She was a child of the depression, eighth child out of nine, where, despite extreme poverty, attended a Catholic school with her younger sister, Lorraine. Their mother kept Viola back a year so the two girls could share their books.
My mother loved school but was forced to go to work at the Jergens factory after her 8th grade graduation. . She gave her entire pay packet to her mother (not by choice, I’m sure)–but, doing the math, I figured out that my mother would have been 13 or 14 when she graduated from grade school–just a short time after the crash of the stock market and right into the height of the depression.
My mother’s name was Viola Barbara Beckman ; her family called her Ola, a name she loathed; she became “Vi” when she was a teenager and was Vi forever after.
Vi was seventeen when she married my father (Peter Joseph Schmidt); she was pregnant with her first child–a scandal within the family that she was never allowed to forget–despite their wishes to marry immediately, they were persuaded by her mother, my maternal grandmother, to wait until June 29th, which was Grandma Beckman’s birthday. These are a few details that my mother shared with me.
My mother loved music and she loved to dance; she could play piano “by ear” despite never having any piano lessons and being unable to read music. My sister Becky (Barbara Ann) and I had piano lessons but never became proficient at playing (there was always a piano in our house) –my mother could sit down and play songs like “Silver Bells” and “Glow Worm”.
My mother and father both loved to bowl and both were very good bowlers–they had his league, her league and their league. One of my earliest memories is staying with my grandparents while my parents flew on TWA to Los Angeles for the 1947 ABC Bowling Tournament.
My mother remembered that trip to California with great fondness for the rest of her living memory.
She kept a tidy house despite having a large family–we all had chores. She cooked dinner every night and we sat down at the kitchen table to eat at 6 PM when the church bells rang.
My mother “made do” in ways that would amaze today’s generation; nothing was ever thrown away and even the scraps of fabric from making dresses for herself and her daughters were used to make quilts. We didn’t have paper towels or paper napkins or even Kleenex; we used cloth rags, cloth napkins and handkerchiefs.
My mother never bought laundry detergent in those days; she would make lye soap once a year and would shred up bits of the lye soap to go into the washer. She could not abide any kind of waste. Neither can I and I cooked dinner every night throughout the years my children were growing up–I finally learned how to make lye soap but only attempted it a few times (its a lot of work!)
I can play the piano bur need sheet music to read, and I can barely dance even though I had tap dancing lessons when I was in kinder garden–I was the child with two left feet and lefthanded – even a course in charm school couldn’t give me grace. I didn’t get either of those traits from my mother (or my father, either, for that matter). In some ways, perhaps, I was my mother’s child, and in some ways, I wasn’t.
After my father passed away in 1984, my older brother Jim asked mom what she would like to do; she replied that she always wanted to know how to dance–and so she began taking lessons and was delighted to participate in dance routines at their mobile park, Four Seasons, in Largo Florida.
Her children began to notice the lapses in memory when we had some family reunions–these became more pronounced as time went by. My mother passed away the day after my birthday in 2001; she no longer recognized any of her family.
Sandra Lee Smith
Originally written in May 2009; updated June 9, 2018