly, women have relocated their sense of security. Once it was firmly lodged in marriage. Now it seems to rest increasingly outside the home - in jobs or, at least, job potential.
I don't know exactly how much of this shift in perspective is due to divorce - the experience or the specter - but I know how vivid our fearful image is of the homemaker without a husband. The widow, or the 60-year-old divorcee sent from court (unlike Mrs. Brooke) into the "independence" of poverty and loneliness, is haunting.
Faced with this sort of image, some younger women can hide their anxiety and even don the costume of the Total Woman as a security blanket. But more and more of us seek this thing, this security, in the one realistic way offered by society: employment.
It's not that we are naive. We know that jobs, like marriages, can also collapse. And we know that work doesn't immunize people from personal pain.
But it is a hedge against the risks of life. Even at its worst, work seems to an immense addition to the arsenal of self-protection. It offers a sheild of paychecks and friends and identity.