As I write this, my 102-year-old Mother seems to be nearing the end of her remarkable life. She fell recently and broke her pelvis. That, coupled with long-standing compression fractures to her spine, has laid her low. But, same as ever, she doesn’t want to go, doesn’t want to miss anything.
The classic expression about an ordinary person living an extraordinary life could have been coined about Velma Mary. Though she would be embarrassed at me suggesting such a thing, I think the facts speak for themselves.
My mother was born on a farm in rural Iowa in the middle of the First World War, the second of four children of Alice Skinner and William Steele, he Catholic and she Protestant. To say that this strained relations with relatives on both sides would be an understatement.
One of Velma’s first memories was of a late February night in 1921 when she and six-year-old Wilma stood next to the isinglass stove in her parents’ farmhouse kitchen. They stood watch over two younger brothers while their determined young mother Alice hitched up a horse and buggy, fighting a snowstorm to reach the nearest neighbor some five treacherous miles away.
The obedient girls watched over the infant Edward and two year old Eugene while feeding the fire. Besides the illumination from the glass fronted stove the only other light came from a single candle in the living room. It sat on an end table dimly illuminating the couch where the body of William Steele lay staring lifelessly back at his children.
Velma had just turned five when her father died at the age of 33.
Thus began an odyssey that took her to a second floor apartment in town. With limited support from less than forgiving families, the suddenly widowed mother struggled to keep the family together. Starting from day one, Velma and her sister helped their mother after school and on weekends, seven days a week.
Like other females of the time, Alice Steele, with the help of her daughters did the traditional household-duties with one major difference. When mom and the girls were done with their own chores, they took on the same work for anyone willing and able to pay.
Mondays they washed clothes for up to a half dozen other families. They ironed for the same folks on Tuesdays. Mending on Wednesdays turned the girls into skilled seamstresses who made most of their own clothes for years. Without a cow, there was no milking or churning to be done. So, Alice used Thursdays for odds-and-ends chores.
This was the one afternoon when Wilma and Velma got to spent after school time with friends unless Alice found some new money making scheme. Fridays the girls cleaned the apartment from top to bottom while their mother got a head start on baking. Alice Steele was a renowned cook and baker. Velma became one as well.
Saturday was filled with the smell of breads, pie, cinnamon rolls, cakes, cookies, and so much more. After a while, Alice had a regular clientele. The girls would deliver baked goods all Saturday long. Sadly at days end, there were seldom leftovers for them. By age ten Velma was doing much of the baking while Wilma handled deliveries.
Sunday they rested at least until after attending church and having a nice Sunday supper. The rest of the Sabbath was devoted to catching up on homework or other duties mom could find that needed attention. Given this routine, one can understand why I can rarely recall my mother ever being idol.
During her late teens Velma managed to play on the high school basketball team while working in a flower shop. To this day, she loves gardenias above all else. The flower shop is where she met her husband-to-be, my Father a few years later.
Alice Steele was a stern and hard taskmaster, giving her daughters little freedom. She definitely believed that idle hands were the devil’s workshop. In spite of her efforts at control, however, the girls became popular and each had several suitors. The stories Mother shared about those days provided a glimpse of a happier side of an otherwise tedious and dark existence.
That was just the beginning of my Mother’s amazing life story. All of these hardships occurred before the Great Depression when she was still a young girl. Velma graduated high school in 1934 to find a 21.7% unemployment rate. She continued to help her mother and was fortunate to have the flower shop job.
For the next three years, Velma lived and worked in Perry, Iowa while still living with her Mother. Social life consisted of attending dances at grange halls with her sister, often escorted by a male cousin. They would arrive together, split-up, spend the evening dancing, and then reconvene to drive home.
One of my favorite stories about this time dealt with Mother attending a soiree in a new dress she’d just finished, or so she thought. Turned out part of the dress was only pinned together. During the first dance, the first pin let go then another and, well, you get the picture. With a few recovered straight pins and borrowed bobby pins, however, her reputation remained unsullied.
This weekly routine ultimately led to a relationship with a high school classmate and a nearly two-year engagement. Then one cold winter afternoon, a guy named Jack Gooding stepped into the flower shop. He was a sales and service driver for a linen supply company. His service area included Perry.
The reason for the visit to the florist is a family mystery. What followed was not. Six months later, after escaping threatened attacks by the fiancée and Velma’s brother Edward, Velma and Jack were married. They would have been married even sooner had my Father not had an auto accident that knocked out his front teeth.
There was much adventure, drama, joy, tragedy, and moving from that hot July in 1938 to 1959 that would make a compelling tale on its own. The intent of this piece, however, was to focus on my Mother’s influence on my adult life starting at the end of the 50’s. This was when Velma really got rolling.
Up until that time, Velma was a stay-at-home mom except for an occasional part-time job. Dad disliked her working, male pride it seems, so she focused on her three boys who were a handful. When old enough, a good chunk of my time was spent playing one older brothers off the other to survive. This meant mom did a lot of refereeing along with her familiar household chores at 1624 Schrader Ave., Springfield, Illinois.
Then my oldest brother graduated high school and went off to a short and not-so-auspicious college experience. For the first time, my Dad’s meager salary was not enough to cover the added expenses. So, he relented and Velma went to work as a full-time switchboard operator for a local lumber and building supply-company.
I vividly remember the room, more like closet, where Mom worked. It was a space under the stairs leading to the second floor. It was just wide enough for the old-fashioned switchboard (the kind with plugs on cords that fit into dozens of holes), her chair, and a place to hang a coat and purse. With no door and mere feet from an exit to the outside, my ever-cold Mother wore her coat in the winter.
Besides a couple of much younger female cashiers, Mrs. Gooding was the only other woman among dozens of lumbermen. I would later work for a Lumber Company and saw first hand the kind of chauvinistic environment those women endured. I was too young to understand this dynamic at the time, however. All I saw was my mother working hard, unendingly cheerful.
By then, Velma was a forty-three-year-old mother with a high school diploma with little experience, working in a male-dominated industry. She was practically invisible while on the switchboard. If lucky, a manager would occasionally say hello when passing in and out of the side entrance.
But within three years she had moved into a customer service position, then to product sales, and finally to selling the company’s tract-homes. Eventually, she was assigned to decorate the model homes for new projects. Before leaving the company to go into private real estate sales, she was modifying designs and drawing rough plans from scratch.
During her independent career, she built the first million-dollar house, and helped hundreds of people find homes they live in to this day. In the process, many of her clients became close and lasting friends. She became a well-known and respected member of her profession.
In an ironic twist, the man so reluctant to let his wife work came to love the income she produced. I remember the weekend after Mom brought home her first good commission check, Dad went to the local department store and had an RCA home entertainment center (Color TV, AM/FM radio, and stereo) delivered. With her second even larger commission, he towed home a speedboat. I never heard him complain about her working ever again.
While watching Mom move up the ladder of success, I was inspired to become the first member of our family to ever get a college degree. After my service in the army, I returned to school and received an MBA. This, of course, is not exceptional in this day and age until I tell you that I was an awful student. I was known more for clowning than cracking a book.
Ironically, I hated to read. Two minutes in a textbook put me to sleep. But in the end I called upon the qualities my mother displayed in her life to push through. Her perseverance, resilience, ingenuity, creativity, optimism, joyfulness, and love sustained me throughout my professional career. Along the way, I came to love reading and then writing.
Fresh Snow on Bedford Falls, my first novel, is a symbol and the culmination of all I became thanks to Velma Mary Gooding. As she leaves this world, I say thanks not only for inspiring me but leaving behind a growing progeny positively, if quietly, impacting their worlds. What a wonderful legacy. God bless you, Mom.
After I finish my present murder mystery, I intend to write a novel based on her life. Most would agree, the history she has lived through alone should make for an interesting backdrop.