Thursday, November 3, 2011

Happy Birthday Mom

Today my mother would have turned one hundred years old. She was a Pennsylvania coal miner's daughter. That sentence alone tells the story behind her resilience and I really don't need to say more, but I do want to fill in the details.

Her first family chore was to go outside each morning at daybreak to see if the signal flag was flying at the entrance to the mineshaft down the side of the mountain. If it was up, her father could work that day. If it was not, no work, less income and the family went hungry.

She lived through two world wars and the Great Depression between them, Viet Nam with my brother flying helicopter rescue, and nine-eleven and all its horrors on the screen in front of her, knowing too well that one grandson was witnessing it in New York City and one granddaughter was witnessing it in DC, live, up close and personal.
Susanna Frances Fish Holsopple

Yet those times of troubles did not define her life. The ordinary, day to day joy of living did. She traveled in a camping caravan in the thirties, gypsy like, open sky sleeping. After that experience of surviving on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches she never ate another one, nor ever, ever prepared one for me. My childhood summers were filled with travel. Often, when she was a bit homesick, she would pile my brother and me into the car and drive (no interstate highways then, I might add) from our new home in North Carolina through the rugged mountains of West Virginia into western Pennslyvania, back to the old homeplace, just for a short visit, just to reconnect to her roots and absorb the strength to face the challenges of living as an alien in a southern culture.

I've felt her influence quite a bit during this Pilot Mountain Schoolhouse project. From her many stories I learned what questions to ask about school life in the 1940's. She was a beginning teacher in a one room school at a crossroads called Eighty-four in Pennsylvania. She wrote about her experiences there in a handwritten, limited edition (two: one for me, one for my brother) memoir. She wrote about carrying the coal inside each morning to heat the school. She wrote about preparing the soup on top of the stove so that the depression era mountain children would have at least one hot meal. She moved next to teach at another one room school in a secluded village called Seldom Seen. When we moved south, she taught second grade at the nearby school, stressing phonics and vowel sounds to children who could not understand her accent.

She never got over the travel bug. She and my dad went to Europe several times and when he died in 1981, she turned next to her grandchildren as travel partners. She promised a trip the summer before each child's twelfth birthday, with one stipulation. The destination had to be a place she had never been. My niece chose Ireland; my nephew, Greece. She took my daughter to Holland to see the spring tulips and my son to Kenya on safari.

She lived to be ninety-two glorious years old. I must say, she did pack a lot into those years! She was a true member of the greatest generation.

But the greatest statement of her life is this. She was loved.

Catch of the day,