My mother, Lila, was a quiet, almost shy, woman who lived her first married life within my father’s shadow.
Not only was he the sole breadwinner (because that’s the way things were in those days of the depression), but he came from one of Brooklyn’s first African American families.
To make matters worse for my mother, Ken Sr. had excelled at track and football at Boy’s High in Brooklyn and was a national track star at Pittsburgh University.
As I noted, my mother was shy, not one of the social climbers who surrounded popular athletes. But she was light and bright and could pass for white, a quality that was important in those oppressive days.
And she was beautiful, with a smile that could persuade the sun to move the clouds aside.
While Dad went to work, Mom stayed home and tended to us kids, cooking, washing, ironing, shopping, cleaning and all those other housekeeping chores that fell to women in those days.
She didn’t complain about her lot anymore than my father complained about working two jobs to support his family.
Expectations for men and women were very different in the ’30s and ’40s and in today’s world would be looked upon with contempt. But that was all we knew, and most people tried hard to live up to expectations.
Mom was a wizard with a sewing machine and could make just about anything, from a formal gown to a shirt or a pair of pants for me or my brother.
We didn’t always appreciate them because anybody could tell you (and did) that clothes with a label are better than homemade stuff. So we wanted clothes from Macy’s or Gimbel’s, not those inferior concoctions sewed to perfection by my mother.
She was occasionally hired to make a fancy dress for a neighbor, which helped with the family income.
In many ways, my parents were polar opposites. He was big; she was small. She wasn’t able to enter the local teacher training school because at 5 foot, 2 inches she was too short. “What difference does height make?” you ask. I have no answer, but that was the rule.
Dad liked fancy get-togethers, formal dinners and the like. Mom could care less.
Once, at a formal dinner, my mother picked up the pretty little bowl of water with a slice of lemon floating in it — and drank it. She hadn’t realized that that you were supposed to wash your fingers in it. Dad was embarrassed; Mom laughed it off.
Mom’s family came from the small island of Montserrat (about 16 by 11 miles) in the Lesser Antilles. My father’s family came from St. Croix, but I didn’t learn about either island until I was an adult.
In those days, it was not popular among people of color in Brooklyn to be from the Caribbean, and Bob Marley had not yet appeared on the scene. For years, as far as we knew, we were simply Americans, two generations born in Brooklyn, which was longer than most of our immigrant neighbors had been here.
My mother was responsible for all of the child rearing because my father’s jobs took more than 12 hours a day, and he was rarely home.
At first, there was only me and my brother, John (three and a half years younger). Susan joined the family 11 years later.
By then, our father was involved with a woman with whom he spent more time at work than he spent with Mom at home.
They separated and divorced right around the time I entered high school. Susan and I continued to live with my mother; John and our father went to live with his parents.
But this story has a happy ending. Mom met Ed, and he loved her with a love that was more than love in a small house that the two of them built themselves in Cold Spring, NY.
Despite the family breakup, we kids turned out OK, mainly because of my mother.
Unlike today, divorce was frowned upon in the 1940s, and I had a difficult adolescence because of it. But Mom never gave up on me, and her memory will live with me forever.
Ken Wibecan is a retired journalist. Once an op-ed and jazz columnist, later an editor of Modern Maturity magazine, these days he and his two dogs enjoy the country life in Peru. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.