Today is International Women’s day, and I salute all the trailblazing, pioneering women who have brought about the tremendous progress women have made in our society. This is a joyous day for women. But it’s a sad day for me.
Because of what March 8th meant for my mother.
A Powerful Woman
My mother was an amazing singer with a powerful, rich voice. She entered a singing competition, the American Idol of her day, with the grand prize being a spot in New York City’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera Company.
Mother placed very high in the competition, but she didn’t win. That prize went to another young Armenian singer with a rich voice, Lucine Amara. Amara was one of those pioneering women, who during her 41-year career at the Met, had to sue her employer for age discrimination. She won her suit, and performing women all across the country benefited.
Meanwhile, my mother’s career got a boost from the contest. Big enough to leave home, move to Los Angeles, and pursue a singing career and a recording contract.
She went into a studio and cut a demo record. While she was trying to shop it to RCA, she auditioned for singing roles around LA. And one night during this time, she went to sing at the USO Club in Hollywood.
The Night Everything Changed
My mother had no way of knowing that the love of her life would be waiting for her at the club. He was a sailor on a 3-week shore leave from the Navy, where he was stationed on a tiny island off the coast of Alaska. He happened to be a fantastic piano player and dropped in at the club to play some music and have a good time.
It didn’t take long for that sailor to catch my mother’s eye. Or, should I say, her ear. She was really impressed with this piano player’s talent, and before long was sitting with him at the piano singing along to every song he knew.
When she found out he was full-blooded Armenian like she was, the deal was done. They fell madly in love, and after a whirlwind romance, the two eloped. When his 3-week shore leave was up, the piano player returned to his station in Alaska a married man.
A Wartime Bride
My mother married that sailor but had to live apart from him until his duty was done in Alaska. Then they did the awkward work of meeting each other’s families. Can you imagine what it was like for this traditional, church-choir-singing girl to explain to her family that she just married a sailor who blew into town on shore leave without a proper church wedding?
But it was wartime in a different era, and it was not uncommon for women to get married and wait for their new husbands to come home. After Alaska, the two of them moved to Washington DC, where my father finished his tour of duty at the Pentagon.
Their first child, my sister, was born at the naval hospital in Bethesda. When my dad was finally discharged from the Navy, they headed back to California where it was warm.
My dad was sick of the cold. He grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home of the Green Bay Packers and their frozen tundra, Lambeau Field. Then the Navy shipped him off to a floating glacier called Adak, Alaska. After suffering through all that, he was determined to live in the warm climate where he’d met my mother. Fortunately for me, they chose San Francisco.
My Mother’s Sacrifice
While my father went to college on the GI bill to become a studio musician, my mother put her musical career on hold. A year later my brother was born, then I showed up a couple of years after that.
Our mother sacrificed her career to care for us. She played the dutiful mother and housewife role, while my father pursued his musical career. Though she loved her husband and her family, it must have been tough to set her dream aside while he pursued his.
She had wanted to be an opera singer for most of her young life. But women back then didn’t have their own careers. They stayed home, raised the children so the men could have careers.
And though my father was a great musician, my mother may have been even better.
She probably thought she would have another chance at a singing career. Once we were all in school, she could go back to auditions and demo records.
But she never got that chance. Shortly after I was born, she began to get sick. She was in and out of the hospital for most of my early life. Had they found the cause early on, she might have had a chance. But two months shy of my 4th birthday, when she was just 36 years old, she died of breast cancer.
Her death certificate is on my bulletin board just above my monitor. It’s dated March 8th, 1962.
Celebrate International Women’s Day Today
Please give some thought to all the strong women who sacrificed so future generations could have more. The women who fought for the right to vote, to drive, to own a business, and to do the same kind of work that men have taken for granted for generations.
And while you’re at it, please give a thought to my mother and the many women like her. I’m sad today because I grew up without her, and she never had a chance to pursue her dream.
But we should all celebrate this day. Because it’s our mother’s sacrifices that allows us all to pursue our dreams.