My mother, Olga Eva Taylor, was born on Annunciation Street in New Orleans on February 12, 1915, just about 2 miles from the infamously enticing French Quarter. She was born in the Mardi Gras season and the aura of this point of arrival very aptly conveys her personality and temperament. She had a flair for the melodramatic, was a bit on the reckless side, was colorful, impulsive, and did not hesitate to express her feelings without restraint.
She was a registered nurse (R.N.) and as I recall earned the second highest grade on the Louisiana State Boards upon her graduation from Touro Infirmary. She was pediatric ward supervisor at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. She loved her little patients and told me a story about a very tiny premature black baby girl who was declining and not expected to live. Her glamorous name was Marie Antoinette! Almost on a whim it was suggested that she be given a blood transfusion and my mother had the right type. The other nurses joked that my lively, excitable mother's blood would pep her up, if anything could. The tiny dying infant did indeed pep up, and survived to eventually leave Charity Hospital. With a new attitude, no doubt!
During WWll my future mother was reeling from a heartbreaking divorce and wanted to serve overseas. But she was underweight, and tried drinking milkshakes in order to become just heavy enough to pass the physical. To no avail. A friend told her, "Olga, you could sit on a dime and still read 'In God We Trust'!"
After she remarried in Houston and became pregnant with me, her first child, at age 35, there were signs that she might miscarry. My concerned 43-year-old father insisted that she stop working in order to safeguard her pregnancy, and she did. Twenty years later when she returned to nursing she boldly applied for the position of supervisor in a private geriatric nursing facility. Despite lacking any experience in all those 20 years with new technology or medications, etc., she was hired at age 55! Needless to say, the strain on her was enormous as she faced such a "learning curve". But she regained her exceptional ability to start IV's that other nurses could not manage, and was sometimes called from home to come in for that very purpose. No vein was too tiny in infants or too elusive in the elderly for Olga to find!
My mother had very dark hair - almost black, very dark brown eyes and an olive complexion. In her 40's she had a series of vision complications - cataracts in each eye followed by detached retinas in each eye following separate accidents. The first was a car accident and in the second a big husky refrigerator repairman was pulling the door closed as he left and my mother impulsively stepped forward to say one more thing - and the door slammed into her temple. By age 50 she would have been declared legally blind without glasses, which had dark green lenses and were very thick. When I was a child my friends would ask why my mother wore sunglasses in the house! As a result of these injuries she developed a fear of suddenly going blind and would not sleep without a light on.
When I was about 9 she decided to take swimming lessons with my class. She was the only adult in the group - fortunately I was still too young to be mortified! I can still see her kick-floating all the way across the pool wearing her rubber bathing cap. She never did master the art of breathing while swimming so it was a mighty mastery of breath-holding the entire way, end to end.
She could be very surprising. One afternoon when I was about 11 at a neighbor's house she suddenly sat down at their piano and played a lovely melody. I had no idea that she had taken lessons as a child! Another afternoon she jumped on my bicycle and took a spin around the block. I had no idea that she could do that and I stood in the middle of the street, hopping up and down and laughing, waiting for her to come back! Those were one-time-only demonstrations that left me utterly and delightedly agog!
She had very beautiful hands. "Isn't it a shame," she would ruefully remark, "that my best features are so far from my face?"
As a mother, the role in which I knew her best, she was intensely interested and devoted - always abundantly generous and affectionate. She would spend hours talking to me about "being a Southern lady", being kind to others, being sensitive to other people's "feelings", being mannerly. Saying "yes ma'am" and "no sir" was so deeply ingrained in me that I had a tough time knowing when I was old enough myself to drop that habit. It was when younger people started calling me ma'am that I figured the time had come!
While watching the Miss America Pageant she advised me that it would be better to win "Miss Congeniality".
She had a particular concern that our clothes be "smart", tailored, and neatly pressed. She even ironed my hair ribbons and plaited my long hair so tightly and neatly that a boy in my class discovered to his amusement that my braids could be twisted as if stiffened with wires. I went around the classroom many a day with one braid bent at a 90 degree angle.
She was emotional, wept with compassion at a sad story, had a deep voice for a woman and a throaty, unforgettable laugh. Her personality was so compelling that she either annoyed a person to distraction or else attracted them as a friend forever. Her temper could be as intense as her good cheer.
She had a thousand stories and could pull one out to suit every occasion. She was terrified of dogs because when she was a child in Biloxi, Mississippi they had a French maid and her face had been mauled by a dog when she was a child. Tant Jolie told my mother to always cover her face if she saw a dog coming her way. Sure enough, up went those pretty hands if Fido even looked in my mother's direction.
My mother's family had another French maid called Fay Lay-SEA' (phonetic spelling here) and when we were sick our mother gave us a little bell to ring at our bedsides and we were to call out, "Fay lay-SEA'!" I never quite understood the meaning in that practice but dutifully, we did it! And Mama came running.
One of my sweetest memories of being in her company was standing on a street downtown in front of a department store called Foley's in winter waiting for my father to pick us up after a long day of shopping. (shopping was one of her greatest joys. Things for her children - never for herself). It was bitterly cold and she had a lovely reversible wool coat, cut A-line and very wide at the hem in the 1950's style. It was black on the side she liked best, with a wide white lapel collar and white cuffs. She wrapped it around me and my head poked out above the big black buttons and I think my head was no higher than her waist. It was the coziest feeling ever.