PHOTO: MOTHER AT AGE 53
I thought my mother was beautiful — beautiful from face to feet. She was five feet, ten inches tall, and she stood straight as if she were proud of her height. Although she had gentle curves, hers was not the hourglass form that had been popular in her youth and which she had always envied in her sister Clara (even though Clara later became quite fat). Furthermore, she was progressively fashionable, and long before the short hair styles of the flapper age had caught on in the outback of Eastern Oregon, Mother had gone to a man’s barber and had her hair cut short. The barber must have had some skill because her hair did not have a masculine look. It was naturally wavy and curled softly, darkly about her face.
Despite her twenty-years-too-soon shape and ideas, Mother had features that, at any age, would be considered lovely, especially her luminous dark eyes–eyes that Damon Runyon, one of my favorite authors, would have called “one hundred percent eyes”. Even in her baby pictures her eyes were beautiful, and they were still beautiful in her old age. They were large and brown with an abundant fringe of dark lashes. They were soft, kind, wonderful and wondering eyes.
Mother grew up in Oregon. When she was younger, she had been the County School Superintendent of Sherman County. Because she had chosen to have a career, she had married “late in life” (as I had heard condescendingly said of her). She was twenty six years old when she ran afoul of my father, married him and became a housewife, so she was older than the mothers of most children our age. However, she took pride in always looking younger.
Having a career was an exceptional choice for a woman in the early part of the 20th century. Mother came from a solid, highly respected Sherman County ranching family. Her parents believed in education. All six of their children, both male and female, were sent to college. Mother went to a teachers college in Monmouth, Oregon. After graduating, she came back to Sherman County and taught a few years before becoming superintendent. Mother’s greatest asset as an educator was that she loved children, and the children knew it. When she was superintendent she knew every child in the county by their first names. It was a rural county with many outlying one room schools. She traveled from school to school, first on horseback spending the night at various ranches on her route. Later she drove one of the first cars in the county. She took books with her for the children to read so that her vehicle became a traveling library.
Mother’s love of children extended to all children everywhere. Growing up in Grass Valley, many of the town’s children spent their free time at our house. She welcomed them and often fed them. If they needed a nap, she let them sleep on a blanket on the floor. If they had trouble reading, she sat with them on our living room sofa patiently sounding out the words over and over.
Most of our childhood playmates were boys. I thought it was because mother never had a boy of her own and therefore encouraged them to come to our house to play, but my sister Mary told me later that it was actually because we three girls were such tom-boys that the mothers of the girls in town would not let them play with us. We rode horses. We rode standing up bareback. We walked under our horse’s belly and between its legs. We climbed trees. We climbed to the top of the windmill, having first learned how to turn off the circling blades. We floated around the ponds in the old rock quarry on a raft. We helped pitch hay and rode in the hay wagon. We played high up in the barns and rode on the combine or followed the combine with our horse getting wheat to eat from the sack sower. My mother kept an eye on us, but she let us do things that seemed daring and unladylike for girls to do at that time.
Our mother’s allowing us to do “dangerous” things was probably due to her own fearlessness. She did things that no other mother we knew would do. She liked to go for long hikes through steep canyons. She knew how to kill rattlesnakes. She could drive a car, which was actually a rarity for women then. She liked to go for drives on back roads and take her children with her.
Actually we did not go on very many pleasure drives, because we grew up during the depression and gas was expensive, but just going any place with our mother was an adventure. She dearly loved to explore new places. Like the Elephant Child, she had “insatiable curiosity.” She would say, “Now what do you suppose that is?” pointing to some plant, bird, animal, insect or rock we had never seen before, and we would find out what it was, either by asking questions or looking it up in a book afterwards. Or she would say, “See that bird? It’s a Phoebe. Do you think it has a nest in that old barn?” and we would find out whether it did or not.
Recently, while looking through some old boxes, I found a diary that my mother had kept between 1936 and 1938 when I was six to eight years old. Mother wrote it during the heart of the depression and she was using it as a means to vent her explosively negative feelings. I was amazed to discover how unhappy she had been and how desperate she felt. She was disillusioned with her husband; she was frustrated being a mother of three children struggling to exist on the small income he made, yet not be able to make money of her own even though she still had the ability to do so. She was also ill much of the time and had two goiter operations. Goiters are caused by lack of iodine and were a common malady back then in areas far from the sea. She longed for the early days of her marriage when there were no financial worries and when she and my father had had fun together. Both she and my father were teachers and naturalists. They shared their love of nature during many outdoor adventures before children and the Depression changed their lives.
Mother’s diary entries revealed that she was depressed (but certainly not as depressed as our father). She was a student of Unity, always trying to think positively but never inwardly being able to “let go and let God.” Above all, her sense of duty shone through. She eked out the money to pay for, not only the necessities of her children, such as shoes, clothes and glasses, but also she managed to buy a piano and pay for piano lessons for us, often paying in eggs and produce. She made sure that we had a violin and horn (borrowed) in order to learn how to play those instruments when the music teacher at school offered lessons. Later she also paid for tap dancing lessons for me and for braces on my teeth. I can never remember her seeming to be unhappy. She never let her children see her anxiety.
So I will add “brave” to my list of her exceptional qualities.
My mother’s name was Grace May, later Grace May Zevely. I say that with reverence.