Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Stories about My Parents. Part 1.

I intended to post something about my mother on mother's day, but Saturday, when I would have prepared Sunday's blog, was a raging torrent of a day, and I had to punt and run something else for Sunday. It turns out that what I intend to publish about my mother and father is much more involved than can easily fit in a single blog post. Instead, stories about my mother will be an ongoing feature of this blog. So what we have today is the first draft of the first installment. —mw.
Shirley girls: Hughdee in back;
in front, Robie, Travene, Nan. c.1932.

My mother, the daughter of Hugh Shirley (born 1891) and Callie Mae Hornbeak (1889), is born at home in South Pittsburgh, Tennessee, on 30 May 1924. In 1927 the Shirley family moves to Texas. Records of Travis County Schools report seeing her for the first time at the age of 8 on or before 1 September 1932. There are pictures from that time. At home my mother is barefoot outside, but at school she wears shoes. She and her sisters wear simple but clean dresses. Her older sisters have nice dresses that suggest they may have jobs with enough income to buy new clothes,
They live not in Austin but nearby, south of the city near Onion Creek, where my grandmother often sends my mother to fetch spring water and watercress, which grew wild along the banks. Now the Onion Creek area is a subdivision from which the rural life has been scraped away and replaced by expensive houses with swimming pools and a golf course designed by famous professional golfers.
My mother has her share of horror stories from growing up in the Great Depression. More than once, she is so hungry that she lies on the floor and rocks on her stomach to try to chase away the hunger pangs. Everyone in her family scours the house for pennies so their father can go to the store for a ten-cent loaf of bread. Her father finds a washer of the right size that he sandwiches in the pile of coins to serve as the tenth penny.
My mother is a survivor. She is almost 92 years old and the last of her sisters still living. She comes out of a family of ten girls, eight of whom survived to adulthood. She is a three-time survivor of cancer, a disease that three of her sisters, sad to say, did not survive once. She also survives a surgeon who operated on the wrong side of her body so that the surgery had to be repeated.
The names of the girls suggest that their father, Hugh D Shirley, desperately wants a boy but, against all odds, keeps getting girls. They name the first girl, born in 1915, Pauline, a reasonable feminization of Paul. The second and third girls, born over the next three and a half years, receive strictly feminine names, Mamie and Mildred. After that, in 1920 Ernestine scantly feminizes Ernest to Ernestine, and in 1922 the birth of a girl spoils the anticipation for a Junior, so she gets a combination of her father's first name, Hugh, and middle initial, D, to invent a new name, Hughdee. They call my mother Robie, which would work with either gender, and for unknown reasons, they spelled it with only one B. After Robie, the magical process of conjuring boys by name ended. The next girl, Helen Ruth, receives a purely feminine name, but she lives only a year. That same year, the family moves from Tennessee to Austin, where Effie Travene (1927) and Nannie Hallie (1929) are born with feminine, if rare, names. According to whitepages.com, in the US there are currently only nine people named Travene. The boys nickname her Travoline, after a popular motor oil of the time.
After the premature death of her father in 1938 when my mother was 13, a couple drive by their house and ask their mother if any of their daughters would like to work in their house as a maid. My grandmother, a woman alone with eight kids in the middle of a depression and the recent loss of her bread-winning husband, asks my mother if she would like to work for these people. She is still a girl, and she is never the kind of person to say no, though the idea of going off to live with these people must have been pretty scary. Thus ends her formal schooling at 7th grade.
I don't know much about her time in domestic service, but by 1941 she is working in a shirt factory in downtown Austin and sharing with a friend an apartment across the street from the public library. She uses that library to compensate for her lack of education, and later on her passion for books and writing will influence me.
One Friday in December she hears a knock at her door, and when she opens the door, there stands a sailor who thinks he has a date with her roommate. But her roommate is off. On a date with someone else.
"Well," the sailor said, "what are you doing?"
They actually have three dates that weekend, one of which somehow involves a rowboat on Town Lake and getting stuck on a sand bar, which provides a kind of alibi for not being immediately available on 7 December 1941. Pearl Harbor Day. They have just met and tremendous tidal forces are tearing them apart.
One of my father's highest values lay in getting a job and hanging on to that job, for life, if possible. If he overvalues loyalty to one's employer, it probably has to do with growing up in the Great Depression. When I am young, my father urges me to get a job with the phone company—they pay well, take care of their employees, and the job is forever as long as you didn't screw it up. But I am of another generation that, in its youth at least, thinks money isn't important—boy, are we wrong, and just as my mother acquired lifelong eating disorders because of the Depression, I have been careless with money all my life until now, when I have none with which to be careful.
It may seem that my father made a mistake by not seeing the war coming. I sometimes wonder if he arrives too late at the picture show to catch the newsreels full of the winds of war in Asia and Europe. Perhaps hindsight is golden, but then consider: 1939 was a busy year for Hitler and the Nazis: on 30 January Hitler threatens the Jews in a Reichstag speech (a threat anyone should have taken seriously as Hitler had a habit of fulfilling his political promises); on 15-16 March, the Nazis take Czechoslavakia; on 22 May the Nazis sign a "Pact of Steel" with the Italian Fascists; on 23 August, Hitler signs a non-aggression pact with Stalin; on 1 September the Nazis invade Poland and, in response, on 3 September Britain, France, Australia, and New Zealand declare war on Germany, and Britain made good on their declaration with an air attack on the German Navy; on 5 September the US declares its neutrality, while German troops cross the Vistula River in Poland, placing them two-thirds of the way across the country to the Soviet Union, with whom they have the non-aggression pact; on 10 September Canada declares war on Germany; and on 12 September my father enlists in the US Navy because he wants a job that will last a lifetime.
It's possible that my father joins the Navy for the same reason that, during this period, young American men went to Canada to enlist in the Royal Air Force. I suppose I could see my father swimming counter to Roosevelt's strictly pacifist course, but that seems unlikely. Like many if not most Americans at the time, he holds Roosevelt in such esteem that it is more likely my father joined the Navy with Roosevelt's reassurances that there wouldn't be a war for the US.
The war was calling, so my father left, but not after he and my mother agreed they had something special and would stay in touch. She kept all his letters, and they are my primary source for this project.
Well, this is only a brief first chapter—at that Beethovenesquely fateful knock on her door, my mother is 17, and my father is 24—just kids in a world about to suffer such a violent storm that it will resonate even in this sleepy State capital.
My father and mother at the Austin train station.
Pearl Harbor was attacked while my Dad was on leave.
The Navy will be different now.


The collection of my poems, Counting Stars at Forty Below, will be substantially discounted between 13 and 20 May. The discount will be best on the 13th. Each day afterwards the price takes a small step back toward the original price, which it will reach on the 20th or 21st. If you like the poems I've been publishing on my Monday blogs, now is your chance to seize the book for a good price.

My friend Hugh Starbuck has the ebook edition of Naked and Beautiful on promotion until sometime Tuesday. Starbuck's book is about the conflict between artists and authoritarians generally and specifically how that conflict has focused on the nude in art and photography. It's abundantly illustrated, NSFW, & 18+. You can snag the book for free.