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.

Drive on, Mom. And safe journey.



  1. Seana, I was afraid that's why you had disappeared from the blogging world for a bit. It sounds like your mom had a long, happy, and very adventuresome life, and passed on some wonderful things to her kids. I hope the coming weeks are as peaceful as they can be for you and your family.

  2. I'm very sorry for your loss.

    Thank you for sharing some stories of your mother's life - and what a life she had!

    You have wonderful memories to look back on - I hope they will ease the pain of loss.

  3. Thanks to both of you. I'll be back floating around the blogosphere again before too long, I'm sure.

  4. I smiled often while reading those marvelous stories of your mother's life. What a woman!

  5. Thanks, Peter. Although we knew about many of these things growing up, she was so understated about her own life that we probably took it all a bit for granted.

    Another thing that was unusual about my mother is that she was possibly the only person I've known who continued to grow more liberal instead of more conservative as she grew older. She even switched from being anti-union to becoming a union organizer before she retired.

  6. Hi Seana, Ann here. Thanks so very much for the wonderful story of your mom's lives. Who knew we had such a cosmopolitan mom in our midst in little old Dublin! Hope to see you soon, let us know if there is anything the Prairie Girls (+) can do for you. Also give Steph my best, thinking of you guys.

  7. Seana

    I am so sorry for your loss.

    She sounds like an amazing lady with a pretty cool life.

    I LOVED the WAVE photograph.

    My best wishes and thoughts,


  8. Ann, I know, Dublin--who knew? It's hard to accept that I wasn't the most glamorous thing that ever happened to her, but I'm coming around to the reality of that. Hope to see all of you soon. It would be really nice.

  9. Thanks, Adrian. Yeah, I think you would have liked her. She was a very independent thinker.

    As for that WAVE uniform, she still had her uniforms when we were growing up and I could fit in it when I was about twelve, but that was the last of that.

    Sorry I'm missing your blog, but I'll be back.

  10. Seana,
    So sorry to hear about your mum. My heart goes out to you, and it must have been a strange thing to do, posting that beautiful glimpse of her life. Well done for that, and for the obvious love in your family which will motor on! I hate the phrase 'thank you for sharing' but can't think of anything better right now.

  11. Thanks for reading it, Philip.Yes, without my family I'd be in quite a different state of mind right now.

  12. Seana, I really enjoyed reading about your mother. What an amazing and adventurous woman. She was definitely ahead of her time. So inspiring. ~ Janet

  13. Thanks for taking time to read it, Janet. Yeah, Steph and I were just realizing a few weeks ago that Mom's life was actually quite a bit more adventurous than either of ours, and we've actually travelled a bit.

  14. Seana -

    I'm so sorry for your loss. Your mother lived an incredible life. It was an absolute joy to read about all the things she did. I'll bet she made for a great storyteller.

    Take care of yourself. Jenna and I are thinking about you.

  15. Thank you, Brian, and thank Jenna for me as well.

    We were lucky to have her for so long, and we were lucky that we knew we were lucky to have her.

  16. Once again, I'm so sorry for your loss. I congradulate you for a wonderful Mom you had!thank you for sharing.

  17. Thank you, shohreh. I assume I probably know who you are under some other moniker, but in any case, thanks for taking the time to comment here.

  18. Seana, what a wonderful tribute to your mom, and what a life she had. I'm so glad that you wrote about her. And so sorry that you are dealing with her death.

  19. Thanks, Anna. It is really nice to be able to paint a more varied picture of her life than most people who knew her at the end would suspect.

  20. Seana,
    I just read your piece about your mom. It was beautiful. She sounds like an amazing woman! I'm sorry I didn't get to know her personally, but through your words, I now have a sense of who she was and the kind of life she lived. Thanks, again, for sharing it. And know that I am truly sorry for your loss.
    Love, George

  21. Thank you, Georgine. And great to talk with you this evening.

  22. That was a very wonderful piece on your mother and her life. Thank you for inviting us in to meet her.

  23. Thanks for taking the time to read it, Ann. It was the odd thing to put in the middle of this blog, but I am glad to have had a place to write up her life and glad that people have enjoyed it as well.

  24. Oh Carolyn!

    How I would've loved *clinking* a martini with you in a place or time which transcended time as we know it. I'm greatly enjoying knowing your daughter Seana lately as she's written up a star-studded spectacular over at my AT THE BIJOU site. I think it would be grand to talk Rand with you and relive that Clark Gable come-hither moment -- the way you tell it. You have the spirit (the way your talented daughter tells it) to share a lot of adventurous spunk with the world around you.

    Seana was right. My hero, my father, lived through the very last day of summer, very close to when you told your last joke on this worldly plain. Look him up, will ya and tell him "Kate said Hi". He was Navy too, but played baseball where stationed and was scouted by the major leagues. Oh the stories you two fine folk can share.

    Tonight, I am glad Seana shared you, your story and her deep fond feelings with me. When I say, "I understand," I really REALLY do.

    ~ Fondly,
    ~ Absolutely*Kate