Saturday, August 1, 2009

A True Heroine

July 30th was my Mom’s 90th birthday. You may be surprised to learn that she is part of my family tree, too. She had a lot to do with my interest in genealogy – just not so much with my early research. Until I started researching my family history I thought I knew a lot about her side of the family. While I was growing up, she regaled me with stories of her English and Scottish forebears. We had photos and other memorabilia throughout the house of her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, as well as many of the places they had lived and traveled. She took me to the British Isles twice during my childhood to make sure I had met my English and Scottish relatives and visited the homelands of my British ancestors. I still have many of the souvenirs I collected on those journeys: Kerr tartan ties, a Scottish tam, English coins, and vibrant memories.

She was born Violet Joyce Willis in Chepstow, Monmouthshire. Monmouthshire is a sort of no man’s land. Sometimes it’s listed as a county in Wales; other times as a county in England. From what I can gather of its history, it has gone back and forth between England and Wales several times over the centuries, as various medieval kingdoms expanded and contracted by conquest. She was the first of two children of Leonard John Willis, my namesake, and Winnifred Violet Kerr, so culturally she is half English, half Scottish, and a naturalized American.

Her earliest memories are not of Chepstow, but of the six-acre farm the family purchased in Laindon, Essex, when she was still quite young. She grew up with few of the amenities we now take for granted. No running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing. Even as a child of 7 or 8, her mornings began shortly after sunrise with chores: feeding chickens, collecting eggs, pumping a bucket of water, and the like. Of course ,there was school and plenty of fun, but she grew up understanding the value and necessity of hard work and priorities. But the farm failed, so the family moved to Sydenham in the late 1920s.

As Britain entered the Great Depression, work was hard to come by, but eventually her father found employment with the Craven A Tobacco Company as a groundskeeper at its employee recreation facilities in Edgware, Middlesex. There, Mum made several lifelong friends and life was happy and stable for awhile … until Hitler began his conquest of Europe in the late 1930s. Once again, her father lost his job, and they moved back to Sydenham. Mum, in her late teens, went to work as a secretary for the London, Midland, and Scottish Railway, then Britain’s largest railway company, commuting daily from Sydenham to the company’s headquarters in Euston.
When the Second World War broke out in late 1939, Mum went to work for the United Glass Bottle Company in London, making “Molotov cocktails” for the war effort. The family could not afford a bomb shelter, so her brother, Ray, dug a 6-by-6-by-6 foot pit in their backyard and covered it with corrugated tin roofing and about two feet of dirt. The family all survived the London Blitz of 1940-41, in which more than 45,000 London civilians were killed and over a million homes destroyed, but a house whose rear garden bordered theirs was demolished by a direct hit from a bomb that killed the entire family. Mum realized that dropped from about 10,000 feet, a mere gust of wind had meant the difference between that bomb striking her neighbors’ house or her own!

Her father died of prostate cancer in July, 1942, which made her eligible for conscription – the British term for being drafted. So, on advice of her employers Mum applied for a secretarial position at the American Embassy. She was hired, but assigned to the Ordnance Division, Transportation Corps of the U.S. Army. Initially, she was assigned to Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, where she met my father. Shortly after D-Day, however, she was read the Articles of War, put in uniform, and shipped off to France to coordinate the movement of ammunition into the European Theatre of Operations (ETO). When she arrived in Paris, German snipers were still active, so the windows were all blacked out in the building in which she worked. She had been working in Paris for several days before the city was officially “liberated” by the triumphant arrival of Generals Montgomery and Patton – and she still has the photographs to prove she was there first.

Of her contribution to the war effort, she has this to say: “Patton ran out of gasoline, but he never ran out of bullets, because that was my job!”

After the German surrender, her offices were relocated to Frankfurt, Germany. Dad returned to the United States and, after a period of pining for her, wrote her a letter proposing marriage. She accepted, and left for America with only £100 and what she could carry in a suitcase. She arrived in New York, cleared Customs and Immigration just in time to catch the last train out of Grand Central Station before the railroads went on strike. When she reached Chicago, she was put off the train by the strike. Traveler’s Aid eventually helped her reach Ogden, Utah, and from there she found her own way to Los Angeles, where she was met by her future husband.

After serving in uniform in a combat zone for nearly two years and making her own way across the North American continent, in a classic example of British understatement she describes herself as “a bit more adventuresome than my mother.” Really?

She was married to my father for 55 years, from 1946 until his passing in 2001. She worked as a secretary for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company for many years, then helped my father and his business partner run the Miles Motel in La Mesa, California until they sold it in 1957. After that, she was the classic stay-at-home mom of the 1950s and early 1960s, and life really was like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best for us. She was active in Sigma Alpha, a career-women’s sorority that supports disabled children, serving in a variety of local, regional, and national offices for decades. She was also an avid bridge player and golfer all the while she was raising me and serving as den mother to my Scout troop, Little League mom, PTA member, church board member, and all the rest.

She made sure I met people who were different from me, like the kids at the Cerebral Palsy Association, where she frequently volunteered. When I started making friends from different cultural and ethnic groups, she did everything she could to encourage me to experience life from their perspectives and not just my own. As a mother I can’t think of anything she could have done to make my childhood more enjoyable, enriching, or rewarding.

After I went out on my own, she remained active in her sorority and church, playing golf and bridge, and supporting my Dad. My father suffered a debilitating stroke in 1983, and for the next 18 years she served as his care-giver without let-up or complaint. She was once asked why she didn’t institutionalize him so she could get on with her own life, and her reply was direct and a perfect reflection of her character: “When I stood at the altar and said, ‘For better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part,’ I meant it.”

She’s still active and alert. Although she’s had a few of the health issues that come naturally at her age, she hasn’t let them stop her. She has a computer and stays in touch by email – although she can still use a real typewriter; not just a keyboard. She remains to this day one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met.

We threw her a surprise party today at her favorite restaurant, the Olive Garden, where she is a regular and an obvious favorite with the staff. About 40 of her closest friends and family came to remind her how much she is loved and appreciated by everyone who knows her. She was showered with affection, cards, and gifts, but the highlight for me was a letter sent from Buckingham Palace by one of Queen Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting, which read in part:
The Queen was, however, most interested to hear of your mother’s service during the Second World War, and of the way in which her family has served the United Kingdom for generations. Her Majesty was … [also] pleased to hear about her special birthday. The Queen hopes that Mrs. Pellman will have a very happy day on 30th July.”

So let me add, Happy Birthday, Mom!

No comments:

Post a Comment