Thursday, May 7, 2009
My Aunt Donna's Biography
One of my aunts died recently. I am reproducing a bio of her written by her daughter. I was very moved by it. She was one of the millions of humble, hard working people who tended their own gardens and whose lives and values won World War II. And they built the tougher but stable world in which I grew up.
Donna Susie M. entered into this world totally by surprise. Born second in a set of twin girls, the midwife didn't know that she was there. By the time that anyone knew, she was black from lack of oxygen because of the cord that was wrapped around her neck. True to her lifelong character, it would take more than that to stop her! She was determined to join the world and make her presence known; the day was December 2, 1913, in Redlands, California.
Her parents, Charles M. and Olive Knowlton M. already had three girls: Nita - 7 years, Thelma - 4 years, and Jean - 18 months. Now they suddenly had five girls seven and under. Nita was very helpful and although her suggestions for naming the twins (Pocket and Locket, or Cow and Sow) weren't used (someone quickly came up with the names Donna Susie and Dallas Nona), she did do the family dishes from that day on. During the next eleven years four sons arrived: they were Keith , George, Warren and Bert. Life was really hard for them. The family moved around from town to town including Riverside, Perris, Redlands, Pomona, Ontario and Imperial Valley, so that their father could follow work as a farm laborer. Their mother found work in packing sheds and the cannery along with any children old enough to work. When their Father was finally able to buy a team of horses to work in the orange orchards, their lives became more stable. Mother still vividly remembers being roused out of bed in the middle of the night to go out into the orchard and read the temperature every fifteen minutes. When the temperature dropped to a certain degree, her father had to light the smudge pots so their crops wouldn't freeze.
Mother and Aunt Dallas had a lot of fun playing with each other, their brothers and sisters and also their cousins. In those days twins were so special that the school gave them piano lessons so that they could play duets. Mother was an excellent student and loved school, but the temptation to marry at the age of seventeen cut her high school education short. She also lost her Mother at the age of seventeen.
She had her first child, Jim, at the age of twenty. Six years later a son she named John, and four years after that her daughter, Donna Sue. Two years later, she lost a newborn daughter that she named Mary Jane. Soon after that, in 1945, the little family moved to Bakersfield in search of a better life, a new frontier you might say. Her new life seemed to consist of nothing but hard work, although you wouldn't know it by her attitude. She was constantly singing or whistling. She had a huge collection of sayings that she used often. Sayings such as, "Every cloud has a silver lining". She always had a large garden full of fruits and vegetables and canned the excess produce. Flowers grew everywhere. She raised chickens for eggs and for fryers, pigs, and we had a cow that she milked and made our butter. She made all of my clothes and my brother's shirts. My skillfully made feed sack dresses and hand smocked dresses were admired everywhere we went. She knitted socks for my brothers and sweaters for me. she was the best cook around and was well known at our school, the Grange Hall and the Church. The kids would yell "Mrs. Kirby's baked beans" when they saw her coming. She made the best lemon pie I've still ever had; her fudge and divinity were divine. Whenever the milk got ahead of us, we got to have homemade ice cream, French Vanilla. And in spite of all of this, she still managed to be a Room Mother at the School and give handmade gifts to family and friends. When she found out that our school didn't have a Kindergarten for me, she tutored me so that I was already reading quite well when I started school.
My father didn't work a lot of the year, so we were pretty destitute. We lived in a one-room shack with cement floors and a few years passed before we had indoor plumbing. The cold wind whistled through the cracks between the boards all winter long. But even though Mother had to keep a fire burning in the pot-bellied stove all the time, she loved stormy days. Those were the days that she could sit at her Mother's old Singer without any guilt (the machine didn't need electricity) and sew and sing. She taught me so many songs. She would start me out in soprano, then switch to alto, so we could sing a duet. It never worked! I always switched with her. I'm sure I was the only kid at my school that could sing and use a treadle sewing machine at the same time.
When we were a little older, she learned about the Blackout Period imposed by Social Security. Realizing that she would not be ready to support herself when I turned eighteen, but she would still be too young for Social Security Benefits, she started back to school, riding the bus with the High School kids to Bakersfield High. When she had earned her High School Diploma, she then rode the bus on to Bakersfield College to improve her bookkeeping skills.
By this time my oldest brother had joined the Air Force as a pilot and was also in the Air Force choir. After he left, life was harder than ever. My big brother Jim had been the wall of safely between my Dad and us. Mother finally left him, and even though she probably worked harder than ever, holding two bookkeeping jobs to finish raising us, at least the treat of abuse was gone.
I followed in Mother's footsteps in many ways. I loved school and did well. I got married at sixteen and then had my first daughter in my senior year of High School; but Mother was determined that I would finish high school, and she saw to it that I did. She kept working two jobs until I was able to support my child and myself.
After my brother John and I were safely out on our own, mother met and fell in love with an English gentleman, Lester L. He was an Engineer for the Division of Highways, now Cal Trans. They soon married and moved to Los Angeles. Within a few months, mother also went to work for Cal Trans as an Intermediate Accountant Clerk at the age of fifty. For my Mother, life really did begin at fifty! She and Lester had some wonderful years filled with many, many trips, large and small. They made countless trips to the Caribbean Islands, Hawaii, Alaska, Mexico and they cruised through the Panama Canal. At home in her leisure time she was still knitting, crocheting, and sewing, cooking special dinners for her husband and you could tell which apartment was theirs from down the street because of the plants spilling over the side of the veranda.
After about ten years, Lester's health began to fail. Things got much harder for her as she still worked full time in downtown Los Angeles and cared for him at home. She had been taking classes and tests until she advanced to Supervising Accountant I; then she was blessed with a Golden Handshake from the State of California. She was able to retire at the age of 62 and not affect her retirement benefits. After she retired she said, "How did I ever have time to work?" She joined a ceramics and pottery group, made many porcelain dolls, updated the genealogy for the Knowlton and Monson family three and even went back to college and got her college degree.
The area where Mother and Lester had lived started going downhill, but they couldn't afford to move because of rent control. They had to go out onto busy boulevards to go anywhere (Lester was involved in an accident which led to a stroke), and she had no one to help her when she was sick. One day after she had a long bout with the flu, I said, "Mother, you and Lester are moving to Hanford". My husband rented and we moved them to Hanford, into the Tara Mobile Estates. She has been known to say that it's one of the best things she ever did. They could safely drive around our little town any time they wanted. She and Lester both had some serious health problems for a couple of years, but finally they were living here so Jim and Betty and Sue and Joe could help them. Mother had a surgery and recovered but she finally lost Lester in Decemb4er of 1987.
After awhile Mother started traveling with the Hanford Seniors, the Visalia Gadabouts and another traveling group, visiting many places in the USA that she had always wanted to see. She also visited South America, Australia and Europe two times, once for five weeks. She vacationed again in Hawaii and Alaska. She volunteered as Treasurer of the Hanford Seniors for fourteen years, took a writing class, a quilting class, crocheted afghans for everyone in her family and to donate to different organizations, and played Canasta with a group of friends for all of those years.
Throughout the years Mother's family grew and grew. After finishing college, Jim married and had two girls and twin boys. He later married again and gained two girls and a boy. Jim's branch has given her eight great grandchildren. John married and had a boy and a girl and his branch has given her two great grandchildren. Sue married and had three girls. She later married again, gained two children and adopted a granddaughter. From Sue's branch, she has gained eighteen great grandchildren, for a total of twenty-eight great grandchildren.
At the age of eighty-eight, Mother had a heart attack and a quadruple bypass. Talking to the Doctors and Nurses, we could tell that this was fairly unusual at her age. It was fun to then ask, "Would you like to meet her twin sister?' and watch their reaction. At ninety she is still watching two of her great grandchildren after school, she still drives herself to the bank and store and to Bingo at the Senior's (and just received her new five year Driver's License), and goes to her cardiac exercise group at 7:45 am on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On the in between days she walks around the Park pushing her wheel chair. She still plays Canasta with her group on Thursday and now with the ladies here at the Park.
In my Mother's later years, she found a list that she had made many, many years ago. The list was of all the places she wanted to go, and the things she wanted to do. She had done them all! What more could anyone ask?
At the top of the page there is a picture of my Aunt Donna with Lester, the English gentleman she married. I remember Lester as a polite and thoughtful man. Then there is a photo of Donna with three of her sisters and someone named George. And then there is a picture of my Aunt Donna and two of her children in front of an American made car.