Take a Chance on Rosies
By Anne Montague
Eighty years ago, I watched Mother change from a walking skeleton to a gorgeous woman doing her part to stop tyranny throughout the world.
World War II was raging. I had not started to school. Mother and I slept in a twin bed in the front bedroom of my grandparent’s house – me against the wall so I wouldn’t fall off the bed, and Mother on the outside holding me secure and safe.
In the mornings, I’d sit on the edge of the bed, watch Mother take off her nighty and look at her skin-and-bones body – every rib showed, her hip bones and shoulder blades stuck out like wood.
You see, Mother was malnourished. She was born during World War I and the pandemic that was called the Spanish flu. Then my Papaw – that’s what we call grandfathers in West Virginia – had an accident when he was a carpenter on the C&O Railroad that left him deaf and with missing fingers, so he was unemployable. Then the Great Depression hit when Mother was about 10 years old.
My father was away at war. So, mother had to work. Mamaw spent most of her time with my baby sister, Leah, who was frail and didn’t learn to walk till she was two.
When Mother was working, I was very lonely. But watching her get dressed for work was precious time for me because we were a team, learning together while we yearned for better times for us all.
Each morning, I watched her skin and bones go to our small closet and pick a dress she’d made on our Singer treadle sewing machine. She’d lay that day’s dress on the bed next to me, put on her princess slip, then her dress. With that, she started to look like a movie star. I’d jump off the bed and check to be sure that her slip was not showing below her hem line. Then, she’d sit at the small dressing table and brush her straight black hair, pull it back and wrap it around a long hard cotton do-nut shaped thing called a bun, and with bobby pins she’d anchor it to the back of her head. With that, she was even more beautiful.
Then she’d start putting on her make-up. First, she brushed mascara on her black eyelashes, which made her blue-green eyes even more stunning. Then, she rubbed rouge onto her cheeks. Then, she’d take a powder puff from the sweetest smelling round box, and powder her nose and forehead. Finally, she’s put on bright red lipstick. That was the magic moment. She was gorgeous and ready to face the world.
Next, she’d choose a dress for me that she’d made, often from the cloth sacks that chicken feed came in, Somehow, she made them look pretty, sometimes with bows in the back, which she’d tie with care. As she brushed my hair and used bobby pins to keep my hair out of my face, it started to get sad. Together, we’d quietly go to the front porch. She always squatted down, hugged me, and held me tight, then she’d look me in the eye as she said something to comfort me. Often, she said, “I have to go, Anne. Someday, you will understand.” Very often, she’s have me quote Abraham Lincoln, “I will study and prepare myself, and someday my chance will come!” I’d learned not to cry as she left. I’d watch her go down the wooden porch steps, down the sidewalk, and through the chain-link gate. With every step, she seemed more confident. As she turned left and walked to the factory on a hill somewhere, her head was held high with pride that she was doing something that had to be done.
Flash forward 40 years. I’m living in a village outside Tokyo. My teen-age children had gone to my ex-husband, and I’d gone to Japan to drown my loneliness by challenging myself in a country where I not only couldn’t speak the language, I couldn’t read it. I was fascinated by the people and the culture that I had been taught to hate as a little girl, and now I was a respected English teacher there.
One cold, damp late November evening, after walking from the train to my very small apartment in the town of Shimotakaido, I had to pee. But I took the time to grab the mail from the mailbox, rushed inside, laid the mail on the sink. As I relieved myself, I saw a letter from home. Now to be clear, home was not really home – I had no family anymore – Leah had died of cancer 20 years before, and Mother had been too ill to take care of herself for almost 30 years. But I was glad for any news. I excitedly tore open the envelope and unfolded the letter as I walked through the doorway into my empty six-tatami mat room. My excitement turned to shock as I read the first sentence – Mother had died a month before. She was gone. Gone forever.
How could it be that no one called the American Embassy which I had been sure had my address, or had even written to post restante where I had often checked for mail that never came, or to my apartment a month before. Gone. Gone forever.
I looked up from the letter and high up in the left-hand corner of that empty room was Mother looking down at me with a quiet, sweet, consoling smile. Mother, as she had been when she dressed to go to work in a World War II factory before I started to school. She was there for me, and I was there for her.
I wondered if I could sleep. I slid the shoji screen to the side of the small closet to pull out my futon and blanket, I remembered that just before I left the states, I called Mother. When I knew she understood that I’d be gone for a year, I said, “Mother, I love you.” She had said so clearly, “I know it.” I was so relieved at these last words between us.
In the morning, I knew I had to keep on keeping on. Somehow, I must prepare for the time when our chance would come. Over the next months, I agonized over selling my deck house in the Colorado Rockies to have the money to finish a Master’s Degree at Harvard. But I did sell it without being there.
In a few months, I was in Boston trying to keep on keeping on. All the time, I knew that I had to create my chance. It was not going to be handed to me.
Flash forward another 40 years to today. I’m now 84. And what am I doing? For the last 15 years I’ve been back in West Virginia finding, getting to know, and creating projects with women like Mother who worked in factories, farms, shipyards, offices and doing all kind of jobs for the war effort across America.
How did this happen? Mostly it was because of Mother’s photo. After looking a year for Rosies, I had found only one, Garnet. Garnet was in her late 90s, When I arrived at her home, she had newspaper articles, photos letters, and a grade card with B’s because women could not make an A. She even had plants she’d brought back from Van Nuys, California and kept alive since 1945. I’d found the spirit of Rosies that I had missed so much, for so very long. When I left her neat home in Dunbar, West Virginia, with a cassette tape of the interview in my hand, I knew that I would spend the rest of my life learning from Rosies and sharing them with people in many places. Soon, we made a pilot video of Garnet.
As a surprise, we had a manikin delivered for her to dress the day we videotaped her. After we attached the arms and legs to the body and head, Garnet stood back, looked her straight in the eye and said, “My boobs is bigger than yours, Babe!” We all laughed. No one knew that my laughter was from the immense gratitude for that opportunity I’d prepared a lifetime for.
On Garnet’s birthday on Sunday, March 29, 2009, the Charleston Gazette surprised me with Mother’s photo in an ad. She was saying, “Help us find our Rosies!” That did it. In two days, 14 Rosies had called. In a few months we had a West Virginia Humanities grant to make a documentary film of Rosies, and in that film, we found 31 Rosies who told their stories of going all over America to work during the war. The film title was, “We Pull Together: Rosie the Riveters, Then and Now”.
Over 15 years, it’s been hard to lose Rosie after Rosie – with each funeral I ask, “Why was I not at Mother’s funeral?” Yet, the work continues to be fascinating.
Today, we’ve launched American Rosie Movement™ – a new kind of movement that does not blame, but gets different types of people to do many different kinds of projects that make a statement for Rosies. Even in communities where no Rosies are left, people are planting dogwood trees, naming bridges and schoolrooms for Rosies, creating art, getting schools across America to create displays of Rosies, hanging bluebird nest boxes, meeting with people in other nations . . .. The list goes on.
What’s life like for me now? It’s good. Mother and I are again doing what should be done. I am sorry it took so, so long. I don’t have time left to share all the fascinating stories about Rosies, the “Rosie work” that people are doing in towns across America and around the world, and the adventures we have had over the last 15 years. Today we strive to create a national movement that does not blame, protest or even do standard branding and public relations. It would take 20 years if I wrote alone. Perhaps I can find co-authors who will feel that they, too, have studied and prepared themselves to write about a national movement where we can pull together to do highest quality work, to preserve our freedom and build a stronger and more secure world.