My mom seldom talked about her past, but when she did, her stories were riveting.
She was born a child of poverty, the second oldest amongst a passel of children. Her mother, my grandmother, grew different kinds of herbs, vegetables and flowers. Grandma was a quiet woman who wore soft, well-washed cotton dresses up until the day she died.
The only house they lived in, that I knew about, was primitive. There was a wood-burning stove for cooking and a pump for water. A tin cup hung by the pump for anyone who was thirsty. Heat was a coal pot-belly stove in the main room. It terrified me.
One time an uncle opened the door, picked me up and threatened to throw me in. I screamed and cried until he put me down. Then I scuttled as far away as I could in the tiny house.
My grandmother made her own lace and sewed by hand even though she had a pedal-operated machine. She made beautiful quilts which she pulled out whenever we got cold.
When my brother smashed my plastic doll to pieces, she made it a body, slip, underpants and a dress. I cried when she gave it to me. Even though I was quite young, I understood how wonderful my grandmother’s work was. I still have that doll today.
My grandfather was a tenant farmer who moved his family around to wherever he found work. They most often lived in southern Ohio, near a town called Gallipolis. Sometimes they crossed over the Ohio River into Virginia. At no time were they comfortable financially. In fact, they would have been considered dirt-poor farmers, except that they never owned any land.
My grandfather knew how to hitch a mule to a wagon and how to grow crops, mostly corn. He was a quiet, thoughtful man. He seldom spoke in my presence after I reached school age. My grandfather was embarrassed that he didn’t know how to read or write, and once I learned, then he had nothing to say.
I never understood why my grandparents weren’t more loving, why they didn’t offer hugs and kisses. My mother wasn’t big on hugging either, so I thought it was just the way things were.
While my grandfather couldn’t read, he understood weights and measures and the value of money. Every day he would walk down the road to the store and buy whatever they needed. He watched as things were measured and packaged to make sure he was not cheated. When things started being canned and bottled, he was dismayed. One time he made the store owner open the can of coffee and weigh the contents. Only then would he purchase it.
My mom did go to school. She was not the best student, but she enjoyed her time in the one-room schools that she attended. Often she had to walk through deep snow wearing only a thin coat, cotton dress and old leather shoes. In the spring and fall, she walked barefoot, her shoes tied and dangling over her shoulder. It was important to take care of those shoes, for without them she could not go to school.
When she completed eighth grade, her parents did not have the money to send her away for high school, so my mom repeated that grade two times even though it was hard.
At the age of fifteen she moved into the city to live with a sister. She got a job at Woolworth’s, a five-and-dime store, and worked there for many years.
When World War II started, my mom enlisted in the Army. At a post in Florida, her main job was to carry buckets of water to palm trees. She knew it was a stupid job, but she did it until something better came along.
When an opportunity arose to be a phone operator, which meant connecting calls using cords that plugged from one hole into another, my mother gladly took the position. She must have been good at it, for that remained her job until her enlistment was over. In civilian life she worked as a phone operator for a hospital and then for the federal government.
One night, as the war continued across the pacific, mom awoke to a feeling that something was crawling up her leg. In panic, she bent her leg at the hip, a poor choice, because she pinched a black widow spider. Of course, it bit her. She fell violently ill and, according to her, nearly died. Once she recovered, she was sent home in her uniform, which she wore proudly.
My mom moved back in with her sister. There was a USO in town that frequently held dances for the servicemen, even after the war ended. It was at one such dance where she met a handsome man. They danced and talked and then she brought him home to meet her sister. The man was hungry, so he went to the pantry and took out the last can of food and ate it all by himself. The sister was angry at the man’s arrogance. My mom was intrigued.
They married within months, but continued to live with the sister until they found a place of their own. Within eight months my brother was born. Interestingly enough, my mother claimed that the pregnancy was full term, that he was not born prematurely, and that she was not pregnant when they married. When I got older I understood what the early birth meant, but my mom never changed her story.
A year and a half later I came along. My earliest memories are of a home in what my mother called the projects. It was a small house with only two bedrooms, but a huge porch that stretched across the front. My mom did have a job outside of the home, but being a housewife then was hard work. We were lucky enough to have a washing machine, but it was the old-fashioned type with a wringer that terrified me. I hated watching my mom feed clothes into the wringers, fearing that her fingers would get caught and fall off.
By the time I was old enough to go to school, we had moved to a larger house in the suburbs of Dayton. There was a large backyard, big enough for a swing set, a dog house and a garden. It was here that my mom learned how to drive. She had to, if she wanted me to go to Kindergarten.
My mom decided that I was a slow learner, a backward child, who wouldn’t succeed in school without help. This was a difficult decision, as kindergarten was not free back then, and so it placed a financial hardship on the family. But my mom thought it was important, and so she drove me to school every day, even when the roads were deep with snow.
When I started first grade, my mom returned to work as a telephone operator. She left for work about the same time that my brother and I headed off for school, and didn’t come home until after my dad. She fixed dinner, did the dishes, made sure we were clean and tidy and took care of the house. That’s what women did then, all the housework with no help from the men. My mom was not the best cook, but there was always food on the table.
When I was seven my sister was born. It was a rough time. We were told that my mom had had a nervous breakdown and that we had to keep quiet so as to not upset her. Thank goodness it was summer, so my brother and I spent hours outside. We were not allowed in the house from morning until evening for fear of disturbing Mom’s sleep. I saw very little of both my mother and my sister during that time.
My dad took over the cooking. He burnt most things and undercooked others, but expected us to eat everything he served.
We moved when I finished fourth grade, this time to a house in Beavercreek, Ohio. It was a rural area, far from the city. Nevertheless, my mom drove us into town so to attend the Catholic elementary school. She also took us to the library, all the time driving an old, flat-black business coup that had no backseat and no heat. We sat on piled of blankets and in the winter we wrapped up in the blankets and laid on the floor to try to keep warm.
One time, just as we pulled into the library parking lot, flames shot out from the hood. My mom knew what to do. She sent my brother and I inside to search for books. My mom sat in the car, letting it cool down. When it was time to leave, she got under the hood, tweaked a few things, then started the engine. It worked! She drove us all the way home, probably smiling with pride.
That house used a septic tank for waste disposal which sometimes developed problems. After watching my dad dig into the dirt to reveal the lid, remove it, and dump treatment into it, my mom knew what to do. The next time it backed up, she took a shovel and went to work. I don’t know how she lifted the heavy lid by herself, but she did.
For years afterward she bragged about digging up the septic tank. It was something to be proud of, for it showed her determination and independent spirit.
During my freshman year of high school, my mom’s health went downhill. I didn’t understand what was happening, just that sometimes she seemed unable to breathe. Her doctor said that we had to move, that she had asthma that was triggered by the humidity, and so my dad sold everything and drove us to California.
It was quite an adventure. My favorite part was seeing Pike’s Peak in Colorado and the Native Americans on the reservation in the desert. My least favorite was the field after field of corn and the heat of Arizona.
Somewhere in the desert we developed car trouble. We stopped at a little service station for help, but my dad did not trust the mechanic, so he wouldn’t let the man fix our car. It was blisteringly hot and we had nothing to drink. We also had no money to buy water, so we sat in the car, getting thirstier by the minute. The store owner came out more than once, offering water, but my mom would not take it. She did not want to feel obliged.
Considering her humble beginnings, my mom did quite well in the working world. Once we settled in a rented house in South San Francisco, California, she got a job at a little five and dime store and within a few years became the weekend manager. She kept track of register receipts, placed orders, and conducted inventory. When the store closed due to competition, my mom quickly found a job at a pharmacy, but it was a longer drive from home. She had to go by freeway, and that terrified her, especially in the fog and rain.
Her next job was with the federal government as a phone operator. Once again, she rose through the ranks and became a trainer. This was about the time that equal employment forced agencies to hire minorities and the disabled. Her office hired a blind man.
At this time, calls were still connected by moving cords from one lighted hole to the next. How was a blind man going to see the lights? My mom thought about this for a long time and played around with various creations. Eventually she designed a tool that allowed him to do the job. She received not just a certificate honoring her invention, but a little bonus. She was so proud. In fact, that was probably her proudest moment.
My mom’s story was probably not that unusual. She was unskilled with limited education, but with great determination. She was hard-working and willing to do any job. She was independent and proud of it, even though she continued to be a regular housewife at home.
After phone operators were no longer needed, my mom got a job washing pots and pans at the local school district. It was not full time work, so she also worked at a community college doing the same thing. Leaning over a deep sink, day in, day out, scrubbing out remnants of food was hard on her back. Her hands turned bright red and the skin peeled off, even though she wore thick gloves. Soap got into her eyes, causing burning and intense pain. Even so, she kept at it until physically she was unable to perform the job. By this time she was well past retirement age.
My mom did have one last part time job that she got after her seventieth birthday. She discovered that she could get paid for delivering phone books. She and my dad got up early in the morning, loaded up his truck with books, then spent the day putting them on porches and doorsteps. It was an exhausting, poorly-paid job, but she did it with pride and determination.
Once my mom was no longer able to work, she collapsed physically and emotionally. Dementia set in, robbing her of her memory and her will to fight. She died in her sleep, a fitting ending to a life lived in extremes.