I Remember Mama

This is my mama,  Berniece Mae Thomas (née Gillihan), when she graduated from nursing school at the University of Missouri. This would have been about 1942 or 1943.

As I understand it, she and my dad had just been married, but they had done so secretly because she was afraid to tell her father about it. He hadn’t wanted her to go to college; it was a waste of money, you know, because she’d just get married. Of course, it was perfectly fine for her three brothers to go to college, but not a girl. And just before she graduated, she got married. Two other nursing students were her only witnesses.

She’d been able to go to college because she worked in a shop for a little while to save money, and also because her mother, born Verla Gertrude Greer, saved money for her so she could go, and so she went.

Grandma was a sweet lady who liked to read. When she was a girl she would climb trees with an armload of books so that she could read where no one could find her and make her stop reading to do chores.

Like a lot of country girls in her day she married when she was 16 — Grandpa was 18 — and she had no formal education after that. This is their wedding picture:

But she kept reading, and she always had a lot of books around. And she made sure her daughter got to go to college.

Anyway, Mama was a very good nurse and eventually became a teacher of nursing. Most of her career she worked as an obstetrics nurse in the same hospital in which I was born.

One of her favorite stories was about the time she had a mother in labor and couldn’t get the obstetrician to get off the golf course to deliver the baby. She made several phone calls to the golf club, and he wouldn’t come until he finished his game. Eventually she “caught” the baby herself. When the doctor finally showed up, he told the father that he would have been there but the dumb nurse hadn’t bothered to try to reach him. However, the husband had heard my mother making phone calls, and he told the doctor off.

Mama would want you to hear that story.

At her funeral in 2003, some silver-haired ladies came up to me to tell me she had been with them when they had their babies. One lady grabbed my hand and said that mama had noticed her baby had a malformation in his mouth that was keeping him from sucking properly; the doctors had missed it. Your mother saved my baby’s life, the woman said.

My mother had her quirks; for example, she ironed pajamas. She was leader of my Girl Scout troop and bravely took us on camping trips in spite of her terror of snakes, of which there are a lot in the Ozarks. I grew up listening to her records of Pearl Bailey and the Ink Spots. She was crazy about her grandchildren. She made the best pies. She drilled my brother and me on the multiplication tables — to no avail, in my case.

That’s what I’m remembering now.

12 thoughts on “I Remember Mama

  1. eYour Mom sounds terrific, maha!

    My Mom was 9 when Hitler invaded Russia.

    Her father was a foreman at Stalingrad’s Red Army tractor plant – which was building tanks as fast as they could.
    Her mother was 1/2 German.
    As the Nazi’s got close to Stalingrad, and the relentless shelling began, my grandfather took the family out of their house – in essence, abandoning his job, and could have been executed – and they moved into a bomb crater.
    The faimly spent 50 days with little to no food or water – except what they could scrounge from recently bombed homes, and the water in the bomb crater had to be strained for human remains though my grandmoather’s shawl, boiled, and then was deemed safe enough to drink.

    Her family, being part German, got slightly better treatment than most Slavs. But still, they ended-up on the outskirts of Concentration Camps, and worked in Nazi Labor Camps.

    Then, they were fortunate to end-up in the Amerian Zone. And they moved from one Displaced Person’s Camp to another, until finally getting cleared to come to the USA.

    My Mom was 20 when she came here in 1952.
    She had a successful singing career – at least among the Tri-States Slavic populations.
    And she sang solo – classical programs – concerts TWICE at Carnegie Hall.

    Needless to say, I’m very proud of her.

    Also, needless to say, when I went through my terrible America teenage years, no complaint about a broken romance, or anything else, quite held up to the 50 days in a bomb crater., when she tried to get me to get some perspective on my personal situation.

    “I’m sorry that Marcia didn’t want to go to the Prom with youl But that’s better than
    having to drink water which had to be strained to make sure there was no finger or lip in it.”
    Perspective… Le sigh………………………..

  2. I have a B & W picture of my mom from that era. Wonderful memories of her – an odd mix of conservative and liberal attitudes she became more militantly liberal later. In the 70s she ran for office, city and county, and lost both times. She’s been on the planning commission which she took seriously – and the city fathers largely ignored the warnings about housing and street planing – over the next few decades all the warnings were born out in urban problems. Funny thing, when the local paper did her obit, it was a quarter page tribute to her as the canary in the coal mine that no one paid attention to. We asked the local paper where they got the info, and they said they had a file in the archives on Janet Hughes an inch thick.

  3. Those are great pictures, Maha! Thanks for sharing them with us. I have pictures of my parents getting married–Dad in his uniform and Mom in a red suit. It was the best outfit she owned at the time. I miss my Mom a lot even after 17 years.

  4. Our parents lived through a time of wars and Depression that were both awful and unifying. Everyone in my family is still scarred by the Depression. Getting rid of stuff is NOT easy! We might need it. Dad’s mom’s motto was “Use it up, wear it out, make it do and then do without!”

  5. Yes, thanks for sharing this history. I like to think that the experiences of our families are woven together in us, That’s kind of sappy, I know, but sometimes, it seems true.

  6. Thanks for this, maha-Barb. I have a photo of my grandparents and their kids – grandparents were new transplants from Belarus – and the looks on their faces are identical to those of your grandparents.

    I’m always amazed by that kind of thing. People in the past were simpler and it shows on their faces. People from the WW2 generation often have a practical, determined demeanor, like the photo of your mom and dad.

    You should be rightly proud of your lineage.

  7. Your grandparents were so young. My Nebraska farmkid grandparents married early too. So different from today, with their great-grandkids (all city) mostly waiting until they’re 30-ish. (avoiding cracks about hot young nurses as that would be most inappropriate here)

    • “Maha: Great pictures and I LOVE Grandpa’s shoes!!” I remember him as strictly a plaid shirt/brown pants guy. I bet that’s the only time he ever wore those shoes.

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