At Dachau at war’s end my mother photographed stacks of corpses left by the fleeing Nazis. She was focusing on the bottom layer when she caught the movement of a human hand through the camera’s viewfinder. Her screams brought others, but of course, nothing could be done to save these victims of the Nazi holocaust. She later wrote: “…I wondered how many potential Mendelssohns and Einsteins there were among those wretched skeletons, and if, perhaps, the great Goethe might be turning in his grave about this modern and depraved Mephistopheles, Adolf Hitler, and what he had done to Goethe’s Germany.”
The question has haunted both my mother’s generation and my own post-war generation: How could a culture that produced such artistic and intellectual genius fall to such depths of depravity? And how do we keep it from happening to our own culture?
I know. Heavy, right? But I can’t help it. This is what I can’t stop thinking about in the emerging Trump era as I examine my mother’s scrapbook from her time in Europe during World War II. How did ordinary Germans ease Hitler’s rise to power? Why do people vote for demagogues?
My mother never found the answers to these questions, but she never stopped searching for them. I believe she would say that we must keep imagining a better world and remain active and involved citizens. In that regard she was a good role model who believed that knowledge of history can help us navigate our present. Although she was constantly disappointed that history was so seldom consulted by our leaders and policy makers.
I want to learn how the war affected my mother’s thinking. I’m also interested in what influenced her to become the person she was, a liberal thinker in the sea of conservative backwardness of Eastern Washington. I aspired to become my mother’s daughter. But what made her that way? Who was she, really?
I know she didn’t always tell me, her only daughter, everything. What secrets did my mother take to her grave? How did her experiences in the war shape her life and the lives of her generation and how did that history shape me and my generation? These are some of the questions I hope to explore as I attempt to tell about her two years in Europe during the war working as a Red Cross “donut girl.”
Mostly I’m just interested in my mom’s story. It’s a good one.
I had given up finding out any more about my mother’s admirer, Edna L. Then, looking through a box of family photos and letters that my brother Don had taken with him to Vancouver BC, I found another scrapbook made by my mother. This was mostly high school-era, 1920s-1930 (Flo had graduated in the class of 1929½). But Flo had tucked mementos from other decades into it. Among the high school graduation notices I was delighted to find another note from Eddie (as she sometimes signed her name) in her now familiar diminutive handwriting. It was an invitation to a party during the Columbus YWCA conference. It said:
In the Wick and Lauterbach den
On Wednesday night at half past ten
We hope you’ll join us for a spree
To give us one more Council memory
Then there is one of Eddie’s cute stick figure drawings—two skirted figures with F and E written underneath. At the bottom it says, “Just to be sure that my roommate will be here to act as co-hostess with me.” While they were roommates Eddie could never keep Flo at home it seems. It was written on the Neil House stationery and dated April 27, 1938.
I had found Eddie’s last name—Lauterbach—the one thing I’d been searching for in the scrapbooks, the one thing I needed in order to find out more about the woman with a crush on my mother! I was so happy I danced around the house singing her name.
Googling her name got me to the Edna A. Lauterbach scholarship fund for the education of nurses. She was a nurse who championed home care. Then I started making up stories. I imagined Edna was an important historical figure, an organizer. Perhaps she had been a speaker at the conference. I imagined she traveled around the country on speaking tours seducing women in every town. I wondered whether Eddie had had lots of lovers, or no lovers at all. Was she the archetype of the lonely lesbian who never found her mate? Was it hard to seduce women in the 1930s?
I wrote to the scholarship fund to see if they could provide more biographical information. The marketing director got right back to me saying it was a different person, as the age didn’t match up. This Edna Lauterbach was not even born until after the meeting in Columbus took place. Scratch her and all my associated fantasies.
Then Don and I got on the computer and looked at census records. We found an Edna R. Lauterbach, born in 1900 and died in August 1979 who lived her entire life in Brooklyn, NY, after 1930 in a 43-unit apartment house on 88th Street. I found pictures of the building, built in 1926, online. The apartments now sell in the million-dollar range, so I’m guessing the neighborhood was gentrified long ago. But when the Lauterbach family moved in, this would have been a working class neighborhood. Edna had two sisters, one named Gertrude. This was a deciding clue, as her sister Gertrude had been mentioned in one of the other notes found in Flo’s scrapbooks. Don found records for Edna in the 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 censuses. In all, she was single and living in the family home. By 1940 their father (a truck maker whose parents had emigrated from Germany) had died, but the three sisters were all still unmarried, in their thirties and living at home with their mother. A household of old maids! Perhaps all the sisters were lesbians.
According to the census, Edna worked in advertising. She was there for the Mad Men era, although she would have been 60 years old in 1960. I imagine her as the staid older secretary who runs interference for her philandering boss while correcting his spelling and grammar and making him look good. She may have worked in the industry until she retired, possibly at the same job. Had she remained a closeted lesbian all her life? Was she part of a lesbian subculture and if so, where was it centered? No doubt the environs of New York City afforded more possibilities than those of smaller towns. But I’m imagining big lesbo parties through the decades at the apartment on 88th Street in Brooklyn on the parents’ bowling nights.
It turns out Edna R. Lauterbach wasn’t anybody famous. I couldn’t even find a funeral notice for her, although we did learn that she is buried in the famous Brooklyn Greenwood cemetery with some 560,000 others. She was a workingwoman, a stenographer, who managed to keep a job through the Great Depression. In 1939 she worked in advertising 44 hours per week and 52 weeks in the year. Her income was $2040 that year.
Her parents were ethnically German and my guess is they were not Jewish. The YW is a Christian women’s organization, but it did work with Jewish groups against anti-Semitism and to prod the government to increase numbers of Jewish refugees allowed into the U.S. during the Nazi era. Jewish women did join the YW, but usually as members of the Biz-Pro groups or associated Jewish organizations.
Edna Lauterbach and my mother were two of the thousands of workingwomen who benefited from their membership in the Business and Professional Women’s organizations under the umbrella of the YWCA. One benefit was being able to make friends with other workingwomen from around the country.
Eddie surely had a giant crush on Flo and my heart aches as I read her letters. My mother never revealed that she’d had a sexual relationship with another woman but when I came out to her in the 1970s she did confess that she had known lesbians. And the name Edna Lauterbach is vaguely familiar to me. Did Flo tell me about her? I can’t remember. But it seems as if they kept up the friendship for some years at least. What was the nature of their relationship? They were certainly close friends, and possibly lovers, although I found no conclusive proof.
I have no evidence that they ever saw each other again after 1941 when Flo traveled to New York to visit Eddie. My mother returned to her hometown of Yakima, Washington where (after a stint in Europe with the Red Cross during WWII) she married, raised four kids and lived the rest of her life. Edna L. lived out her life in her family home on 88th Street in Brooklyn.
There is so much more I want to know about my mother’s admirer. Did she frequent the lesbian bars in Manhattan? Was she involved in the blooming lesbian feminist culture in the 1970s? Did she continue to be active in the YWCA? I do know that, even if she and my mother were lovers, the affair would have been long-distance and periodic. And perhaps Eddie’s attentions were not returned at all.
Dearest Eddie, I hope you found love in your lifetime. I hope you found a woman who could love you back.
Among the many questions I wish I could have asked my mother: When did you first have sex? Were you ever attracted to a woman?
We came of age at very different times. My mother turned 20 in 1933, the nadir of the Great Depression. I was 20 in 1969, the zenith of the Countercultural Revolution.
As close as we were, there were things her generation just didn’t talk about—private things. My generation talked about everything, even things that probably should have been kept private.
Whether or not my mother was ever attracted to a woman, I have found evidence that at least one woman was attracted to her. After I discovered the letters from Edna L., my mother’s ardent admirer, I searched in vain for her last name and any identifying information in Mom’s scrapbooks. They had roomed together in the Neil House Hotel in Columbus, Ohio for the national YWCA convention in April 1938. But “Eddie” (as she often signed her name) suggests in one note that they had met the previous year at a YW conference in Chicago.
“It has been fun to continue our friendship begun in Chicago (or even earlier) and I hope we shall be friends far into the future,” wrote Eddie.
I can’t imagine what Eddie means by “even earlier.” I didn’t think Flo had traveled east from Washington State before the Chicago trip, but I have one piece of evidence that suggests otherwise. She gave me a small painting and wrote on the back, “Bought at Dayton’s in Minneapolis in the 1930s. Sent to daughter Molly in San Francisco 2/82. Flo Martin.” So perhaps there had been previous meetings where they connected that Flo had not recorded in the scrapbooks. Had Flo and Eddie schemed for a year to room together in Columbus? They must have planned ahead at least.
So, my new obsession: Edna L. Reading her love notes to Flo warmed my heart and I began to identify with Eddie who slyly references “baths” and late-night “tuckin’ in” (her quotes, not mine). From reading her notes, I conclude she wanted to seduce my mother. Did she?
Some things I know about Eddie: She lived in New York. She was participating in the YWCA conference, so she could have been active in a Business and Professional Women’s Club, as was Flo, or in the YW. Chances are that Eddie was older than Flo, who was only 24 when they roomed together in Columbus. One clue I found in Eddie’s letters: they are literate with perfect spelling and punctuation. This suggests that she worked in an office and not a factory.
What did she look like? My mother’s scrapbooks from the 1930s are filled with pictures, but as far as I can tell there are none of Eddie or the YW conferences. But who knows? Flo didn’t caption anything in these early scrapbooks. In trying to imagine how Eddie looked, I could not even assume that she was white. Even in 1938, the YW strove to include racial minorities.
Participating in these conferences must have felt to my mother and her comrades like early feminist gatherings did to my generation of feminists. The meetings were focused on making institutional changes to give women and minorities more comprehensive rights. These women were leading a movement for social change, just as we did. The artifacts Flo saved in her scrapbooks show that many of these women built loving friendships with each other. The warmth expressed in their greetings illustrates deep feeling. From receipts she saved, I see they sent flowers to each other as thank yous, a practice I wish in retrospect my generation of feminist activists had adopted.
The Columbus conference was a continual round of meetings. In her love notes Eddie grumbles about not getting to see Flo back at the room until late at night.
“Aren’t we having a good time even though I have to sit up nights and wait for a chance to see you?”
“I certainly am enjoying being with you—even if I don’t have that opportunity ‘cept in the wee hours mostly, after I’ve tucked you in. I’ll be tuckin’ you in any minute now when you get back from your meeting on findings…”
Apparently the meetings went long into the night. Another participant noted, “Here’s to more 2am meetings.”
Flo had saved the banquet book from the YW convention and its inside covers were filled with inscriptions from attendees. Altogether there are 27 signatures. Nicknames were popular and they seem to have nicknamed Flo “Cricket.”
They all signed their full names, except Eddie who signed “Love—Eddie.” It’s an indication that their relationship was special, but disappointing for me because Eddie never signed her last name.
In the banquet book Eddie wrote: “Dearest Florence—You are one grand girl and a swell pal! These interludes of Council and Convention will always be happy memories because you shared them with me. I hope you’ll “bother” me “for years to come” and some day I’m coming to see you in the Northwest! Love—Eddie L.”
Did Eddie ever visit the Northwest? There is nothing in my mother’s scrapbook to suggest that she did. But items she saved show that Flo visited Eddie in New York in 1941. There are menus from the Swiss Village Inn and Struppler’s (next to the Cordova 917 Grand Ave.) I found a cocktail napkin from Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Bar and Cocktail Lounge, “Meeting Place of the World.” She kept a newspaper article citing record heat in NYC, a humid 91 degrees on the hottest Sept. 10 in a decade. There’s also a receipt from Sweden House Inc. (Swedish decorative arts) at Rockefeller Center for $1.53 dated 9/10/41, and a receipt for a single person at the Taft Hotel, 7th Ave at 50th St. NYC, and a menu from the Taft Grill.
The Taft Hotel, a 22-story high-rise built in 1926, was one of New York’s premiere tourist hotels with 2000 rooms right on Times Square at Radio City in Midtown. My mother, a small-town gal from Yakima, Washington, must have been thrilled to stay in such a glamorous big city accommodations. I bet she had a great view from room 1045.
How could my mother afford this trip? Had she been saving pennies for three years while working full time and helping to support her family? I could never afford to stay in hotels as a young working person, nor could my family afford hotels when I was growing up. On vacations we drove to the Cascade Mountains and pitched a tent. When I traveled I always arranged to stay in the homes of friends or comrades. It made me wonder if Eddie had chipped in to pay for the room at the Taft Hotel. Or maybe Eddie sprang for the hotel while Flo paid for the train trip. Perhaps she and Eddie had been corresponding furiously for three years, planning this tryst.
Flo also saved a Christmas gift card in its envelope from Macy’s New York. It is signed “With much love to you, Wickie dear—Edna L.”
There’s another note on a card with a monogramed L with no date: “My best love to a very good pal—Edna L.”
Then there’s a note that reads “Florence dear—Just got tickets for Watch on the Rhine—only chance it seems—Gertrude (my sister) will be joining us—will call you about meeting for dinner & theater tomorrow night. Edie L. (The play, by Lillian Hellman, won the New York Drama Critics prize in 1941).
Did Flo travel to New York just to visit Eddie? I can’t find any evidence of meetings of the YWCA or Biz-Pro in NYC in September 1941. Did she stay in a hotel and not with Eddie because she and Eddie wanted a place to be alone?
From the evidence, it looks like Flo travelled to New York by herself. In those days you could take the North Coast Limited on the Northern Pacific Railway all the way from Yakima to Chicago. Then you transferred to the Pennsylvania Railroad for the final leg to New York. Of course, by this time Flo was a veteran train traveler, having already been to Chicago, Columbus and Minneapolis.
As much as I’ve fantasized about my mother’s lesbian affair, I think the evidence is mixed. It wasn’t just that Flo had had lots of boyfriends, or that she married a man. That’s a story many lesbians tell. While I never married a man, I spent a decade experimenting with heterosexual sex before I came out.
My mother definitely struggled with homophobia. As liberal as she was politically, Flo had difficulty accepting that my brother and I are gay. He came out first and she felt justifiably burdened by the widely accepted Freudian theory that mothers are responsible for sons’ homosexuality. Then, when I came out a few years later, she at first chalked it up to a phase I was going though. Could that be because she went through a lesbian “phase” herself?
I made up all sorts of sensational stories about Eddie and Flo from the information I found in the scrapbooks. But since Eddie’s last name remained unrecorded, I gave up learning any more about her. Whatever happened between Flo and Eddie, I’m sure my mother had to wrestle with her own internalized homophobia and that of the dominant culture. At that time, in the 1930s, homosexuality was highly stigmatized and even in the big city of New York, lesbians stayed closeted to protect their jobs and reputations, meeting mostly at private house parties.
There remains the possibility that Flo was deeply in denial about her attraction/affair. I have some evidence to support this theory. My mother’s sister, Ruth, also had gay children and, while much more politically conservative, Ruth took a stand when her Presbyterian church excluded gays. She was proud of her gay kids and publicly quit the church in support of them. But she complained to me that she could never get my mother to talk about the issue. She couldn’t understand why Flo, her closest sister, had shut her out, especially with regard to a subject they both shared. I never understood this. I just assumed it had to do with Flo’s avoidance of the personal like so many in her generation, but perhaps my mother feared that her own sexual past would be revealed.
Did Flo have an affair with Eddie? I’ll never know for sure. If she were still alive, I think I could ask her now. When she died in 1983 at the age of 70, I still felt restrained from asking personal questions that I knew she would refuse to answer. Then again, maybe she never would have revealed the truth. She believed some things are best kept private.
Rummaging through my mom’s scrapbooks from the 1930s I came across a packet of letters, a rare find. My mother saved minutiae from her life: bridge tallies, restaurant menus, cocktail napkins, greeting cards, dance cards, wedding invitations. But she saved almost no personal letters, although I know she wrote and received troves of them.
The envelopes are all addressed to Miss Florence Wick and marked on the outside: “Via the usual route,” “To be read on Friday,” “To be read on Saturday” and “To be read on Sunday.” Carefully opening the tattered envelopes, I found hand-written notes on stationery from the Neil House Hotel in Columbus, Ohio. They looked to me like love notes—from a woman named Edna L.
Haven’t we had fun with meetings and parties and “baths” and rushin’ ‘round! And what am I going to do without you when you are gone? You will just have to come to New York sometime soon so we can share some other experiences….
Love and a hug—Edna L.
What did she mean “baths”? OMGoddess! I had to call my brother Don immediately.
“Flo had an affair with a woman! I have proof!” I blurted. Perhaps I could have approached the delivery of this information differently, building up to the climax with more suspense. My brother’s lack of excitement revealed my failure.
“You’re making up things again.” He could have added, “just like Dad.” Our father was an accomplished teller of tales, amusing but not to be believed.
My wife Holly was equally suspicious. I hadn’t realized I’d built such a reputation for exaggeration. No one believed me. I just had to revel in my discovery alone.
I delved further, looking for more information about Edna L. I read the letters over. Edna sometimes signed her name Eddie or Edie, but she never included her last name. I love that she called herself Eddie, a definite lesbian cue. She illustrated the notes with endearing stick figure drawings. From the letters I learned that Eddie and Flo had roomed together at the national YWCA council meeting in Columbus. Eddie had written the notes during their time together and given them to Flo to be opened each day on the train ride home to Washington State. How romantic!
I read through all the accompanying articles and programs about the national YWCA council meetings that Flo had attended in Chicago and Columbus in 1937 and 1938, but I couldn’t find any mention of Eddie. I looked at every picture in the two scrapbooks. Flo had devoted two pages of one scrapbook to pictures of a woman who had died, kind of a shrine. The pictures show Flo and the friend on a camping trip in the mountains. The woman’s death photo, showing her body lying on a coffin-like bed, is in an envelope pasted in the scrapbook, but there is not a single clue as to who she was. I pulled up the photos to see if there was anything written on the reverse side. Nothing.
The woman in the photos looked rather morose. Could the dead woman be Eddie? Did Eddie kill herself after Flo spurned her advances? Reading the letters, I can see she was clearly smitten, but there’s no indication that Flo felt the same. I let my imagination run wild. My poor mother! She must have felt terrible guilt. No wonder she left no clues about the identity of the dead woman.
My brother seemed slightly more interested in this new theory and he agreed to help me research the dead woman’s identity. We found one clue in a picture that decisively ties the dead woman to Flo’s hometown Biz-Pro group, and from her letters we know that Eddie was from New York, so I had to abandon my romantic story about Eddie. However, I’m holding onto the suicide theory until we can identify the dead woman. I can totally see how my adorable young mother might have inspired unrequited love.
My mother used to wonder aloud why my generation of girls and young women chose to hang out in co-ed groups. Why was there so much pressure to be with boys? She told me that as a young woman she’d had loads of fun communing with sisters in same sex groups. They invited boys to dances and events that they organized, but otherwise they sought the companionship of other women. Now, looking through scrapbooks she made in the 1930s, I can see what she was talking about.
My mother, Florence Wick, had graduated from Yakima High School at age 16 in the class of 1929½, just as the country sank into the Great Depression. She was planning to enroll at Washington State University (my alma mater) when the stock market crashed and ended her dream of going to college. Instead she went to secretarial school. She got a job as a stenographer and worked steadily throughout the decade, living at home and supporting her family when her father lost his teaching job. In the 1930s my mother actively participated in women’s organizations that I now see set the stage for the feminist movement of the 1970s.
While she could never afford college, she did join a sorority, Epsilon Sigma Alpha, which had been reorganized from a college group to include businesswomen. She was also a member and president of the Business and Professional Women’s Club (Biz-Pro) one of the “business girls” clubs that fell under the umbrella of the YWCA. These linked organizations provided opportunities for what we now call networking, but they also promoted the rights and welfare of workingwomen by sponsoring legislation for equal pay and to prohibit legislation denying jobs to married women. Founded to address the surge of women into the workforce during WWI, Biz-Pro still continues to advocate for workingwomen promoting equal pay, comparable worth and family leave legislation.
The ESA flower was jonquil
She saved dance programs
Biz-Pro dance program
The sorority met twice a month, once for a study program and once for a social event. My mother saved programs and newspaper articles reporting on their events. Flo sometimes appears in the programs reviewing books (Stanley Walker’s Mrs. Astor’s Horse) or authoring skits. She participated in a bridge club and took home prizes. She directed a questionnaire on current event topics at one meeting. At another she reported on the biography of Nijinsky written by his wife. Politics was also on the agenda. On the Oct. 6, 1936 program, Miss Sylvia Murray presented a “Symposium of Nazism and Fascism.” Flo presented “Excerpts from Days of Wrath by Andre Malraux.” They had picnic summer potlucks. They played games. The local news reported: At the Thanksgiving party, 30 members and their friends were expected. The colors were yellow, orange and brown.
Sisters’ Ski Trip
Smart cotton frocks of today’s vogue and demure fashions of 50 years ago vied for supremacy last evening when Epsilon Sigma Alpha sorority members entertained at a dessert bridge party in the Woman’s Century clubhouse. The sorority will have a horseback riding party as a feature of its next meeting, reported the local Yakima newspaper. In news articles the married women are referred to by their husbands’ names. A dinner and theater party were planned by sorority members at their meeting last evening in the home of Mrs. Malcolm Mays.
The Biz-Pro meetings, too, sought to combine business and pleasure.
Miss Edith Livingston had charge of decorating the tables with white cellophane Christmas trees, snowmen, blue streamers and white tapers. Girls made a contribution to the iron lung fund.
Despite their name, the business and professional women were not above movie stars and gossip.
Mrs. Gledhill, the former Miss Margaret Buck of Yakima, related interesting Hollywood anecdotes and described the YWCA work in the southern city. She particularly mentioned the Studio club in Hollywood where girls who are hoping for a “break” live and rehearse, “even tap dancers,” she says. Among board members are Mary Pickford and Mrs. Cecil De Mille.
Both my mother and I were active in the YWCA during the 1970s when its “One Imperative” was to “use its collective power to eliminate racism by any means necessary.” Together we attended the 1973 national conference in San Diego where the farmworker leader Cesar Chavez spoke. But I hadn’t realized how involved she had been in the YW during the 1930s. After its members demanded a focus on workingwomen at the 1910 world conference in Berlin, the YW’s objectives changed from protecting women from the vagaries of industrialization to promoting their equal inclusion. To this day the YW remains a worldwide force working against violence and supporting women, racial minorities, people with AIDS and refugees.
Biz-Pro dance program
Flo represented Biz-Pro as a council member at its conference in Chicago in November 1937. A newspaper report of the meeting quoted her: “It was grand and I liked Chicago so much,” says Miss Florence Wick, all in one breath, of the National Business and Professional Women’s Council of the YWCA meeting in Chicago from which she returned this week. The article says of the 26 council members, she was the youngest (she was 24). The meetings were held in the McCormick residence in Chicago, a memorial to Harriet McCormick, an early supporter of the YW. “The loveliest building you ever saw,” according to Miss Wick. “I met so many notables in YWCA work, I feel so very insignificant,” Miss Wick remarks, laughing.
In April 1938, she traveled to Columbus, Ohio to the national YWCA convention and later explained the “reorganization of the business girls’ groups” to her local chapter. She traveled around the Northwest to represent the local group along with others including her best friend and my namesake, Molly (Mildred) Hardin, another single workingwoman. By that time they called themselves the “Business and Professional and Industrial Girls.” Industrial referred to women who worked in factories and plants, as opposed to the “business girls” who worked in offices.
Flo told me she had accepted that she would be an “old maid” when, at 33, she met my father. Still working as a stenographer, she had assumed the identity of “career girl.” Her sister Eva, my aunt, told me Flo was always popular. She had lots of boyfriends but she was in no hurry to get married. She enjoyed the independence and self-esteem that came from earning her own living as a workingwoman. And she thoroughly enjoyed the rich friendships and associations she cultivated in the women’s organizations she joined.
In my quest to archive the papers stored in my mold-infested storage room, I this week photographed two albums made by my mother in the 1930s. My mother, Florence Wick, graduated from Yakima (WA) High School in 1929 ½ (no explanation as to why there were half-year graduations) at age 16. She had skipped ahead a year. From the dates I found in these albums, it seems she assembled them after graduation. The first date is 1929. The last dates I found are in 1941.
One album is a scrapbook, mostly a collection of poems cut out of magazines and pasted onto the pages. There’s a typed list titled Keep Your Friends Friendly with penciled annotations. A handwritten poem titled Friends is also pasted in. It could be Flo’s writing, but I don’t think it is. There’s a typed “poem” titled I Like, which starts, “I like polka dots. And molasses. And Spanish antiques.” That piece also is annotated with question marks and underlining. It’s followed by a long list of likes that Flo has apparently added in uncharacteristic rather messy writing. It starts: “red ties, Dresden china, first editions,” and ends, “farms, horses and hay.”
My mother was an avid reader throughout her life. Flo told us about sneaking books into bed and reading through the night with a flashlight under the covers when she was a kid. As a young person, she also wrote poetry and won at least one poetry contest, although none of her own poetry appears in this scrapbook. As an adult she collected volumes of poems that lived on a bookcase in our family’s living room. She must have schooled me in poetry because I remember arguing with a teacher in grade school about how a poem should be read (I knew the poem; the teacher didn’t). But I never appreciated poetry as my mother did.
Tucked into the inside cover of this scrapbook is a photo of a young man dressed in knickers smoking a pipe and holding what appears to be a fox kit in what looks like a rather cold, stark place with some houses in the background (I think this is her boyfriend who spent time in the Pribilof Islands, and I remember other pictures of him, but not what he was doing there). The one other picture is cut out from a magazine—a young woman trying to bait a fishing hook.
One newspaper clipping tells of her father’s death of a heart attack at the age of 59 in 1938. Other pages cut from magazines contain instructive stories (“If you must run after a man…the really smart girl is the girl who, while joining in the chase, makes it appear as if she weren’t”). I think Flo cut these out not for the stories, but for the poems on the reverse side. If I were a dedicated researcher I’d read and analyze all the poems, but perhaps I’ll save that task for another day.
Over the years a horrible sickening black mold has infected the room next to the garage where I’ve stored boxes of my old stuff. In order to access anything from that dark cavernous space I must wear a respirator and gloves. Now that I can use my iPhone to photograph papers and store them in my computer, I’m slowly archiving them. Chucking the mold-infected sheaves into the recycling gives me great pleasure.
I’ve imagined that the mold was introduced from items that had previously been stored in my grandmother’s root cellar/basement in my hometown of Yakima, I guess because the smell is similar. That’s silly, but it started me wondering about molds and how they travel. It might be stachybotrys atra (also known as black mold). Whatever type of mold it is, and there are more than 100,000 kinds, it is nasty and takes little time to activate my asthma if breathed in. Molds require moisture to grow. When we were remodeling this building in the early 21st century I discovered a crack in the foundation that allowed moisture
into the storage room. I patched it, but of course that did not rid the room of mold, and perhaps there is no way to get rid of it. Removing the contents might help.
This week I’ve been pulling out my mother’s papers to aid in reconstructing her life in Yakima and her work as a Red Cross Donut Girl in Europe during WWII. I still have Flo’s cardboard American Red Cross suitcase issued to her in Washington DC and then carried from Italy through France and into Germany during 1944-46. She saw the liberation of Dachau, so I suppose the evil mold could have traveled in the suitcase from Nazi concentration camps. It’s a theory.
When I opened the suitcase I found two scrapbooks that my mother had assembled in the 20s and the 30s, a sheaf of her letters, and a bundle of letters written by me to her in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. These I perused immediately. What a gift, that my mother had saved these letters! In the days when people wrote letters as a primary way of communicating, I wrote my mother often just to tell her what was going on in my life (long distance phone calls were expensive).
The letters span a period from the fall of 1967 when I first left home in Yakima to start college at WSU in Pullman (a 190-mile three-and-a half-hour drive away), up to the summer of 1981 after I’d moved into the house where I’ve lived ever since here in San Francisco. I haven’t yet counted the number of different addresses where I lived in Pullman, Seattle and San Francisco during this time, but it is certainly in the double digits.
The most frequent subjects of the letters were money—borrowing and paying back, the cost of things, not having enough—and job hunting. I’m glad for the mundane everyday minutia, what things cost in 1970,
“The prescription for progesterone that cost $1 to fill in Yakima cost $13 in Seattle. I should have sprung for the $6 bus ticket and bought it there.”
the many jobs I applied for and was rejected from (newspaper reporter, telemarketer, printer’s apprentice, waitress, library clerk, federal civil service, county extension agent, phone operator, bus driver).
“Thanks for your help. Didn’t include you as a reference. It’s never a good bet to use a relative, especially your mother, no matter who she knows and how well respected.”
I was struck by the close relationship between my mother and her daughter, the “never trust anyone over thirty” feminist revolutionary. No doubt this was the work of my mother’s efforts to maintain a bond, more than mine, but the letters make it clear that I depended on her for a great many things besides loans—support in whatever endeavors I worked at, help with writing, bouncing off opinions about politics and life in general. She was truly my rock and I hope I was hers.
Letters from 1967 through the spring of 1969 when I lived in dormitories (the only option for female undergraduates then) are filled with reports of studying, dating boys, finding rides home, gossip about people from Yakima and complaints about the cost of books and clothes. I’m surprised at how conventional I seemed, but I don’t think this was just a put-on for the benefit of my mother.
After I moved off campus in the fall of 1969, my letters expressed interest in “alternative lifestyles” and “building viable counterculture community institutions.”
I wrote about founding the League for the Promotion of Militant Atheism:
“College campuses need more militant anti-Jesus freaks.”
I wrote about politics and social change, racism, feminism, sex and gay liberation. I had embraced the unconventional.
So very many things changed during those explosive years, but some things never did. The last of these letters, dated 8/18/81, starts:
“Here’s some money I promised. Still looking for work.”