Ninety-seven years ago today, my mother was born in the small Central Florida town of Orlando. She was the first child of John and Willie Peck, and her beginnings were humble and inauspicious.
(Mom in the front, with her sister and cousins, about 1928.)
Mom’s stories about her childhood were always uplifting, and photographs (of which I have many!) show a happy, playful child, surrounded by friends, cousins, grandparents, and her sisters. Her life was peripatetic, as her dad was a seafaring man and he took his family to his ports of call whenever he could. That life didn’t suit my grandmother well, however, and they were divorced when mom was about 9 or 10 years old. Throughout my mother’s life, she remained devoted to her dad in nearly unreasonable circumstances.
Mom – her name is Cecilia – suffered a variety of illnesses as a child, including malaria, which kept her from attending school regularly, but she studied hard and maintained her grades. In 1934, when she was just 14, she was raped by a young man who was a boarder at my Granny’s boarding house. In order to preserved the family’s “honor,” she was then forced into marriage with a man who was 35 years her senior. George was a bootlegger, and his money and connections likely made life during the Great Depression much easier for the family. Mom’s feelings didn’t matter much, and she resented that forced marriage for the rest of her life.
(Mom is the taller of the two little girls; the other is her sister. L to R, back row: her dad, her mom, her aunt, and the man she would be forced to marry. About 1924)
(Teenaged wife of a man older than her mother. Mom’s on the right. About 1935)
Mom met my dad while still married to George, who had been convicted and imprisoned for selling untaxed alcohol, and divorce proceedings were underway. Dad was handsome, mom was pretty, war was on the horizon – they were married February 12, 1941. After Pearl Harbor, dad enlisted in the Navy and was sent to the Aleutian Islands – a harsh environment for a boy who had been born in Frostproof, FL! Mom stayed home and awaited the birth of my brother in early 1943, and then she, too, went to war. Well, not exactly, but she was a version of Rosie the Riveter, working as an aircraft mechanic at the nearby Army Air Base.
Following the war, mom and dad had two more children – me and then my sister – and mom contracted polio in the summer of 1950. The disease would leave her crippled in her left leg, but never in her spirit! She and my dad divorced in 1957, and she was left – at age 37 and with three children – to raise us with very little help. She sold Avon, World Book Encyclopedia, Plymouth cars, and whatever else she could do to keep a roof over our heads and food in our mouths.
I don’t know exactly when or why she developed her interest in politics, but she was avid! Some of my earliest memories after the divorce were meeting with the Mayor of Tampa, State Senators, US Congressmen, campaign signs and slogans, and long periods of normalcy with sudden flurries of activity – based, I assume now, on election cycles. In 1960, at age 13, I was involved in my very first political campaign – to elect JFK to the presidency. You can read more about that and about my young adult aversion to politics here.
In 1974, the Democratic Party held a Mid-Term Conference in Kansas City, and mom was elected to represent Hillsborough County. She didn’t win all of her battles, but she never stopped fighting for what she believed in, and she always believed in the future.
In the late ’70s, mom was diagnosed with osteoporosis, which was exacerbated by her having had polio. She suffered a lot of pain during the last years of her life, finally succumbing to the complications of Post-Polio Syndrome in 1992, just 13 days after her 72nd birthday. I have missed her every day since, and wish I had asked a lot more questions and listened to a lot more answers over the years!
I find myself thinking of her even more often these days, during these tumultuous times. I like to think that she would be proud of me, that she knows somehow that I am carrying the banner on her behalf and on behalf of women everywhere. That I, too, feel a strong sense of leaving a legacy for my children and grandchildren to point to with pride, just as she did.
Happy Birthday, mom. I love you.