In order for you to understand Harriette, you need to know all of us and in order to know all of us, you need to meet the two people who are responsible for us being here in the first place.
Children tend to blame their parents for all manner of things. Even doctors will tell you that if a man is bald he can blame his mother. Folks who don’t eat cheese or beans or spinach or whatever will blame one (or both) of their parents. However, so little effort is made in giving parents credit for anything. So here and now, I will give my parents credit for creating a family. For better or worse, and at times it’s been both, that’s what we have become.
For now though, I’m, going to take you back to a time when only two people in the world were important and even they had no idea of just how important they would become.
The place is Dale-Mabry Field in Tallahassee, Florida. The time is April of 1944. The two people are Robert and Arie. No two people could have been more opposite nor more suited for each other than these two.
He was the son of immigrants– his father came from Russian Poland and his mother was from Austria/Hungary (to simplify things, they called themselves “German”). He was a first generation American raised in Chicago, Illinois and Gladwin, Michigan and she was a small town girl from Chattahoochee, Florida. When they met in that April of 1944 he was 24 and she was a month shy of her 19th birthday. He was a serviceman preparing for war and she was a college student preparing for life.
Robert found himself in love for the first time in his life and six months later the two were married on October 4, 1944. That was the beginning of their 52 year history together.
Two days after they were married my father was put on a troop transport ship and transferred to Agra, India where he would stay for the next 18 months. He would arrive home to meet his first born child, a daughter who was already 9 months old, and from that day forward, Robert would be known as Daddy.
My mother’s family wasn’t thrilled about having a pregnant 19 year old girl around with no husband in sight so she moved to Chicago to live with her mother-in-law until the baby arrived.
My oldest sister, Roberta (Bobbie) was born on July 5, 1945, 9 months and 1 day after her parents were married. Expecting a boy, Mama was not at all convinced that the baby she had just been presented with was hers. “Take her back and bring me my son,” she demanded of the nuns at the Catholic hospital.
“Come on now, mother, you’ve got a beautiful, healthy, baby girl. Take her.”
“No, I want my son.”
“You don’t have a son, you’ve got a precious baby girl. Now what name have you chosen for her?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t think of any girl’s names because I was supposed to have a son.”
“What is the child’s father’s name?” asked one nun.
“Well then, why don’t you name the baby Roberta Carlene after her father?”
So that was how it came to be that a 20 year old Southern Baptist woman from Chattahoochee, Florida became the new mother of a baby girl in a Catholic hospital run by nuns and it’s also how my oldest sister was named after her father by those same Catholic nuns in that Catholic hospital in that big City over a thousand miles away from that 20 year old Southern Baptist’s home. This event would not only change my mother’s life, it would also change her name. She would no longer be known as Arie, but “Mama” and lovingly referred to by Daddy as “Your Mama” (as in “Go ask your Mama”). Life is strange.
Daddy was stationed in the BCI (Burma, China, India) Triangle at the time the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and three days later on Nagasaki, just one month after Bobbie’s birth. He was there when the toxic cloud drifted over the Indian skies and black rain fell.
After Daddy returned home from the war, he and Mama moved to Florida. He worked on the barges up and down the Flint River and she stayed home and took care of their babies. There would be five babies born by the end of 1950. Theresa (“Sissie”) was born in January of 1947, Norma Jean was born in August of 1948, Harriette was born in January of 1950 and I followed her by 10 months in November of 1950.
Mama and Daddy had built a house across the road and up the hill from my grandparent’s home (actually my grandparent’s house was below the road because you could only see the roof of their house from the road). The local folk still call our house the “Sunday House” because that’s the only day Daddy had to build it. I was the last of their babies to be taken home to the Sunday House.
We called Mama’s parents Little Mama and Pop. Little Mama because she felt she was too young to be a grandmother (she was, after all, only 17 years older than Mama) and Pop because that’s all Mama ever called him.
Northern Florida is the land of dreams. Too far north in the State to be covered in sand and too far south in the country to be covered in dirt. The roads were red clay. The trees were pine and cypress and live oaks with Spanish Moss hanging from their branches. Azaleas grow tall and wild. Jasmine and fig trees line the streets. Yes, this was definitely the stuff dreams are made of.
As children we never noticed the steamy heat of summer or the absence of grass. My older sisters would play under the pines, using pine needles to form rows that made walls of their imaginary houses. We’d fall asleep under those same pines listening to the boughs brush and rustle in a late afternoon breeze. At night we were put to bed freshly bathed and tucked in under clean fresh sheets. We were clean, we were sheltered, and we were loved.
Children also never paid attention to the bug sprayer that occasionally rumbled through the neighborhoods spraying for mosquitoes. We’d watch the older kids frolic behind the trucks as they sprayed their mists over the heads of those following behind.
In 1951 when Harriette was just a year old (and I wasn’t quite that old), a 1949 Buick transported all of us North. We moved to Lyndon Station, Wisconsin, the home of Daddy’s mother, Ma.
Funny, isn’t it? We never had anyone to call “Grandma or Grandpa.”
We had a strange new life, a new grandmother, and a whole new world to explore.