Today is Mama’s 94th birthday. We’ll gather at the nursing home and she’ll see that there’s something special going on: great-grandchildren bringing her balloons, tables covered with bright cloths and vases of flowers, birthday cake and family singing to her. Thinking about how little she understands now, I’m glad I went in search of her when she could still comprehend. How excited she was when I told her I’d take my solo journey to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
She and her cousin, Yvonne, traveled there in January of 1943 when they were just 19-yrs-old for training to work in the WWII effort. They loved telling stories about their escapades during the six months they spent away from rural North Carolina.
Since Mama had declined with dementia, she was barely able to join Yvonne in telling their stories. I needed to go there to explore while there was still time. Yvonne gave me the details she remembered of their neighborhood and training facility.
I wanted to be in that place and imagine Mama at nineteen. I’d never thought of myself as being like her. We didn’t favor in appearance— she was a redhead and freckled and I took after Daddy— with dark hair and skin that tanned. Moreover, I didn’t think we were alike in our personalities. She seemed so pragmatic while I tended to be a day dreamer, imaginative.
But for one of my birthdays, she gave me a card that surprised me. Unlike the usual, carefully chosen Hallmark where she’d underlined and double underlined keywords, this card was different. On the front was a Victorian era girl walking in a group with a faraway look in her eyes. Inside the blank card written in Mama’s cursive, she started her birthday greeting with, “To My Dreamer Daughter who is like me.”
I was puzzled by that description of herself and thought I’d missed something. Part of going to Harrisburg was to try and find who Mama was as a young woman. Once I was there, I walked in the area around Maclay Street where they’d rented a room from the Flute family. I took pictures of every building that could have been there back in 1943.
At sunset, I walked by the river and remembered a comment Mama had often made about that cold January.
“The Susquehanna was frozen solid,” she said, and you could see that for a moment she was transported back in time. As a child from the South, she would have been warned to stay off any body of water that appeared frozen.
I drove out to Hershey Park and thought of how Mama and Yvonne had gone there to a Big Band concert. What an exciting and scary time—as Mama had four brothers who were in the war. It must have been hard for Grandma and Granddaddy Smith to watch their young Mary leaving as well. How brave of Mama to go, anyway, knowing the pressure she probably felt to help out at home. She was the middle of the three girls, like me, but her older sister would have never ventured out like that.
I’m adventurous like Mama, I thought, the first time I’d realized what we shared. My view of Mama had been shaped by her role as our mother, wife of my father, and pragmatist who’d lived through the Great Depression and WWII. Before all that, she was a girl with dreams, like me.
While I’d gone to Harrisburg in search of Mama, I returned knowing more of myself.
What about you?
Have you ever gone on a journey to better understand someone?
How did what you find change you?