Post #70 – Women’s Memoirs, Rosie the Riveter – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett
Writing About Someone in Your Family?
Memoir writing is primarily about sharing your life through personal narrative. However, there are times when you want to tell someone else’s story. That’s what we called for when we announced our Rosie Story contest. We wanted women to capture the stories of women in their family or town who belonged to the generation of Rosie the Riveters. We wanted stories of women and their lives during World War II.
We got many interesting vignettes and will be publishing the winning one on either WomensMemoirs.com, RosiesDaughters.com, or a combination of the two. Today’s Rosie Story is published with Part 1 on RosiesDaughters.com and Part 2 here.
We split today’s story by Angela Kempe because it sheds light on life during World War II and it illustrates one way to write another person’s story. You will find the first half by Clicking Here. Then return to this blog post to read the second part. (Don’t worry. We put a link at the end of Part 1 to make it easy for you.)
The author, Angela Kempe, tells her grandmother’s story, writing as if her grandmother were telling her the story. Only at the end does Angela bring herself into the story. This is one approach to consider when you want to tell someone else’s story. We hope you enjoy this story and welcome your thoughts in the Comments section below.
My Mother’s Crimson Lipstick, Part 2 by Angela Kempe
“I remember so many stories of my childhood,” she continued.
For instance, one day my mother asked my sister and me to collect some water from the well. Laura announced to me that the water was too far away and would be too heavy to carry back. Her solution was to take our stepfather’s car without permission. All went well until we were driving back. Screech…screech…thunk. Laura drove over something and bent the axle. We managed to get back and my stepfather did not beat us. He hid his outrage in the creases of his face and we continued on with just a reprimand from Mother.
Sometimes we’d find ourselves at the fire pit where a Mexican man named, Campusano, met all the neighborhood children to tell scary stories in Spanish. I’d listen attentively to his voice rise and fall, clinching my pretty dress in terror as his deep voice rumbled the ground beneath me.
I recall that mining life was hard on my stepfather. We moved back and forth many times, from Pasadena, California to distant places in the barren desert. When I reached high school, my mother left without us for Arizona with her husband and we were placed under the care of my grandmother.
It was during those years that World War II began. We put up heavy curtains and during blackouts, drills when loud sirens sounded through the city, we couldn’t allow any lights to show from our house.
I dropped out of high school and went to work folding clean cloth diapers in a laundromat called Dainty Didey. In high school, I had made friends with a Pachuca named Alice, who worked along side me at the laundromat. Pachucos were very tough, well-dressed Hispanic males. They wore zoot-suits with peg pants, dress shirts with suspenders, nice shoes, and hats. Alice’s brothers were boxers and had taught their sister how to fight. She dressed like them. I thought of her as a modern woman, defying the traditional customs of my parents and grandparents.
One day, I was in the restroom when a bunch of girls from the laundromat followed me in. They were picking a fight with me, accusing me of thinking I was better than them. Sensing trouble, Alice walked in after them. She slammed the bathroom door behind her with a thud. “Leave her alone or else.” The girls backed off, but when I was working alone they would speak about me in Spanish behind my back. One day, I was folding diapers at my station and they were snickering at me again. I got fed up and marched up to them, the smell of laundry detergent permeating the humid air in a mist around me. My heart was working like the washing machines, and I felt my blood draining from my head down to my toes like the rinse cycle. I demanded that they stop talking behind my back. They were better after that. I learned how to assert myself by watching Alice.
Several years later, my parents came back and were able to buy an old-fashioned two-story house. At that point, I was shedding my childlike features and emerging as a woman so I put red lipstick on as my own mother did. I began to attend the dances that were held at the city hall in Pasadena with my friends.
That’s when I met a sailor. He was eighteen, and I thought that I would marry him. He was dark complected, with black hair, and was slightly taller than I was. A quiet man, but jealous. He didn’t like to dance while dancing was everything to me at that age. My friends and I would take a portable record player to someone’s house and dance together. I danced with everyone when I attended dances. I had great fun, but my boyfriend didn’t understand and certainly didn’t approve.
One day, I was out walking with a friend when I saw a young man standing with a group who seemed to be his friends. They had gathered at the corner by the bus stop. I noticed right away his clean cut, zoot-suit pants and button up shirt. He didn’t notice me at that moment, but his handsome image stayed in my mind, like sweet melting chocolate on my tongue.
Later that week, I was at a dance at the Pasadena town hall, when the young man from the bus stop spotted me from across the room. Maybe he had noticed me before. He lurched forward and when I saw him striding across the room toward me my heart seemed to already feel that tinge of love, sparking up like embers ready to ignite into flames.
“Will you dance with me?” he asked, holding out his hand for mine.
We danced the entire night. His name was Robert and he had just returned from the army. We danced and danced that night and again the next night. My boyfriend saw us together and couldn’t contain his jealousy. He marched up to me at once and demanded to speak with me.
We walked outside in the warm summer night. “I don’t want you dancing with that guy,” he said.
I had known for some time that he wasn’t the right match for me. But now faced with his penetrating eyes, and the lips that pursed together tightly in attempts to hide his rage, I guessed it was easier to tell him how I felt rather than continue the relationship. So I ended things with him that night and went back inside to Robert.
“Would you like to walk outside awhile?” Robert asked.
I took his hand and we went to the park, stopping under the old oak trees whose thick branches sprawled across the sky. Robert kissed me, and I knew then that I would always love him.
After that, we started dating, going to shows and returning home to the steps of my parents’ house where he departed after giving me a kiss.
“I was thinking of re-enlisting in the army,” he told me one night at the steps.
I looked him squarely in the face. “I don’t want you to.”
He kissed me and then grabbed my hand, twisting a ring off my finger. “What a pretty ring!” he teased.
We giggled, tumbling over each other as he hid the ring from me. Then he kissed me again.
“Good night,” he said, vanishing down the road with my ring still in his possession.
When I walked inside, my mother was sitting on the sofa in our living room.
“One day, you’re are going to run away,” she told me.
I didn’t think about it then. Maybe she knew my heart was like her own, loyal to one man at any cost. But a generation separated us, and for me, love was new and mysterious and not something that my mother could comprehend.
Later that week, Robert picked me up to go to a bar that had a dance floor. I came out dressed in black, but he told me to go back and change into something else. I went to my room and put on a colorful dress. I rejoined Robert and we left for our evening out.
Later, when we were sitting at the bar he said, “By the way, here’s your ring back.”
Taking my hand in his, he slipped it back on my finger. But it wasn’t my ring. At least it wasn’t the ring I was wearing before. It was an engagement ring, sparkling on my finger. I was elated. I said, “Yes. Yes. Yes.” He swept me onto the dance floor and we danced together, hearts pounding to the music of the 40’s till the late hours of the night.
“We ran away together. We eloped just as Mother predicted.”
Grandma paused as she remembered and a small smile folded at the edges of her lips. She was still wearing the same shade of lipstick as her mother, but years had bleached her shiny brown locks, and the white waves of her hair were luminescent in the southern California morning light. To me, she was still beautiful as she sat there in her garden. “…And we had five children. We had a very…”
She clinched her fingers into a fist and her brown eyes looked beyond me, to a sea of memories still vivid even now in her mind. “Well, life wasn’t always bliss, but for the most part it was beautiful and fun.”
And with the same fierce determination of her mother, she loved Grandpa to the day of his death. And high above us that morning; higher than the squirrels scampering up and down the limbs of the giant orange tree in her backyard; higher than the hawk that reminds us of Grandpa as it glides through the air above our heads; higher than perhaps the clouds, in a sea of stars that sprawl infinitely away from us as we sit in the patio; I imagine my great grandmother gazing down at us with the same majesty she possessed in life. And she sees straight into my heart, like she did her daughter’s those many years ago, and she says to me, “Do what you need to do.”
And I feel content with that, because I’m wearing her crimson lipstick.