68th Carnival of Genealogy
A Tribute to Women
The earlier parts of the 20th century were sometimes tough: infant mortality was high, health care was mixed in availability and adequacy, employment could be sporadic, and opportunities for women were extremely limited. That was the time period in which my mother was born – 1914.
By January 1922, both her parents were dead (typhoid fever and complications from childbirth) and she and four brothers were sent from Oklahoma to the hills of western Virginia to live separately with various aunts and uncles. Before she turned eight, Mother was thrown into working for her keep and the opportunity to get an education was mostly non-existent for the next seven years, though she said she loved to read enough that she would read in bed at night by using a flashlight under the covers.
Her father’s sister, Piety, with whom mother lived, was apparently a harsh and unhappy woman, although her husband/cousin, Dave, was an apparently kind and loving man. Even when mother was over 90 years old, she would sometimes cry as she remembered her Aunt Piety calling her “the unwanted spawn of a buzzard.” Fortunately, Uncle Dave was more welcoming and gave mother some semblance of a loving home.
In July 1929, her sister, Bernita, drove to Virginia to get her siblings and bring them back to Oklahoma – that included all but Leonard who was already married by that time and Johnnie who came soon after that. They lived for a brief time in Wewoka, Oklahoma, and, although she was 15, mother enrolled in the 5th grade there. After just a few weeks they moved to Oklahoma City and mother transferred to Lee Elementary where she had wonderful teachers who encouraged her and advanced her through grades quite rapidly.
That first year she played Mary in the Christmas play. She said, “another student, Ralph, would play the guitar while I sang. The principal and Mrs. Fisher, the pianist, would let me sing in the school assembly. The children would clap and yell out songs for me to sing. I knew the words to all these songs. The kids just loved it when I sang ‘Ole man River’ and ‘Desert Song.’ Mother said she skipped right on through sixth grade, loving every minute.
At Capitol Hill Junior High, both her principal and math teachers were Christians who, mother said, “loved God and taught from the Bible. Mr. Holt would read a story from the Bible each day and told the class, ‘You don’t have to buy another book because all the stories you need are in the Bible. If you love mysteries, they’re in the bible; if you love stories, they’re in the Bible.
Mother’s favorite parts of school included being a junior police because of her love of order and being a responsible person, singing in assemblies and classrooms and drawing. Learning music was apparently very easy for mother and, accordingly, when she needed to learn new or complex material, she would put a melody to it and sing it, thus enabling easy recall. Her school days, she said, “were the most wonderful years of my life.”
Mother went to Capitol Hill Junior High and on to Capitol Hill Senior High in quick succession; most of the time during those years mother had to share the book of a willing classmate but finally, lack of money for books as well as a pattern for sewing class, caused mother to drop out of high school.
After she left school, Mother took jobs babysitting and cleaning homes for people, even serving in live-in capacities with some of them, for example, the Salmons and the Pipers. Mr. Salmon had a laundry and cleaners and she worked in the store with him for a time. Because she lived with Bernita or her brothers, Joe or Johnnie, she was able to support her love of music by spending her money on movies and concerts. She said she saw every movie as well as every opera singer that ever came to Oklahoma City, including Grace Moore and Allan Jones. She said one time the auditorium was so crowded there were no seats left and so they set up folding chairs on the stage and she got to sit on the stage just a few feet away from one of the tenors. That was a real highlight experience for her.
Mother spoke impeccable English even though her education was sporadic and incomplete, sang hundreds of songs and arias learned completely by hearing them on recordings and the radio or in movies and she had a personal style of elegance learned mostly from watching movies.
The things I learned from my mother were more caught than taught. They included a love of reading and learning, a joy found in music, singing and performing, a sense of personal responsibility and integrity, a balance between independence and interdependence, the importance of family, the ability to live with optimism in the face of adversity and an abiding faith in God.
It’s hard to understand how mother learned to love when she was robbed of parents and home and the day-to-day living with her brothers and sister and spent the majority of her formative years in the home of an angry and bitter aunt, and without benefit of education- but she did. The most valuable gift I received from my mother was unconditional love. The really neat thing about receiving unconditional love is that once you’ve received, it you’re free to give it away to others.