Thursday, March 17, 2016


My father Charles,  my mother Mildred, my friend's child Yuki, and my daughter Jennifer about 1983.

   As I contemplated my new diagnosis of two types of cancer that need both chemo and radiation, I wondered what my mother would have done?  How would she have reacted to such news?

   I looked in the mirror and saw my mother, with bits of my father - his big ears, his high forehead, his curly hair. But I am still my mother. And I wonder can I be as strong as she was?  
Mamie Mildred Gladstone Kramer
   She was born in Tennessee in the mountains where her people spoke Eizabethan English but they moved to West Asheville, North Carolina.   She withstood the 1918 flu epidemic and nursed her entire family.   She was raped in high school and lived through that somehow, she went to New York to escape North Carolina's small mindedness (Thomas Wolfe’s city was her city) only to be met with the great Depression, cutting short her stint in nursing school.  She fell in love with a Red-headed Red, then was jilted by him. 

   She met a lovely man, married him and moved to Berkeley. He became a professor of Psychology at San Francisco State where I met him in my freshman year there.   But she was still in love with Red so left the good man after six months.  Spent three years literally starving, while dishing ice cream, cleaning floors, doing whatever to support herself, meanwhile dating Ed McMillan and Opie (Oppenheim - yes that famous one). When she got poison oak, Opie brought her roses. She couldn’t even afford to buy one.
   Oddly and most romantically, Red showed up three years later looking for her.  The woman he’d left her for didn’t work out (an educated woman who studied with Freud - wonder why that didn’t work out?).  Red sent her to Carson City, Nevada for a quickie divorce and took her back with him to Washington DC where he was working. They married on lunch break in a grey suit, went to Niagara for a quick honeymoon.  She never finished college but followed Red around the country when he supported the Flint sit-down through the LaFollette Committee, investigated industrial espionage on the part of big business especially at the Flint, Michigan plant,  solved the mystery of the police shootings of the Memorial Day massacre where the workers were shot for demonstrating. [In the book Selected Writings by Dorothy Day (who was present), the events of the protest are summarized as thus: 'On Memorial Day, May 30, 1937, police opened fire on a parade of striking steel workers and their families at the gate of the Republic Steel Company, in South Chicago. Fifty people were shot, of whom 10 later died; 100 others were beaten with clubs.']  My mother used a doll to prove the workers were shot in the back.  

Memorial Day Massacre

   They continued getting involved in political causes and issues, she even worked for the Russians during the war - our allies — and knitted beautiful sweaters for the RED ARMY - they were freezing over there.  So many things my mother went through - having to let go of all her southern prejudices.  Meeting the most amazing people in the world — Diego Rivera, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois - and more — because my father was a radical, wanted radical change in this world. And so did his many great friends.  Meanwhile she witnessed attacks my father suffered for being Jewish - attacked just driving down the streets of New York.   My mother was beautiful and a white lady. But she loved my father’s passion. I imagine there was nothing so completely different from her small life in Asheville, NC as my father and his passions, his intellect, his wide ranging interests.  I dunno. 

But then there was Truman’s announcement that 8 people in his government were spies for the Soviets.  I was a baby in her arms when my mother heard this announcement and I started crying.  I felt her terror.  And it never left.  We moved to New York, then we moved again, and again. They left us alone after a while in Los Angeles. My mother’s fears, never going away, were superseded by her ability to finally get a good job with the LAUSD and buy houses, against my apartment-dwelling NY father who didn’t believe in private property.  But it served them well - their mortgage was $125 a month and they could survive on $10,000 a year total. Somehow. How I don’t know.  When I inherited their properties I realized that so few good repairs were done to them unless they were essential - toilet, or pipes, or paint.  But nothing to beautify the place. No refinishing of beautiful wooden floors.  No upgrade of the kitchen (without changing the basic kitchen or wasting throwing out good basic cabinets).  So many items needed to be improved. But they didn’t have the money.

   So would my mother be strong enough to have withstood cancer - two cancers and chemo and radiation?   I’m sure she would have though I am grateful she was not plagued with anything worse than a hiatal hernia that felt like a heart attack, or a gall bladder that had to be removed.  Or teeth that had to be replaced. Luckily none were life threatening. She lived until 95, and I think had a cancerous node in her breast at the very end.  That was it. Only dementia did her in in the end.
Mom, sister Anne, Me at Sequoia

Ma and Pa Kramer

My mom and dad with my daughter Jen about 5 (1986)

                                      My mom's house with a beautiful view

Not enough has been said here about my mother's early life as a Tennessee mountain person (whose people spoke Elizabethan English but whose mother thought that was low class and never taught my mom the wonderful Ballads), transition to the smartest and most beautiful girl in her high school, and then her getaway to the big city and how difficult that must have been.
   I have a treasure trove of my mother's short stories which she wrote over several years. The actually show the development of her thoughts as well as give a glance into her terrors.  She was always cheerful and whistling, playing the piano which was self-taught, trying to hide the terror and anxiety with which she lived her entire life.
   And yet I honestly believe she would have fought valiantly against the cancers that are tearing me up and bringing out all the anxiety of my childhood.  I want to conquer this.  So forgive this short bio of my mother for Women's History Month.

1918 Flu Epidemic - --
Edwin McMillan -  
J. Robert Oppenheimer - -    
The Memorial Day Massacre - 
Dorothy Day - 
The Red Army - 
National WW2 Museum - knitting -- 
Knitting for victory - 


  1. Wonderful story about your family. Thanks for sharing.

  2. A beautiful story! Thank you for sharing. Your mom's life fascinated me. I am glad you are using this time to think about her and her influence on you. We are all benefitting.

  3. Thank you Joan Wink! I think it does help to summon up her influence. Yes!! But thank you for liking the story!! You are the great story maven!!!

  4. WOW, Joan…while I've heard bits and pieces of your mother's story through the decades I'd never put them together into the coherent, courageous, utterly fascinating portrait you so lovingly portray. I can see what an inspiration she has been and continues to be at this time when you are needing her strength and calm more than ever. I see you drawing from your own unique 'inner Mildred' all the time…you are clearly her daughter. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, your feelings, your story! A beautiful tribute to a beautiful woman…Margery