It’s almost Mother’s Day. The television and newspapers advertisements are full of beautiful things that are practically guaranteed that every mother will love. Then, of course, we can’t forget the appropriate greeting card. If ever there were a Hallmark moment, this is it.

“What’s this?” my mother asked years ago after Ron, my younger brother, and I presented her with a small, yet suitably wrapped gift box. “It’s from all of us,” spoke Ron, meaning that my father had paid for the gift.

After Mom had read the card and expressed her thanks, she started to unwrap the package. A quick rip of the gift-wrapping revealed the familiar pink-and-white-striped packaging of a box of Turtles, a chocolate-covered walnut and caramel confection my mother had a particular fondness for.

After we each got one piece of the candy, the rest of the box was put away, and my mother would slowly consume the sweets, savoring each piece with almost-sinful delight.

Next, we’d all pile into the Dodge, and Mom would be taken for a Mother’s Day meal at some nice restaurant, with both real cloth tablecloths and cloth napkins. Ron and I would have on our best sports jackets and ties and be on our best behavior.

 

The war years

My mother was raised on a farm in a small town in the thumb of Michigan. She was part of a large family and had eight brothers and sisters. Mom went to a one-room schoolhouse and then later went onto high school in town and excelled in her art classes.

After she had completed high school, she moved, alone, to a suburb of Detroit, where she became a live-in nanny. She also found another job where she worked in a photography studio and was able to apply some of her artistic skills by hand-coloring portrait photographs.

Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, my mother took a step few women considered in those years: She enlisted in the Marine Corps. After “boot” training at Camp LeJeune, N.C., and because of her experience with photography, she was assigned to the Marine Air Station at Cherry Point, N.C.

On June 3, 1944, she was working in the air-conditioned and soundproof film-storage library on the third floor of a wooden building. A fire broke out on the first floor and was raging uncontrollably by the time my mother and her fellow Marines discovered it.

Although she was lucky to escape with her life, down the hall, the only two women Marines to perish during World War II while on duty weren’t as fortunate. 

In a book I discovered recently, about one of the women who perished, my mother recalls how “she noticed that the skin on her arms was coming off in layers, and when she touched her hair, it fell into her scorched hands in clumps.” 

The super-heated air was estimated at no less than 932 degrees Fahrenheit.

My mother finished out the war years undergoing extensive plastic surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, where she met my father, who was also a burn victim. They married and moved to Cincinnati, where my father had been raised.

 

Always the teacher

My brother and I were both born in Cincinnati, and in 1954, my father went to work for Chrysler, which, with all of its housing transfers, must have reminded my mom of the military at times. Before they retired to Florida, we followed my father from Cincinnati to Chicago for 364 days, on to Los Angeles for 10 years and finally to Detroit for another 15 years.

When we moved to California, my mother decided that there was no telling how long we’d be there, so we were going to see some of the scenery that the western United States offered. 

At my mother’s insistence, besides many short car trips, we traveled, in the late 1950s, up the West Coast to Mount Rainier and back via different routes. One year, we also traveled east by car again to Bryce, Zion and Grand canyons in Arizona and Utah. Then, of course, there were numerous trips, also by car, from L.A. to Michigan and back to see relatives.

My mother started taking me to museums when I was only in the second grade. The natural museums and parks were my favorites. Thanks to Mom, I learned to identify numerous plants, birds and animals at a very young age.

There wasn’t a kid in all the neighborhoods we’ve lived in who didn’t know that if they had any question about nature, they could probably find out the answer at my house. 

“Why don’t you go ask Mrs. McDaniel?” became an oft-repeated refrain on our block.

When she was still living in Michigan, my mother put together a three-ring binder filled with various weed samples she’d found growing in the area. Then, any plants she had trouble identifying, she kept bugging Michigan State University’s agricultural department with them until she was satisfied. She was known on the block as “the Plant Lady.”

 

Good memories

I can’t ever see a pink-and-white-striped box of Turtles candy without thinking of all those Mother’s Day gifts we gave her years ago.

Mom passed away a decade ago. I owe her so much. Thanks, Mom.

GARY McDANIEL is a longtime Magnolia resident. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.