Celebrating a Life

Today I’m remembering a solo journey I took back in 2009 to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. My desire was to visit the place that had been significant for my mother. She and her  cousin, Yvonne traveled there by train when they were both nineteen to prepare for work in WWII as civil servants.

Throughout my childhood, Mama told stories of their adventures in Harrisburg. It was the first time those two farm girls had been outside of North Carolina. They returned to work at Pope Air Base, living on site and enjoying the lively community that included handsome soldiers. It was quite a change from rural Harnett County.

Before I left on my trip to Harrisburg, I took Mama to see Yvonne. At that time, they were both still living in their homes. We sat at Yvonne’s dining table and shared a meal of chicken and biscuits and I told them about my plan.


Yvonne Gilchrist Casto (sitting) and Mama, Mary Smith Rosser

While Yvonne had more physical problems than Mama, Yvonne was mentally sharp. Mama was in the early phase of dementia and understood that I was going to Harrisburg, but had a hard time recalling the specifics of living there. I felt an urgency to go then because I wanted her to be able to enjoy some of what I discovered while she could still savor those memories with Yvonne.

“We lived on McClay street. I hope you can find the house where we rented a room from the Flutes,” Yvonne told me.

Later, she shared one of their familiar stories. She was a clever prankster and often seemed to be the ‘set-up’ person while Mama took the bait. They were a real duo.

When I arrived in Harrisburg, I took pictures along the path by the Susquehanna River, remembering what an impression it made on Mama that frigid January day when they arrived. Mama would often say, “That river was frozen solid.” It would have been a real contrast to their partially-frozen farm pond in central North Carolina, which she would have be warned to stay away from when she was a girl.

While I walked along the streets abutting McClay and visited the Capitol where they’d had their photo taken, I imagined Mama and Yvonne, nineteen years old, the young women in the photo coming to life.


(L to R) Yvonne, their new friend, Mary Willis, and Mama, Mary Rosser at PA Capitol 1943

I tried but couldn’t find the training site. When I returned with my pictures, they listened in rapt attention as I told them what I saw and ways the city had changed since 1943.

Mama and Yvonne remained close over the years. We often said they were more like sisters and best friends than merely cousins.

How they loved each other’s company, able to finish each other’s stories from their time together as young women starting out in the world. After the war ended and they finished working at Pope Field, they went to Kansas City, Missouri to work for the airlines. While there, Yvonne met her husband, Bill and eventually moved with him to California.

Years later, we received the tragic news that Bill had been diagnosed with Huntington’s Chorea/Huntington’s Disease, a fatal genetic disorder (https://hdsa.org/what-is-hd/). He lost his job as a NASA contractor due to the  changes in his functioning caused by the break down of nerve cells in his brain. Yvonne and Bill, along with their six-year-old daughter, Kim moved back to North Carolina. Mama was heartbroken for Yvonne and was supportive of her through the eighteen years of Bill’s decline and eventual long-term care and then death. During that time, Yvonne was there for Mama when Daddy died suddenly from a heart attack.

As widows, they’d often visit each other and take trips to see friends and family that lived both nearby and faraway. They enjoyed each other’s company, often telling their stories from Harrisburg and Pope Field like a well-rehearsed tag team. We enjoyed watching them.

Eventually Yvonne’s diabetes and other physical problems, and Mama’s dementia led to both of them going to live in nursing centers. As long as they were able, we still tried to take them to see one another. When they were no longer able to visit, Yvonne would ask Kim about Mama, and Mama would smile when we’d tell her news of Yvonne. They were separated but we felt their spirits remained together.

Today I remember Yvonne because tomorrow I will attend her memorial service. She passed away last week in her nursing home thirty miles from Mama’s. Yvonne had just turned 95 on November 1st, catching up with her cousin who’d turned 95 in July.

For Mama and Yvonne, their strong cousin bond, shared adventures as young women, and support for one another, lasted a lifetime.

What a testament of  kinship, friendship, and loyalty pursurvering through the good and difficult times of life. What a priviledge to have learned from watching them.

Tomorrow we will celebrate Yvonne. Mama doesn’t know that her cousin is no longer living. She is spared from that grief by her dementia, so we daughters will go in Mama’s stead, supporting Kim, our cousin, as we honor the life of her incredible mother.


How About You?

Have you ever made a journey to discover more about a person you loved?

What did you learn about that person?  What did you learn about yourself?

Searching for Mama

Today is Mama’s 94th birthday.  We’ll gather at the nursing home and she’ll see that there’s something special going on: great-grandchildren bringing her balloons, tables covered with bright cloths and vases of flowers, birthday cake and family singing to her.  Thinking about how little she understands now, I’m glad I went in search of her when she could still comprehend.  How excited she was when I told her I’d take my solo journey to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

She and her cousin, Yvonne, traveled there in January of 1943 when they were just 19-yrs-old for training to work in the WWII effort.  They loved telling stories about their escapades during the six months they spent away from rural North Carolina.


(L to R) Yvonne Gilchrist, Mary Willis, Mary Smith–aka Mama

Since Mama had declined with dementia, she was barely able to join Yvonne in telling their stories.  I needed to go there to explore while there was still time.  Yvonne gave me the details she remembered of their neighborhood and training facility.

I wanted to be in that place and imagine Mama at nineteen.  I’d never thought of myself as being like her.  We didn’t favor in appearance— she was a redhead and freckled and I took after Daddy— with dark hair and skin that tanned.  Moreover, I didn’t think we were alike in our personalities.  She seemed so pragmatic while I tended to be a day dreamer, imaginative.

But for one of my birthdays, she gave me a card that surprised me.  Unlike the usual, carefully chosen Hallmark where she’d underlined and double underlined keywords, this card was different.  On the front was a Victorian era girl walking in a group with a faraway look in her eyes.  Inside the blank card written in Mama’s cursive, she started her birthday greeting with, “To My Dreamer Daughter who is like me.”

I was puzzled by that description of herself and thought I’d missed something.  Part of going to Harrisburg was to try and find who Mama was as a young woman. Once I was there, I walked in the area around Maclay Street where they’d rented a room from the Flute family.  I took pictures of every building that could have been there back in 1943.



Yvonne and Mama–in their eighties, cousins and best friends


At sunset, I walked by the river and remembered a comment Mama had often made about that cold January.

“The Susquehanna was frozen solid,” she said, and you could see that for a moment she was transported back in time.  As a child from the South, she would have been warned to stay off any body of water that appeared frozen.

I drove out to Hershey Park and thought of how Mama and Yvonne had gone there to a Big Band concert.  What an exciting and scary time—as Mama had four brothers who were in the war.  It must have been hard for Grandma and Granddaddy Smith to watch their young Mary leaving as well.  How brave of Mama to go, anyway, knowing the pressure she probably felt to help out at home.  She was the middle of the three girls, like me, but her older sister would have never ventured out like that.

I’m adventurous like Mama, I thought, the first time I’d realized what we shared.  My view of Mama had been shaped by her role as our mother, wife of my father, and pragmatist who’d lived through the Great Depression and WWII.  Before all that, she was a girl with dreams, like me.

While I’d gone to Harrisburg in search of Mama, I returned knowing more of myself.


What about you?

Have you ever gone on a journey to better understand someone?

How did what you find change you?