My mother was born deep in the mountains of West Virginia, early in The Great Depression. Her father–my grandfather–eked out a living in the coal mines while my grandmother stayed home, caring for my mom and her six brothers and sisters, and toiling to put food (usually beans, salt pork and fresh or canned homegrown vegetables) on the table. It’s fair to say, Appalachian life did not afford an easy existence for the family.
My grandfather lost a leg and literally broke his back in mining accidents. Eventually, stricken with black lung, the family relocated to Western Pennsylvania, where my grandfather took a job as a farmhand. World War II was coming to an end, and my mom entered the workforce as a junior in high school. She was fourteen years old and worked after school tending the sundae counter at the Elite Restaurant in Rochester, Pennsylvania.
Within a year, my mom returned to Grantsville, West Virginia, where she lived with her Uncle Clay and his family. She graduated from Calhoun County High School at age fifteen. After graduation, my mom returned to her parents’ home in Pennsylvania. She then began working at a five and dime counter making $8 a week, selling razor blades and shave cream. Eventually, my mom became a waitress at Prior’s Restaurant in Portersville—a place I’ve heard her speak of many times. My mom seldom cashed her own paycheck, instead giving her earnings to her mother. In addition to contributing to the overall support of the family, my mom bought my grandparents their first refrigerator (used) for $10. She also bought my grandmother her first washer—a wringer washer. Prior to that, my grandmother washed the entire family’s clothing, my mom’s cotton uniforms included, utilizing a washboard. It was during this time that my mom met my father, who had just returned from serving overseas in the United States Army. My mom worked at Prior’s from 1946 until 1949, at which time she married my father.
My mother and father lived in two homes before settling into the family homestead where I grew up. My father worked as a machinist at Mesta Machine until his untimely death in November 1970. He was 49 years young when he passed away of a massive stroke, leaving my mother to raise four children, ages three, six, 12 and 15, alone. I cannot imagine what it was like to be widowed at the age of 39, with four mouths to feed. Despite the family’s meager social security benefits, we were well cared for. We had food to eat and clean clothes to wear. My mother made certain we had health insurance coverage and went to the dentist regularly. As I became older, I did wish we were better off financially than we were. Looking back, however, I wonder if I would have felt we were lacking had my mother not routinely told us how hard it was for her to make ends meet. Ignorance, after all, is bliss.
Shortly after my father’s death, my mom returned to work, working nights as a waitress at the Castle Inn. A don’t recall seeing my mother very much during this time period. My younger brother and I were virtually reared by my 15-year-old sister. She ruled with an iron fist and was vehemently intolerant to even the slightest question of her authority. In retrospect, I believe this to be attributed to the fact that she was suddenly forced to become our pseudo mother at such a young age. As a child, I didn’t grasp the magnitude of the responsibility thrust upon my sister. I simply came to resent her greatly. To this day, our relationship remains irretrievably fractured.
My mom eventually remarried and our home life improved. She was once again afforded the “luxury” of being a housewife, maintaining a household, caring for the kids, watching soap operas and putting dinner on the table, promptly at 5PM. As someone who’s a product of the 70s, I’d love to tell you we lived out our own version of the Brady Bunch but alas, that’s not the case. We all simply coexisted as best we could. Our paths crossed at dinnertime and occasionally in the evening if we watched a television show or two together. But outside of those instances, everyone was pretty much left to his or her own devices. I got in a lot of trouble as a kid, especially as a teenager. I’m proof that if your kids aren’t nurtured and loved at home, they’re going to seek it elsewhere. I had plenty of discipline—usually physical (belts, switches and the most dreaded, disgusting flyswatter)—but it wasn’t balanced with love. Mind you, my mom did the best she could. She had a lot on her plate. But discipline without love, or vice versa, creates a very lopsided dynamic. I spent my entire teenage existence angry, lost and seeking. Simply put, I was my mother’s worst nightmare come to call. Bless her heart.
Oscar Wilde is credited with saying, “With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.” Thankfully, age has indeed brought me wisdom—at least in relation to family. Over the years, I’ve developed a deep affection for my mom. I love her to pieces. She is 84 years old and I want nothing more than to protect and shelter my mom as she ages. She asks for nothing. She never has. My mom is a woman of very simple means. I envy that about her. She doesn’t have the restless nature that often overtakes my soul. She is content. Content in life. Content with life. Content despite life. One of my deepest regrets is that it took me so long to appreciate my mother—who she is and where she came from. She hasn’t had an easy life. But I don’t ever recall hearing her complain about her circumstances. She worked hard and made the best of what came her way (or didn’t come her way). I am truly honored to be this incredible woman’s daughter.
Basking in the sun on a Florida visit. She wears it well.
Mothers are the people who love us for no good reason. And those of us who are mothers know it’s the most exquisite love of all. ~Maggie Gallagher