Monday, March 18, 2013

A Fearless Woman, Rose Lee Stewart Womack 1917-2013

Remembering Mama
Yellow (Mom's favorite color) and white flowers from Mama's Memorial Service and butterfly cookies on her cake plate.  Mama purchased the 30" brass candlestick at a St. Christopher's Episcopal Church yard sale in the 1970's to give to me when I was newly married.  With this post, I am joining Jane's "Flowers in the House" party.  Click on the blue letters link to hop on over to see her many friend's posts about how they use flowers to decorate their homes.

When my sister, brother and I would visit Mama's hometown of Easton, Maryland, folks would stop us on the street to ask if we were her children, and then say, "Rose Lee Stewart was the prettiest girl in town."  

Admittedly it was a small town, but the blond Startt sisters, her 1st cousins were stunning as well, so I have always wondered what people in her town found so attractive about Mama.  Perhaps it was that her personality was as vivid as her dark coloring.  She took after the Colescott's, her mother's family in looks, but who knows from where her charming, fiery temperament came? 

Possibly it was inherited, or it might have been forged in the fires of the Depression
Rose Lee Stewart with her brother, Ben

From her childhood of wearing starched white dresses made by her mother on a Singer (foot pedal operated) sewing machine and buttoned shoes, riding in Model "T's", (and accidentally crashing one when she and her brothers were sure they knew how to drive) to her old age of wearing designer clothes and driving her bright yellow convertible Mustang, which she purchased when she turned eighty, she witnessed:
  •  the infant airline industry turn into men walking on the moon
  •  the helpful and wondrous typewriter become a computer that would print out perfect copies without a single error
  •  the telephone that was attached to the wall and had a real person somewhere connecting you to your party, transform into something so small and mobile, you could carry it with you at all times.

Many of those changes, like women's liberation, she embraced and celebrated, working to make sure her own daughters, granddaughters, and great granddaughters had opportunities to excel.   Some changes, like the economic devastation of the Wall Street crash, she survived.

Smart as a whip, Rose Lee always regretted that she was not able to attend college.  She had been awarded a scholarship, but the death of her father made it imperative that she work to help support her mother and two younger brothers.  Not letting that handicap her, she continued to read widely, attend lectures, and take classes. She became self-educated. 

Defying the expectations of her Eastern Shore Roman Catholic family and her fiance, Stuart Lewis, she ran away with and married the handsome young officer from the West (who was Protestant and divorced) she met through a family friend.  Lt. Russell Ogden Womack II was stationed in Baltimore and came to Easton for the weekend.  Ignoring the ring on her finger he courted her with the passion that would characterize their relationship for the rest of his life.  Her life with my father would become a great adventure and a passionate love affair.

Negotiating the shoals of being an Air Force wife, she moved house sometimes twice a year following her officer husband around the country. San Angelo, Roswell, Alamogordo, Tulsa flew by as she had babies and packed and repacked.   Each time she moved to a new town, she hung the pictures on the walls before she went to bed the first night, declaring, "if I don't do it tonight, it might never get done!"  Within a few days, she would have scoped out the attractions of our new home and off we would go to explore the museums, the parks, and the historical sights.  

She would read to her children each evening, usually something a little over our heads, because as she said, "If I don't enjoy it, why would they?"  For us and for her, the magic of reading became another way to explore the world.  And exploring was her joy!  

Even the highly stressful posting to Morocco was exciting to Rose Lee.  
Mama's court of admiring sailors helping her disembark at Marrakech, Morocco 

Guerrilla fighting went on around Rabat daily as the Moroccans fought to win their independence from France.  Despite having suitcases packed at all times for possible evacuation, Rose Lee created a magical sense of safety in the pretty white villa where we lived near the Sultan's palace.  At night we could sometimes hear the lions, kept by the royal family, roaring in their cages. 

The upstairs living room and terrace were perfect for the parties she hosted for the lonely expats stationed in Rabat.  Think "Mad Men" in an exotic locale with the scent of hedges of geraniums, bouganvilla growing to the rooftops, and the Moroccan breezes cooling the evenings.  Costume parties, birthday parties, cocktail parties, baby showers, and tea parties seem to dance in my memory to the jazz sounds of the music that my father loved.  

While we enjoyed the sound of my father's Jazz, the sound of my Mom's lullabies were missing.  My father forbade Mom to sing.  When she forgot, he would say, "Rose Lee, don't sing to the children, you will make them tone deaf!"  No one could tell my Mom what to do!  No one that is except her charming, glamorous husband with his twinkling hazel eyes and his deep dimples. 

One night (when Dad was away on who knew what secret mission) a worried Barka, our live-in nanny and cook, knocked on Mom's bedroom door and implored her to come to her quarters. 
Barka dressed for a party.
There Rose Lee found Barka's husband, bleeding from a gunshot wound.  He was a member of the Resistance fighters and would be arrested if he went to a hospital, so Mama stitched him up with her sewing kit and poured Daddy's best whiskey over the wound.  I have always wondered what that good Muslim man thought about that whiskey use!  There was no doubt in anyone's mind what  Dad thought when he returned home.  His shouting could be heard all over the house...."If he had died, we would have all been murdered in our beds!"  To which Mom tartly replied, "Well, he didn't die, did he?"  

How did she find the courage to try to save this man's life with no medical training?  And how did she know to fashion a tourniquet to keep her two year old son from bleeding to death when he cut his wrist, "boxing with my shadow" on the french doors.  Driving madly through the streets of Rabat to the military hospital, she calmly told me, "Turn the stick.... loosen the stick." Terribly worried, my sister (or maybe it was me) asked, "Rusty isn't going to die is he?" "Am I going to die, Mama?" asked Rusty.  To which Mama replied, "None of my children are going to die, don't you even think about it!" So we did not dare question our safety with our lioness of a Mom in charge of our lives.

We did make it safely back to the States and Mama got over the shock of no longer having a cook and gardener.  Throwing herself into life in suburban Tacoma, Washington, she became the social center of the neighborhood with dinner parties, barbeques, picnics, cocktails at 5:00 p.m and children's events like parades, snow forts with hot chocolate at our house afterwards, and decorating for all the holidays.  Mama loved a good party.
 Although not at all good with a sewing machine, she gamely attempted Halloween costumes, ballet dresses, and school clothes.  Once, not the least bit sympathetic to the hours Mama had labored over dresses made of very stiff fabric, my sister and I flatly refused to them.

But in the shadow of Mt. Rainer, nothing, not even the constant rain could dampen Mama's spirits.

Many weekend evenings would find her dressing for a dance at the officer's club and she and Daddy would whisk away, leaving us in the charge of our favorite babysitter, Mary Kemp from next door to dance until the wee hours.  We would awaken to laughter and the aroma of bacon as the party adjourned to our house for an early breakfast.  Mama was up first thing with us, but we had better not make any NOISE until at least 11:00 a.m. or a very grumpy Daddy who emerge from the bedroom and roar!  

Initially dismayed by the expenditure of quite a bit of the family income, Mama grew to love the outings on Puget Sound in the boat my Daddy laughingly christened "Rose Lee's Despair."

Not that everything was sweetness and light.  My Daddy always grew nervous and upset when my grandmother Rose came for a visit.  Her Roman Catholic heart never quite got over Mama leaving the church to marry him.  On one visit, Mama picked up grandmother from the airport after spending the day cooking and cleaning for the celebratory dinner.  5:30 p.m. came and went. No Daddy.  At 6:30, Mama served dinner with tightened lips.  At 8:00 p.m. we were sent to bed with no a single bite of the strawberry chiffon pie that Mama had slaved over.  

Daddy arrived home at 11:00 to find himself locked out.  Pounding on the kitchen door, he was finally let in.  Mama was holding the pie.  "Where exactly have you been?" she demanded.  "Well, I stopped off for a drink at the Officer's Club, he replied sheepishly (and drunkenly).  Spotting the pie, he asked "Hey, did you save that pie for me?"  Mama smiled and said, "I certainly did!" and threw it in his face.  Swaying slightly, my Dad cleared his face and flung the pie goo all over the kitchen that my Mom had just so thoroughly cleaned.  Shocked, Mama was speechless until Dad asked, "Do you know where the camera is?"  Now really mad, Mom (forgetting grandmother asleep in Rusty's room) shouted, "Why in the h.... do you want the camera?"  Daddy grinned and said, "I want a picture of me to remember that you love me enough to waste a pie on me!"  Although my Mama made lots of pies, she never again made a strawberry chiffon one.

We all loved Tacoma, but once again the Air Force moved us and Rose Lee was left behind to sell the house, pack up the belongings and follow Daddy to St. Louis.  Mama, although keeping in touch with her Tacoma friends for the rest of her life, never looked back.  Once again she had a new place to explore.

She found a big old Victorian house with a basement, attic and a sun room and her antiques, which had been a little too elegant in the modest ranch house in Tacoma, settled in feeling right at home.

Dragging out the Singer, Mom made drapes for the nine foot tall windows, combed the estate sales and auctions for a few more pieces to fill this larger house and set about charming the St. Louis folks.  What a delight St. Louis was for her.  Closer to her family on the Eastern Shore, we made more frequent trips back East.  
Downtown St. Louis
St. Louis was  a cosmopolitan town with lots of cultural attractions and Mama embarked on her "tours." We were still young enough to be enchanted and lost some of the sadness about leaving Tacoma.  Mama's enthusiasms were always contagious.  

We attended operas, plays, lectures and art shows.  We visited doll museums and historical sites and were intriqued to see that there was a spool bed in President Lincoln's home just like the one we had.
Lincoln's home, Springfield, Ill.

 We made lots of trips to the Anheuser Busch Grants Farm, with beer tasting for my Dad, Clydesdale's for
the kids, and nobody whining for Mom.

School was challenging and innovative and we all loved it as Mama helped us with our projects each evening.  Sometimes we were taken aback that her love of learning meant we explored ideas and subjects not assigned by the teachers.  If they were surprised at the scope of our turned in assignments, they never complained.  As a teacher myself, I have wondered at that, since it must have meant more time grading.

One of my strongest memories of Mama at this time was at Halloween.  She loved to dress up and this year she dressed as a witch.  Never one to do things halfway, she glued a mole on her nose.  I am not sure where she got the long grey straggly wig, but she bore no resemblance to my elegant Mama when she opened the door to that evenings' children who came to trick or treat.   

Mama had an admirer in a young man, who while a little challenged mentally, was a wizard with all growing things.  He mowed our lawn and cared for the struggling plants and shyly worshiped my lovely, laughing Mama.  Much too old to be trick or treating, none the less, all the neighbors were fond of him and ignored his age.  Mama, in fun, had been pinching the children's cheeks, commenting on how fat they were and inviting them in to check out her oven.  Horrified, her young admirer backed away and began to shout..."she's crazy!"  Contrite at scaring him, Mom ripped off the wig and tried to catch him to explain, but he ran like the wind.  It took weeks for Mama to coax him back to work.  She used this experience to teach us to be more careful about peoples abilities to understand subtleties. 

Ahead... a big challenge for Mama loomed....but I'll share that in the next post about her life. 


  1. What a fabulous post this is and what a wonderful and fearless woman your mother was.

    On pins and needles waiting for the next installment.

    I'm so sorry for your great loss.

    xo Jane

    1. Thanks Jane, I know you are having your own struggles with loss as well.

  2. The flowers are beautiful. My mother's favorite color is yellow, too! Your post about your mother is wonderful and fascinating. What a pretty and bright and creative person she was. How wonderful of you to share her story in this way. I'm sorry for your loss, I can see that you miss her terribly.

  3. I can;t even remember the flowers you showed because I was so struck by the story of your mother. She was very beautiful.

  4. Amazing story! And fabulous photos. Looking forward to hearing more. Lovely flowers too. x

  5. Heather... what a lovely tribute to your mother. You are so kind to share her amazing life...eagerly awaiting more of her/your wonderful story. My heartfelt sympathy at your loss.

  6. What an amazing woman and wonderfully interesting childhood you had!
    Penny x


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