Wednesday, November 4, 2009

I Remember Mama

Today would have been my mother’s eighty-fourth birthday, had she not succumbed to colon cancer at about the age I am now. (And before you ask, I get my screenings and all is well so far.) So today, I remember Mama.

She was the sixth child and third daughter born to my grandparents, who ended up with ten children, five of each. She was the tallest of the girls, getting her height and Roman nose from her father, her dark hair and eyes from her mother, and a gentle spirit from both of them. Annie Ellen was named for her maternal grandmother, and her father used to sing her the mournful Stephen Foster song, “Gentle Annie.”

Annie started first grade (there was no kindergarten in town then) when she was still 4 years old. I believe it was at Coombs School in the village, where she also graduated from high school in 1942. Here’s a photo of her as a child, age 7, with the family’s then-home in the background:

Annie Billings 24 Nov 1932 Fisher Road house cropped

Growing up on a dairy farm, Annie had both indoor and outdoor chores. She helped deliver milk by bicycle and, after learning to drive, by pickup truck, and learned cooking and baking from her mother – she always had a light hand with pastry, and I recall her telling me about making a chocolate cream pie for Easter shortly after her youngest sister was born. She learned to sew, and also made a little money cleaning houses or doing child care for people in the village. But there was time for study and fun as well – she played basketball in high school (“just girls’ rules” she told me modestly) and was an excellent student. In fact, she was valedictorian of her high school class, but again being modest, she pointed out that by graduation, “There were only seven of us.”1942 or earlier Mama's class at Coombs High School, Bowdoinham This school photo is a little confusing to me; is it a class photo or an all-high-school photo, and if the latter, why is neither of her brothers who were two years older and younger, respectively, in the picture? She is fourth from right in the third row.

Graduating in the early months of World War II, (here’s a photo dated 1940)Annie Billings 1940 , Annie went to work at the nearby shipyard. I don’t know exactly what she did or what her wages were, but I have a short-lived diary that my grandmother kept a few months earlier in which she marvels that two of Mama’s brothers were going to make 25 cents an hour doing shipyard work in Portland. It’s quite possible Mama made even less, but that it seemed like a lot of money then.

It was after the war, I think, that she met my father, whose stepfather lived up the road from my grandparents, but who had been away in the National Guard and then the Army since 1940. They were married June 27, 1947, she in a navy blue suit. We have no wedding photos. Their first home was an apartment in downtown Brunswick – the building is still there and the view wouldn’t be much different today if we could get passenger rail back to Brunswick again!1947 View of Brunswick railroad station from Petroffs' first apartment

Although she had had some experience cooking, she had at least one “bride’s kitchen disaster,” when she mistakenly added vanilla to a beef stew instead of Gravymaster. She always claimed that they ate it anyway.

Shortly, Mama and Daddy moved to a rented house in Bowdoinham. Rural electrification was just getting going there, so shortly after my birth in the year after their marriage, my father paid someone $5.00 to install one electric light and one socket in the house.

A veteran’s bonus enabled my parents to buy land just north of my grandfather’s farm, where a previous dwelling had burned down. They began building a house there, and my father rejoined the National Guard for some extra money. The Korean War began in 1950, and his unit was called up for training in Georgia. Soon Mama and I were on a train to Georgia (Camp Stewart as it then was). Brother #1 was born in Savannah, and we then moved to Fort Hancock at Sandy Hook, NJ, where my father decided to transfer to the Regular Army. Based on later memories of hearing the murmur of my parents’ voices as they discussed everything after we children were in bed, I’m sure my mother had input into that decision, which was to be instrumental in giving her a very different life than she had probably expected.

Three more children (including twins) and several more moves (including two tours in Germany) would become part of Annie’s life before she and my father could return to Maine for good when he retired from the Army in 1965. I think that the way my mother approached all this had a huge beneficial effect on our own view of our childhood as Army brats.

Through the alumni group of the high school I attended in Germany, I get links to websites and descriptions of books and films about the children of military men (and now women). I usually find it difficult to relate to these items because they keep talking about all the sacrifices we made. That’s not the way I saw it at all, and in large part that’s due to my mother’s example. She, like me, was definitely an introvert. Very possibly she would have been perfectly happy to stay in her hometown, socializing mostly with family and a few old friends. Instead she got a life with frequent moves, long separations from family, wide differences in housing, and frequent husbandly absences. Yet she seemed to take it all in stride, never complaining or seeming put-upon and viewing each move cheerfully as a new opportunity. So by and large, we took our cue from her and enjoyed our peripatetic life.

It was hard work, I know, raising five children on a non-com’s pay. Mama made most of the clothes for herself, my sister and me, and I even remember her sewing striped t-shirts for my brothers. She often, if not always, starched and ironed my father’s uniforms to save the laundry fees. We seldom went out to eat, and nearly all meals were made from scratch – and whether it was steak and home-made French fries on payday, or corn pudding with hot dogs cut up in it at the end of the month, it was all delicious. Yet even when she was ‘right out straight’ she never acted the exhausted martyr. There always seemed to be time for coffee and a chat with a neighbor, reading one of her favorite historical novels, quizzing me on Words of the Champions, or teaching herself New Math so she could help us with our homework.

I haven’t come nearly to the end of all I could say about my mother, but lest this be so long no one will want to read it I’ll stop now. Here’s one of my favorite pictures of Mama enjoying a temporary rest. Maybe she’s resting now in heaven, but I have a feeling she might be rearranging the furniture.1954 06 A much needed rest


Markie said...

Thanks! You brought back some wonderful memories.

MumPastor said...

what a beautiful tribute.