Ellen has her mom. Dave has his mom. I have my mom.
She doesn’t get out much anymore as she gave up her license a few years back and her back doesn’t allow her to sit too long. But every once in awhile, she’ll get stir crazy and I’ll drop her off at her favorite local casino here in Reno for a couple of hours. Yeah, she’s that little old lady, chain-smoking, drinking black coffee, playing her favorite machine with the bonus spins (and don’t you dare move it!). She has a players club card, but has never used an ATM.
Margaret Rose Buckles, was born in 1924 in a small town called Valley Junction which is now considered West Des Moines, Iowa. Her father was a fireman and then a hostler for the railroad; my grandma Tressy was a homemaker and mother of four children who would all one day go off and serve for the U.S. in WWII.
Probably a typical upbringing for the time –“Maggie” or “Maggot” as her brother Howard called her, ate a lot of home grown vegetables and bread and gravy and wore her cousin’s hand-me-downs. Her brothers ordered seeds and Cloverine salve (in a white tin with black writing) by mail-order and sold them to make money as jobs were still scarce.
As a child of the Depression, she remembers, with humiliation, receiving a basket of food for the needy on her doorstep one Thanksgiving. She grew up poor and because of this – and to this day – will order the least expensive meal on a restaurant menu and finds going out for dinner somewhat eccentric (she also thinks it is quite the “cat’s meow” that free coffee and donuts are served at her favorite locals casino). Her family wasn’t the poorest, however; just across the tracks in an area called “the Bottoms,” most of the poorer Hispanics and blacks lived.
As a shy teenager, a fair girl with green eyes and “buck” teeth, she learned to speak Spanish fluently as several of her brother’s friends from school were those same Mexicans from “the Bottoms” and were welcome in their household. Her parents wouldn’t have appreciated however, the fact that she would sneak across the train tracks to go dancing (and as a teenager meet and marry her first husband, Richard “El Lobo,” there).
After she started working at an ammunitions factory the night of her high school graduation, soon thereafter she headed to Georgia for basic training for the Army Medical Corps and couldn’t understand why the bus driver made her move from the back of the bus to the front and why restaurants posted signs that said “Whites Only.”
During the war years, she drew lines up the back of her legs as nylons were on the restricted list and used ration slips for items such as sugar and meat. She danced to big band leader Vaughn Monroe “live.”
All siblings survived the war: the two twins fought in North Africa (via Scotland), with Howard being injured and sent home; Gerald made it up to fight in Italy, the third and oldest, Dana, was in the Pacific theatre ending up in Okinawa and my mom was a nurse stateside.
Despite the fear of being called back to service for Korea – mom remembers the 50’s being very prosperous. Men who could have never afforded to go to college took advantage of the GI Bill, the economy was booming, folks bought houses in “suburbs.” Women, who got the taste of independence by holding their men’s factory jobs during the war, returned home to be housewives once more. She was the only gal working in her neighborhood, as most were war brides (from another country) or pregnant – the liberation movement would be stalled for yet another decade.
Fast forward to the 60’s and early 70’s. Mom flashes on nights out in nearby San Francisco: Carol Doda’s magnificent breasts on Broadway and Columbus; Finocchio’s, the fabled female impersonator club and listening to an amazing young blind singer named Ray Charles at a small “dive bar.” Working at the VA in Oakland, a nurse in a crisp white dress and a starched nurse’s cap, she recalls watching the first man land on the moon on a black and white TV.
About six years after the Stardust opened, mom took her first and only trip in 1964 to Las Vegas. At the bar sat Harry James and Jean Crain. Red Skelton and Louis Prima were the headliners that trip.
Before my father died at age 54, a former veteran who served in the Aleutian’s in WWII, taking a weekend trip via the Buick Skylark up to Lake Tahoe or Reno was always a treat. Decked out in a long dress with her fur wrap or a colorful polyester pantsuit, with dangling earrings and patent leather sandals, mom was thrilled to catch a dinner show (she would still order the sirloin aka hamburger patty) at Harrah’s – specifically remembering seeing Sammy Davis Jr. My brother and I were delighted when they returned with casino swizzle sticks and postcards from the hotel room showing beautiful showgirls, and maybe even a silver dollar. As a nurse, when Saigon fell, she volunteered at the Presidio in San Francisco to assist with a barrage of not surprisingly, green and blue eyed orphans.
Over thirty years as a widow and here we are in 2008. Mom stayed in the nursing field for over 45 years but managed to miss unionization and a nice retirement. She now lives with me as one of those fancy retirement homes “on the river” costs six times more than social security pays each month. Nope, she doesn’t have much in worldly possessions to show for her very long nursing career and after often working two jobs just to get by as a single parent.
A remarkable life? Well, certainly an interesting one (especially since I didn’t include some of the better stories). How many of our generation know that ciggs were given away free to servicemen overseas, you once cooked baked potatoes in the oven, folks still wrote checks, an Irish Catholic as President was even more shocking than a woman or a black man? And as my mom put it “If you wanted to have sex, you had to get married.” Kids back then were lucky if they had one family celluloid radio to listen to and a Majestic phonograph took months to save up for.
I drove her down to her favorite casino last month, Gold Dust West in Reno. She never asks me to, as I’m always “so busy” and she doesn’t want to bother me since she doesn’t drive anymore. She stayed two hours and she told me that after being gone for almost a year, one of the employees recognized her and said, “Maggie, we missed you, where have you been?” and brought her over a cup of coffee, black, as she always takes it (I think cream was on the ration list as well).
That’s a lot of history, a lot of choices, a lot of living. And in honor of that and her birthday
today, I wanted to share with you the “Maggie-isms” that I have grown up with. You may not
agree with all of them – but just check back after you have blown out 86 candles.
1. Be an independent woman – be able to fully support yourself before you get married, and especially, don’t marry someone just because you want to sleep with them.
3. Don’t have a lifetime of regret from sticking with a career that pays the bills; choose a vocation that fascinates you.
4. No matter the relationship with your parents, you’ll always miss them when they are gone.
5. Travel. Anywhere. As much as possible.
6. Choosing to keep your marriage a priority and healthy, will always benefit your children, rather than the other way around.
7. You may not support the war, but always support the soldier.
8. Every day: dance, hug, laugh.
9. A man carries his pride in a way that a woman doesn’t. It’s not an excuse for bad behavior, but a woman has to understand it to manage it.
10. Patting a man’s butt is perfectly acceptable – especially when you are my mom’s age.
Happy 86th Birthday mom. I still might resemble that sassy teenager that thinks she knows more than you, but I have listened to your stories, I have learned by your mistakes and I know being half as young as you are, I still have a lot more listening to do.
Originally published by Raving Consulting Company