February 11, 2011


My mother met my father in Panama in 1935. He was in the navy submarine corps at the Canal. My mom, Costa Rican by birth, worked in a soda shop near the base. Dad couldn’t speak Spanish and my mother couldn’t speak English, but she must have made a good ice cream soda because my father, an Indiana farm boy, went into the shop every day. He’d begin by ordering a cup of coffee, which made mother blush until she learned to say, “No coffee here.” That’s how the courtship began. They were married and in 1937, dad brought his young wife and baby back to the United States.

The marriage didn’t last. 7 years later, my mother was on her own with a child in Los Angeles, living in a country still strange to her, a country at war and seething with racial prejudice. As she wasn’t a citizen yet, she couldn’t work in the defense factories where the pay was decent. Instead, she pieced together two low wage jobs — a waitress and an abalone cleaner – to make ends meet. At night, for extra money, she baked pies at home to take to the restaurant in the morning.

We lived in a bad part of town in a duplex with an open sewer near the back door. Mom didn’t complain. Given the booming war economy, there wasn’t much low rent housing available.  

One night, when I was nine, my mother became very ill. We had no telephone so I ran through the streets to a home that did. I don’t know how many doctors I dialed before one would make a house call in our neighborhood. His name was Dr. Shaw, a tall, retired navy physician. He saved my mother’s life. 

I could recount other stories about the privation and prejudice my mother has suffered.  When I was 8, for example, she and I were thrown off a bus, coming home from a movie (Blog: 1/7/2011). The driver didn’t like Mexicans. He abandoned us on a dark corner where we waited for the next bus and hoped for better treatment. My mother didn’t say anything that night, but I knew she was afraid. I could feel her trembling as she held me hand.

Near the end of the war, mom earned her citizenship and joined the ranks of all the other “Rosie the Riveters” who sustained the aircraft industry. She was good at her job, so good, she trained the male apprentices -– all of whom were paid higher wages.

The hardship and discrimination she suffered when I was growing up never dimmed the light in my mother’s eyes. Today, she turns 95 and still looks to the future. So here’s a birthday promise to my mother: 

            “Grow old along with me!  The best is yet to be,

            the last of life, for which the first is made.“  (Robert Browning)