Correcting my limitless lack of knowledge, one post at a time.
Thursday, September 30, 2010
Carolyn Stanley Brunton Graham, 1922-2010
My mother passed away last Sunday evening. Her two weeks in and briefly out of the hospital were not easy for her, but gave us all time to be with her before she died, which was probably more helpful to us than to her. Although such serious subjects are not usually within the scope of this blog, a few of you have offered your best wishes to her, and as I felt odd just continuing here in the lighter vein with no acknowledgement of the heavier one, I thought I would take a moment to say a few words about my mother's life instead.
Or many lives, actually. Because as has dawned on her three daughters in the course of the last few weeks, the woman who uncomplainingly filled the stereotypical role of housewife and mother in the fifties and sixties had an adventurous past. During one of her college summers, she flew to Mexico to study Spanish at a time when few people flew anywhere, let alone young unchaperoned ladies. She and her cousin were taken in hand by the diplomatic community there, an idyllic time in which as she later confessed, "Oh, we didn't really study."
After completing her B.A. in English at USC, she joined the U.S. Navy during World War II as one of that groundbreaking group of women known as the W.A.V.E.S., an acronym for Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. I learned recently that her first day as an official WAVE was in Washington D.C. on D-Day.
When the war ended, she returned to civilian life and got a second B.A. in journalism on the G.I. bill, as well as going to secretarial college.She did do a few interviews, including one with a U.S. Senator, but decided that reporting wasn't really her thing. She ended up working as a secretary for the oil man Carlton Beal, which led to her becoming acquainted with several movie stars, especially at the polo field. A story I only recently heard was when she found herself sitting in a cozy group in a V.I.P. tent across from Clark Gable, who patted the seat beside him and motioned her over. (For better or worse, she didn't take him up on the offer.)
My mom was a happy go lucky type, who seemed to sail through life without taking too much thought for the morrow. So she might have been perfectly content to continue in that life if her rather more ambitious mother hadn't taken the initiative to sign her up for an appointment with the Army Special Services one day. The next thing she knew, she was on her way to postwar Germany, where,as I sometimes like to describe it she "entertained the troops".But as a matter of fact, this is exactly what she did, planning shows and taking "the boys" all over Western Europe on tours. One great thing she did was bring her mother over for awhile, who stayed in the barracks and joined them on trips, and enjoyed the company of all those young men at least as much as her daughter did.
When my mother returned to California, she ended up getting a secretarial job with the RAND Corporation, a high security think tank. Not long ago she told me how she would be locked in a kind of vault with all these strategists who were playing war games, and no one in the outside world could get in. Her own role was more prosaic--passing messages and the like, but she did admit that it was a bit claustrophobic.
After awhile she decided to re-up with Special Services, her wanderlust getting the better of her. She wanted a hardship posting because it paid better and she was interested in Guam, but she ended up in Tripoli, Libya. My father was stationed there as a First Lieutenant in the Air Force. Post-Korean War, Wheelus Air Base was a refueling place for air transport. There was, I think, also a kind of expat environment, with so many Americans isolated in the midst of an at that time fairly friendly Arabic culture. Let's just say that it was hard to keep the beer cold there, so there were a lot martinis.
My parents married in Tripoli, before flying home. There was an economic reason for doing so, and I'm sure she sometimes wished for the big wedding she would undoubtedly have had at home. Her wedding ring was a plain gold band, which was supposed to have been an emerald ring, but they hurriedly bought one from an Arab street vendor because of some deadline, thinking they would replace it later. That never happened and I'm sure she sometimes mourned that emerald. I always thought this story was incredibly romantic and far better than emeralds. But of course, that's me, not her.
They returned to California rather than my dad's native Illinois, largely because it was a place of greater opportunity. She took to the role of homemaker with the same easy going style that she had brought to everything else in life. She and my dad made a lot of good friends through his work at the Division of Highways, and my sister and I were talking about those long ago days as we sat with her the night she died. The grown ups all drank and smoked and laughed and argued a lot but there were always kids and pets running in and out of the room till they collapsed on the floor somewhere and slept as the parties went on and on. Good times, I think, for everyone.
My mom went back to work yet again after we grew older, finding another life and circle of friends at the junior college where she worked in the faculty offices. This was in Oakland, and one of the people she met a few times there was Hughie Newton, though quite a bit after his Black Panther days.
My mother was 87 when she died, and physically the years had taken their toll. She had macular degeneration, multiple joint replacements, and a heart condition that if nothing else had done it, would eventually have killed her anyway. But, as she frequently said to us, "I am so happy. I am happier than I have ever been in my life." We believed her, though even we found it hard to fathom at times. But it was only that, as she had done in many, many other incarnations, she had made yet another circle of friends, who laughed with her and loved her. We always thought of my dad as the joke teller, but once he died, she really came into her own. Here is one she told me recently. It seems both fitting and emblematic.
An elderly woman was visiting her doctor. "So how are you doing, Mrs. Brown?" he asked.
"Well," she said a bit plaintively, "I can't see very well anymore, so it's no fun going to the movies or reading. And I can't hear very well, so it's no use trying to talk on the phone. And I really can't walk too much, so I can't go out on hikes anymore. And I can't really taste anything, so food is no use to me. But luckily, there is one thing that still gives me pleasure."
"What's that, Mrs. Brown?"
"Thank God, I can still drive!"
Coincidently, my sister had a dream the night after my mom died. She was riding in a big green boat of a car we used to have, and my mom was driving, grinning from ear to ear. My sister realized that my mom probably really shouldn't be doing this because she was blind, but my mom was confident and unconcerned. "Oh, I think I can find my way," she said.