The family would eventually grow to eleven-five girls, followed by five boys, with my Aunt Glee bringing up the rear. The kids grew up on a farm in Gillingham, Wisconsin..
Times were hard. Much of the time spent involved surviving the Great Depression and other, more local, financial problems. Raising eleven kids is problematic in itself, but to do it on a shoestring in the midst of the greatest fiscal crisis in the nation's history either makes or breaks.
Mother would tell me stories of having nothing to eat but bread, milk and sometimes sugar, or wearing her sisters' too small outgrown shoes regardless of the damage it caused her poor, still-growing big feet.
In spite of need and hard times, the memories she passed on to me were wonderful: riding bareback with her brothers and sisters, bringing horses up to the orchard, then sitting in the saddle and eating the apples on the trees without hands, juice running down their faces pretending they were horses themselves. There were stories about swinging from ropes in the barn and falling into the piles of hay. She would share stories of berry picking with neighbor kids, a circus pony her grandfather, the auctioneer, brought home, along with peacocks and other wonderful finds. With ten siblings, my mother had a whole neighborhood of kids to play with in her own house. They, with the other kids in the area, formed their own social strata. She said they never really dated until they were older, but all went skating, or to parties at someone's home as a group. No one was left out, and everyone shared in the fun, She remembered Grandma Brown showing the girls how to make pulled taffy at parties on winter nights with all the lights in the house burning bright.
Mother was always determined, stubborn some would say. She had concluded early that while dancing and boys were fun, marriage was not for her. She had seen lives of women around her consumed with pregnancies, deprivation and overbearing husbands and did not want that for herself. She planned on supporting herself early on and looked around for the way to accomplish it. Her older sisters had chosen to become teachers like their mother, but she had little interest in that. The only other respectable career available to her was as a seamstress or tailor, perhaps with a little shop in town. Billie was looking for more..
She told me that she had appendicitis when she was very little. She didn't remember much except that she the terrible, sharp pain, It was decided she had to go to the hospital in Madison. She remembered laying in the back of a dirty truck bed to make the trip. When she arrived at St. Mary's she could barely move with the pain and fever; she was frightened and felt filthy from the long ride. Then something wonderful happened. The nun nurses all swooped around her. They made the terrifying hurt go away. They cooed and fussed over her. The washed away the dirt, kissed her forehead and made her fresh and clean, They loved her up and made her feel safe. They gave her memories that would determine much of the rest of her life. She had never forgotten that metamorphosis from terror to sweetness, nor the nurses who had accomplished that transformation. And that was her answer, she would be a nurse.
This plan did not please her father. Nurses, you see, saw men naked. Nursing was just beginning to come into its own as a profession, For Walter Brown and many men of his age and time, there was precious little difference between being a nurse or being a prostitute. He put his foot down and forbade her from following her plan to go to Madison to become a nurse. He was fierce as only a man, whose daughters were growing up and slipping away from his authority could be. The thought of his daughter in a strange man's bedroom was too much. He refused to help her in any way. Billie, however, was equally adamant. She was going to St.Mary's Hospital in Madison. She was quite sure of who she was and who she was not going to be.
Early on,her grandfather had given her a baby ewe and a baby buck. He had taught her to take care of them and then trade their offspring with neighbors and farmers in the area. As a result, when she graduated from high school, she had a good size flock of sheep. Their ownership had been clear from the beginning--her grandfather made certain of it. She sold the sheep, took the money, packed her bags and caught the next ride to Madison.
At St. Mary's, Billie found far more than an income. In spite of the prevailing opinions like Walter Brown's, St. Mary's would to do its part to make certain that their nurses received recognition for being the professionals they were. Standards were stringently demanded by every student, not only in nursing technique, but in demeanor as well.
When mother would do home nursing, she was taught to go through the front door and have her meals with the family just as a doctor would do. She was not to allow herself to use the back door or be treated as a servant. She was a nurse.
The strictness of the school also gave her a structure she thrived in. It also gave her independence, and tremendous pride in what she did and who she was.
But before you have a clear picture of my mother, to the qualities of independence, professionalism, pride and principle you must add fun. Oh my God, LOTS of fun.
This was a woman who loved family and friends above all. Life at her house always centered around the kitchen table and cups of coffee. That's where the stories were told, problems were commiserated over, triumphs celebrated, recipes shared, advice dispensed, debates argued, and sometimes settled, and love and humor shared. All this was served up with love, hugs, kisses, coffee and pecan rolls.
If the woman had a fault, it was her absolute inability to tell a joke. Oh she would start out fine, but then she would either forget the punchline, or blurt it out of order, or, as was often the case, she would start to think about the end of the joke and get to laughing so hard she couldn't finish. Typically, this did not stop her from trying to tell the jokes anyway.
Once, long after Mom had passed, I worked with a woman who was fighting many battles in her life, most of which were the result of horrific abuse by her mother when she was young. She had reached a point in her therapy where her memory of early incidents was resurfacing and she was having terrible nightmares of her mother.
She frequently asked about Billie and the kind of mother she was. Unaware of what she was going through at the time, I shared my memories and told mother's stories. Later, she told me she was trying to create an image of a "safe" mother to fight the memories and nightmares and she thought my mom sounded pretty cool. I gave her the photo I had of Mom when she was in training at St. Mary's. After looking at it a while, she told me that mother looked pretty tough. She laughed then, and asked if I thought my mother could beat her mother up. I said "you bet your ass she can, and after that she'll give you hugs, tell you not to apologize to anyone if you're not wrong, and then make you pecan rolls and coffee."
What else is left to say! The best, Just the best.