Thursday, January 12, 2017

When I was one year old, America entered WW2. My parents like an awful lot of other twenty somethings responded immediately. Dad enlisted less than a week after the American Declaration of War. Off he went to some training base in Georgia or North Carolina. Mom, not one to sit about twiddling her thumbs, began looking for work – The bomber plant was gearing up for the war effort and paid good wages. Rosie the Riveter was a calling she couldn’t refuse.

Their one year old lucked out in several ways. Ada Petit, her new ‘mom’ surrogate (to use a Trump election term) lived in Flint, about sixty miles from the bomber plant. She already had another girl child (aged 5) for whom she was being a surrogate and her own grandson and his mom also shared her home.

As the war wore on, Dorothy Ann, the one year old, saw her mom and dad again just before daddy left for Europe. Mom had already moved  to be close to work. Rubber for tires and gasoline for fuel were rationed immediately upon the USA entering the war effort. As a result the sixty-mile journey to visit her daughter was not only expensive, but when the tires wore thin on the family car, impossible. 

With very few visits from her birth family, Dorothy Ann became the real life daughter of Ada Petit, her caretaker, and little sister to Madeline and Robert, her young housemates. It was a busy home where rules were enforced with love and respect.

One of the highlights in Dorothy Ann’s life was the arrival of a tall, handsome, voluble young woman at the front door of the covered porch that extended from one side of the house to the other. Edna Hayes and her equally handsome young man introduced themselves to the now four-year-old as she stood protected by hollyhocks and a huge Mexican sombrero that decorated her shaded play area.

After that first visit, Dorothy Ann never knew when the two might appear again, but the lively scream that echoed onto the front porch as the four year old realized who had come to visit let Edna know that she was welcome. Perhaps the reason for the welcome was that always there was an adventure attached to teen aged Edna’s arrival and the most memorable adventure includes a bathing suit as part of the basket of goodies.

It is important to know that Edna had quite a reputation (articles in the local newspapers complete with photos) as a swimmer. Apparently, she decided that her young niece, Dorothy Ann, would someday have a similar cause for celibre’.

The three of them drove in a black coupe with a huge beige horsehair upholstered back seat where Dorothy Ann sat quietly. She never interrupted, no matter how curious she might have been. No telling where she might be sent this time if she offended those with the power to decide.

The journey seemed short, but certainly had to take more than thirty minutes as they drove through suburban neighborhoods and out onto the two lane highway, turning off to a forested dirt road before stopping at a clearing in the forest. Encouraged to exit the two door coupe, the child pushed the front seat forward and climbed out only to find her shoes sinking into deep sand surrounding a large lake.

She had never been to a lake like this one. The canopy of trees reached right up to and over the beach where the little black coup was parked. Her feet sank deeper into the sand with every step as she walked, holding Aunt Edna’s hand, towards the water.

Alex (the name we will give to the boyfriend) carried a straw picnic basket and a large blanket, which he slipped open and shook into a huge sail before allowing it to settle onto the sand. Aunt Edna took off Dorothy Ann’s shoes and socks, shook them out, and parked them on the edge of the blanket.

Lots of excited chatter ensued as Aunt Edna slipped out of her dress under which she had a one-piece blue bathing suit with a rose monogram on the bodice. She then invited Dorothy Ann to allow her to pull off her panties and pull on a one-piece brown bathing costume under her dress. Finally, pulling the dress off over her head, and pushing her arms into the armholes of the suit, they were both ready for the water. 

It was a glorious day. Edna introduced the child to the joys of swimming in a small lake warmed by a sunny hot summer day filled with the laughter and chatter of many other children and their families. 

Dorothy Ann didn’t actually learn to swim until much later. Not until her 8th grade gym class in 1954 did she feel safe in water over her head. But, still today the memory of learning to float on her back, of playing in the beach sand, of enjoying a Vernor’s Ginger Ale and a peanut butter sandwich while sitting on the blanket on the beach on a hot summer’s day is one of her earliest memories of extended family, of a woman who took time to include the child who had been left behind by her parents in order to defeat the Nazi war machine.

The lesson was about inclusion in a world where exclusion was the rule. Edna, without probably realizing it, had an enormous impact on who I am and why I am at age 76 still working for inclusion in our world. It is a lovely memory and one of the first not influenced by photographs or stories told by others of the blessing bestowed on me by a family member I shall always cherish.