Maternal Ties: More Than Apron Strings


Marie and Paul came from quite different worlds. Both had experienced difficulties in their childhoods. Both my parents have been major influences on me and my life choices. I’m starting with Marie’s story because she was the original resident of Miami Beach where the story began. Marie grew up on Miami Beach when it was barely a city. Dad was sent from upstate New York to south Florida for military training.

By her high school years Marie Virginia Donovan was an accomplished athlete despite the fact that she had been born with a clubfoot (talipes equinovarus). At school and in community organizations she ran track, played volleyball, softball, and badminton. Her 1939 Fisher High School basketball team was the state champion! Mother was tall. She was 5’7’’–tall and slender. When I was a teenager and moaned about my height of 5’10 ½”, she recalled that she was as tall for her generation as I was for mine. I was unaware of her earlier disability until, on a hike, one of my Girl Scout friends asked, “Miz Neilson, what’s wrong with your leg?”

Marie calmly explained, to my nosy friend, that she had been born with a clubfoot which meant her leg had been twisted to the side pulling the foot, calf, and leg out of line. Without help this would have kept her from walking. Later we, in the family, learned that as an infant and toddler she had worn a metal brace on that leg. Her mother removed the brace several times daily to move her leg, to stretch, and to massage it. Rarely did Marie discuss this part of her early life with her children, so our knowledge is spotty. Somehow she healed and began to walk and even run.

Until I began genealogy research several years ago, I believed what I was told: that she was an only child. However, census records revealed that her parents had a daughter, Margaret, born two years earlier. Census records also indicate that Marie’s parents separated not long after her birth. More census records indicate that Marie and her mother, Mamie Coghill Donovan, lived with the Coghill relatives in Richmond, VA. Her father, Albert J. Donovan, who had been a policeman moved from Richmond to Toledo, Ohio. He worked as a structural iron worker until his death there in 1947. His body was sent back and buried in the same cemetery as that of his estranged wife. Certainly a series of unknowns among these bare facts.

In Richmond, as a youngster, Marie was sent to Catholic School but apparently “acted out” and was then sent to public school. At another time she described this childhood escapade: before going to have a formal photograph taken, she took scissors and chopped off her long hair. Her mother then cut it straight across and they went for the portrait anyway. We heard these stories as children. We did not have a context or perception to ask more questions—or perhaps they were deflected.

One way to describe the child she told us about is as a “willful child”–this was seen as an especially odious character trait in a girl. It seems Marie, as a young girl was a “handful”! Perhaps this is why Marie, sometime around age 10, was taken to the wilds of 1929 Miami Beach, Florida to live with her mother’s sister Anne, her husband and their adult son. Perhaps the Depression may have been part of this decision. Now we will never know why. Her aunt Anne was known to her family as, “Duckie”, a nickname, a ubiquitous southern custom at the time. Marie was raised by her Aunt Duckie. The two seemed to get along well. When I was born in 1945, I was spoiled as a young child by this woman who I, too, knew as Aunt Duckie.

Marie moved to Miami Beach and became part of her aunt’s family. Duckie and her husband were part of the “social set” of Miami Beach in the 1930s. When Marie, as a 16 year old, went to the police chief and asked for a driver’s license he asked her if she could drive. “Well, I drove myself here!” she replied and she got that driver’s license—never did take a driver’s test. My maternal grandmother Mamie Coghill (Marie’s mother) stayed with her family in Richmond. Again, we do not know why…. The large Coghill family (eight children) in Richmond seems to have been well-off judging from the few photos Marie has saved for us. Marie’s Miami Beach family lived with fine china, Duckie wore furs and they shopped on Lincoln Road, still a wealthy shopping area today. The few family photos I have from this time period seem to indicate some wealth as you saw in the above photos.

Marie regularly attended Miami Beach Community Church evidenced by the delicate attendance pins she passed along to us. Additionally within a month of my birth she had enrolled me in what was called the Cradle Roll of that church. Her high school friends included Celia Mangles who became our family dentist—rare to have a woman doctor in the 1950s. I remember Dr. Mangles office because her mother was the receptionist and she always had a small dog with her behind the desk. Even then I liked dogs.

Miami Beach of this era was a “sundown town” meaning African Americans were not to be in town after 6:00 p.m. Black workers needed a police-issued “pass” to avoid police questioning after 6 p.m. Black tourists were not allowed in hotels, but those hotels did book black entertainers to amuse their all-white guests. Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and others were required to stay the night in the segregated Overtown neighborhood of Miami. Even in the 1960s and 1970s when Diana Ross and the Supremes performed on Miami Beach, they could not stay at those hotels.1

Anti-Semitism had long limited property ownership and housing opportunities for the Jewish population. “Gentiles Only” signs were common among local businesses and hotels. In some cases Jews and Gentiles were required to use separate entrances. In 1949, by a local ordinance, anti-Semitism, was officially outlawed, but anti-Semitism thrived in many forms despite a large number of Jewish residents and visitors.2

Mother seems to have destroyed an earlier scrapbook containing photos of her girlhood. Each of the five photos I have of her and her sports teams has swaths of glue across the back where they had been pasted somewhere else. I’m glad to have these photos to give a picture of Marie as a young woman in the late 1930s and early 1940s. We see, in these photos, her commitment to athletics and being part of the teams she enjoyed.

Mother was an accomplished seamstress when she married in 1944. From my earliest years, she was always interested in fashion and fabrics. I have fond memories of shopping for fabric for casual outfits for my sisters and later, memories of choosing the luxurious fabrics mother used to make formals for me or for the elegant ballet tutus for my sister. Until we were teens, mother sewed new “Easter dresses” for each of us—often with drawstring purses she made to match our dresses. At Halloween, Marie used her imagination and her sewing skills to provide us with unusual costumes.

Marie taught me to sew as a young girl. I sewed some of my clothes even while in college. Sometimes today, when I am sewing, I recall a particular sewing skill she taught me. Example: in 1966 she created a beautiful white silk formal for me, but as she was joining the bodice to the skirt she got a drop of blood on the white silk of the skirt. I was there watching as she dabbed a bit of her own saliva on the spot to wipe away the blood stain. It worked! She explained it worked because our saliva is much the same composition as our blood. I know that my own eye for fabric combinations began at home with her guidance.

When I left for college in 1963 mother helped me plan my wardrobe. She sewed two reversible wrap-around skirts popular that year. She helped me pick out two blazers and then skirts to mix and match. She knit me two beautiful mohair sweaters—one soft pink and the other forest green—both were stunning (and also itchy). In 1963, leaving home on that Greyhound bus for college in Tennessee was my first big step “out of the nest”.

Decades later I learned that my father had said to her, “If we only have enough money to send one child to college, it should be Karl because he is the boy.” Marie did not confront his sexism directly. She just said, “Let’s take it one step at a time and see how it goes.” I had no idea about this attitude while I was growing up since I had always done well in school.

Now you’ve met my mother, Marie, and you now know some details about her people, where she lived, some about our relationship and a sense of who she was in the world. Marie, in my experience was a kind woman–especially kind to me during my difficult teen years. Her sense of humor could have us all laughing at times.

Notes:
1 https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/100-years-the-dark-and-dirty-history-of-miami-beach-7552169
2 https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/100-years-the-dark-and-dirty-history-of-miami-beach-7552169
3 History of Religious Freedom in Florida https://www.statutesandstories.com/blog_html/history-of-religious-freedom-in-florida/

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7 Responses to Maternal Ties: More Than Apron Strings

  1. Martha Payne says:

    Just read this. Fascinating, informational and wish there was more. Great idea to do the research and write about one’s parents.
    Great piece, Paula.
    Excellent writing!!

    • Paula says:

      A friend just sent me this quote,
      “Behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begins.”
      from Mitch Albom
      Looking back on various aspects of our lives can be useful–sometimes we see patterns we did not see earlier. Certainly at seventy-four, my perspective is different in some ways than when I was twenty-four. We all seem to have more time at home because of Covid-19, perhaps others will write about their own lives–I’d enjoy reading your stories too.

  2. Sue says:

    Another interesting piece of writing. Enjoyed learning more of your family history.

    • Paula says:

      Thanks for letting me know you are finding this interesting. In some ways I’m recording historical events, since the social and cultural forces that effect every family are part of what shapes individuals and the society as a whole. Adding pictures adds another dimension too.

  3. Lila Rostenberg says:

    Amazing that your mother too was athletic!
    I had heard about her creativity and sewing, the knitted sweaters were a surprise to me!
    I love how the pink mohair looks, but definitely they were not very kind to sensitive skin!
    The picture of her at Christmas is a treasure.

    • Paula says:

      I took that treasured photo of Mother as she stood between the small living room and the tiny dining room (really just a wide hallway) of my childhood home. She didn’t do the embroidery on this dress, but when we were young she made several smocked dresses for us. My youngest sister just sent me those two mohair sweaters last month. Because she washed and shrunk them, I’ve been trying to figure out how to repurpose the lovely, but scratchy yarn. Any ideas?

      • Lila says:

        Perhaps you could make the sweaters into throw pillows.
        I love how the texture and design shows up in mohair!

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