I have been very blessed to have some strong women in my life, starting with the woman who gave me everything, my mother, Elizabeth Petrie Burns Wendell.
She came to this country from Scotland as a young woman, just 18 years old, working as an au pair for a wealthy family in Manhattan. On her first day in America, October 30, 1956, she landed at Idlewild Airport and by the time she cleared customs the sun was going down.
The family had sent a car, and between the red skies and yellow cabs and the green and yellow lights she felt that America was the most colorful place on earth. In fact, she likened it to Dorothy seeing Oz for the first time, as if everything in her life up until then had been black and white.
That night as she went to sleep, she was able to look out her window and see the Empire State Building from her pillow. Welcome to America, mom.
From time to time I’ve thought about packing up and moving, getting a fresh start somewhere else; we’ve all had those urges. But thinking and actually doing are two different things.
And to pack up and leave everyone and everything you know, to move across the ocean in the days when you couldn’t find comfort in a Zoom or Facetime with your loved ones, that took real courage.
Now, I have to be careful with this next story because my mom used to get mad at me for telling it. Catch me one night at Neir’s or Geordie’s and I might tell the whole thing, but not here in the paper. I’ll give the redacted version.
There was a neighbor on Jamaica Avenue who had a habit of disciplining children who her son did not get along with. I had to be about seven years old at the time, and the neighbor had grabbed my arm and was hitting me very hard.
My mom was coming home from shopping on the avenue and witnessed this. She intervened. That’s all I’m able to say, that she intervened. And that the neighbor never lifted her hand to another child on that block again.
You can take the girl out of Scotland, but you can’t take the Scot out of the girl.
I was a sickly child, and she spent a lot of late nights with me, tending to the vaporizer and taking my temperature. She helped me with homework and school projects. She let me stay up and watch television with her when my dad was working nights.
And she made the best peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches ever. The ingredients are easy to remember: peanut butter, jelly and bread. But she had a way of cutting the sandwich where the edges of the bread stuck together and the peanut and jelly were sealed inside.
I’d pay any amount of money to have one of mom’s peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches again.
But what really left an impact on me was how hard my mom worked to ensure I received a good education.
Throughout high school and college, my mom worked little part-time jobs, mostly cleaning apartments for local seniors. Through her clients, she got referred to other seniors and pretty soon she was busy.
And every dollar she earned went towards my tuition and school expenses. Every dollar.
There were mornings that she was hurting, I could see that. But she wouldn’t dream of not working, not until I was out of school. And it was a great motivator to me. How could I not give my best when she was giving hers? She was, and continues to be, a great inspiration to me.
During Women’s History Month, the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society will be highlighting local artists. Last week, we introduced you to Woodhaven’s Deborah Camp. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be meeting Jennifer Lambert and Mahfuza Shammy Rahman, two more local artists.
All of the weekly Tuesday presentations are free, and if you’d like to attend email the WCHS at email@example.com for an invite.