Finding Freedom

©Anne Frazier-Montague, December 25, 2022

“Freedom!” I’ve puzzled over this simple word most of my life . . .. Well, to be honest, for only 79 years. Frankly, it’s the theme of my life.

I’ll start with some basics . . ..

I’m 84, low-income, disabled, an unmarried woman, and a native West Virginian. That means that I’m sometimes ignored or even put down. However, my friends say I am patient and persistent, and I was even called “mule-headed” once by a clinical psychologist I refused as a lover, so I’m not sure that counts.

Based on personality tests, I give more than I ask in return, I’m intuitive, and I have a strong moral compass. You may see these as positive, but I’ve come to realize that, because I feel deeply and go the extra mile to help others have a fair chance, I’ve had both sadness and deep meaning in my life.

Let’s start with a promise I made to my Mamaw – that’s what we call grandmothers in West Virginia. When I was six years, six weeks, and seven days old. It was the morning of my very first day of school.

It was Sept. 3, 1945. Mother, my little sister, Leah, and I lived with my grandparents at 2051 Madison Avenue, in Huntington, WV. The previous day, the Japanese had formally surrendered aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. We’d listened to General McArthur’s speech and we believed good had overcome evil. Our boys were coming home.

Two weeks before, on August 15th, on Victory Japan Day, Mother lost her job in a defense plant along with millions of other women across America who worked on the home front. She’d had to grab another job as a secretary, so she was not there to take me to school. Mamaw couldn’t take me since she needed to stay with Leah, who was three and slow to develop physically, through her mind, and it was a delight to all of us.

So, I was to go to school alone. I was excited – really excited. I loved learning. Mother was always teaching me something new – to read, to know my ABCs in English and in German, facts like the earth is closest to the sun in winter, but it’s coldest then because the sun is at a slant. And music – she played Clair de Lune on the piano, and we sang songs together like Froggy went a Courtin’. She sang “Come to Me My Melancholy Baby” when I cried. She proudly took me to a famous ballet – at Huntington’s beautiful St. Albans Theatre.

So, on this special day, I was ready. Mamaw walked with me down the porch steps and to the front gate to see me off.

But, instead of letting me pull the latch on the chain-link gate, she blocked me with her big-boned body. Then she stood to the side, held the gate shut, and said, “Anne, look me in the eye.”

I did. Her soft brown eyes seemed to look into my soul.

“Anne, you are a fortunate girl. You will grow up in a free world. You can get an education. You’ll have chances women have never had before. You must not waste your freedom. Promise me you won’t.”

I said, “I promise.”
She said, “What do you promise? Let me hear you say it, straight and clear!”

“I promise I will not waste my freedom, Mamaw.”

She relaxed, released her hold on the gate, opened it, and held out her hand for me to pass through. I went down the concrete steps, turned right, and as I passed the huge, very old oak tree, she called, “Watch both ways before you cross Madison Avenue.” Alone, I walked to 19th Street, carefully crossed Madison Avenue, and walked a block to Jefferson Avenue where a 6th-grade patrol boy in a yellow rubber raincoat held his arms out to the side to block my way, looked both ways, then gave me permission to cross. Jefferson Elementary – my new world – was right there.

On the playground, I was with many children for the first time. Soon a stern, dark-haired woman came out a side door, rang a big handbell, and told us to line up by grade. We first-graders went in first.

My room was on the second floor, with big windows on the Jefferson Avenue side. My teacher was pretty and young – Miss Legg. She was as proud to teach as I was proud to learn. I often looked at her umbrella with different colored sections that she left by the door rain or shine. One day, I asked her if I could turn it so a different color would show every day. She quickly agreed. I shared the privilege with other children so as not to feel prissy.

Flash forward to the day I first remembered my promise to Mamaw. I was 14. Mother had remarried a handsome, well-dressed man from Pennsylvania who was a lawyer for the government. We lived miles from the city in a big colonial house on a hill. On the outside, things looked fine, but inside, things were different. Furniture was sparse and often used and worn, the house was drafty, and my aesthetic mother had no spending money and was not allowed to drive. My stepfather quit speaking to me when I was 10 or 11 and told my mother he forgot why. We never got Christmas or birthday presents. Mother quit singing. Sometimes I heard her cry.

The good thing in my life was that I loved school—Enslow Jr. High in the city. Back then, students were divided according to ability. I was in the classroom with classmates and teachers who loved learning. My principal, Mr. Pickering, was quietly proud of me. I didn’t know then that he had taught Mother at Central High when she graduated 14 years before at 20 years old when she was almost eight months pregnant with me.

But everything turned out in a way I had not known was possible. I was in 9th grade; it was March morning. I had a few minutes extra before I met my ride to school. mother was in the living room. I asked her if she had checked the mail the day before. She hadn’t, so I ran down the flagstone steps to our rural mailbox, got the mail, ran back up, gave Mother a letter and some bills, and ran upstairs to get a sweater. When I came back downstairs, Mother was crouching with her hair hanging over a heating grate. The letter was on the floor beside her. I said, “Mother, did you wash your hair?” No answer. I said, “Mother?” No answer. I said, “Mother, I’m going to school now.” No answer. Puzzled, I left so Mr. Bowermaster, my neighbor, would not have to wait for me.

That afternoon, as I climbed the flagstone steps to the house, Leah called to me from the top step, “Annie! Annie! Come fast, Mother’s gone crazy.”

As I entered the house, Mother’s eyes were wild. She was clinging to our baby half-brother. I’d never seen fear in anybody’s eyes like that. I couldn’t calm her. Leah and I planned how we’d find help. She left by the kitchen door. After a while, Mother trusted me and gave me the baby. I made an excuse to go out the front door with him. We hurried through the woods to the Sites house to borrow their phone. I called Mother’s sister, Margaret, who was a secretary for the district attorney. We hid on our road till she arrived as dusk was falling.

We were not taken in by others. Mother was in and out of the state hospital. With horror in her eyes, she would say, “Someone stole my soul.” I kept thinking of my promise to Mamaw that I would not waste my freedom. How could I not waste what I did not have? I had no freedom to change the fact that my beautiful, caring, artistic mother was horrified by her own broken mind.

A few weeks later, I did a small thing that helped me understand that I would sometimes have to create my freedom to use it well. After school one day, I got off the city bus on Rt. 60 at the bottom of the steep driveway that led to the orphanage for Black boys. But I didn’t go around the building at the top of the hill as usual. Without thinking, I went inside. It was dim and silent. I yelled, “Hello! “Is anyone here?” A Black man stuck his head out a door down a hallway, looked at me, then disappeared. I waited. His head reappeared. He said, “What do you want?”

I called back, “I want to talk to somebody in charge about the schools.”

He disappeared again. Finally, he and two other men came out his door, walked together down the hall, then stopped maybe 10 feet from me.

“What about the schools?”, the lead man said.

I said, “Well the Supreme Court just decided that schools are going to be . . . mixed.” I stumbled with the word because I didn’t yet know the word integrated. “You know. . ., Brown versus Board of Education.”

He said, “And you’re going to ‘mix’ our boys into your school. Where do you go to school?”

“I’ll be at Huntington East High in September.”

He smiled at the other men, and said, “So, you’re going to do this ‘mixin’ yourself?”

I answered, “Nooo. I thought you would help me.”

The three men looked at one another and laughed. I was hurt. Then, I realized that they felt that neither none of us had the power to influence the school system.

The head man thanked me for my concern and hurried me out saying that the school bus was due from Douglas High. One man seemed touched as I left – maybe he was the man I’d seen driving a horse-drawn wagon full of boys up my road to work on a farm.

As I walked down the hill behind the orphanage to my road, I knew that what I had just done had the sad message that I might have to find the freedom to use freedom as I should. I knew the school system was big, but, surely, there was a way for people to work together to do the right thing and do it well. Surely.

At East High, I was popular because I did not want to be. I wanted to help others who deserved a chance, including the first Black students—two boys—who were easily integrated at Huntington East two years later. I realized that I was a leader of a different kind because I did not like the limelight. I also realized that I was lucky that my classmates respected that.

Now, flash forward 69 years to today. Have I wasted my freedom?

First, I must say that over my life, I’ve had three more traumatic events every bit as painful as losing my Mother to mental Illness. Each time, I realized that I’d have to make freedom for myself so I’d have the freedom to do what I should do for others. So, after living in five U.S. cities and in Tokyo, I’m practicing at hunkering down, learning what systems are like, and holding on to my belief that many people are looking for the freedom to do what should be done, we just have to connect somehow.

Have I succeeded? I am proud to say, “I’m gainin’ on it.”

What am I doing? Well, after returning to West Virginia to face my sorrows and make something happen from here, I started finding women like Mother who worked on the home front during WWII – they like to be called Rosies, not Rosie the Riveters since most did not rivet. I’ve interviewed at about 190 Rosies across America over 15 years – starting in my 60s.

And guess what I realized very early on? These women don’t want to be known just for the work they did throughout America -in factories, shipyards, farms, and government offices – to help win World War II. They want to be known for showing people that we can pull together to do the highest quality work to keep our freedom and use it wisely because, if we don’t, we’re wasting our freedom.

So, in addition to interviewing Rosies, my nonprofit, called “Thanks! Plain and Simple” shows people ways to cooperate to do something by pulling together, just as Rosies showed was possible 80 years ago. With the help of many, many people in many places, we’ve named interstate bridges and a government building for Rosies. We’ve taken Rosies to meet people who hosted them in the Netherlands and their King and Queen at Arlington Cemetery, and embassies in Washington, including the German Embassy. We’ve made a documentary film and videos. We’ve got large and small groups to invite Rosies to tell their stories. We created lesson plans, art, and music. Today, we’re starting to name schoolrooms for Rosies across America.

In short, we find ways for people to do something together, not just talk or blame.

What I love most is when people who ordinarily never know one another connect as they work on a small project that they know fits into something bigger. Like when June, a Jewish Rosie in Philadelphia, blew a kiss to 6ths grade children in a small, rural school in West Virginia by Zoom, and she blew the class a kiss and said, “Thank you for inviting me!”

Did you hear that? Sometimes I turn my head and cry when I see different kinds of people simply say to others, “Thanks!”.

Yes, I’m an old, crippled woman, alone, and my heart has been broken more than once. But my years of giving work and ideas without a salary or the private life I’d like have helped me keep my promise to Mamaw that I’d now waste my freedom.

Am I there yet? No. I need at least 10 more years to work with people who want to use their freedom to do something that fits into a bigger picture that is much more meaningful than the very important little jobs we do well together. The real value is in what we are going to do with what we have.

By the way, by my door, next to my cane, is an umbrella of many colors to remind me that Miss Legg accepted my idea of letting students in my first-grade class turn her umbrella so that all the colors could be seen. When I raise it in the rain, I love that so many colors are protecting me as I keep trying.

Oh, yes. Mother’s picture smiles down at me from the left wall as I work in my small office. She took it in a street booth for a dime during the war, when she was who she really was. This picture is on ads and fliers that have been seen by thousands of people. In it, she says, “Help us find our Rosies!”.

To quote Thomas Payne: 

“The times have found us1”

To quote Nancy Sipple, a Rosies I loved working with,

“We pulled together then.  We can do it again.  It’s our only hope!”

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