My Mother Wore Combat Boots

PVT Audrey Salerno, Camp Lee, VA, 1949

At some point in the early 1960s, a classmate on the playground yelled at me, “Your mother wears combat boots!” I don’t remember why this child said such a silly thing. If it was meant as an insult, I didn’t take it as one.* My mother served in the Army before I was born, so I reasoned she could have worn combat boots. I put it out of my mind at the time and returned to more important matters, like passing around “The Outer Limits” trading cards or admiring someone else’s Rat Fink ring. I ignored that remark for the same reasons I ignored those who called me an Army brat: It made no sense, and I had been taught to pick my battles.

With Mother’s Day coming up, I’ve naturally been thinking more about my mom. Audrey Agnes Salerno was born in 1927 in Peoria, Illinois to an Italian-immigrant father and an Irish-American mother. She was taught to love babies and food and how to hunt four-leaf clover. She’s been gone nearly thirty years now, and since I can’t thank her in person, I thought I would share with the cyberworld a little of what she passed on to me from what she learned in her early life.

Audrey Salerno, goat and wagon courtesy of  traveling photographer, 1931

Audrey Salerno, goat and wagon courtesy of a traveling photographer, 1932

Find a Reason to Laugh
She laughed a lot and taught us to do the same. She often said, “I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you,” and so we learned to laugh at ourselves, as well. When a traveling photographer brought his goat and wagon to my grandma’s door one summer day, he snapped a photo of my 4-year-old mother wearing a somewhat sly expression. Perhaps she was already planning her next practical joke – something she was very good at in her adult years. 

Audrey Salerno, 3rd grade at Garfield Elementary, Peoria, IL, circa 1936

Audrey Salerno, 3rd grade at Garfield Elementary, Peoria, IL, circa 1936

Read & Imagine
As a child, my mother often jumped off her porch roof to strengthen her arms for flying. This is the kind of active imagination she encouraged in her own children (but the pursuit of flight was, oddly, discouraged). With her guidance, I could read by the time I was four years old. She filled our home, our birthday presents, and our Christmas stockings with books. And a gift of a secondhand manual typewriter bridged the gap between my imagination and the stories waiting to flow from my fingertips.

Audrey Salerno, 12 years old

Audrey Salerno, 12 years old

Be Grateful
The Great Depression was a great equalizer. Every country in the world was affected by it. The Salerno’s had it better than some in the 1930s, living in a house that was paid for (built by my great-grandfather) with a yard big enough to grow fist-sized tomatoes and multi-colored bell peppers. Times were still tough — even though she was hungry, my mom couldn’t eat dinner the night my grandma made stew from her pet rabbit. When she had her own children, she made sure we had warm coats in the winter and shoes that fit, and always, always, had food on the table. Because of her I learned to be resourceful, grateful for what I had, and to never waste a crumb of anything.

Audrey Salerno, circa 1943

Hold Your Tongue and Your Temper
My mom taught us the importance of our words and how they affect others. She didn’t gossip, didn’t allow it spoken in the house, and she lived by the rule, “if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” You would think with all that crazy Irish-Italian blood running through her veins she would have been hot-headed, but she was just the opposite. She held her temper like no one else could. She was also an expert at holding on to a secret. I was a teenager before she let slip she never received a high school diploma.

Audrey Salerno w/the girls at Peoria Journal/Star

Audrey Salerno, Peoria Journal/Star, circa 1947

Believe in Yourself
She was 16 years old in 1944 when the world was at war. She grew tired of spending her days in classrooms with “children” much less mature than she and tired of watching life pass her by. Quitting school just seemed the right thing to do. Shy and introverted, she still believed she could do anything she put her mind to. Though she had no skills, she landed a job as a clerk with the Peoria Journal/Star.

Audrey Salerno by Mort Greene, 1947

Audrey Salerno by Mort Greene, 1947

It wasn’t long before the newspaper’s cartoonist Mort Greene became enamored of her, evidenced by gifts of hand-drawn cards, poetry, candy and flowers. Other young women might have jumped at the chance at romance, but my mom had set her mind on something else.

Learn From Your Mistakes
She enrolled in school again, and by the end of 1948 she had received a General Education Development (GED) certificate from Manual Training High School. The war was over by then, but patriotism was still high. Women’s Army Corps (WAC) posters asked, “Are you a girl with a Star-Spangled heart?” She enlisted in 1949, at the age of 21, and went to stenographer’s school.

MomArmy12_2

PVT Audrey Salerno, Ft Leavenworth, KS, 1950

Follow Your Heart
My mom had many suitors in the Army, but it was my dad’s sense of humor that won her over. Within a year of enlisting she had fallen in love with that young Sergeant in the Signal Corps. At the time, women couldn’t stay in the Army after getting married, so PFC Audrey A. Salerno was honorably discharged three days after the ceremony. Today some would bristle at that, but my mom knew her heart and it was the right choice for her. 

Audrey Salerno, 1950

Audrey Salerno, 1950

 

 

The Highest Calling
A few days before my mother’s death at the age of 58, I thanked her for being a wonderful mom and asked if she ever regretted giving up her future to raise us. She told me she considered it an honor to be a mother, there was nothing else she would rather have spent her life doing. Of all the things she taught me by example, learning the importance of responsibility and sacrifice has served me the most over the years.

What did you learn from your mom? If any of you had a mother in the military, I’d love to hear her story. And if you recognize someone in these photographs, please leave a comment.


*As it turns out, that child really was trying to insult me, but I like to think he was just passing on what he heard someone else say and had no idea what it meant. Urbandictionary.com says this about that playground taunt: During WWII, prostitutes who followed the troops around, sometimes wore army boots or combat boots.

4 Helpful Websites for Writing Memoir

Diana Jackson at A Selection of Reflections was kind enough to post an article I wrote about how I put This New Mountain together (and she gave it a great title, too). Visit her site to read “Writing Readable and Compelling Memoir.”

If you’re looking for places to glean great writing advice for memoir, here are four websites I’ve found helpful (plus a site to share your own life stories if you’re 50+).

NAMWlogo-variation-2-300x124National Association of Memoir Writers
The goal of NAMW “is to help memoir writers feel empowered with purpose and energy to begin and develop their life stories into a publishable memoir, whether in essay form, a book, a family legacy, or to create a blog.” Besides excellent articles, they also have public roundtable recordings of topics pertaining to memoir writing.

Memory TreeThe Heart and Craft of Life Writing
Tips, guidelines and insights on all facets of life writing, plus click on their Free Stuff tab for ebooks and timeline resources. Content includes author interviews and guest posts, as well as Sharon Lippincott’s own observations and tips from her book, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing.

Memories&Memoir2Memories & Memoirs
Linda Joy Myers says, “Most people who write memoir are searching for memories that validate their experience, but they worry about writing the truth. A memoir is not a factual recitation of history, it’s a recollection, a musing and merging of images, dreams, reflections moments on your life’s journey.”

memoirWritersJourney3Memoir Writer’s Journey
You’ll find a wide range of posts from exploring themes to social media tidbits on Kathy Pooler’s website. She’s “a writer and a retired family nurse practitioner working on a memoir about the power of hope through my faith in God. Hope Matters. I believe we are all enriched when we share our stories.”

ElderStorytellingPlaceBannerThe Elder Storytelling Place (A Time Goes By Weblog)
This is a site for bloggers/non-bloggers 50 years old and older to share their stories. “Sad, poignant, happy or funny, not infrequently our stories contain lessons we have learned and the wisdom we’ve gathered on our long journey through life and that should not be lost — which is what led to this blog.” Ronni Bennett, the founder of the site, wants it be a place “where readers sit a spell and ‘listen’ to other people’s stories. And then tell their own.”

What websites do you recommend for those interested in writing memoir?

To Blog or Not to Blog

After taking several months off from blogging, I’m back with a few questions I’ve had to answer for myself. Why blog? Why Not to Blog?

WorldPeople2You do not have to blog, and if you don’t have much interest in the form, then please don’t pursue it. As with any form of writing, it takes a considerable investment of energy and time to do it right and get something from it. ~ Jane Friedman

Why Blog?

Reasons for blogging vary from one person to another. Apart from any business goals of selling yourself and your goods or services, there are a few basic reasons to blog:

  • We all want to make a difference. Sharing knowledge or experience is one way to do that.
  • Some people have a lot to say. Blogging is another way to express themselves.
  • We all have a desire and a need to be heard. Done in the right way (and with the right intent), blogging can be a good outlet.

Initially, my purpose in starting this particular blog was to give my 12-year writing project a home and to encourage others to face their fears. AJ Jackson – the fearless private investigator and repo-mama from This New Mountain – has impacted me from the moment her red-headed spunk and energy rushed into my life more than fifteen years ago. My reasons for contributing to the blog-o-sphere were a natural by-product of my relationship with her. Later, including posts about writing style and writing as it pertains to memoir also seemed a natural addition to the blog. I am still (and forever will be) perfecting my writing skills, and I’ve felt the urge to encourage writers on their own journeys whether toward publication or “perfection.”

Why Not to Blog?

Again, the reasons not to blog (or to stop blogging) depend on the individual, but there are some standard things that come with the territory.

  • Blogging takes time. There’s the planning, the research, the writing, the proofing. Even just coming up with ideas to write about can take up hours every week. Do you have this time to spend?
  • Blogging takes commitment. Even if it’s once a week or once a month, keeping up a blog is one more thing to add to the To-Do List. How committed are you willing to be?
  • Blogging takes energy. Okay, it’s mostly brain energy. But you do have to drag yourself to the computer, then to the bathroom, then to the computer. And what about all those round-trips to the refrigerator and the bowls full of peanuts, pretzels and chocolate to carry back with you. That’s got to count for something, right?
  • Blogging can be a distraction. Blogging can keep you from something more important such as family commitments, health goals, or other dreams and creative pursuits. Will you use blogging as an excuse not to do some other thing?

It’s a physical fact that adding one thing to a finite space results in less space for something else. In deciding whether or not to blog, we each have to weigh our personal desires and goals against the added commitments and the affects blogging has on other more important aspects of our lives.

For me, I’ve decided to keep blogging. I’d like to continue encouraging writers to pursue their dreams and push through any fears that might be holding them back. But I’ve also come to realize I need to implement some major changes in time and goal management (a topic for another post).

Why do you blog? Have you found that the good outweighs the bad?

Brain Training

Active NeuronBy the time I was twenty-five years old, I had three darling children under the age of five. It was a challenging period of my life, but the four of us had great fun together. Interacting with them day and night allowed me to play out the best times of my own childhood.

But one afternoon I noticed an odd look settle on the face of an Avon representative who I’d invited into my home. I paused, silently trying to decide what I might have said to offend her. Then our conversation of the previous few minutes played back in my mind – I had been talking to her in baby talk. I said something like, “How silly,” and laughed. She laughed, politely. I was mortified, but I knew what I had to do. My brain needed exercise. By the end of that week I had studied a college catalog and registered for courses for the upcoming semester.

So here I am twenty-five plus years later, finding myself – not speaking baby-talk – but not able to hold a lengthy conversation without stopping in mid-sentence because the word I want to say has disappeared from my brain. It was there, this word-thingy, just the moment before when my thoughts, having been processed into words, were lining up to trip lightly off my tongue. It’s a frustrating experience, embarrassing, and scary. (Most of my girlfriends of the same age have this problem off and on, and we nod and try to fill in the gaps for each other.)

Onward into the fray that is the Internet.

According to HelpGuide.org, “The human brain has an astonishing ability to adapt and change – even into old age. This ability is known as neuroplasticity. With the right stimulation, your brain can form new neural pathways, alter existing connections, and adapt and react in ever-changing ways. The brain’s incredible ability to reshape itself holds true when it comes to learning and memory.” This is great news.

We all know that exercise is good for us. Movement increases oxygen to your entire body, including your brain. It helps reduce the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease and helps to counter the effects of these diseases that rob the brain of oxygen and lead to memory loss.

Our brains also need exercise. Throughout our lives, our brains develop neural pathways to help process information. As adults, we’ve come to rely on millions of these pathways to solve problems and perform everyday tasks. The thing is, if we only use the same paths, our brains won’t be stimulated to grow and develop. We need to purposely find new and challenging activities to exercise our grey matter – not something we’ve already mastered.

Now is the time to sign up for a computer class, learn a different language, take dance lessons, try a musical instrument, play computer games (if board games are your usual thing), or try Sudoku if you’re used to crossword puzzles. You can play games online at luminosity.com that are “engineered to train a range of cognitive functions, from working memory to fluid intelligence.” They have free, challenging games, as well as enhanced ones that require a monthly fee. (Go to luminosity.com for a list of other sites that offer free online games.)

In addition to exercise, there are others things we can do to boost our brainpower – we can laugh more, stress less, and eat healthier.

Research has shown that foods rich in omega-3s are especially beneficial to a healthy brain, such as fish (salmon, tuna, halibut, trout, mackerel, sardines, herring) and non-fish sources (walnuts, ground flaxseed oil, pumpkin seeds, and soybeans).

Antioxidants protect your brain cells from damage and are found in higher concentrations in fruits and vegetables with lots of color (berries, plums, and guavas; spinach, peppers, and parsley), dried fruit, legumes, nuts and seeds, some cereals and spices. (Go here for a more complete list). Green tea is also a good source of antioxidants called polyphenols that protect against damage to brain cells and may help enhance memory and slow brain aging.

Wine (in moderation), grape juice, cranberry juice, peanuts, and fresh grapes and berries contain resveratrol that boosts blood flow in the brain and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s.

In my research I found a lot of encouraging news and choices I can make to improve my memory and keep my brain healthy. “Choice” is a key word here and wisdom tells me to make these choices sooner than later.

Do you suffer with the same word-thingy problem? What are you doing to save your brain?

Beginnings: The Goal of the Memoir

When I first met AJ Jackson, her reason for wanting a book written about her life was to leave a record behind of the things she’d done in the business of private investigating, repossessing, and process serving.

“I’m not getting any younger,” she said. “If I wait too long, it won’t get done. And I want my children and grandchildren to know what I’ve gone through.”

After I finished the drafts of a few chapters of her adventures (that later became This New Mountain), we both thought the memoir might appeal to others outside her family. It seems these chapters captured the same excitement I felt when I first listened to AJ tell her own stories.

So I shifted gears. The audience for the memoir would be much wider. The book’s appeal would even reach beyond her circle of friends and business associates to include those who read crime novels and have an interest in the profession of private investigation. Someone who wants to know how the mind of a private eye works (and the tricks they use) will want to read the book.  Baby boomers will also enjoy the memoir, as will anyone who likes to read about ordinary people working in unconventional jobs. If you want to know the ins and outs of how a real repo-man (or woman) works – don’t watch the TV show – get AJ Jackson’s memoir. And if you’re looking for encouragement to step out of your comfort zone, this is a good book to read.

When we broadened our audience, AJ also added to her goal for This New Mountain. She wanted to encourage others to face their fears – if she could do all the things she did (while being scared to death), she wanted others to know they could do the same.

In one interview AJ told me, “What I’d like to get across to the reader is to never give up. Whatever you’d like to try in life, just give it a shot. Because you’ll never know if you don’t try.” Like I’ve said before, she thinks everyone just needs a little bit of courage.

Ultimately, the goal of any book is to tell a story the best it can be told. Through these twelve years of writing, revising and reworking, questioning and listening, I’ve done all I can to accomplish that one major goal and stay true to AJ’s own intentions.

If you were to write a memoir, what would your goals be?