This Mothers Day my mom would be 118. I wish I could sit down and have a conversation with her! Lately I’ve recalled over and over a story she told me about a Christmas when she was a teenager and her parents told her and her siblings there wouldn’t be any gifts because they were quarantined. How amazed she was on Christmas morning when there were small gifts for everyone including oranges in the bottom of their stockings. This became a tradition she continued with my sister and me and one that Bob and I continued with our four kids. Mom said she never did figure out where the gifts came from! That was the Christmas of 1918, during the flu pandemic.
My mom grew up on a farm in Daviess County, in southern Indiana, near the small town of Elnora. One hundred years ago this month, she graduated from Epsom High School. One hundred years ago!
Women didn’t even get the right to vote until 3 months after she graduated! I remember Mom telling me on more than one occasion how from the time she was in kindergarten she wanted to be a teacher. I never got the idea she felt poor, but there certainly wasn’t a lot of extra money. So it was after a lot of pleading, her mother gave her $3.00, the total amount of her cookie jar savings, so Mom could enroll at Indiana State Normal School in Terre Haute. (Today this is Indiana State University.) They had a hired hand who took Mom up to Terre Haute and although it was only about 60 miles from home, it was an all day journey. In Terre Haute she rented a room over a peanut butter factory. She pretty much lived on peanut butter sandwiches during her time at school.
In 1922 she graduated with her elementary teaching certificate. Mom’s first teaching contract stated in a very straightforward way that female teachers could not bob their hair nor be seen out after a certain hour in the company of men unless a chaperone accompanied them. And most specifically women had to quit teaching when they got married. When Mom announced that she was getting married, Mylo Murray, the superintendent of the Michigan City Schools, reminded Mom that she would have to resign. My mother disagreed and fought it all the way to Indianapolis where much to the surprise of many, she won! A few weeks later, Mom submitted her resignation. It wasn’t that she wanted to continue teaching after she got married, she explained, it was just that she should have the choice, the decision should be hers to make. And although Mom substituted after I started school, she didn’t return to teaching full time until I was in the fourth grade. Education remained really important to both her and my dad. My sister and I both grew up knowing that going to college was a given. It wasn’t a question of “If we would go” but rather, “Where would we go?”
I also remember mom telling me that I should marry only if I found the right man. Men rarely make marriage a goal. Neither should women! (I can remember Dad saying it was important to get my college degree so I’d never be dependent on a man! Quite progressive thinking for a man born in 1896.)
Mom never planned on marrying. She was next to the oldest of five children and these were the days before social security so she felt it was her responsibility to take care of her parents. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t follow her dream of being a teacher!
Ketchem Family Back row left: Mom (born 1902), Silas (born 1864) Joseph (born 1901), Emma (born 1877), Mabel (born 1904); Front row left: Ruth (born 1908), Fred (born 1906)
Catching the Monon train somewhere near Elnora, she headed nearly 250 miles north to Michigan City where she had secured her first teaching job. Better paying teaching jobs were found in the northern part of the state particularly near bigger cities. It was common then for young teachers to rent rooms in boarding houses where breakfast and dinner were included in their rents.
Days were spent teaching school, evenings writing lessons and grading papers. On weekends there were lectures, plays, card games and dances. Her diary shows that she was never at a loss for activities. One of Mom’s roommates set her up with my dad (a local businessman who had a car) for a double date. The roommate had her eye on Dad and figured that since my mom was taking care of her parents, she was a safe bet. In 1934 after a long delay in their plans caused by the onset of the Great Depression Mom and Dad were married. My sister was born in 1939 and by the time I came around Mom was 44 and Dad was 51. Theirs was a true love story! I can remember at age 16 walking with Mom and Dad along the strip in Las Vegas observing that in their middle 60’s they were holding hands as they strolled.
In retrospect I think it was Mom’s independent thinking that made the greatest impression on me. My sister and I were taught to act on our beliefs regardless of what others said. Mom reminded us that there might be consequences for our actions and only we could decide if the risk was worth it. This was particularly useful advice when during the first five years of my teaching career we went on strike nearly every year. I chose every time to strike, but understood that I could be jailed or even scarier, I could be fired!
Travel was viewed as an integral part of education. Travel meant roadtrips. In January 1948 when I was less than a year old, my dad sold his business, bought a travel trailer and a new car to pull it and we headed out to see the American West on what Mom and Dad described as “being gypsies” for 6 months. Imagine in 1948, with a 10 month old baby and a seven year old, living for half a year in a 14 foot camper! We first headed south to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras, and promptly got stuck in Tennessee for a few days because of a snowstorm. From New Orleans we headed west stopping to see historical sights along the way. In Austin my dad was thoroughly offended when while holding me in the rotunda of the state capitol waiting for my mom and sister who were hiking to the top, a tall Texan remarked to him, “Bet Grandpa is pretty proud of her.” It wouldn’t be the last time people thought he was my grandfather. And while he learned to laugh about it later, he didn’t find it very funny at the time.
We traveled on to Arizona stopping at the Grand Canyon and then on to Tucson to visit my mother’s older brother, and there my mother baked a birthday cake in the trailer oven. Then to LA to visit my Dad’ sister, and then up the west coast to Oregon and Washington. When we drove up Mt Hood the snow was so deep Dad had to follow the snow poles marking the edge of the road. At Timberlake Lodge, there were Saint Bernards to guide us into the lodge. These were the days before campgrounds so we stayed in residential trailer parks and my parents and my sister made lots of friends along the way. People of different colors and different beliefs. In Spokane, Washington, my parents were offered more for the trailer than they had originally paid so Mom and Dad packed up boxes, mailed them back home, packed the rest in the car and off we went staying in motels and cabins the rest of the way back to Indiana.
Throughout the years I was growing up we continued to travel, never as extensively as that first trailer trip, but usually for a month to six weeks every few years and the purpose was always to see new things. Sometimes it meant retracing steps from the trailer trip, given that I had been too little to remember any of it.
Other times it included new sights: attend a concert by The Morman Tabernacle Choir, swim in the Great Salt Lake, explore Rocky Mountain National Park and the maritime provinces of Canada, as well as visiting the undeveloped Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec. When my sister left home and lived first in Virginia, then in Berkeley, California, then the Northwest, these all became travel destinations. I learned so much on those trips: history, geography, and map reading skills in addition to what mattered most to my parents.
My parents were stricter than most of my friends’ parents. In retrospect I realize they were strict about specific things like curfews and dating. Because they had come of age in a different time, they had a hard time with me calling boys. Or with long telephone calls. Or dating in general, particularly in cars. But in many ways I think they were probably a lot more liberal than many parents of the 1960s. I could read whatever I wanted to, spend my time however I wished. I loved cooking and would often come home from the library with a new cookbook. From the time I was eight or nine, Mom would let me have total control over the kitchen as long as I left it clean. (She never wanted to be greeted by a messy kitchen in the morning.) Most of the time she’d be in the living room if I had a question. Often I would beat Mom home after school, and I’d scrounge around in the kitchen to see what was in the fridge. Then I’d look in a cookbook until I could come up with a recipe utilizing what we had on hand. When Mom would get home, I’d tell her what was for dinner. That always seemed to please her.
My mother and father were both voracious readers and I remember once being told by an overly pedantic librarian that I couldn’t check out a book because it was “too mature” for me. When I shared the story with Mom she immediately got in the car, drove to the library and marched in explaining in no uncertain terms, that it was NOT the librarian’s responsibility to determine what I could and could not read. Any time I wanted to check out a book I was to be allowed to do so. Mom knew it was important for me to read widely without censorship in order to make up my own mind about what I believed.
Civic responsibility was a given. It was important to know what was going on in the world around us. I don’t remember ever being sheltered because something was too scary. Every night we’d watch the NBC, CBS and ABC news. I remember watching news reels most specifically of the conflict in Korea and the McCarthy Hearings and the threats of the Cold War. (In those days John Daley was on ABC for 15 minutes at 6:15, followed by Douglas Edwards on CBS, and then finally John Cameron Swazey on NBC. Later Chet Huntley and David Brinkley entered the picture.) In 1964 I had read a lot about Barry Goldwater and volunteered for the Young Republicans. This was quite a shock in a home as left of center as mine was. When my father objected, my mother quickly stepped in and told him I should be able to work for whomever I wished. If he wanted to hand out materials on the opposite street corner he could do that but he should not silence my voice. Dad acquiesced. I always had the feeling that Mom made most of the daily decisions for the family. But when Dad said, “Jump!” My mother would respond, “How high?”
Perhaps all of mom’s philosophical ideals had at their center that we only had one chance at life. Don’t get bogged down with the mundane! There wasn’t anything we couldn’t achieve IF we were willing to work hard and tackle the obstacles we were sure to encounter. Time, not money, she believed, is the most important gift we have so it’s important that we are always mindful of the way we choose to spend it living every hour, every day to its fullest. Mom and Dad gave 100% to everything they did. Mom was extremely well organized but with enough flexibility to be spontaneous!
In my memory our house was almost always a relaxed place to be. Dad got home at 5 and we all sat down to dinner shortly thereafter. Conversations were focused on what we’d all done during the day, or what we’d read or current events. Sunday dinners were in the middle of the afternoon and Dad would go pick up a good family friend who would join us. For entertainment, sometimes friends would come over, or we’d play cards (canasta early on, bridge as I got older) or board games like Uncle Wiggley, Parcheesi or Scrabble. And there were a few television shows like Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town, or I Love Lucy or The Red Skelton Show. Sometimes, we’d go for a ride or I’d play the piano and my dad and I would sing (not well!). We didn’t have relatives in town so at holiday time, friends who either had no kids, or their kids were grown and far away, would join us for special dinners. Sure there were disagreements and arguments but they never lasted very long. Mom demonstrated what was important to her by modeling it every day!
What a lucky kid I was! I love you, Mom! Happy Mothers Day!