My mother turned twelve in Kountze, Texas where her father worked the nearby oilrigs, leaving his family for weeks at a time. Little did she know that this was a good preparation for living with a soldier someday. My grandfather had already tried being a coalminer, a salesman, and a preacher, but they hadn’t worked out. The big war his two sons had fought was over and they said that the world was opening all brand new back then. Aunt Shirley, the youngest of the seven children, took a group picture of barefooted Aunt Barbara with my mother, Gloria, standing next to her. My mother wore anklets, dusty tie shoes and a blouse tucked into her skirt. Her thick curly hair was pulled back with a barrette. Red-headed Aunt Lorraine, the oldest daughter and the one visiting after marrying a soldier, stood behind the group. She wore a dress and heels in this old photograph, her clothes so out of place in rural Kountze. Turning sideways toward the camera, Aunt Lorraine looked like she wanted us to know how beautiful she was, or maybe how good an army wife lived.
“Mom,” Aunt Shirley might have said to her reclusive mother who is also in the picture, “Stand still!” My short grandmother who I will someday call Mamaw, wears a cotton housedress, tight at the belly, and moves forward staring at the ground as if no one else is around. She can’t hear what’s being said because she’s partially deaf. The young girls she’s produced hardly ever get her attention. She calls them her babies like they are the dolls she never owned in the Kentucky “hollers” of Appalachia where she grew up on a small tobacco farm. Her movement creates a blur inside the photograph’s edge.
I look at this small black and white picture with a magnifying glass to study my mother’s smiling face. She looks older than her twelve years. Perhaps, and most likely, it’s because she’s expected to oversee her younger sisters, a job her mother can’t seem to handle. My mother isn’t barefooted like Aunt Barbara, but instead looks ready to go somewhere else, if only someone asked.
I am captivated by this girl with her hands on her hips like someone with a strong sense of herself. She’s already telling the world she wants more than what this barren land can give. I imagine she wants the viewer to know that she is pretty like her older sister, that she is happy too. She hopes you will remember her after this picture is taken. Her sweet smile is precious, a girl on the verge of growing up. As different as I am from my mother, I suddenly see myself on that dry soil. Something about her determined look and the confident way she places her hands on her hips tells me that except for her darker hair, it could be me. Me with those same dreams of something worthwhile. Here she is at twelve looking like she wants an adventure and escape, with its paradox of hopeful security. I recognize, for the first time, that my mother once possessed a restlessness to discover and claim a self. She’s got a hopeful look of by God, I’m going somewhere like Lorraine did. She peers at me directly through the camera’s eye and smiles. A smile that could have been mine.
In the years before this, she danced on the streets of Chicago to earn money while her mother worked at the Black Cow Candy factory, and her father ran a rooming house and worked maintenance at Marshall Field’s Department store. She had to have courage to dance for strangers. She had to love dancing. She had to come from a long line of women fending for themselves and learning early on how to survive. She had to hope someone would discover her, and she would become the dancer she dreamed about.
Eventually the family moved back to southern Illinois where my grandparents homesteaded a twenty-acre farm called Karber’s Ridge. The wooden house near the Missouri border had no plumbing, no heat or running water. Twisted apple trees older than my grandparents decked the rolling hills. A rusted tractor stood near the root cellar where MaMaw stored her canned peaches and string beans. Papaw wasn’t a good farmer, so he left for a year at a time to return to his work in Chicago. As always, Mamaw expected my mother to be the responsible one with the other children. Surely, so far from friends and town, she must have felt like a caged bird.
Once Papaw brought home a seven-year-old boy to Karber’s Ridge because he thought this orphan needed a taste of clean country air and Mamaw’s good cooking. It’s unclear who the child was. Perhaps his? A friend’s? He never said. The problem was that the little boy had been in an asylum and liked to break things. “I’m not sure what we would have done without Gloria,” Aunt Shirley tells me decades later. “Mamaw was a child herself and never gave us the time of day, never could deal with problems, so we knew we couldn’t count on her. Gloria was all we had.” The problem remained that the boy continued to break things no matter what creative activities my mother came up with. When he eventually exposed himself, killed a puppy, and tried to set the house on fire, Mamaw finally wrote a letter to Papaw, insisting he come retrieve the boy. The letter might have been the only thing my grandmother did to protect her children in this world of damaged people.
The next time the family moved, it was to my great-aunt’s farmhouse on a dusty country road just down a way from the small coalmining village of Muddy, Illinois where my mother was born. There was no indoor bathroom, just an outhouse near the barn. She should have been in high school by then, but her father refused to buy her new clothes or to rent the necessary schoolbooks. “You don’t need to go to high school,” he said. “Get yourself a job.”
What was at stake was more than clothes and education. More than anything, she wanted freedom, friends, and money. So when Aunt Lorraine wrote to ask if she could come down to Fort Benning, Georgia to help with her new baby, my mother went willingly. Like many of the bases she would one day live on, she found company with young army wives. She hung diapers on shared clotheslines with them, sat on stoops together behind barbed wire and watched soldiers march by. She waited for the baby to wake up and for mail from home.
While at Fort Benning, my mother met my father when Uncle Ed, Aunt Lorraine’s husband, brought a soldier home for dinner to meet the sister. Home from the Battle of the Bulge and paratrooping into Italy, my father was already experienced with women and the world. He was in his early twenties and had known several women, but my mother at fifteen was still a girl. From the start, she said she loved something about his starched khaki uniform, the conviction of those creased pants tucked into polished black boots, the exotic stories he fondly told, and the confidence of his age. Every inch a soldier, someone admitted. Besides her beauty, he will say in the future that he loved her simple innocence, something he’d lost at war and didn’t know how to retrieve.
They saw each other a few more times after that dinner before she had to return home. Aunt Lorraine wanted her to stay and attend high school on base, but Papaw again refused. “You’d better put her back on a bus or I’m coming down to get her,” he said. How glum and downhearted she must have felt as she boarded the bus headed north. Her one chance at an education and freedom was over, and that hope gone.
He wrote her lots of letters and eventually drove up to southern Illinois for visits in his shiny black Mercury. He often found her standing near the unpainted barn at the Wasson farm, her curls like a nest for the family he said he needed. Her dungarees rolled up and her sweater stretched across her bountiful chest. Though the visits annoyed Papaw, this soldier impressed him with his farming knowledge acquired on his grandfather’s New Jersey farm. Surely, Papaw loved the stories too that my soon to be father was quick to tell. When he took Shirley and Barbara out for ice cream in his car, they giggled in the backseat while he put his arm around my mother in the front.
Barbara tried out a swear word to impress this handsome stranger, and he immediately put soap in her mouth. I’m surprised my mother accepted this gesture of morality, except to say she wasn’t used to standing up to men. I think she feared men’s anger more than anything else in her life. Neither did she have any way to understand what a soldier who had fought a war already brough home as collateral. Still, this man was her ticket out, a chance at love and freedom. So the week of her sixteenth birthday on another visit, she got into his car as if it were a magic carpet, and they headed for the sultry air of Marietta, Georgia where they planned to marry. Everything seemed possible.
Indeed, it seems a dramatic move to leave home at that age, but those were different times with different expectations and laws. Maybe my mother simply wanted love and sex in a time when unmarried women had no legal access to birth control and the pill had not been invented yet. Doctors who gave unmarried women birth control could be imprisoned. Mostly, she wanted a home of her own, some place without her father’s authoritarian rules. She wanted independence and more possibilities. So, for a smile, a few promises and a handful of confidence, she left home one spring day. I imagine flowers alongside the road as the music of Cole Porter’s So in Love, and Roger and Hammerstein’s Younger Than Springtime filled the car that spring of March 1949 with all the optimism that music and hope and young love can bring. The world of the military and all its collateral down the road.
Gail Hosking is the author of the memoir Snake’s Daughter (U of Iowa Press), a chapbook of poems The Tug (Finishing Line Press), and a book of poems Retrieval (Main Street Rag Press). Author of 60 published essays and 30 published poems in such places as Nimrod International, Lilith Magazine, South Dakota Review, Upstreet, Post Road and Reed Magazine. MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars and member of The Authors Guild.