My Mom

Virginia Johnston, probably her Senior Picture in HS

Today is my Mom’s birthday. Of course, she passed away three years ago at the age of 91, but as long as I can, I’ll lift up her birthday. Growing up, I often saw my friends and acquaintances looking at her and just seeing who she was at that time, a middle-aged housewife, mother of five, whose quiet public demeanor (mostly) was in stark contrast to her husband’s very outgoing friendliness. As I became older, learned more of her life, talked to her siblings, saw photos, and remembered things she did, it occurred to me that it was nearly impossible to judge who she was; ridiculous to try and sum up who she was with one or two simple labels. Oh, I’m sure she would have been happy being known as a mother and wife, because she told me that’s all she ever really wanted to be (more about that later). But during her very long life, she did and was many things, very few of them boring.

Being the older daughter in a very large family, she helped raising her youngest siblings, particularly since her mother was quite ill after having the two youngest. Her youngest brother, Ned, when he was in high school, would introduce her to his friends, “This is my sister Virginia. We call her Virgin for short, but not for long.” Which should give you an idea of what kind of family she lived in!

She attended the University of Dayton during the Second World War. She decided to take chemical engineering as a major because, as she told me once, it sounded fun. She was the only woman in a small group of men, several of whom were Cuban, having been educated at Society of St. Mary schools in their home country then coming to UD. She graduated top of her class in her major (which should surprise no one), but she never pursued anything to do with her degree because, well, she studied it, did well in it, but she wasn’t, you know, married to it. It wasn’t her life’s vocation.

During her summers in college, she did war work. She worked for what was then National Cash Register Company, Huffman Bicycle Company building those folding bikes soldiers carried during the invasion of Italy (I think she was always proudest of that). One summer, she worked for The Manhattan Project. She insisted all she did was pass a Geiger counter over clothes workers wore, although I don’t believe her. At a family get-together once when I was in high school, I asked her oldest brother about that. He just smiled and said, “She received a commendation from Pres. Roosevelt for her work. Do you really think she got that checking clothes for radiation?” After she died, going through her lifetime’s accumulated things I never found such a commendation. I know she had one, because she told me about it after I asked her if it was true. I don’t think she kept it. Because, well, why would she?

Also while in college, she and her best friend Mark Kotterman showed up at marching band practice together and told the director, “We’re your majorettes!” He looked at them, not quite sure what to say. Mary and Mom made their own uniforms, flags, came up with their own routines, and marched at halftime with the band through one season. She did it, she told me, because she wanted to see UD beat the University of Cincinnati and this was the only way she’d be able to go to the game. For years, a little pennant saying, “Beat Cincy!” hung on the attic wall. It, too, disappeared at some point.

She also thought it would be fun to join the archery team. Of course, she’d never handled a bow and arrow before, but why should she let that stop her? That year, she ended up going to Nationals. The next year, she claimed, “I couldn’t even hit the target!” I don’t believe that. I think she went out for the archery team, did really well, and then was quite done with it all. Like her not pursuing work in her chosen field, doing any majorette stuff after that one autumn, and so many other things, she did something she though would be fun. She did it really well, proving to herself she could. Then, she was done with it.

The only thing my mother really wanted to do was, well, to be a mother. She told me once that she had always wanted five children. She even, so she claims, had the five men picked out who would help her reach her goal! Then she met my Dad in New York in the late 1940’s. While each of them lived their lives and were with other people, they stayed connected and in the early 1950’s when my father found himself pursued not at all subtly by the students at all-women’s Stephen’s College in Columbia, MO, she agreed to marry him. I have no doubt they loved each other very much, even through some rough times here and there.

While she spent most of the next thirty or so years raising her large brood, she also took time out to volunteer for the Red Cross after Hurricane Agnes flooded our area in 1972. She volunteered for the regional Adult Literacy program, helping teach people to read. She wore quite a few hats at First UMC, Sayre, PA. She welcomed her childrens’ friends into her home with no questions, providing a safe, fun place for all manner of boys and girls over the years. I think sometimes of the gaggle of kids that would sometimes gather in our yard and house to play and remember her being insouciant about it all. Of course they were welcome! This last is something Lisa and I have done, too, making sure our house was a welcome place for pretty much anyone.

Mostly, though, she was my Mom. She put band-aids on my cuts. She used to be able to hold my legs just below my knees, and as long as I locked my knees, lift me up to touch the ceiling. She was there when I cried, she barely tolerated my adolescent moodiness and angst. She welcomed her childrens’ spouses into her home just as she always welcomed people into her home. She loved her grandchildren, even welcoming her first two great-grandchildren late in her life.

Mom was not at all the person one saw at a glance in the supermarket, or mingling during intermissions at band concerts and school plays. I think this is important to remember when we see people casually; we should remember their lives might well be far more full and interesting than it might appear. I celebrate my mother today because I know she’d be embarrassed and upset I would do so, because she wasn’t one to think she’d ever done anything interesting. She was, after all, just a housewife and mother.

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