I remember WWII. I’m a tiny child, and Mother is always there to love me and to teach me. We were learning—me about the world, and she about herself as a mother. We were loved in return. Companions. My father was away in the military. I only saw him once during the war. It wasn’t a good scene. He started to beat Mother. She put me on a stool in the hall. I screamed and screamed for neighbors I saw out the window to help. They stopped to listen, but they did not help.
Soon after, we moved in with her parents. Papaw had been a one-room school teacher before his first wife and children died of TB. I loved our light gray cottage, which he’d built 20 years before when Mother was a baby. The smell of linoleum floors, the white wooden kitchen table with red and white oilcloth, the window facing the outback to the huge garden my deaf Papaw toiled in from dawn to dusk despite his severe arthritis and missing fingers, the rose trellis He taught me to pull weeds, look for worms in the yard after the rain, and throw them in the garden.
Mamaw was so different. A big woman much younger than Papaw. She was bothered by injustice. She didn’t believe in preachers taking money for buildings and a salary, and she welcomed any hobo who’d come to the back door by insisting they come to the front door as a guest. She’d make a meal for them. She was tormented by the fact that Jews, intellectuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses were tortured and burned in Europe. She was a Jehovah’s Witness. It didn’t make sense to me that she had to preach so much, but I understood her pain at people’s suffering at the hands of others—it seemed so unnecessary to me, too.
Mother and I slept together in a twin bed in the small front bedroom before and after my sister, Leah Ingrid, was born a month after America entered WWII. She was very alert but slow to develop. “Gentle in body and spirit,” Mamaw used to say. Mamaw appointed herself as Leah’s primary caretaker.
Mother sang to me a lot. Melancholy Baby when I’d be hurt and crying. One day, she put me on the end of the piano bench next to her. I screamed in fear that I would fall off. She took me to the living room window, pointed to the moon, and said, “Moon. Moon.” She held me tight and sat down at the piano, then put me between her laps, wrapped her full skirt around me, tied me close to her, and began to play, “Clair de Lune.” You know it. (Hum three bars.)
mother had to go to work. She applied for a job on the assembly line, inspecting lenses. If she got the job, she could walk to work and save 10 cents a day for bus tokens. She taught me to read my numbers by giving me a penny for each number I wrote correctly, then when I learned all 10, she gave me a shiny silver dime and took back the pennies to buy Leah and me penny candy someday.
She got the job. Each morning, we’d get out of bed, go to the bathroom, pee and brush our teeth, return to our small room, and she’d start dressing. She was so skinny—her ribs showed, and her breasts were no bigger than ant hills. But the more she dressed, the more beautiful she was. She’d put on her silky princess slip. Then she’d choose a dress she’d made on our treadle, Singer sewing machine. After she put on a dress, she’d turn around and ask me to check if her slip was showing, then she’d sit at the dresser, comb her dark brown hair, and put it in a bun. Then she’d put on her bright red lipstick, a touch of rouge, and use a powder puff to dab her face with a sweet-smelling round box with a dandelion on top. Her beautiful blue-green eyes, dark hair, and red lips were the way I remember her looking. Then the best part, she put the bright red polish on any chips on her red fingernails, and hold her fingers out for me to blow on. When they were dry, she’d dress me for the day, often in a dress she’d made from feed sacks, then comb my hair using bobby pins to keep my hair out of my face.
Then came the sad part. We’d go to the front porch, and she’d squat down, look me in the eye, and say, “Anne, I have to go.” “You will understand someday.” I learned not to cry as I watched her hold her head high after she closed the gate. I was proud that she was proud. When she was out of sight, I’d go to the back bedroom and wake Mamaw who’d make breakfast of biscuits, gravy, and eggs.
When she first started to work, I asked Mamaw so often, “When will mother come home?” Mamaw taught me to tell time. “When the short, fat hand is on the five, it won’t be long.” That’s 5:00. When the long, skinny hand is on 6, that’s 5:30. Then go to the front porch and watch down Madison Avenue till you see her.”
But sometimes when Mother came home, she’d be so dizzy that she’d vomit, and she couldn’t eat. Mamaw would put her dinner in the warm oven and say, “Jessie, you’ve got to eat.” “You’re skin and bones already.” One day, I heard someone say she was dizzy from looking at lenses all day—that her eyesight was so good she could see flaws that others had not seen on the lighted inspection machines, and looking back and forth from the normal world to the magnified world made her dizzy. I was puzzled over how her job was so important that she had to keep doing it even though it made her sick.
Then the war ended. A sweltering, dull August day changed suddenly. Whistles, car horns, bells, barking dogs, and people yelling and waving from cars driving. Mamaw went to tell Mrs. Donathan, who didn’t have a radio. I was thrilled. Mother would never have to go to the war factory again. That day is so special to me still that I have written a chapter about it in a book that will be called A Place for Me. if I ever finish it.
Soon, I realized that my mother still had to work. She became a secretary for the Veteran’s Administration, and I started school. She started dating a lawyer for the V.A. prematurely gray, immaculately dressed. But gradually, I began to suspect that something was wrong. I sensed that he did not want to be around children; he laughed at the sad things; and he would not introduce Leah and me to his family from PA. Eventually, I begged her not to marry him. But she did. Soon after, she was fired because the government didn’t allow married couples to work at the same place. Leah and I stayed with Mamaw for several months. My new stepfather bought a small brick house near the railroad tracks, and we joined Mother and him. He put Leah and me on army cots in the living room, while they slept in one of the bedrooms upstairs. Mother was distraught that he would shoot rats from the bathroom window and have me stand nearby to pick them up and put them in the garbage barrel. A beautiful fabric was coming unraveled. I said to her one day, “Mother, you need to go to Marshall University while Leah and I are in school.” It was her dream to be a teacher – to major in physics and art. I could tell she was thinking about it.
But one day, Mother called me into the dining room. She said, “Anne, I have something serious to tell you. Dr. Laird says Leah has cancer and will not live much longer. She said something about some cancers being in the shell; they were tumors, but Leah’s was metastasizing—branching out to other parts of her body. She didn’t cry till I did, then we held each other and cried together uncontrollably till Leah came in the front door. mother composed herself and rushed to meet Leah. I realized at that moment that only Mother and I were to carry a burden together. Papaw had died before Mother remarried. Mamaw had taken in a man with TB and his mother was afraid to be around her. We seldom saw Mother’s sister who was remodeling a big stone house on top of a mountain. My stepfather did not speak to me by then. We were alone. She was helpless. I had to find a place for us.
When I was in sixth grade, we moved to a big colonial house on a hill outside the city limits. Nine months later Mother had a baby. Two years later, Mother sued for divorce. What would she do – Leah was very ill, she had a baby, she did not drive, and she had not worked ears before. A job was impossible. mother seemed lost.
One day in March 1954, my life changed forever. I’d dressed for school early. I asked Mother if she’d checked the mail the day before. She hadn’t, so I ran down the hill to the rural mailbox on the road, grabbed the mail, ran back to the house, gave her several pieces of mail, and went upstairs for a sweater. When I came back downstairs, she was sitting on a small stool with her hair over the heat grate—a letter was on the floor next to her. She didn’t reply when I said goodbye – nothing. When I came home that evening, she was insane. Leah had witnessed a day I can’t imagine. From that day on, she was like a beautiful vase broken into pieces, but worse. She was horrified at herself. It took me a long time to realize that the letter confirmed that her divorce was final. She broke because she could not take care of her children.
Over the next three decades, I tried many ways to get help for her, but I found no one to help or even to show empathy. In the early 1970s, I bonded with a Scottish woman a generation older than me, Margaret MacDonald. During the war, she’d been an air-raid ambulance driver in Scotland, then helped care for injured men. Her husband was mentally ill when he came back from the war. She wanted to stay married. He refused. In America, she became a pioneer in securing rights for the intellectually disabled. For the first time since I was a child, I knew a woman’s mother’s age who’d worked during World War II. I saw that she knew the pain of losing someone you love to mental illness, and she coped with it by combining her intelligence with caring. I wrote my first newspaper article about her not long before she died. At least I’d connected with the past.
How could I care for others for whom I feel deeply responsible? Should I sell my beautiful Colorado home for an advanced degree from a famous university? Should I move someplace I’d never lived? When I was 44, I decided to go to Japan to teach English for a year to help me transition to the next phase of my life.
Before I left Colorado, I called Mother to be sure she knew I would be gone a year. She said she understood. Then I told her I loved her. She answered, “I know it!” That simple sentence consoles me still.
I arrived in Tokyo in August. I found I could not teach English in many places without applying from outside the country, so I flew to Seoul. When I returned to my little apartment in Shinozaki, I got the mail from a row of mailboxes, unlocked the door, and laid the mail on the sink. While I peed, I saw a handwritten letter. I didn’t wait to wash my hands. I opened the letter while I walked a few steps to the edge of my six-tatami-mat room. The letter was from an unfriendly relative. In stiff words, it said that mother had died and been buried a month before. In shock, I looked up from the letter, and I saw Mother as she was as a young woman. She was beautiful, free, and quietly smiling down at me.
The next day, I called the American Embassy. They had my contact information, but no one had tried to contact me. When would the chain reaction of losses end? Would there ever be a natural ending to this episode in my life?
Soon after, I was accepted to live at a hotel for international scholars, the International House of Japan. Surrounded by beauty and intelligent people from around the world, I regained hope and I sold my Colorado home by long distance at a much lower price than it was worth. It was not easy. It was the only home I’d ever owned.
In Boston, getting a Master’s degree and learning to work with engineers to launch new products did not ease my loneliness. No matter that I was always learning from a new place with new kinds of people – engineers and emigres, and new places – sailing to ports from Massachusetts to Maine. There was still a void.
Finally, I faced it. I needed to care for people the way they should be cared for. I called a healthcare agency and said I was not a trained nurse, but I wanted to work with old people, and I was willing to do hospice care.
It was one of the best things I ever did for myself. I connected to all kinds of people: priests who came to perform last rites or care for dying Catholic widows; a Swede with melanoma who connected to me when I rubbed feet through the coldest in the dark of night, a German genius with patents for creating metals for planes; a widow who loved that I found photos of the place she’d honeymooned 60 years before. Sometimes I sing to them. I kept a journal of the songs I sang. Going Home, I’d written for grown children, Swing Low Sweet Chariot.
In 2000, I visited a young woman I care about who, too, has had significant loss despite great gain. As she showed me her house in North Bend, near Seattle, she came to her workspace. She proudly showed me the iconic poster on her wall – the famous one with a woman who looks for the world like Mother, with her arm in the air, that says, “We can do it!” I asked her what it meant to her. She said, “It takes a village!” I knew she knew that girl power is not enough, all of us must work together for the children who will guide us tomorrow.
Part II. The First Rosie I Met after Losing Mother
In 2002, I came back to WV to tell my story to her, which meant I had to stare down painful memories, and replace them with a village I must create. It took me until 2008 to find my place. It was a sunny day in June during my first interview with a Rosie, Garnet Kozielec, who was in her mid-90s and had riveted airplanes in Ypsilanti, MI, and Van Nuys, CA. The minute I entered her neat cottage on an unassuming street in Dunbar, WV, I was in a place I could relate to. She was a prize herself. She cried at the memory of Pearl Harbor Day when she knew her fiancé would go off to war. She had treasure after treasure: the grade card she got for her work showing that women never got a top grade, newspaper articles about Pearl Harbor and V.J. Day, and photos of her with coworkers outside their dorms in California. She was proud that while her Henry was in Europe he helped repair the same model planes she’d riveted. Before I left, she showed me plants she’d brought back from California that she’s been propagating since 1945.
As I left her house, I looked at the cassette recorder in my hand. I would not let interviews of Rosies be just in museums or on shelves. Whatever it took, I would connect people to these women because they show us that we must be free to protect homes and places. I knew I had to make Rose a springboard for our future. But exactly how, in this immensely changing time, I did not know.
Soon after, the nonprofit I founded, Thanks! Plain and Simple, made a pilot video of Garnet dressing in a manikin like Rosie. Without telling Garnet, I had it delivered to her when I would be at her house. She laughed when she opened the huge, narrow box and saw the naked manikin. We assembled it, and before she dressed it with clothes from her closet, she stood back and said, “My boobs are bigger than yours, Babe!” I laughed as I cried.
Soon after, we produced a documentary film with 31 Rosies, who had worked across America. It’s called, “We Pull Together: Rosie the Riveters Then and Now” because Rosie wants to be remembered for pulling together to do actual work for freedom, not for making armaments or just talking about unity.
Part III. Other Rosies and Their Legacy
Soon, we ran an ad in the Charleston Gazette asking for help finding our Rosies. To my great surprise and joy, the daughter of Rosie, Cherly, who worked for the newspaper, used Mother’s photo in the ad. It ran on Sunday, March 29th, 2009, and in two days we had 14 Rosies who called. Soon, we were finding Rosies across America, each with her charming story and unique personality. However, I saw early on that, even though many articles and books had been written over three generations, Americans did not know the importance of these women. I resolved to find ways for all kinds of people to participate in projects that pull people together to use our freedom today to assure that freedom flows, alive and well, into the future. In the words of Nancy, a Rosie who died in 2012, “We pulled together then. We can do it again. It’s our only hope!”
Part IV. Starting the Americans Rosie Movement
Today, we launched the American Rosie Movement. Despite territoriality, and America’s promoting fierce individuality, people are pulling together using Rosies as an example. People are creating things—parks, art, music, naming classrooms and interstate bridges, and much more—by working across boundaries that make a statement that we are thankful for our freedom to find ways to work together. For me, despite the constant pain from the loss of Rosies and some precious dreams, I seem not to give up, and I am comforted that Mother and I are together again, doing what we feel is needed. Sure, there are evil forces. But we have more and more help to do what we must to give credit to the potential of us all—the human family.
Please note: These articles are currently drafts. Thanks, Plain and Simple is currently looking for editors to work on these articles.”