My mom was born at the peak of the first World War. I learned in high school that the war was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand; I’m not sure how…or even if…my mom’s family got word of that assassination, what with living in the mountains, and having a family and a farm to take care of. News came by word of mouth during daily trips to the post office. I imagine that July 1 was a hot day that year, and that tending the farm and a new baby in the house gave her parents plenty to do without worrying a whole lot about world affairs.
Mom came of age during the time known as the Great Depression. She often says that, “We didn’t really know about the depression. My mom always made do with what we had, and she had a way of making it all work out even with a big family. That’s how it always was for us, living on a farm. Other people were poor but we never were, not really.” Mom and her brothers and sisters made their own fun, wading in the creek on hot days and playing in the fields of daisies. Every evening, my grandfather Liberty gathered his brood around him to impart “counsel.” The kids listened; they didn’t dare not.
Liberty and LouAnn Bowman ran a loving but strict household. “We never played a card game in our lives,” mom says now, “and a set of dice was an evil to our family.” I remember once Aunt Eileen reminisced about the girls stealing away and, out of sight of their parents, dancing the Charleston as best they could, hoping they wouldn’t get caught.
Country doctors didn’t know yet of vaccinations, and mom recalls the time when smallpox raged through her family. Families infected by the disease were quarantined, but there was little that Grandma Bowman could do to prevent contagion among her own children. She hung sheets between their beds in a vain attempt to separate those that were sickest. Mom was a small child, but remembers losing her older brother and sister Carl and Ethel in that epidemic.
Even as a girl, mom was always the one who looked for ways to make her surroundings a little more beautiful. She tells of taking the household scissors outside to trim away weeds that no one else seemed to notice. From an early age she couldn’t tolerate disorder and to this day she won’t rest if something is out of order or a little chore remains undone.
By her college days, mom was a young beauty, trim and petite with auburn hair and delicate features. She was chosen May Queen, but worried about what she would wear; Her older brother Vernon checked the National Bella Hess catalogue and sent her a stylish grey dress with a snug waist and flared skirt for the occasion. Mom was popular during her college years despite being younger than most of her classmates. She knew how to cut and style hair and could help her friends design and sew dresses without using a pattern. For fun, she combined a few spare pennies with friends and head to the local soda fountain where they would share a single Coca Cola.
As the years passed mom began teaching at the Spencer School, a one-room rural school. There were sixty children under her care; the Superintendent was Sam Taylor, a “good Republican” and friend of her dad. One day Mr. Taylor visited her school and pointed out that she was keeping her students too long. The school day was to end at 3:30, but mom didn’t dismiss her students until 4:00. She still talks about the boys who finished her 8th grade class and kept coming back year after year. Those boys were far bigger than she was, and almost as old. Their families didn’t have the means to send them the miles to attend high school; mom’s door was always open for as long as they chose to attend. I imagine that she kept more than a few of them out of trouble. No doubt she learned a thing or two about keeping an orderly classroom!
Mom has always managed her money well. She saved during those first years of teaching and bought her family the first radio to be found for miles. It was a large, battery powered contraption, and all the neighbors gathered at the Bowman’s to listen to country music “of an evening.” It didn’t take long for the group to begin clapping and singing along with Mother Maybelle Carter and Bill Monroe.
At 22, Mom married, and bore her first child in the midst of another great war, with her soldier husband on the other side of the world. Later, she saw his blurry black and white pictures of the liberated concentration camps. She has spoken only rarely of how the experience of war changed her husband. For mom’s generation – known now as the greatest generation – the world had revealed its darkest underbelly. She recalls hearing the news of Pearl Harbor while folding men’s shirts at a Montgomery Ward store in Ohio, and leading her students in singing “God Bless America” when the news of VE Day reached the door of her classroom at the Oliver School. Mom’s generation earned the prosperity of the 1950s and 60s, but they learned some hard lessons first hand. I don’t think mom has ever spoken in support of war during my lifetime. Instead, she shook her head in regret as television images and newspapers blared headlines of Vietnam…Cambodia… Iraq…Somalia…Afghanistan…and occasionally comments about the American boys who face unspeakable horrors on foreign soil.
95 years of living bears witness to countless changes in our world. In 1917, the average annual income was $750 per year. Model T’s rolled off the line in Highland Park. As a young woman, Mom couldn’t have imagined a time when there was a cell phone in everyone’s pocket. She still loves radio, even though television has gone from a novelty to a necessity. Air travel is simply how we get around; she was the bold one of her sisters when it came to travel, venturing to the Bahamas, Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) during the Apollo era, the Pacific Northwest, and embarking on a European tour. She has seen the growth of sprawling developments where cattle once grazed, and malls on every corner have long since replaced her dad’s general store. While she’s not fully embraced the digital age, she checks with Dee and me regularly to see what family news has popped up on Facebook.
But she holds a few traditions dear. She writes letters the old fashioned way, with a pen. Ditto, Christmas cards; I get that tradition from her. She loves to shop in small, local stores when she can, rather than the super centers. Better yet, a farmers market or good garage sale can make her day.
Mom has always been a teacher, by profession and by example, and over the years she has gained a level of wisdom that is unmatched in any other person I know. There is never a day – that’s right, never – when I don’t hear her words and her lessons running through my mind.
Mom has taught me that family matters. A lot. I have seen her take care of the generation that came before her, and the ones that followed.
Value your privacy. Or, as she puts it, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Take your time. Be patient. Theres no need to rush. Take time to smell the flowers, and as you do that, exercise a little caution. Size people up carefully.
Keep busy. We’ve all heard Mom say, “I can’t stand idleness!”
Learn something new. Every day if you can. Keep your mind active and sharp.
Behave yourself. Don’t talk too much, carry on too loudly, or complain about your station in life. Listen more than you talk.
Women are not to be “tough.” They are not to smoke or drink, and are never to use profanity (except maybe when muttered quietly under the breath.) Women are cut out to be strong, but there is a difference between strength and toughness. Learn that difference.
Spend time outdoors. Get your hands dirty. Plant flowers, and tend them well. People will notice when they approach your home. Mom’s philosophy is, “Your entry should be spectacular.”
Early to bed, early to rise. People who sleep late miss the best part of the day. Better to be up and around, and nap a little later.
Take care of yourself. Keep up with your doctor’s appointments, but remember — they are all in cahoots. Eat carefully, at least most of the time. Invest in a few nice clothes. Wear comfortable walking shoes. Use good moisturizer. Get your hair done.
Be informed. Read the newspaper. Don’t let those old politicians pull anything over on you.
Take time every day to do the things you love to do. Paint, sew, garden, cook, write a letter, talk with someone you love.
Keep a good attitude. It is the key to health, both physically and mentally. “The mind controls so much,” she commented the other day.
And so, as this July begins, we celebrate Mom’s 95th summer. Each and every one of her children. grandchildren, and great grandchildren know in our hearts that we are far better people living better lives because of her.