Saturday, December 3, 2016

Stories My Mother Told Me and Other Memories of Mom

Joyce Ramer (left) and Doris Wilson

My earliest memories of my mother Joyce Ramer Gochenour was watching her blond ponytail swinging across her neck as we went downstairs from our apartment. I remember a lounge outfit of black pants and a quilted red jacket trimmed with gold roses embroidered on black. I remember the music she played on the record player.

Mom did not write down her memories but she told some stories over and over and I never forgot them. Some of these stories have been shared from Dad's memoirs. Here is how Mom told them. 

Joyce Ramer baby photo
Mom was born Juy 26, 1931 in Kane, PA, the first child of her parents Lynne O. Ramer, who taught mathematics and history in the high school, and Evelyn Greenwood Ramer.
1935 Evelyn Greenwood Ramer and Lynne Ramer
After graduating from Susquehanna College and seminary, and earning his teaching degree from Columbia, Lynne taught at Hartwick Seminary in New York State from 1926-1930. Evelyn Greenwood, age 17, was his student. He fell in love with her. That summer he traveled the country, working odd jobs to pay his way. He came back at summer's end to ask for Evelyn's hand in marriage.

Lynne took a job teaching mathematics at Kane High School in Kane, PA.
The Ramer house in Kane, PA was a duplex

Evelyn Greenwood Ramer and daughter Joyce

Kane HS yearbook photo of Lynne Ramer
Following Mom's birth came her sister Nancy in 1934, and then twin brothers Don and Dave in 1935. By age 21 my grandmother was overwhelmed running a house with four children. My grandfather was raised on a farm and orphaned at age nine. He had worked his way through college and seminary by working in the school kitchen. He could do anything and often stepped in to handle things when his 'child bride' was overwhelmed.

Birth Certificate of Joyce Ramer
Evelyn Greenwood Ramer and Joyce

Joyce Ramer's school class photo. 
Joyce Ramer

Nancy and Joyce Ramer. Don't you love those 1930s dresses!
The Ramer kids spent summers with Eveyln's parents Delia and Cropper Greenwood at their home in Watervielet, NY. Cropper had immigrated from England and sent money for Delia's passage. They lived in Troy, NY where Cropper was a chauffeur for Thomas Connor. Delia was a nurse and took care of Johnny Monroe, who had no heirs, and Johnny left them the house to repay her. It was a large house in the country, with a wide pillared porch.
Cropper Greenwood at his home where the Ramer kids summered
My Aunt Nancy told me there was a hill they liked to sled down. Mom said they loved listening to the radio, especially liked Fibber McGee and Molly.

Mom liked meat but hated peas. Her brothers hated meat. She did not understand why the siblings couldn't just trade for the foods they preferred. Instead they were not allowed to leave the table until they cleaned their plates. They hid the food in the soil of the potted plants and along the ledge under the table. Gramps did not allow elbows on the table while eating. A rap on the knuckles awaited offenders.
The Ramer Kids: Joyce, Nancy, Dave and Donald at
Charlie and Annie Smither's home in Miltoy
As a girl Mom went ice skating on a river. One day she and her friends were skating and she broke through the ice, going under water. She could see the blue ice over head. Luckily, she was pulled out and survived.
Joyce Ramer

In 1941, when my mom was thirteen or fourteen, my grandfather lost his teaching job. The family moved in with my Great-grandparents Greenwoods, and Evelyn's brother Freddie got Lynne a traveling sales job selling frozen foods to stores across New York State.

Then WWII brought work at the Chevrolet aircraft factory in Tonawanda, NY where he worked as a testing engineering. He needed to prove he was an American citizen and returned to Milroy to search for a birth certificate. He wrote later he did not find it, but people vouched they were at his birth and he got the job.
1952 Lynne Ramer at Chevy Aviation Lab, Tonawanda NY
The Ramer family moved into the Sheridan Parkside housing project, quickly built duplexes to house the war time workers in the local factories. Fred Greenwood and his wife Dot moved to the projects, too. Their daughters Patty and Lynda where born there. At the end of the war they moved back to Troy, NY.

Moving was an adjustment for Mom. Her gingham dresses were acceptable in the rural school she came from but in the sophisticated 'city' school she was out of style and needed a new wardrobe. She liked men's jeans and shirts for casual, skirts and blouses and sweaters for school, and always saddle shoes with white wool socks.
Fashionable Mom posing in men's jeans and shirt, saddle shoes and a Navy hat
Mom's teenage years living in the Sheridan Parkside Projects, jitterbugging at the local dances, and hanging out with her friends, especially Doris Wilson, were her happiest memories. They did not have a lot of money during the Depression but her mother sacrificed so Mom had new dresses for the prom, and she always had a quarter to give Mom for the Saturday movie.

Mom said the Project kids hung together and were not integrated into the Kenmore High School. The 'new kids' of the projects had their own social gatherings, dances, and  hang-outs.

Mom loved to dance. She was the jitterbug queen of the Project. She danced with the boys and when there were no boys she danced with her girlfriends.

Mom and her friends would fool around in the Sheridan Park. One winter Mom and her girlfriend watched as the guys turned their backs and pissed their names into the snow! She claims she didn't see 'anything'. (She did have two little brothers.) Another time the gang used their heels to dig their names into the sod of the golf course. They were, of course, caught and punished.
Mom on the right
Mom's best friend was Doris Wilson. Even after she left Tonawanda they kept in touch. She told me that no matter how far the distance or long the time, when they were together again their relationship never changed.
Mom's sophomore photo (left)  from Kenmore HS
Doris told me that Mom could get miffed and give her the 'silent treatment'.  After a day or so, Doris would make the first move: she knew Mom loved tuna fish sandwiches, so she'd made a big sandwich and take it to Mom. After that they were always best buds again.
Doris Wilson and Mom
Mom also loved saltines and peanut butter. One time she was sitting on the steps of her Project house and a boy passing by commented, "No wonder you're so fat." That hurt. Mom also relished baked bean sandwiches, and after we moved whenever she returned to Tonawanda she stocked up on Grandma Brown's Baked Beans.

Mom saw my dad on the bus and tried to get his attention. She was fifteen and Dad was sixteen--and very shy, even though my Aunt Pat Ramer told me that all the girls all had a crush on him. To get Dad's attention, Mom stuck her leg into the bus aisle as he came along. He tripped. It didn't work; he didn't talk to her. Then Mom got a mutual friend to bring Dad to her house when Doris was with her. He didn't talk, just watched those silly girls wrestle. It took a long time before Dad came out of his shell, but Mom finally got her man!

My folks' love affair did not go smoothly. They had their problems. All the kids smoked in those day, as did the adults, and Mom took up the habit at age 16. Dad came from a conservative family. He demanded that Mom give up smoking. She told him that no one was going to tell her what to do. She was not a woman to be ruled. They broke up for six months.

Mom dated another boy during that time while Dad moped about. He started smoking too, and came and apologized to Mom and they got back together. Mom said she was lucky she didn't stay with the boy she'd been dating as he later was charged with bigamy!

Mom told me many of the same stories that Dad wrote about, including how he took her to Putt's farm in the Alleghenies and left her in the woods while he went hunting. She sat there a long time, alone and got mad at him: some date! Dad would pick her up on his motorcycle and take her to school. One time they hit a bump and Mom was bounced off. Dad kept going, not noticing. Mom got mad. On their honeymoon at Niagara Falls in January, 1949, Dad brought comic books because it was too cold to sight-see. He thought he was providing entertainment. Mom got mad: some romantic honeymoon!
Mom's graduation photo from Kenmore HS
Mom worked as a comptugraph secretary at Remington Rand in their first year of marriage. Mom said she'd leave the vegetables in the pot on the stove in the mornings to make dinner faster at day's end. Mom never liked working. When her girl friends started having babies she told Dad she wanted to start a family.  Mom quit work while pregnant with me. She was 21 years old when I was born and Dad was 22.
Mom and me
I was a cholicy baby who cried all day and all night. In those days babies were fed formula, and I couldn't digest the milk. Mom took me to her parent's house in the Project so my experienced grandmother could help.

Dad had been greatly disappointed that I wasn't a boy. I was to be Thomas. He avoided me until one day when Mom left me in his care. While changing my diaper, a job I'm sure Dad disdained, I smiled at him. That changed everything. I was OK. Seven years passed, and two miscarriages, before Dad got his son, my brother Tom.
Mom and I on the right, Dad and Linda Guenther on the left
Mom told me stories about my antics that got me into trouble.

The old house had rats and poison was placed in the crawl spaces. One day I came out the front door of the house and saw a dead rat. I had never seen a dead thing and was heartbroken. I picked it up--by the tail--and brought it to the door, crying for Mom. Mom was horrified. She yelled at me to drop the rat and go wash my hands. I did drop it..On the floor of the house on my way to the sink! Mom had a fit. She said after she threw the rat out the door and it came to and ran off. It wasn't quite dead yet!

I was an artistic child. I loved crayons and paper dolls and the illustrations in the Little Golden Books Mom brought home from the A&P grocery store. My artistic experiments got me in trouble.

Mom wore bright red lipstick, and it fascinated me. One day I got a hold of it and colored all over the wall. I got a spanking. Another time I found the baby powder and poured it out all over the rug. I got a spanking. I drew pictures of princesses on the inside covers of her books. I don't know if I got a spanking for that because my grandfather's books were similarly decorated--perhaps by Mom.

Mom did support my artistic interests. She gave me drawing sets from John Gnagy with pencils, erasers, sandpaper sharpener, paper, chalks and pastels. They are still available at http://ow.ly/p37j306FIlF.

Mom loved to paint. She took up painting classes at adult education in the school. She did Tole painting, decorating a metal wastepaper can and letter holder. After trying watercolor she switched to oil painting. I would sit and watch as she explained her process. Later in life she took oil painting classes with a local artist. Mom could get in the 'zone' painting, losing track of time.
One of Mom's early paintings owned by Alice Ennis
Mom also loved to read. She liked historical fiction, especially about the kings and queens of England. It must be genetic, because in college I fell in love with British Literature. Mom stayed up late into the night reading and sipping Pepsi. Which explains her unwillingness to get up early in the morning!
The Club. Mom is on the right, my Aunt Alice is next to her.
Mom stayed in touch with her Project girlfriends. They had The Club, meeting monthly of friends. They went out, or gathered at each other's homes for food and cards.

Mom was always singing snippets of songs, which I wrote about in Songs My Mother Sang Me which you can read at http://ow.ly/ofa2306BMbD. She also played records of her favorite hit songs. Two recordings I vividly recalled I later identified as The Poor People of Paris by Les Baxter and Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White by Perez Prado. Her love of dancing never left her, and I would come home from school to find Mom watching American Bandstand. She also loved going to the Ice Capades and I remember going many years.

Mom loved home decorating and decorating for holidays and wrapping presents with bows. At Christmas I looked forward to the decorations she brought out: a Santa face, the cardboard fake fireplace, the aluminum Christmas tree with blue ornaments lit up with a changing color light. You can read about my posts on 1950s Christmases at http://ow.ly/8Xoc306BM2f.
Christmas 1955
Doris told me that if someone liked something Mom had, next time Mom saw them she would give them what they had admired. She loved giving gifts. Christmas was so much fun for her. I always had a big pile under the tree. I wanted to grow up and have lots of money so I could give it to children who did not have what I had.
*****
When Mom reached puberty she developed a skin condition, psoriasis, an autoimmune disease. Her condition worsened with each pregnancy. She also had psoriatic arthritis. After my brother was born she suffered her first major joint loss. Mom wore a neck brace and she had a device hanging from the door which was used to keep her neck stretched. She lost mobility in her neck. She also lost flexibility in her finger joints.

Mom was devastated by the psoriasis and as a teen was concerned she would be 'unloveable'. The psoratic lesions in adulthood covered her trunk, legs, and arms, her scalp, and deformed her nails. Mom took to wearing long pants and long sleeves. She tried every treatment the doctors offered.

The list of all she underwent is pages long. As a teen there was mercury ointments. Tar ointments came later. Long soaking baths with bath oils loosened the scales but left her with bright red patches. She took aspirin for the joint pain until it ruined her stomach. When I was a teenager Mom applied a tar ointment and wrapped herself in plastic wrap, then had UV light treatment until she developed pre-cancerous lesions.

I was grown up and married when one day Mom asked me if I had ever been ashamed of her. I was stunned. Mom was always looked young and pretty. I remembered her long, blond hair when I was a little girl. She loved a party. She taught my girlfriends to jitterbug, still organizing parties but now for my friends.

Having a mom with disabilities and health problems was just normal. I learned to see through people's appearances to who they were inside.
*****
Mom told me that when she was a little girl her mother took her by train from Kane, PA to see her Greenwood grandparents in Troy. There was an African American porter on the train, the first person of color she had ever seen. She asked my grandmother why he was brown. Grandmother quipped, "because he is made of chocolate." Mom went over and bit his hand to see. How Grandmother explained things to the porter, I never learned.

Mom obviously learned that people are people regardless of differences in appearances. During the 1967 race riots in Detroit, when we lived a few miles up the road from Detroit, Mom was angry at neighbors who voiced their prejudices against African Americans. My teacher in Civics taught us that there was only one race, the human race, and Mom's reaction confirmed his teaching.

A few years later, during one of Mom's many hospital stays for a new treatment for psoriasis, her roommate was an African American woman, They bonded and afterwords Mom went to visit her. She came back very distressed. She was embarrassed to live in so much nicer a house and area than her friend. How could she invite the woman to her house when she had so much?

What was this 'so much' that we had in the 1960s? A 1920s house with a tiny kitchen, one bath, and a dirt driveway. K-Mart clothes and Depression era dinners heavy in the casseroles that stretched dollars. One car. No vacations, except visiting our Tonawanda relatives. We also had security, values, decency, warmth, love.