When my mother comes to mind, she brings music with her….pop songs from the 1920’s, 30’s, and from World War II.
“What’ll I do when youuuuu…are far away and I am blue? What’ll I do?” pops into my head – that old Irving Berlin favorite song in mother’s almost Marlene Dietrich-like voice.
And then I hear her singing Moe Jaffe: “Oh, bell bottom trousers; coat of navy blue; she loves her sailor and he loves her too; When her sailor went to sea to see what he could see; She saw that he ate spinach, now he’s big as he can be.”
Martha Latane Wallace, intellectually robust, straightforward – in graceful disdain – blazed a path. It’s been more than 40 years since I heard her voice; I miss the charming, confident woman, who taught me to read, to appreciate music and literature but held her own on a surfboard. The native Virginian who insisted on manners and protocol owned eccentricities which still make me laugh. Everyone should have someone like her in their life.
Born in 1910, she was a product of the then. CSX railroad executive, W. Thomas Rice, who had grown up with her, described her as “a peach,” saying she was the prettiest girl and best dancer in Essex, Richmond, and Middlesex counties…she’d Charleston the night away like the Energizer Bunny. Yet, her choices and exulted opinions – were not bound by the times.
Mother surged competitively on surfboards with guys on the Rappahannock River, gleefully leaving them bobbing in lost waves. She would drink beer – but only if the can were wrapped in a paper napkin.
During the coupon culture of World War II, Mother insisted on her allotment of Raleigh cigarettes, standing in line at the store and rummaging through her coupon book for her tickets to two packs. Once I tagged along when she returned a pair of inferior shoes – not unusual in days of junky war products. She raised such hell with management that store owners in Blacksburg avoided her.
She was intolerant of low standards and poor quality. She abhorred “trashy” behavior and characterized those who engaged in it as “common people” – common, she said, “with a capital K.”. James M. Coleman, an associate of my father’s during World War II, chided her often. “Marty, you’re just one of those damn old FFVs (First Families of Virginia). She took it as a compliment.
With mother, the red seedy fruit was a To-mah-to, never a to-may-to. Her idiosyncrasies systematically prevailed on commercial products of the 1940s. Lava soap, “the soap so coarse and ordinary” – like our English Setter, was not allowed in the house. Nor were greasy Wise Potato Chips, which I love to this day. They seemed less refined than Perfect Potato Chips in the plaid-painted bags (precursor to Lay’s). No doubt she’d have been culturally comfortable with Mr. Carson at Downton Abbey.
People were “cultured” or “uncultured”, in Mother’s eyes, and that was that. She recalled President Woodrow Wilson with sympathy and loyalty. His country abandoned him on proposals for lasting peace, which she found unforgiveable. She thought New York Gov. Al Smith was treated terribly as the first Roman Catholic to run for president; Herbert Hoover was a cold engineer, who brought economic ruin to the county.
Mother had great respect for actresses Joan Crawford and Vivian Leigh, but Margaret Sullivan of Norfolk eclipsed all. Mother adored her voice and stardom. She admired the gumption of Amelia Earhart; thought Sacco-Vanzetti guilty beyond reason, and declared no punishment was great enough for the Lindberg baby’s murderer. Eddie Cantor on radio was a delight, but she had no use for Frank Sinatra and his fawning, gum-chewing bobby-soxer fans.
Still, mother’s greatest contribution to her three children was her example: she stayed abreast of the latest trends in reading, whether novels, plays, and biographies.
At 62, she was preparing for her first trip to Europe, and paid for it in advance. She never made it. Instead, after months of suffering, she came to Richmond in mid-summer, 1973, for gallbladder surgery. Except it wasn’t that. It was the dreaded pancreatic cancer. It took her away from us in ten days.
What’ll I do….when youuuu…. are far away; And I am blue; What’ll I do…