My mother’s name was Sandra, “Sandy,” to anyone that she ever met. She was five feet of sass, marinated in loss, wrapped in responsibility, and served with a heaping side of unconditional love. And if you didn’t know Jesus, she’d be happy to introduce you.
Her father was a farmer who later owned a mill and made furniture on the side. Her mother was secretary for a legislator prior to her marriage but she gave up that job to be a farmer’s wife; a bad decision on her part. Their marriage ended when my mother was three and my grandmother was left with two daughters and without an income. She faced years of financial struggle. My mother, her older sister, and my grandmother ended up living in a tenement. They called themselves, “The Three Musketeers.” Whatever they had to get through, they’d get through it together. They tied up the kitchen cabinets with shoestrings to keep the rats out. Food was sometimes scarce. My grandmother took in laundry and other people’s kids. My mother had a single “good dress,” to wear to school and church which gave her impeccable lifelong habits about laundry and keeping things, “nice.” My grandmother, heartbroken over the loss of her marriage spent a lot of time crying. My mother remained angry with her father up until a few days before her own death many years later. My mother’s childhood was bleak. And then again, in some ways it wasn’t.
There was a loosely tied, almost familial relationship with all the other poor, struggling families in the neighborhood. Someone had a piano and they’d get together and have sing-a-longs and bean suppers on Saturday nights. The kids put on talent shows. The parents scraped their money together to buy a bottle or two, or beer when money was really tight. Sometimes, people drank too much and there was a fight. Sometimes, my mother woke up to find a strange man at the breakfast table. Her older sister was mortified. “Didn’t that upset you?” I asked. “Grammy bringing some strange man in overnight? “Well, I didn’t like it,” my mother replied, “but it was a lot better than seeing her cry.”
My maternal great-grandmother owned the tenements. She would sit in a chair in the window, taking note of who was going where and doing what with whom. She had previously been a razor-sharp business woman and owned a hotel but by the time my mother arrived, had lost most of her fortune. When my mother was child, my great grandmother had been reduced to spying on people and hollering none-of-her-business comments at her tenants. People were terrified of her.
“Where are you going now, Sandy? I know you’re up to no good!” she’d holler from her window at my seven year old mother who was simply walking along the sidewalk.
“Mind your own business you old bat!” my mother would holler back.
Because Sandy didn’t ever take any shit.
When my father proposed to my mother, she wanted to know if they would be living in an apartment with steam heat before she gave an answer. It was 1956. She was seventeen. She was tired of being cold and was willing to hold out for a better offer. She got her steam heated apartment.
The Asian Flu epidemic in the fall of 1957 took her older sister. Quickly. Within a week. Her sister was only 24 years old and left behind a husband and three daughters under the age of five. My mother, all of nineteen years old at the time, decided that she and my father would rent a big house and keep the family together. My mother would stay home with all the kids. She was pregnant for the first time with twins. Born two months prematurely, both struggled to survive. One ultimately didn’t. My oldest brother, Perry, lived only eight hours. My mother never got to see or hold him because that’s what was “for the best” back in 1958. You didn’t question these things. In the spring, when the ground thawed, they buried my brother in the family plot. The same one where her sister rests.
Not long after, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She moved in too so my mother could care for her as she recuperated from surgery. My oldest living brother, the twin that had survived, was hospitalized again with a life threatening illness. All of this happened in the span of 6 months. And for the next fifty odd years my mother acknowledged the tenuous nature of life with never-ending anxiety. It wasn’t a hysterical anxiety, but it was there. Creeping low into her thoughts. These losses followed her closely and colored the decisions she made. People you love could be gone in a instant. Nothing in life is promised. She protected and over-protected her children because anything could happen. She would do everything in her power to make sure nothing bad ever did.
She would eventually lose the nieces. Her brother-in-law remarried and his young wife didn’t want her newly acquired daughters to have contact with their dead mother’s family. My mother would get pregnant again. And again, all in fairly quick succession. Because she was used to a house filled with children and she enjoyed being a mom. But most of all, she wanted a family.
In her 30’s, with work drying up in Maine for my dad, she insisted that we move. She wanted a fresh start someplace else. We would move to Texas for a little while; later to California. Her first job in California was in housekeeping at a nearby hotel. To my mother, there was no shame in any kind of honest work. A few years later, she worked for a towing company, answering the phones, dispatching the calls, doing the books. Eventually, she learned how to run it. When the opportunity presented itself, she found a way to borrow $30K and bought her own towing company. This was 1976. She was thirty-eight years old. She liked the idea of the challenge and she had leadership skills for days. She fought hard to get police and car dealership contracts – no private property impound stuff. She thought that would have been too dangerous for her employees. My mother, a lady that kept her vast collection of high-heeled shoes in the original boxes, stacked neatly in her closet so they’d stay pristine, was the first woman to own a towing company in Southern California.
I was 12 at the time and remarked that I wished she’d bought a dress shop, or something like that. A towing company was so…masculine.
“There’s no money in standing around a dress shop,” she replied.
She owned the towing company for 36 years and she made a damn good living at it. All of my brothers would, at some point, work for her. I spent a good part of my summers as a kid in the barrio where the tow company was located. I rode around in the trucks with the drivers; I learned how to hook up cars. I ate little candies from Mexico, given to me for free by Mr. Lozano, a kind elderly gent who owned a tiny, neighborhood grocery store on the corner. Once, a man angry that the police had towed his car decided to get it back by pulling a gun on my brother in the middle of the tow yard. My mother came barrelling out of the office with a shotgun pointed straight at him. “Put it down right now!” she demanded. He did. She would have shot him if he hadn’t. He’d have been dead meat. No doubt in my mind. And she’d have slept like a baby afterward. You don’t threaten the life of one of Sandy’s kids. Ever. She’d have gone to prison in defending our lives. She was utterly fearless.
“I was glad he put he put the gun down,” my brother said later. “She wasn’t that good of a shot.”
Yet, for all of her fierceness, she was incredibly generous coupled with an undeniable sense of doing “the right thing.” She paid her employees more than anyone else and offered them health insurance for free. If they had no place to go on Thanksgiving or Christmas, she’d bring them home to spend the holiday with us. And they’d leave with a gift, even if she bought it on the way home and hurriedly wrapped it to get it under the tree beforehand. She tithed to her church off the gross, not the net, always giving more than what was expected. And she never kept a record of any amount of money she gave away. “It’s God’s money anyway and I’m just the steward of it. And he’s been so generous with me,” she’d say. When she passed away, her mailbox was stuffed with envelopes with pleas for money from a dozen charities; everything from St Jude’s Children’s Hospital to a Prison ministry. It was all the same to her: people in need of a little help. And if she could help someone with a check, a free car repair, or an encouraging chat over a cup of coffee, she would. Every time.
Perpetually curious. I love history, genealogy, old movies, good books, all sorts of music, and adventures involving travel. In my spare time, I help admin a genetic genealogy Facebook page for CeCe Moore ("DNA Detectives") and coach people how to connect with their biological family using DNA.