Kindergarten had been a positive experience for me. I looked forward to my first day of school at Miami Springs Elementary. First grade meant big fat pencils, bright crayons and lots of other children to play with. Learning to read would give me the chance to read books myself.
First day of school in September 1951 was probably another hot, tropical day in south Florida. Mother sewed me numerous summer dresses for school and I got to pick my favorite to wear that day. Marie was sending her first-born off to school, leaving two kids, Karl and Marsha at home. By next spring she would have her fourth child.
As the last entry in my “baby book” Mother wrote, “September 7, 1951 Miami Springs Elementary School–Miss Williams, Teacher.
The school was so over crowded that they have two sessions each day. Paula started the noon to 4:00 session. Mid-term it will be 8:30 to 12:00.”
September 7th would have been my brother Karl’s fourth birthday. Our parents always celebrated birthdays with cake and presents–sometimes with a children’s party where we played the blindfold game of pin-the-tail-on-the donkey. Perhaps that photo above of Karl in his cowboy outfit was taken that day–although I’m sure I never wore my cowgirl outfit to school. (Guns–did we really have play guns as children? Unfortunately, yes.)
The schools were overcrowded because so many servicemen and women returned to Miami after WWII. “Lured by dreams of post-war prosperity, unhurried beaches and warm Februaries, migrants began to pour into the Sunshine State. Florida’s population grew from 1.9 million residents in 1940 to 2.7 million inhabitants a decade later.”1
The skills I learned in those early years of schooling have served me well. Reading and writing have been central to surviving life’s challenges. As author Maureen Corrigan reminded me, sometimes I can find “a book that changes the way I ‘read’ my own life”.2 Developing my own particular handwriting was an early artistic effort which I’ve enjoyed throughout my life–especially the pleasure of writing with a well-balanced fountain pen.
Mothers, in the 1950s, were the unpaid teacher’s aides in many public schools. At times my mother was a ‘room mother’ for my class or for one of my siblings. It was quite common for classrooms to have designated room mothers who brought treats like cookies or cupcakes to the classroom for holidays and sometimes, as a surprise for the students.
School based performances depended on mothers to be able to sew costumes for each event. Mother saved this photo of Fairies & Elves from 1952 or 1953 taken at Miami Springs Elementary School. All the girls hold stars crafted of cardboard covered with aluminum foil. Were the boys envious of our wands?
Lighthearted school programs were only part of our education. I was one of the millions of children who ducked under our desks and covered our heads to protect ourselves from a nuclear attack. In 1951, the federal government hired an ad agency to create a film that could be shown in schools to educate children (and the public) about how to protect themselves in the case of atomic attack!3 View this short television ad about Duck & Cover made to accompany that effort: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMnKNHNfznE
I’m writing about my life to explore the influences that have shaped my life. My stable girlhood is central to my understanding of all that has formed me. Both my father and mother were responsible for the steadiness of our family ties through my school years. We were a family of six prepared to meet the world together.
At the same time, my mother, Marie, was the central figure in my girlhood. Our bond was not perfect, yet our bond was strong. Mom was funny and smart. And she was an attentive listener. Even after her death in 1979, I continue to benefit from that strong bond.
Mother’s often save mementos from their children’s early life. Marie, my mother, saved these three cards I made for her seventy years ago. These are love letters from a girl to her beloved mother. Each carefully drawn letter is a thread connecting me to her. Each flower I drew is a bouquet of tenderness. How rare is a love letter from daughter to mother? One card ends:
“Mother mine, mother mine,
I love you, love you
Love you all the time.”
Strong maternal bonds are an ancient tradition for cultures around the world. The wisdom of our ancestors honored women as creators and protectors. Women are the center of the life cycle of birth, death and regeneration. Sherri Mitchell writes about this belief in Sacred Instructions: Indigneous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change.
“As Skejinawe Apid, an Indigenous woman,
I have been taught that the women nurture life into being;
we are the creators of life
and the protectors of the life that we create.
Women possess a unique magic.
As women, we are able to call forth life from the other side,
and cultivate that life in the quiet space below our hearts.
Within our bodies, we hold an opening to the divine,
a portal that allows souls to enter into this world.
Because we are connected to the divine through the space governed by our hearts,
we are also the keepers of divine intuition and heart-based wisdom.
Thus, the teachings that we carry are essential
for keeping our societies spiritually healthy and emotionally balanced.”4
In presenting Sherri Mitchell’s words, I have typed her paragraph as a poem–this is how it reads to me. Loving women in a misogynist society is its own reward. We women continue our attempts to keep “our societies spiritually healthy and emotionally balanced,” one day at a time.
2 Leave me Alone, I’d Rather Be Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books by Maureen Corrigan p.xiv
4 “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read” By Ocean Vuong May 13, 2017
5 Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom for Living Spirit-Based Change by Sherri Mitchell p.121