by Lolae Joline Lambert
April showers bring May flowers and May brings a special holiday…Mothers Day. This is a great time to say “Thank You” to all mothers. It is also a good time and a wonderful opportunity to tell you about mine. Her story could fill the pages of a novel. It is not possible to fully understand all the layers to this seemingly simple yet complex woman, but I can share a glimpse of her life and hope that it is the tribute she deserves.
Have you ever wondered what makes some people basically indestructible?
Whatever the challenges, they exhibit a spirit which translates into sheer determination and a can do attitude. Mom had this spirit. A spirit she tried to instill in her children. I am not completely convinced you can give this spirit to anyone. It may be inherent or may be the result of experiences in life which mold that type of determination. Whatever the catalyst these individuals have certain characteristics. They move forward carving new vistas in the landscape. They never give up. They dance to a tune of their own… similar yet not exactly like society’s normal beat and their song takes on a new brilliance. I am not talking about famous performers or Nobel Peace Prize winners. I am talking about seemingly average people who excel beyond their boundaries and are able to tap into internal resources necessary to lead lives of extraordinary results while most people never notice.
To understand Mother, you have to first come to terms with her humble beginnings. To hear her talk she might as well have lived in a long cabin like Abe Lincoln and read by candlelight while walking 20 miles in the snow to school. Her stories to impress how good I had it were exaggerated, but in reality, not all that far from the truth. One of her favorite characters, and mine too for that matter, is Scarlet O’Hara from the book and movie Gone with the Wind. As a child, I never comprehended the attachment. As an adult, I am sure the character spoke to many emotions my mother experienced.
Mom was born in the middle of the Great Depression into a family that grew to seven children. Her mother was born in Camden and moved to Philadelphia where she became an orphan. My Grandmother witnessed her mother burn to death in a cooking fire accident when she was only ten. My grandmother and her brother were placed in an orphanage in Cumberland County. My grandmother was taken out of the orphanage by a wealthy family to be their servant. Her brother was taken somewhere else and she never saw him again. When my grandmother was old enough to leave the family for whom she worked, she answered an advertisement to take care of an elderly woman. This woman had two sons and one was to become my grandfather. His family had come over to America from Ireland. Mom Mom and Pop Pop, along with Uncle John, as I called them, worked all their lives to eek out an existence. Mom Mom worked in the school cafeteria and cleaned houses along with taking care of the children and the farm. Pop Pop had a leg issue and a heart problem making finding employment difficult. Uncle John went to work for a major corporation which produced frozen foods. He was on a tractor from sun up to sun down.
The home in which they lived was an old farmhouse and they ate mostly from the garden and chickens. The home was furnished with used furniture and the family all wore hand me down clothes. I remember my mother telling me she only had one dress and she would hand wash it in cold water from the well pump each night for school the next day. She always reminded me that you may not have much, but there is no excuse not to take care of what you have. I am sure she learned this from her childhood. One thing for sure, mom wanted nice things and she knew it took money to have them. She was a savy child with an independent nature. I have heard many family tales about her independent escapades.
I truly think she liked school and valued education…she certainly made me believe in it…but she needed money more. She quit school in the fifth grade and went to work. She started as a waitress and one of the old timers took her under her wing. She explained to mom that if she wanted to make money, she needed to be more than just someone who took an order, delivered the food, and left a bill. She explained that being a waitress was a commission job. The more you sold the more money you made, so she needed to become a salesperson. She learned this lesson well and taught me the same skills and attitude she had learned. A good waitress will know the products, present them with enthusiasm, and remember what customers like. The other important component is to develop relationships with the customers. A simple greeting by name or knowing they want their soup with their sandwich goes along way towards a better tip. Mother made it her mission in life to pass this information on to others who seriously wanted to make money. It is difficult to make being a food server an exciting job and most people of today do not see it as a career, but at one time it was. Women would stay at one restaurant all their lives and love every minute.
Having ones own money buys a sense of freedom. Now Mom could purchase the fancy clothes, travel to different places, have better living accommodations, and meet new exciting people. One of these new and exciting people was her first husband. He was the son of the renowned August Hofbauer, who owned a glass company in Vineland. His name was Elmer but affectionately known as “Dutchie.” I love to look at the wedding photo, the photo of them dining at the White Sparrow dressed for an evening on the town, and the photo of Pop Pop Hofbauer, as I called him, when we visited years later at the factory. Pop Pop Hofbauer would take me in the factory to watch the glass being blown, beginning my love affair with glass.
The lesson my mother learned from this marriage, if I understood her correctly when we talked the last few years of her life, was that things are not always what they seem. The marriage was a short one and they divorced. Over the years, I never heard her say one mean thing about Dutchie and I know she adored Pop Hofbauer. She enjoyed her years with his family and always remembered all of them fondly. This bump in the road might have caused her to stumble, but she was not a woman who would stay down long. Many times she reminded me that there was no sin in getting knocked down. The real question is how long will it take you to get up? With Mom it was never long!
Mom moved to Philadelphia where she met my father. Love is a complicated mystery. When my parents were together, you could feel the chemistry. And I think for the first few years they were on the same game plan.
I have many childhood memories. One of my earliest memories was when I went upstairs and decided that it would be fun to push pearls that had come unstrung from one of Mom’s necklaces up my nose. I was about three. Mom in her calm way, called a cab, took me to the hospital, and promptly, after the crisis was over, explained to me why I should never put anything up my nose again….ever!
Mom worked nights and Dad worked during the day. Daycare at that time was a luxury for the very well to do and Mom would doze in and out on the sofa bed while my brother and I entertained each other mostly with TV. One of my brother’s favorite toys was a cardboard box. This one particular morning he climbed inside and began to rock around wildly in the box. The box tipped over and he fell out banging his head on the radiator. His screams and the blood startled Mom. But in her usual cool manner she assessed the situation, called a cab and off to the hospital we went. My brother went home with stitches and verbal instructions much like the ones I received for the pearl incident. I was reprimanded as on many occasions to come for not properly taking care of my brother.
Another time, Mom had asked Dad to fix my brother’s bicycle. When he did not, and she tired of listening to my brother’s complaining, she decided to repair it herself. She gathered the tools went outside turned the bicycle upside down, as me and my brother looked on constantly asking her what she was doing. When she had made the repair she decided to make sure the bike chain was working, she grabbed the pedals and turned them round and round faster and faster. The repair was a success. Then without thinking she inadvertently stuck her thumb into the chain as it was going around severing her thumb tip. Did she loose her cool? Certainly not! She picked the thumb tip off the ground, climbed up three flights of stairs with us in tow, rinsed the severed piece off , placed it in a bag with ice, called a cab, and off to the hospital we went. Once there they attached her thumb tip to her thumb and we came home to watch her do everything like nothing had happened with a rubber thumb glove. I was impressed! It was daunting. How could you ever tell anyone like this that you could not do something?
Around this same time period Levittown was being built and we were one of the first families to experience this new trend of living. Each house was basically identical with a small yard and carport. The first floors had and eat in kitchen, a very large living room with a huge ceiling to floor picture window, two small bedrooms and a bath. There were stairs to the unfinished second floor. One of mom’s talents was her ability to create beautiful items from material and a portable sewing machine. When she decided to make draperies for this huge window, it was a done deal. Hours and hours she sat at the sewing machine working on the beautiful masterpiece. In between she would make clothes for my brother and me. Sometimes she would make a matching mother daughter outfit. She made curtains for all the other windows and loved to cook a meal for the entire family served in her prized Melmac dishes. Everyday the ice cream truck would come by and how she always had the money for a treat amazes me to this day.
We were living in Levittown when we got our first dog and two parakeets. One day while mom was cleaning and we were outside playing, she let the parakeets out of the cage to fly around the house. Without thinking she opened the door to call us in and the birds flew out. My brother and I were crying because the birds were flying away and mom determined she would get them back was soon seen running up and down the streets of Levittown with a broom yelling, “Peety, Suzy” trying to get the birds attention. It was a site to behold! I can only imagine what the neighbors thought. I think Mom believed she could get the silly birds to come back but, this was one time mom did not achieve her goal. The birds flew away to freedom and I reminded her often of her failure.
I remember huddled in bed with Mom and my brother as Hurricane Hazel ripped through the area. The wind was howling and you could count the shingles as they blew off the roof. But mom was calm and while I am sure she was really afraid, she did not show any signs. She held us tightly and made a game of counting winds gusts, lightning bolts, and shingles falling. When it was over and we went to our own beds, I heard her sobbing in the other room. I am sure she thought we were asleep and she could finally release all her anxiety.
Mom was very content in Levittown. She had a nice home in a fashionable community, a happy marriage and healthy children. Then, just as is the city, when winter came, work dried up for my Dad. Mom went back to work to help, but it was not enough, and we had to sell the house and go back to the city.
Once settled in, Mom opened a food concession in a business next door to the apartment. Spring arrived and Dad went back to work. I started school in the fall. Through all the years, almost every Sunday we would go back to New Jersey and make the “loop” as I called it. We would stop at Aunt Mae’s in Salem, then on to Bridgeton to the farm to visit with Mom Mom and Pop Pop, usually having Sunday dinner at the farm. Next, we would swing through Vineland and visit Pop Pop Hofbauer. Finally, we drove to Porchtown to see Nana and then back home. In the winters we would visit with family. In the summers, our visits would end with time at Centerton, Palatine, Garrison, or Iona Lakes. I loved Sundays. Church in the morning and then these wonderful afternoons and evenings with family was my favorite thing.
When winter came again this year, the work was non existent. Dad began to drink heavily. On Christmas Eve he did not come home to set up the tree. It was always his job to set it up and Mom would decorate it while we were asleep. We had purchased a very large tree and Mom needed help. After waiting as long as she could, she decided she would just have to enlist our help. Picture this…one ceiling to floor evergreen, one woman, two children somehow managing to get the huge tree into a big bucket and then wrapping heavy duty string around in many places finally attaching the string to anything that would bear the weight that was nearby. Branches were cut off with a hand saw from Dad’s toolbox. It was the strangest arrangement I had ever seen, but it was up. Nothing and I mean nothing would stop Santa from arriving with the presents. If Mom had one passion, it was Christmas. She lived and saved all year to provide the most fantastic Christmas possible. Never were here children to feel the want she had experienced as a child. Through the night, I heard some loud conversations between her and my Dad. But, in the morning all was forgiven and truthfully that tree is one of the ones I will never forget. When it was completely decorated and all the attachments and bucket hidden, it was beautiful. Santa arrived and left many nice presents.
Shortly after this, Dad managed to talk Mom into moving to Florida where he would have full time employment. For Mom this was very difficult. South Jersey area is where she loved and wanted to be, but she agreed to give it a try.
Everything we owned, except our clothes and other necessities, was sold and our personal belongings were packed into the car... Off we went to Florida. We were there two years and while there was plenty of work, Mom was not happy. The only thing she liked was that for once she did not work at all and she could devote all her time to her children and home. Maybe the fact that she was going to have another baby had expedited the move to Florida. How could she work and keep us afloat during down times with a new baby? My baby brother was born 7 months after we moved. I remember the moment she brought him home and put him in my arms. From then on, I think I was more his second mom than a sister. Mom liked not working and being with her family, but that Jersey soil called to her much as it does to me today. There were many heated arguments between Mom and Dad about this issue ending with her packed and ready to return alone, if necessary, once again reaching deep down for that can do spirit. But in the end, Dad conceded and we returned to New Jersey and settled in the Vineland area.
I have mentioned before how much I love South Jersey. It is in the blood. My father’s roots go back to the 1600’s in this area and proof of his affection for the land showed when even after Mom and Dad divorced and he could have easily returned to Florida to live out his years, he never left South Jersey again.
Sadly, the move back home did not end the challenges. From that point on Mom and Dad were separated almost as much as they were together, and finally divorced when I was 15. Through these times Mom carried the load of supporting the family because of the seasonal issues and also because the drinking which had started years ago was now an alcoholic issue. Alcohol was part of the problem before we went to Florida and Dad did not drink at all while we were there, but when we returned to South Jersey, the drinking returned with a vengeance. We stayed in the area, but moved a lot always separating and starting over. Some people think the marriage ended over alcohol and to some degree that would be true. I however, think it was more over a philosophy of life stemming back to mom’s roots and her desire for stability and financial comfort that was the dividing factor.
It was not easy to be divorced women with three children in the 60’s or 70’s for that matter. Women were looked down on if they were not married, and if they were worked outside the home. Today it is a different story. Women like my Mom not only made it possible for women with abuse or other issues to be able to strike out on their own today, they paved the way in sweat and tears, so that other women would not have to endure empty hurtful marriages or stay with someone only because it meant a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs. Today women have choices and that is because others first showed them it could be done.
After the divorce, mom continued to work and care for her children. Still deep in her heart was a dream of owning her own business. She had spoken of it many times. She had liked running the concession food center years ago and she not only wanted a business for herself but for her children. It truly seemed impossible. Her formal education ended with the fifth grade, but make no mistake about it, she was a smart women. Time and patience were still on her side. On a few occasions she looked into opportunities that were available, but nothing was the right thing at the right time. In the meantime, she learned everything she could about cooking, book keeping, inventories, etc. Every job or project seemed to be in preparation for when the opportunity for success presented itself…the definition of success is often said to be when opportunity meets preparation.
Years of patience and preparation passed and then by a strange quirk of fate, opportunity presented itself. A restaurant where I was working was looking to sell. The first thing I thought of was my Mom. I went home that evening and told here all the information. Almost without thinking, knowing this was the moment, she made an appointment to speak with the owner and the rest is as you say “history.”
Mom ran a very successful business and provided work for her children from 1971 until 1998 when she passed away of complications from surgery for a hernia. The day before the operation at age seventy two she worked fourteen hours in the restaurant. The restaurant was not just a source of income for her and her family, but a dream come true and she lived to go there everyday.
Never would she have told you her journey or her success was easy. It was not. She gave up much to have her dream. She accomplished her life’s goal and she met many nice people who loved her not only for the great food and clean environment, but because she was an exceptional individual. I have often said she deserves an “honorary degree in business” for the experience acquired over the years. She ran a tight ship, yet never lost her heart of gold or the desire to help others. Her children were the reason she did most everything and I am so proud of who she was and what she was able to accomplish. Earlier I said that she valued education. She also taught me to value education…both learned from books and classes along with trial and experience. More importantly, we learn even more about ourselves when we try and fail, or have to wait a long time to achieve the goal. It is during these time periods that our true colors emerge. Mom’s color was always one of love.
I miss my mom. She was my best friend. I was lucky enough to spend the last few years of her life going to lunch and talking. I was able to thank her for all the sewing lessons that never took. I am not a seamstress! For all the times, despite holding a full time job and caring for our home, she managed to be room mother, attend glee club concerts, and plays. I expressed appreciation for all the chocolate chip cookies, birthday cakes, and special éclairs; I swear are still attached to my hips. I told her how much I admired her. I told her how much it meant to me that for May Day Celebration one year when I was upset because everyone had fancy costumes and shoes, and we did not have the money, she purchased a princess costume at a yard sale, made a crown from cardboard and tin foil, covered my regular shoes with fabric foil, and sequins, and made a magic wand…a yardstick to match the shoes. I won most creative costume! I thanked her for all the baton, ballet, art, and writing classes. We reminisced about having little money for vacations, but how she tried to at least get us to “Camp Cedarville”, as we jokingly referred to it, which was really my Uncle’s home secluded away with mosquitoes the size of Texas. My brothers and I stayed a few weeks in the summer each year. I expressed my gratitude for the flowers she sent the day of my divorce. She understood that divorce is really the death of a relationship and it hurts deeply, no matter how justified. I apologized for all the grief I caused her during my adolescent years. We remembered shopping for my eighth grade dance dress and how I felt like a princess. We joked about how despite all our earlier arguments over clothes, we now could go to separate stores and purchase the same things. MY HOW HER TASTES HAD CHANGED! I apologized for keeping all the borrowed clothing like the orange sweater with the white pom poms I just had to wear to go roller skating.
I finally got to tell her how my first thoughts were that she was so beautiful! I would think over and over as a child, my mom is so beautiful! We remembered how when I would not learn how to roller skate, she cleared out my bedroom, put my skates on, and told me to call her when I could skate. She knew it was not my inability to skate but my fear of all the others skating around me. Five minutes later, I called her. It was so much trouble to make a point, but point noted.
From the silliest things like helping me grow a sweet potato plant because Captain Kangaroo said to, or pulling wagon load after wagon load of pretzels for sale up and down the streets of Philadelphia, so I could win a prize at school, the memories flowed like the beverages with our lunches. I told her how much her example of hard work and family loyalty has made me who I am today. We shared personal secrets with each other.
These were conversations I treasure. More importantly I learned about me…what parts of me exist because she was my mom.
I told her how over the years people would taunt me, especially husbands, with the statement, “you are just like your mother.” No daughter who is trying to be their own person wants to hear these words. Then suddenly one day the statement was made to me yet again, and I paused, reflected, and answered, “Thank You. That is the best compliment I have ever received.”
I thanked her for all her guidance and the one sentence on which I could depend. Mom always told me, “You can never do anything so terrible, you can’t tell me or you can’t come home. There will be consequences, but I will be there with you.” She was there and she kept her word…every time. I was never afraid to tell her anything!
Even at the end she was a fighter. Complications from the surgery left her on life support and the doctors informed all of us that, if we took her off she would die that evening. It was a unanimous decision by her children, grandchildren, and siblings to disconnect the life support. After we heard all the facts everyone knew Anne would want it this way. But Anne did not die that evening. She remained in a coma for a few days and even came out of the coma for one full day and talked with everyone who came to seize the opportunity. The doctors said it was a gift and would not last, so to call anyone who wanted to see her. All day long friends, relatives, customers, long time business associates, and people from far away visited. When the last person had left, Anne slipped back into the coma. What is stranger still is that her words to me over the years were the last words I am sure she heard uttered from my lips. I told her, “just as you told me I could always come home, God says you can always come home, too. I left the room for a few minutes and the phone rang as if a bell had to announce her arrival into heaven. I went in to answer the phone, looked back at her and she had passed away.
So, how does one get this kind of determination and spirit? Are we born with it, do we learn it, is there a magic formula? You decide. What I know is that there is not enough paper or time to explain why I feel so blessed Anne was my mother.
She is a tough act to follow!
Anne working in the basement of her restaurant, The Wagon Wheel