It was one month before Mom turned 90 – I knew that. It was three months before she died – I didn’t know that. We were in her small photo-lined room in the assisted living facility outside Seattle. Mom was sunk into her blue velour recliner, a hand-crocheted afghan draped over her always-cold knees. I perched on the edge of her hospital bed. My iPhone recorder was running as I tried to capture her memories about work and family over the course of her life. Did she regret leaving her career at the Associated Press in the early 1950s to begin a family? No, she was 30 years old, and she knew she wanted marriage and children. It was a “good job” that she had “enjoyed” but she was ready to shift to “family work.”
“Other people thought the job was glamorous. It was contact with famous people and stuff.” The conversation moved on, Mom talking a bit about the work at the AP, me mmm-hmming at regular intervals.
“Of course, both Nikki and I ended up interviewing Queen Elizabeth right after she became the queen.”
Say what? You’d think I would have heard about this before. Was it a touch of dementia? Was she thinking about the Diamond Jubilee celebration that had been in the news?
But the calm and cogent details continued.
“We both had a chance to interview her. She was a very young queen! It was not too long after the royal wedding, and they had gone to Africa to make a state visit or something. Her father died while they were gone. And so Philip and Elizabeth had fairly short television interviews, and we did those. She had a very difficult British accent! They were nice people. I enjoyed them.”
Well, good to know Philip and Elizabeth had made a good impression. I tried to probe a bit more about the circumstances of the interview, but Mom wasn’t done with her assessment of the royal couple.
“She was a good woman. Though I don’t think she did a very good job on her family.”
No doubt many in the world shared that opinion.
“She maybe gave too much attention to matters of state. And Philip, of course, was the typical English father. He didn’t have very much to do with the family, but a great deal to say.”
So there we were, back to the question of women and work. And clearly Mom thought she’d managed the balancing act better than the British Monarchy.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
I sit now, on what would have been Mom’s 92nd birthday and several thoughts run through my mind. One flows from my position as writer of creative nonfiction. Did this really happen? Is there a way to Google or archive my way to the truth? I’ve tried, but I’m not sure it will be possible. The facts of my mother’s story, such as they are, line up with history. But will I find an AP story about Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip with her byline? Probably not. Associated Press stories of that era were rarely attributed, and the story is long lost, I fear.
I also think about the ostensible topic of the conversation with my mother from two years ago: women and work. Whether or not she actually chatted with royalty, Mom had a really interesting job. Like many women, she landed a position with the Associated Press during the war. Unlike many of those women, though, she held onto the job when the men returned and may well have risen far in the AP ranks if she’d been interested. Instead, she “opted out” when she married in 1953 and had four daughters by the end of 1961. She was back at journalism in 1966 when her youngest girl went to kindergarten – an early example, perhaps, of the “you an have it all but not at the same time” model we hear about these days.
But the more I think about this conversation with Mom, the more I’m drawn to a small detail – Nikki.
There’s a large – 11” x 17” – book under my bed. Its cover is plain black, and the spine reads “Detroit Collegian, Vol. 34, Sept. – May 1943-44.” The book is a compilation of issues from the student newspaper of Wayne University in Detroit, Michigan. The front-page headline of the first issue published on September 21, 1943 reads “First Army Group Arrives At Wayne.” The final issue, published on May 26, 1944, includes a story headlined “Seniors Skip to Belle Isle.” And there are many issues in between – two a week for the academic year. Each issue has the same masthead listing the editorial and business staff at the Collegian. Mom is the second on the list: “Managing Editor – Margaret Hyde.” One name appears above hers: “Editor – Norma Nikrant.” Nikki.
I’m not sure if everyone called her Nikki. I know Mom always did. It took me a while to figure out that the “Norma Green” on the Christmas card list was really the Nikki I’d been hearing about for years.
Mom and Nikki met in the Collegian offices early in their college careers – it was the center of their lives at Wayne. They worked in reporting and editing roles, rising to the top of the masthead by senior year. Then they both landed jobs at the Associated Press, two of three women working in the Detroit office. Nine years after graduating, Nikki was by Mom’s side at her wedding – her only attendant. They were best friends – joined initially by a love of journalism but sustained by interest in each other’s lives and a shared sensibility regarding current events.
Mom stayed in Detroit, then retired to Florida. Nikki moved to California, working at CBS, then retired to Mexico. Today they would have followed each others’ lives via Facebook. But for Mom and Nikki, the mode of connection was the written word. Cards and letters relayed over the miles. Less frequent in busy years, but always a connection. When Mom’s eyesight failed, she dictated letters through a daughter. They shifted some of their correspondence to cassette tapes in the final years. There was always family news, and discussion of politics of the day. Derision of Nixon shifted to admiration of Obama in Nikki’s final letters, but the words never lost their clever bite.
Nikki died a few months before Mom. Their friendship had remained strong for more then seventy years, held together across great distances by the written word. And by love.
Happy birthday, Mom. You were amazing in a lot of ways – a writer, an editor, a reader, a seamstress, a lover of music, a collector of shells. A wife, a mother. And a friend extraordinaire. And, you know, I don’t really care whether or not you really interviewed the Queen.