My mother Irma Mary was a woman of strong creative energy. She was the kind of person who sets a goal and pursues it with tenacity and single-minded--sometimes almost fanatical--determination. When she met my father Mike in a human anatomy course, she had recently graduated from Louisiana State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and zoology, and was preparing to enter medical school. She saw herself as a career woman, and thoughts of marriage were far from her mind.
Irma Mary and Mike began to study with each other and to see an occasional movie or have a casual meal together. These weren't "real dates," they told themselves, for Irma Mary made it clear that she was focusing solely on her medical career, while Mike declared that he intended to complete his studies, open his dental practice, and establish a firm financial base before ever considering marriage. Nonetheless, despite their best intentions to the contrary, Irma Mary and Mike did "fall in love" and decide to marry.
For Irma Mary, marriage meant a re-channeling of her energy from medicine into home-making. During the early years of her marriage, she contributed to the family finances by working as an assistant at a medical clinic (where, she later told me, two people had to be hired to replace her when she left) and by using her public speaking skills to do an occasional radio or television commercial. But as children were born into the family, beginning with me in 1950, she gradually ceased working outside the home.
I remember that my mother was full of ideas for entertaining me as a child. Sandwiches with faces made of curly fruit or vegetable snippets. Apple elves with marshmallows on toothpicks for head, hands, and feet. Treasure hunts leading my friends and me from clue to clue and from room to room until we reached the treasure--a snack of chocolate chip cookies and milk, or a box of multi-colored beads to string, or a beautifully illustrated story book that my mother would read to us. Sewing circles, where my mother taught my friends and me to do cross-stitch embroidery with colorful thread and large, easy animal patterns. Our own family neighborhood Mardi Gras parades, for which we decorated our little red wagon and tricycles with crepe paper streamers of purple and green and gold, dressed up as clowns or ballerinas or Martians, and threw trinkets and strings of beads to friends and neighbors.
Throughout her life, this single-minded focus on a particular goal was evident in Irma Mary. After her children were grown, she became a Direct Distributor for Amway products until the business became so overwhelming that she had to shut it down. She created an exercise program for women and taught both land and water exercise classes for approximately ten years during her fifties. She took up sewing and made darling pastel dresses for her granddaughters. Finally, she earned a Master of Education degree in Early Childhood Education in her mid-sixties and taught nursery school until her death from breast cancer at the age of 72. When a deaf child entered Irma Mary's nursery school class, she learned sign language, used both signing and spoken English throughout the nursery school day so that all the children in her class learned to sign, and published the results of her research, which showed the benefits that hearing children receive from learning to sign as well as to speak.
When I examine what I know of my mother's past, I realize that Irma Mary entered marriage not only with great energy, creativity, and determination, but also with emotional needs. She was born in 1924, the daughter of Irma, a full-time wife and mother, and Fred, a lawyer and later a judge. Irma and Fred had five children: Irma Mary (the third, or middle, child) and her four brothers (two older and two younger than Irma Mary).
Putting together various things I heard my mother say, I gather that three primary interests dominated her family: food, Mardi Gras, and sports. Food was extremely important in Irma Mary's family, perhaps because it was so limited during the Great Depression years. Irma Mary's family always had enough to eat during the Depression, but the food choices were often monotonous, centering largely around bananas, which were cheap and easy to get. Irma Mary's mother prepared bananas in as many ways as she could think of--plain bananas for breakfast, banana sandwiches or banana salad for lunch, fried bananas for supper with banana pudding for dessert. Irma Mary got so sick of bananas that, once the Depression was over and wider food choices were available, she never ate another banana!
In fact, after the Depression years, Irma Mary's family became mildly obsessed with food. Breakfast consisted of fried or scrambled eggs, buttered grits, bacon or sausage, biscuits with jam, and maybe a stack of pancakes or a bowl of oatmeal on the side. For dinner, there were large helpings of the main dish (fried chicken, roast beef, pork chops, broiled trout, stuffed crabs), a couple of vegetables (green peas, sweet carrots, corn on the cob, fried eggplant, baked squash), mashed or baked potatoes, maybe a salad or a gumbo, French bread, and cake or pie--sometimes with ice cream--for dessert. A meal with Irma Mary's family was delicious and unforgettable, but quite heavy and overwhelming.
Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Carnival Season also occupied a great deal of energy in Irma Mary's family. In New Orleans, it is a social honor for a man to belong to one of the older Carnival organizations, called Krewes, each of which puts on an annual Carnival parade and ball--and an even greater honor to reign as King of the ball or to have one's daughter reign as Queen or serve as a Maid-of-honor or one's son serve as a Page. Proper preparation for this requires year-round work. As my mother explained to me, "The day after Mardi Gras, the Krewes meet to begin planning for the following year."
Irma Mary's father, Fred, aspired to Carnival honors for himself and his children, and he was able to obtain membership in the prestigious Krewe of Rex. After some years in Rex, however, it became apparent that Fred did not have the elevated social status necessary for his family to become Rex royalty, whereupon Fred and several friends from his lower social plane withdrew from Rex and founded the Krewe of Hermes, thus assuring that their daughters and sons would become Queens, Maids-of-honor, and Pages for an evening. Indeed, Irma Mary reigned as Queen of Hermes, largely to please her Carnival-smitten parents.
The third preoccupation in Irma Mary's family--and probably the preoccupation that most affected Irma Mary's self-esteem--was sports. All four of Irma Mary's brothers played sports, and talk of football practice, basketball trophies, baseball games, and track meets dominated family conversations at meal times. Irma Mary and her interests were largely ignored--not scorned or ridiculed--simply ignored. My mother once told me that she would sometimes write poems and leave them around the house in hopes that her father would discover them, but that her father never mentioned finding or reading her poems. In fact, my mother told me that there were only two times in her life that she could ever remember her father noticing her or expressing pleasure in something she did: the day she reigned as Queen of Hermes and the day of her wedding.