Mother. I’ve known her a long time.
She was born in 1917 on a poor farm in western Pennsylvania. Horses and people provided the only power. She remembered when gaslights finally arrived, and they never had electricity on the farm. On the rare occasions she had a spare dime, she would walk down the long hill to the crossroads village of Harlansburg, and then back up the hill with her treasure. Yet during the Depression, they always had lots of food, mostly what they raised, grew and canned themselves or traded with their neighbors and family. A nearby farm had a surface vein of coal, so they were always warm. While it was just five of them on the farm, Mother, her Grandfather who owned the farm, her parents and her older brother, they were surrounded by their large family, enough cousins to field two football teams, a gaggle of cheerleaders, and a reasonable set of fans. Her parents had been married at that farm on Christmas Day “because the house was clean and the whole family was there.” Almost all the clothes Mother wore, even into her nineties, were clothes first her Mother and then she made.
She went to a one-room school for the first eight grades. Shaw School was a very small clapboard building with a little porch and a warm cast-iron stove, one teacher, and not much else. High School was the new building a couple of miles away – two story stone, probably eight classrooms, with a bookcase in the hall acting as the library. She really did walk to school, through the snow in the winters and uphill both ways to the High School, as there was a small rise between home and school. Some winter days when the snow was just right, Grandpa would hitch the gray mare to the sleigh and take her to school. We still have the sleigh bells that the horse wore. It must have been a “Jingle Bells” moment.
After high school she went to Slippery Rock State Teacher’s College and got her teaching certificate and found her first job. But she couldn’t teach. She was only 17. She sat out a year, a very frustrating year, and then started teaching in another one-room school. Schools were much different then. They lacked a lot of what we consider critical in education. One such thing was the importance of grade level. Back then you advanced in each subject at the pace you were willing to advance. This is easy to do in a one-room school. When you passed the eighth grade test, you moved on to high school. As an eighteen-year-old rooky teacher and the only adult in the building, she had a student who was nineteen because he had not “finished” grade school. She decided to get him through that year, and she did. It was the first indication of her skill and dedication to teaching.
Yes, she was poor in terms of money, but rich in terms of love of family, love of education, and a love of music. She played violin in High School, the piano “forever” and had her own organ for decades. She loved the music of people like Lawrence Welk and the big bands, going to as many live events in the Pittsburgh area as she and Dad could afford.
She met Dad because he was a friend of her brother, and they saw each other a lot because he lived across the road from the High School. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Dad re-enlisted in the Army. In January of 1942, he was a private in Mississippi. By August he was a 2nd Lieutenant in Iceland starting up V-Mail, the microfilm service set up to deliver mail to and from American military personnel in the European Theater. In between, and with about two weeks’ notice, they got married. After Mother said goodbye to him at the New York pier, it was 41 months before she saw him or heard his voice again.
Some of her family were upset with this marriage. After all, Mother’s family had been in North America since the 1600’s and came from a Scotts Irish English heritage. Her ancestors fought in the Revolution and the War of 1812. Her Grandfather and his brothers fought in the Civil War, carrying their own hunting rifles and walking or riding the army trains to places like Vicksburg and Fredericksburg. The trains didn’t go very fast. Often a soldier could get off the first car while the train was going, pick some fresh fruits or vegetables from the adjoining field, and then jump back on the last car. Her Grandfather went to Gettysburg to hear Lincoln.
Dad’s family, on the other hand, first showed up at Ellis Island in 1908 from some obscure unpronounceable town in Przemysl District in Eastern Europe. His Dad had been in the Austro-Hungarian army because at that point it controlled the area. At other times, so did Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine. They were a poor immigrant family that did not speak any English when they arrived, often staying with family and friends who had previously settled all over the country.
After the war, Mother and Dad started traveling. I vividly remember our eight week summer road trip from Western Pennsylvania to the Pacific Ocean and back, the long way – about 11,000 miles worth. I was seven. Over the years, they visited, not just passed through, every State in the US, and most of Canada. After Dad died, she visited much of Europe, New Zealand, Australia, the Caribbean, Central America, Iceland, and she rounded Cape Horn when she was 91.
People will remember Mother for a variety of reasons. Some because of her love of a game of Bridge. She always said she only played for the fun and conversation, but she could recall every hand played over a long afternoon, and was especially satisfied when she could beat a “better” player.
In the 1960s, Dad got very interested in, and very good at, lapidary: the art of cutting gemstones and making jewelry out of “rocks.” While Mother never cut a rock, she was good at designing jewelry and helping the clubs organize events. Until recently, she communicated with people on both coasts that knew her primarily because of her rock work.
But she is most known for her teaching. She positively influenced thousands of students with her love of knowledge, curiosity, reading, exploring and most importantly thinking.
Mother. I sure am glad I knew her.
The last word:
My Mother passed away peacefully in her sleep on Sunday, February 10, at the age of 95. When we moved from Michigan back to Pennsylvania in 2000, we convinced my Mother to move from San Diego and live with us. She was only 83 and in good health, but we did not want her 3,000 miles from any family as she got older. She and Suzy shared the driving on a wonderful road trip across the country. She continued to drive, play bridge, visit friends, and take cruises until about two and a half years ago. She had a very sharp decline starting about Thanksgiving.
Hospice has been a great organization for us, providing the support we needed to be able to care for Mother in our home. When we could no longer keep her safe at home, they took her to their respite center and kept her comfortable for the last four days. We used Neighborhood Hospice, but I have not heard anything but good things about hospice providers anywhere.
Keep your sense of humor.