At Home with Vivian: Women’s History Month

I hear the Martinez Historical Society’s new exhibit celebrating Women’s History Month will be enlightening and fun.  Don’t miss, “Celebrating the Women of Martinez”!

The Dalton sisters . My mother and her sisters in age order. Mom is in the middle. Aunt Tootsie is far left. Remarkable women. Picture taken in 1961.

In the early 1980s I had the good fortune to attend a function where Jane Weinberger (wife of Caspar Weinberger who was Secretary of Defense during the Reagan Administration) was the speaker. In a down to earth, relaxed manner, she regaled us with tales of living and working in Washington DC. She said Barbara Bush was the funniest woman on the hill and didn’t let anyone get too big for their britches. Mrs. Weinberger was a pretty funny woman herself.

During the Q&A session, I asked Mrs. Weinberger if when she married her husband she had any idea they would someday be prominent American citizens. She laughed heartily and said that when they married, he was just a poor 2nd Lieutenant in the Army and they were happy if they earned enough to make ends meet. Then she laughed again and said that people in Washington DC are normal people unlike what the news represents. Mrs. Weinberger told us that she’d had her head in the oven just the day before. And she chuckled as she asked us to visualize that! She, like many other ‘prominent’ wives, did her own house cleaning. (She was also an author of many children’s books),

According to The National Women’s History Project website, “In 1987 the US Congress designated March as National Women’s History Month. This creates a special opportunity in our schools, our workplaces, and our communities to recognize and celebrate the often-overlooked achievements of American women.”

We’ve heard about many famous American women like Amelia Earhart, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, and Mary Cassatt. At the Martinez Historical Museum this Sunday, March 4th and throughout the month of March. we will get to learn about many of our local accomplished women. More than two dozen female artists and authors, activists and educators, a madam and a pharmacist, a reverend and a mayor, a deputy sheriff and a communications groundbreaker will be celebrated.

When I look at the women in my own family I am in awe. My grandmother was way ahead of her times. At the turn of the century she left the farm in Livingston as a young woman and moved to San Francisco. She lived in a rooming house for women and worked at the telephone company. She went to work because she wanted to, not because she had to. She married my grandfather who was stationed at the Presidio and proceeded to raise eight children. My mother proudly told me that Grandma was the first woman in Port Chicago to wear pants and to wear seamless hose. My daring Grandma was one of the first to buy a television. Grandma also canned a mean jar of pickled green tomatoes!

My mother is my hero. I wish I had known it when she was alive. When I was a teenager, she was just my mom. She was a loving woman most of the time and annoying at the worst times. I had to become an adult and a parent before I understood how heroic she truly was.

My mother married young, had two children and she and Dad thought they were done. Then twelve years later, Dad and Mom’s younger siblings were starting their families. “Wouldn’t it be fun to raise kids together,” my mom and Dad declared. I came along. My two older sisters were already out of the house and on their own when, six years later, my parents announced that my kid sister Johnette was on the way. Mom was pregnant when Dad died of a heart attack. All of a sudden, Mom became a single mother with two toddlers to care for on a quarter of her previous income. But she did it. She did it through gall bladder and ulcer surgeries, and months of cobalt radiation treatments for thyroid cancer. She not only kept working, she came home tired every night and sat with us while we did our homework. Mom drove us to 4-H and Scout meetings, went to every band concert and cheered us on in the marching band at football games. Even though my uncle carried her up into the grandstands because she was too weak to walk, she sat in the bleachers with a proud smile as my kid sister graduated from high school.

Johnette and I just took her for granted. That’s what moms do. Right? Mom passed away a few weeks after Johnette’s graduation. Even though she had terminal lung cancer, and we were told she had already lived longer than the medical experts expected, Johnette and I were surprised when she actually died. But we were not left alone.

I could write a book on each of the gallant women who pitched in to help my mother finish her job of raising us. I had just gotten engaged to be married and Johnette was heading for college. Aunt Tootsie (actual name was Marion) and my oldest sister Karen enrolled Johnette in college, got her a reliable car and insurance, and worked out a monthly budget that allowed her to finish college without debt. My aunts and big sister organized a bridal shower for me. Aunt Marion sewed my wedding dress and made Uncle Bill buy a new car to drive me to the church.

It was the little things these women did that truly made a difference in our lives. At my bridal shower I opened a box containing a pretty white nightgown and robe set. “I know this is what your mother would have bought for you,” said the note inside written by Aunt Tootsie, my mother’s younger sister. At the wedding I opened another box from Aunt Tootsie. It held a beautiful white lace tablecloth my mother had crocheted for my grandmother. “This belongs with you,” the note said.

Johnette and I knew that the first Christmas without Mama was going to be rough. Christmas was a very special holiday for my mother and our family always overdid the decorating and gift giving.  Christmas stockings were my mother’s pride and joy. We girls didn’t get one of those felt pretend stockings. We had real knit thigh high stockings and they were filled to the top with excellent goodies. Those love filled stockings would be sorely missed.

A little before Christmas, Aunt Tootsie drove down from Colfax to check on us and make sure all was well. She gave Johnette and me each a big box and told us to open it first thing on Christmas morning and not before. This was an odd gesture because with a family as big as ours – twenty six aunts and uncles and forty-five first cousins – we didn’t exchange gifts outside the immediate family.

Christmas morning arrived and Johnette and I opened our boxes from Aunt Tootsie. You guessed it. There for each of us was a Christmas stocking filled with individually wrapped goodies just like Mama would have done for us. Aunt Tootsie may have wrapped the gifts, but Mama was there in spirit.

None of my aunts and sisters nor mother and grandmothers will be nationally celebrated as great women like Clara Barton or Sandra Day O’Conner, or remembered in a museum. But they will be remembered in my heart forever as incredible women who have made the world a better place.

It’s good to recognize and celebrate the often-overlooked achievements of American women. Especially those so close to home.



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