Saturday, September 19, 2015

My Mother and the Sea

This week’s Cemetery Traveler post was guest written by my friend, Cynthia Solem. - Ed Snyder 

My Mother and the Sea

My mother, Violet, was born in Philadelphia. On her mother’s side of the family, she was a seventh generation Philadelphian, as she was descended from the Krefelders, the founders of Germantown. Her father was the son and grandson of German immigrants to Pennsylvania.

Photo below:  Alice Marker Robinson and children:  Alyce, Violet, and Ray, Wildwood, New Jersey(?), Circa 1933. (Family archives)

Alice Robinson and children, c. 1933
Violet’s father, like his father, worked at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. My mother, along with her two siblings, spent her early childhood in South Philly, in a neighborhood for shipyard workers. During the Depression, this was an excellent job to have, as Grandpa had a steady income. One of my grandmother’s relatives had a beach house at Wildwood, New Jersey, and, when he was about to lose it for unpaid taxes, my grandparents bought it. For the next several years, my mother’s favorite place was Wildwood in the summer. My grandmother, as befitting her Pennsylvania Dutch origins, was a neatnik, but she relaxed the rules at the beach. My mother and her sister and brother were given a lot of freedom to go to the beach and the Boardwalk. As a teenager, my mother became friends with several lifeguards, and, after they got off duty, they would all go out to swim with the dolphins.  For my mother, the ocean always symbolized freedom.

World War II intervened and spoiled this lovely family time. My mother (who had by this time changed her name to the more-modern Vicki) joined the Cadet Nurse Corps, and studied at Presbyterian Hospital to get her nursing degree. My uncle joined the Navy. Aunt Alyce took a job as personal secretary to the head of a department store. (Strawbridge and Clothier’s) but still found time to attend USO dances. At one dance, she met two nice Army sergeants from Wisconsin who were about to be shipped off to North Africa. She invited them home for Thanksgiving dinner. My mother was studying for exams, but Alyce was very persuasive and said it was her patriotic duty to take these young men, who might die, after all, on a tour of the City of Brotherly Love. One of the young men, Bob, was apparently quite smitten by Vicki, who had just turned eighteen. He asked if he could write her, and she agreed.

Bob was sent to North Africa, contracted malaria, was part of the invasion of Sicily, was sent to a hospital in England to recover, then was sent to Omaha Beach during D-Day. He had a relapse, and then was sent back to hospitals in New Jersey, Florida, and Colorado. Bob was a good letter writer, and apparently a persuasive man because, even though he didn’t really know her, he eventually got my mother to promise to marry him and move to, as she put it, “the wilds of Wisconsin."  My mother, a big city girl, was quite out of place in the small Wisconsin town where they lived first with my father’s parents and then in a trailer park for returning GIs on the University of Wisconsin‘s Camp Randall Field.

My brother was born and my mother took the baby to meet his Pennsylvania relatives. My Philadelphia grandfather was ecstatic about having a grandson, but he didn’t have long to enjoy him because Grandpa died shortly after, at 54, of a massive heart attack.

My grandmother sold the beach cottage and the family home and moved to Wisconsin to live with us.

Every summer, Grandmom went to Ocean City, to visit my uncle and his family, and to Wildwood. She faithfully sent her Midwestern grandchildren salt water taffy.  Our family joined her a number of times and my brother and I learned to body surf and love the sea, just as our mother did.

My father died young, so my mother was widowed at forty-two. I asked her if she wanted to move back to the East Coast, but she had a family, a job, and friends in Wisconsin. As she got older, she was adamant that she did not want to be buried with my dad and the rest of his family at the family grave in Spring Green, Wisconsin. “I want you to scatter my ashes off the shore at Cape May,” she said.

Though my mother lived another forty-six years, it was still a shock when she died last year. Though she hadn’t left any written instructions, my brother and I both knew what her wishes were.

Rainbow over Cape May, September 10, 2015 (Photo courtesy of Martha Kendall)

Last summer, our families and two of my cousins and their spouses all gathered at Miss Chris Fishing Center in Cape May. My mother’s ashes were in a cardboard tube decorated with sunflowers. My son’s fiancĂ©e had brought a bouquet of flowers. To our surprise, the boat slowed right outside the Boardwalk at Wildwood and the captain told us it was time to begin the ceremony. It was a lovely day and laughing gulls were flying above the boat. My brother tossed the ashes, in their container, off the stern. Then each of us took a flower, made a blessing, and placed the flower in the water. We laughed, cried, and hugged.

Laughing Gull, Wildwood New Jersey, August, 2014 (Cynthia Solem)
My mother, like her mother, was a bird lover. She was particularly fond of cardinals. As our boat turned and headed back to Cape May, we were escorted by one of the laughing gulls.

I’ve been noticing the birds a lot lately,” one of my sons confided to me. “I thought that maybe Grandma would want a cardinal to be with her, but it’s fitting that a gull has decided to come back with us.

We live on the other coast, near another Boardwalk, but, when I smell the salt air, and see the gulls and pelicans soaring over Monterey Bay, I cannot help but think that we all came from the ocean. That’s where my mother has returned. ______________________________________________

Author: Cynthia Solem, Santa Cruz, California
Cynthia has lived on the Pacific Coast for over forty years. She has recently retired after teaching English and English as a Second Language at community colleges and universities in the Bay Area and the Monterey Bay area.