Wednesday, May 24, 2006

She Did it Her Way, Part Two

Thank you all so much for the lovely responses to "She Did it Her Way, Part One." As promised, I’m going to tell you the story of my other grandmother, Wilma, and I’ll also let her tell you part of her story in her own words, taken from an oral history interview I conducted with her a few years before she passed on.

She, like Mary Crawford, taught me the importance of standing up for myself and going after my dreams in a spirited fashion. But not only did she impart upon me strength, she also attempted to teach me to cook and bake, as she was an excellent chef; however, that wasn’t a gene I’d inherited. But I did learn expressions like “That’s not even enough to fill your ear,” which meant I needed to add more of an ingredient when making the crust of her famous peach cobbler. Now, if only I could remember what that ingredient was…

Wilma grew up in a German farming community in Colorado, the second youngest of eight children. Her parents came to the United States, with their respective families, around 1900 when the flood of Eastern Europeans immigrated here.

She told me they lived on a good farm, but their lives were hard: “You know, growing up in a German family, we all knew that the man was the ruler of the house, and it wasn’t like we had specific chores to do--we did all the chores. This included milking four to five cows night and day, working in the fields during the day, and cooking, cleaning, and so forth. My father, uh, he just frequented the bars while we all worked. . . .The farther away I could get from the farm, the better. Boy, I had too many sleepless nights with my father threatening to do things to us.” He often threatened to kill them and was physically abusive, but she’d told me proudly that he never laid a hand on her. She said he knew no good would come of it if he had. And I believed her. Still do.

In all the photos she showed me of her during her childhood, she never cracked a smile. No one in the photos smiled. They all seemed so dismal and heartbroken.

At the age of 16, she knew she couldn’t wait around for someone to rescue her from the life she hated; she needed to rescue herself. So she left the farm to take a job as a waitress in a drug store in Denver where she got a taste of independence for the first time in her life. And loved it. A year or so later, she told her family she was going on a two-week trip to visit her sister in Yakima, Washington. But she and her best friend, Audrey, headed to San Diego, California instead and never looked back. In her words: “When we left here there was about two foot of snow on the ground at the train station. When we got to California, everything was sunny and beautiful and green and I said, ‘Boy, this is for me’” [laughs].

She and Audrey left Denver in the beginning of 1942. If you know anything about San Diego, you know it’s a military city and the population boomed after the U.S. entered WWII. Navy and Marine men and their families swarmed the city.

Fortunately, she and Audrey found jobs in a diner where they worked from midnight to eight in the morning as waitresses, and then eventually as cooks. She told me: “Well, we made a lot more money, and we couldn’t find a place to live--except a hotel that was across the street from the Grant Hotel. And, uh, they were hiring out, uh, their rooms by the month and by the week and making it easier for the--because it was so overcrowded that there just was nothing to be had. There were no rooms. There were no houses. There were no apartments. Nothing. . . . Well, you know, whoever could live together did. The service men who were stationed out here usually had girlfriends who followed them out, and those girls needed housing, too."

During the day, she and Audrey would head to Shermans where, for about fifty cents, they’d dance to the big bands, like Harry James and his orchestra and Henry King and his orchestra. They had the time of their lives and their pick of men to dance with. LOL

When I look at the photos of her during her days in San Diego, I can hardly believe they were of the same girl who once grew up on that farm in Colorado. In these pictures, the girl was laughing in a diner with friends, reaching for the sky while swinging in a park, and hanging upside down on monkey bars. She was living life her way, not the way her oppressive, abusive father wanted her to live it.

Eventually, though, she did find herself sucked back into the world of bad relationships. Twice. But she invoked her own strength and divorced both men. In order to break the cycle, she was determined never to marry again. And she didn’t. My mom broke it completely when she met and married my dad. They’ve been happily married 37 years now. And my husband and I have been married for 13 years already, so the new cycle of happy relationships continues.

When my grandma and I would speak about her time in San Diego, she’d laugh and tell me story after story about her life there (too numerous to post here), but as soon as we'd speak about her marriages after the war, she'd quit laughing, except when being sarcastic, and she'd say she felt like there was not a lot for her to talk about. She also told me that when she thought about it, her life had been boring. Of course, I disagreed with her. I am still fascinated by it. She did it her way.

So tell me the story behind a person who influenced you. I can’t wait to read your stories, too! C’mon, you know you want to share them! :-)