Wednesday, March 31, 2004

As of March 31, 1919, women in the U.S. didn’t have the right to vote. There had been only one World War, and it had ended just four months earlier. Prohibition wouldn’t take effect for nearly ten months.

Having been born on March 31, 1919, she’s now awestruck. Imagine that – eighty-five. I can’t believe it. I never would have thought I’d be here. She laughs that laugh that all of us know so very well. She never expected to be this old, although two of her siblings made it even further. The eldest died two days before what would have been his ninetieth birthday.

There are a lot of things she once believed she’d never do. For one, she thought she’d be single all her life. As a girl, she’d done well in school, all the way into tenth grade, but then her family moved to another state, and by then she’d turned sixteen. She was a smart kid, quick to memorize poetry, and exceptionally good at math. But, after the move she wasn’t legally required to register for school, so she assumed she’d stay at home and help her mother. There were two younger brothers, one of them disabled. The older ones, a brother and four sisters, were all working or married or both by then. And then the war started, and there weren’t many men around. Her youngest brother went off to the army, and she cried by the radio every day until he came home safely. During that time, she went off to work in a carpet factory every day, and then came home and helped her mother some more.

She was twenty-seven when she met her husband and thirty-one when they got married, and turned thirty-seven as she breezed through her only pregnancy. Typically, she had other responsibilities to worry about; her own mother was dying at the time, and her father was ill as well. She took care of them the whole time, and the woman born the day before April Fool’s Day gave birth to her only child the day before Labor Day. (Not surprisingly, they share an offbeat sense of humor.) Of course, she wasn’t totally inexperienced with children; seventeen of her eighteen nieces and nephews were born before she became a mother, and she was their most frequent and most beloved babysitter. She still loves to tell the story of the long, long night in late 1956 when she sleepily paced the floor with a wailing infant. Before she realized what she was saying, she’d already spoken to her baby daughter, in a soothing voice, “Tell Aunt Josie what’s wrong.”

She’s always taken care of everyone – sometimes even herself. (Her daughter, at age six, was completely facile with fourth-grade arithmetic and sixth-grade reading, courtesy of a searchingly intelligent mother who never finished the tenth grade.) She’s survived two bouts with cancer and one other life-threatening illness. Although she has no biological grandchildren, she’s an adopted grandma to her great-niece and to her daughter’s niece and nephews by marriage. As of last year, she’s stopped hopping on planes to visit out-of-state relatives on holidays; she moves a bit slowly now and no longer hears much of what people are saying, and her painful osteoporosis is arrested but not reversible. But, she still has her sense of humor. She’s still everyone’s favorite auntie. She’s outlived her husband, six of her seven siblings, and three of her eight nephews. Her remaining nephews and all ten of her nieces, of course, still think she’s pretty hot stuff.

So does her daughter. Happy birthday, Mom.


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