My mother has held many secrets during her lifetime. She is well into her 80's now. She was born in 1923; only during these last few years she has told me a few of these secrets. I know it is not unusual for parents to keep secrets from their children; doubtless many take their secrets to the grave.
The first time I learned one of my mother's secrets I was still a child. A man called and asked for Bessie Juanita Meyers. This threw me, but I realized he was talking about my mother Bess Meyers and took down a message. Upon receiving the message, which was from a potential employer, my mother said that her middle name was Juanita and said that I was never to use that name. I never have, but of course I could not forget it. Since I went to Catholic schools at the time I had a few Hispanic friends and thought nothing of it. But at the time my mother was a segregationist. We lived in the deep south, in Jacksonville, Florida. The Catholic schools were segregated: there was a particular school the "colored" or "Negro" children attended. But light-skinned Hispanic children were allowed at the white Catholic schools. This was in the 1960's.
My mother could certainly pass for Hispanic with her complexion and dark hair. But back then being Hispanic meant being discriminated against. So Mother only used Juanita for her middle name when a document did not allow her to use just a middle initial. My brother, my sister and I never considered ourselves anything but white Americans. Neither did our teachers.
When my mother was able to get a job as a secretary. She worked for Fiat and later at Jacksonville University. She had worked as a secretary when she was young, as well. She worked until she was almost 80 years old. I think she liked going to work, but at the back of her mind was the Depression. She was just 6 when the Depression began in 1929.
What I did know about my mother, when I was growing up, was that she got A's in school and after high school joined the Marine Corps. Women Marines were mainly secretaries back then, so after training she was shipped off to Hawaii to work in a secretarial pool. That was where she met my father, who by then had risen to the rank of Sergeant. They had a romantic affair, which was against the rules. When World War II ended Bess was mustered out and stayed in California, waiting to see if my dad would show up. He did and they got married.
What I did not know about my mother was that she did not actually graduate from high school. This closely guarded secret was finally shared with me a couple of years ago. A few others, too. Like that her father had been a tenant farmer (I had thought he was a farmer of the type that owns a farm). Like that she was embarrassed to go to school sometimes because she did had to go barefoot.
So she was quite a gal, back when. Started working as a secretary without a high school diploma. Joined the Marines. Went out with my dad in San Francisco to see jazz musicians in the late 1940's.
She felt that my father would have done better in the Marine Corps if he had gone to college before enlisting. Not having college, he was snubbed by the college types, especially the Annapolis types, at least in Mother's mind. My job was to go to college, preferably the Naval Academy, and redeem the family honor. No possibility of having Hispanic, African American, or Native American ancestors was to ruin my resume. Hence ancestors on both sides of my family were relegated to the dustbin of history. If anyone asked my ancestors were pure German on one side and pure Scottish on the other.
So it was not just the Depression that kept her working. She considered it an embarrassment to not have a job or money to spend. She was embarrassed at her lack of education. It was a question of dignity for her.
My mother and father ran our family just like a miniature Marine Corps. Later in life that would both help me and hurt me.
All in all, I was lucky. I did not go to the Naval Academy. I became a draft resistor and an opponent of the U.S. government. The toughness that required, and the willingness to leave my family behind and make a different life, are characteristics I got largely from my Mother.
So here's to you, Mom. Happy Mothers' Day.
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