She never published a story, painted a picture, or won an award. She didn’t do volunteer work or help out in her children’s classrooms. Other than a bowling trophy, she never received much recognition in life at all.
Yet she symbolized many women of her generation.
Born in the middle of a large Irish Catholic family in an impoverished coal mining village of western Maryland, Mary Louise Chambers grew up during the Depression when money as well as food could be a daily challenge. In a family of nine children, lard sandwiches made their appearance more than once.
Her father started out in the mines, coming home covered from head to foot in thick black coal dust. Later he worked as a handyman, while her mother continuously took care of feeding, washing, and clothing the family. In order to economize, the family moved in with cousins, sharing the rent and expenses in a large wooden house on a hillside. There were two families under one roof, with a total of five adults and twenty-one children. If it was hard earning your place in the midst of nine siblings, imagine how tough you had to be to compete with twenty.
High school was in the next town, so Mary Louise and her siblings walked over a mile each way and she graduated with excellent grades. A few years later she married a local boy. Then, as with the other young brides of her era, she watched him march off to war, along with her brothers. When World War II robbed the industries of their male workers, women often filled the vacancies. Mary Louise had already done factory work, so she pursued a better paying job and became a telephone operator.
When the war ended, she was one of the lucky ones – both her husband and all her brothers had survived, although each of them was changed forever by the horrors of combat. Life resumed. She and her husband ‘moved up’, buying a small house in town. Children quickly followed and although she may have wanted to be a homemaker, she stayed with the security of the phone company.
Then tragedy struck. At the age of 44, her war veteran husband suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack, leaving her to raise their three boys on her own. The years rushed past in the blur of being a single mom. As the boys grew up, she made the Sunday pot roast stretch into multiple dinners for the week, but always fixed a new dessert for each and every night. She continued to do what she knew best – work, cook, wash, and scrub the floors till they shone. It was the hallmark of her childhood: if you could put food on the table each day, dress your children in clean clothes, and make your house spotless, then you had raised yourself above the stigma of once being deprived.
By the time I met Mary Louise she was in her fifties; a formidable woman, strong worker, deeply religious, highly opinionated, and a source of energy not to be taken lightly. She had a mind like a steel trap that never forgot any wrong done to her or her family.The lingering memory of the Depression caused her to be frugal her entire life, and she expected her family to carry on that same trait. Still trimming her own hedges and cutting the lawn well into her late 60s, she had learned how to survive by staying strong.
I once asked her if she had any regrets, and she told me she had enrolled in a Washington D.C. beauty school after graduation. But she only stayed a month because her mother had called and said, ‘come home’; help was needed with the younger ones. She returned to western Maryland and never left again. “Were you bitter about that?” I asked. She just shrugged her shoulders and answered, “You do what you have to do.” It was her mantra of how to cope with life.
Today my generation spends money in the attempt of trying to remain young. Not Mary Louise. She took life as it was handed to her, critically judging the worth of any item to be purchased, passing on frivolities that did not warrant the price tag, and taking care of everything she owned – including her appearance. As part of her daily routine, she dressed for every day, and being dressed meant having your hair fixed, your make-up on, your nails painted, and earrings in both ears. On the day she was being wheeled in for her cancer operation at the age of 92, she looked up and asked, “Does my make-up look OK?” She was determined if she didn’t make it through the surgery, at least she’d look good on her way to heaven.
If you never achieve anything special, then what kind of legacy do you leave behind? On the week-end she would have turned 95, her remaining siblings, all her children, most of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, along with other family members and friends, drove or flew in for her memorial service and pay tribute to a woman who had impacted all of their lives.
In essence she was a role model for taking what life hands you, and doing what you have to do in order to survive.
That is the real meaning of living strong.