My mother wasn’t always old, I try to remember. She once had a straight spine and strong legs. Legs that rode a bicycle and climbed mountains. She met a man, fell in love, and survived the war years without him, writing and reading hundreds of letters that traveled for weeks to cross the ocean. She drove a box of a car with a manual transmission and cheap retread tires—rubber going to the war effort—to a paying job every day. She navigated a world of ration stamps and shopped store-to-store looking for scarce products like a Schick razor to send her love in England. She bought war bonds with money her new husband sent her along with a good portion of her own $2000-a-year income. For their future.
She once could see both what was right in front of her and the happiness well ahead. She had an independent streak that gave her the courage to rise above the poverty of love and economics of her childhood. Her mother modeled strength for her, though she didn’t realize it when she was younger, just as I haven’t recognized it in my mother until now.
As I stare into the past through my father’s letters, I struggle to reconcile that young woman I never knew with the middle-aged mother who raised me. She married the man her father could never be. Had that been enough? She let go of her fierce independence and took care of him, her children, and our home. She was housewife, mother, Girl Scout leader, and Sunday school teacher. Amen. At least that’s how I saw it.
At the beginning of a marriage during wartime that forced her to maintain her autonomy beyond the vows, I wonder if she sensed a coming conflict between making her own decisions and going along with her husband’s. A conflict I didn’t know dwelt in her until shortly before she died.
May 21, 1944 , Sunday Evening
George, my dearest –
This has been a good weekend. Two letters from you on Saturday – enough to last until Monday. They bring you close to me. Especially when I realize you’re thinking about the things that are also going through my mind: the things we need to do – the things we’re going to do.
And the things you dream about for the future are just the things I’ve thought much of. And like you I don’t know which is most inviting: the West (northwest, or Colorado), the Tennessee Valley, or a place in the shadow of the Smokies (on the other side of the mountain). I’m pleased with all your ideas — they seem to be same as mine.
I never spend a lot of time thinking about where we’ll spend our time when you get back. But I dream a lot about just being with you forever. It won’t matter much where we are—we’ll be happy together!
I’ll love you always, Stellajoe
Life, love, hope. The world was their oyster.