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.

Live More, Fear Less: Have a Grateful Day

We can’t change what happens to us – too many things are outside of our control – but we can determine our reaction or response to those things. We can also shift our focus and be grateful for what we have in the face of our circumstances.

“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” ~ Oprah Winfrey

Being grateful changes our perspective and helps us to appreciate our blessings. A thankful person is also less likely to complain. And when we’re full of gratitude, there is little room for fear or worry that can hold us back and bring us to a deep, dark place that’s hard to climb out of.

Being grateful is easy. You can take any negative and turn it around. You might not like your job, but because of it you can pay for a place to live and food to eat. Your car might be broken down, but you can still walk. It might rain on your wedding day, but rain waters the earth and makes everything fresh. No food to eat? You have arms to hold others and a voice to uplift those in need.

Finding the positive in a tragedy isn’t quite so easy. I once took a course that required the students to write their life out on a timeline – all those important happy/sad events that shaped us. What I found out, looking back on my timeline, was that I hadn’t walked that path alone. I had family or friends or the presence of God to get me through all the awful things. And seeing that, in hindsight, made me grateful. All those bad times helped to shape me and, though I could have done without them, I’m the person I am today because of them. Maybe I wouldn’t be as concerned for those who suffer if I hadn’t gone through what I did.

The hardest part of being grateful is remembering to be. But if we determine to make a change in how we look at things, there are a lot of ways to start making thankfulness a habit. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Make a Gratitude Board. Post pictures on a wall or a board of the things you’re grateful for in your life. The visual aspect of this is an excellent reminder, and if you put it in a place where you see it throughout your day, it’s even more helpful. Kathi Lipp talks about practicing gratitude and creating a gratitude board in her blog.
  2. Keep a Gratitude Journal. The Benefits of Positive Thinking website suggests writing in a journal or notebook at the beginning of the day, or the end, or even taking it with you to jot down your thoughts during the day. “Because you actually stop to write what you are thankful for, you do dedicate some time to reflect about it. You take the time to count your blessings….”
  3. Begin and End with Thankfulness. Before I get up in the morning, I take the time to remember the good things in my life and be thankful. Doing this gets me in the right frame of mind for the rest of my day. At night, reflecting on the positives that happened that day also helps bring me peace and a good night’s sleep.
  4. Be Observant. Determine not to take things for granted. Being grateful for the big things in life (like having a family or a job) is important, but so is being thankful for the little things. Notice the awesome blue in a clear summer sky, and be grateful you have eyes to see it. We have salt for our food, clean running water, toilets (and toilet paper). So many good and ordinary things to be grateful for, and if they were gone we would surely miss them. 
  5. Say Thank You. Recognize acts of kindness and express your gratitude even for little things, whether to family, friends, or strangers. Write notes, send emails, make a phone call – and do it as soon as you think of it. You’ll brighten someone else’s day and yours as well.

Why don’t you start a list of the things you’re grateful for? Make it easy. Starting today, write down three things you’re grateful for and why. Then every day add at least one new thing to the list. In a month’s time you’ll have more than 30 things on your list.

I’ve heard that if you do something everyday for 21 days, you’ll make that thing a habit. There are so many worse things to make a habit of than being grateful.

Today, what are you grateful for?