INSPIRATION: A Prize Fighter and Iron Ninja of the Great Depression, My Superstar Mother

By Joy Ann Ribar

I am a member of a privileged class of individuals who can count on what I call the WOW factor.  I have a Wiser Older Woman (WOW) who raised and influenced me to be a fierce individual thinker.  

EXTRAORDINARY ROLE MODEL

My mother, Delilas Wheaton Christensen,  was born a few months before the stock market crash of 1929, which meant her core self was formed and framed during the Great Depression.  After her older sister died at the age of nine, she inherited the position of the oldest daughter in a brood of children. In the 1930’s, that meant she quickly learned to care for a house and family, not just because gender roles were clearly defined, but because the time period required knowing the basics for survival, and every family member had their part to play. 

A force in our home, my mother is the reason I found my voice as a fiction writer. She insisted we spend time at the library and make reading a daily activity, so books of all genres inhabited our house. While raising her family, she wrote freelance articles for small newspapers, which sparked my interest in writing, too. I published my first poem in one of those newspapers when I was 11.

Joy's introduction to a reading life: shelves and shelves of Little Golden Books we read together
Joy’s introduction to a reading life: shelves and shelves of Little Golden Books they read together.

With my mom as the matriarch, we grew up with great awareness of the world around us.  We watched the nightly news and discussed current events at the supper table. We were taught that words matter and were necessary in expressing ourselves relevantly. My journalism major took root at our supper conversations, but years later, I returned to the creative outlet I found in fiction and storytelling as my pursuit. I knew I could craft feisty female characters shaped from my mother’s essence.

MAGICIANS

My mom learned how to bake and cook without recipes, how to stretch and shape ingredients to fill hungry bellies, and how to sew clothes without patterns.  She learned to bake on a wood stove without measuring cups or spoons. Every night it was her chore to peel ten pounds of potatoes for supper, because there were ten or more mouths to feed and potatoes were cheap and filling. After meals, she oversaw the clean-up crew. Every Saturday, she washed the windows and scrubbed the wainscoting, too, because little kids smear their dirty hands on everything, she said.  Her mother believed in cleanliness, insisting that soap was cheap, and there was no excuse to live dirty, no matter how hard times were.

My mom’s kitchen witchery was a staple in our family. Like her, I learned to bake by watching her and following her around the kitchen. To stop me from “pestering” her, she had me fetch ingredients from the cupboards, then taught me how to properly measure them, and finally how to follow a recipe so I could bake cookies and cakes. I started baking when I was around 8 years old and eventually experimented with recipes as she did.  No wonder I fashioned a baker, Frankie Champagne, to be the leading lady in my mysteries.

PRODUCTION MANAGERS

My mom sewed clothes for us seven kids, did laundry with a wringer washer and dried that laundry on a clothesline, even in winter weather. She also ironed a lot of it because wrinkled clothing was just part of life back then. She had to carry water from down the street and across the highway until the arrival of her fourth child because we didn’t have indoor plumbing. “Two pails at a time,” she said because two pails were all they had.

Her Great Depression mentality saved our family a lot of money. When my sister needed a new winter coat, my mom took my brother’s outgrown jacket, bought fake fur and sewed it around the cuffs and bottom so it would look like a girl’s coat. She took the fabric scraps from the dresses and shirts she made for us and turned them into Barbie clothes. Besides engineering our clothing, Mom knew how to repair shoes and boots. Women of the Great Depression created a thriving recycling enterprise before recycling was trendy.  Nothing was wasted, and nothing was replaced until it wouldn’t hold together any longer. As number six in our troop, hand-me-downs could come from anywhere up the line. Consequently, I wore a lot of boy’s shoes and boots — whatever fit — and my older sister’s clothes that were fashionable — 10 years earlier.

At Christmas time, the wish book catalogs arrived, and my siblings and I started our Santa Claus list.  We didn’t know that our parents struggled to make ends meet, because they were a team that made it look so easy. My clever mom could look at our wish lists and, while we were at school or asleep, she would head to the basement or her sewing machine and craft similar items.  So, when my brother wanted the Planet of the Apes tree house, my mom made it, then ordered the figures to go in it.  When I wanted a doll with hair that grew, I got it. And all of the doll’s accessories and outfits were made by mom. She truly could craft a silk purse out of a sow’s ear!

PLUCK AND GUMPTION

Joy's parents and my oldest brother showing off their catch of the day!

Growing up, I remembered my mom doing the handyman’s jobs around our house: repairing windows, fences, and even climbing on the roof as if it were no big deal. I asked her how she learned to do carpentry and she said, “By watching your grandfather.” She figured out a lot of skills on her own, through trial and error.  She could take any junk furniture and refurbish it into something valuable.  Mom was fearless with her “must do” attitude toward life. Domestically, she did the heavy lifting while my dad earned a weekly paycheck to keep us sheltered and fed.

My undaunted mother knew how to perform basic medical feats, too.  She memorized home remedies passed from her grandparents to her parents and used them on our scrapes, wounds, stings, bites, rashes and aches. The doctor was only called if stitches were needed or a high fever warranted it.  My dad was a WWII medic, and his medic’s bag came in handy with a passel of daredevil kids in the house.  He could stitch us up in a pinch, although he didn’t have the stomach for it.  But, I never saw my mom flinch at anything, so the worst injuries were assigned to her.

UNSHAKABLE

1946: Joy's teenage mother in front of her town's military honor roll
1946: Joy’s teenage mother in front of her town’s military honor roll

Great Depression women are prize fighters and iron ninjas.  It took me decades to know that Mom greatly missed her mother, who died before I was born. In fact, my grandmother was only 53 when she died of a blood clot to her heart on Christmas morning. She was still raising five children at home when she died.  My mom still grieves her loss, and only in our adult years has my mom allowed her children to know how painful that loss has been for her.  Of course, I should have known this. My whole life, I heard stories about my grandmother from my mother. In her stories, she kept her mother alive.

I asked my mother how she handled all of the hard times in her life, because I have never seen her fall apart.  She points to her parents as her teachers. My grandmother was a stout, sturdy woman who birthed 16 children and lost 8 of them in a variety of tragic ways.  My mother said her parents never let their kids see them cry.  My grandmother was known for saying her children belonged to God and were just on loan, that when God was ready to take them back, He would.  My grandmother’s faith wasn’t rock solid, it was ironclad.  She passed that on to my mother. 

I have not always appreciated my mother’s strength, sometimes mistaking it as being too hard or unfeeling.  My dad and I were buddies, but that often meant my mom had to be the tough guy in his place.  It turned out her fierce toughness was the exact remedy I needed when I went through a painful divorce and had three daughters to raise alone. I had to adopt my mom’s “can do” attitude to be independent and resilient. My dad would have offered to take care of all of us, and I would have loved him for it, but my mom taught me how to be the caretaker, how to take what I had and stretch it enough to feed, clothe, and shelter my little family.  She taught me how to live with grit, to get up every time I got knocked down, to steel myself with determination, vim, and vigor. 

WOW: WISE OLDER WOMAN

Joy and her mother Delilas
Joy and her mother Delilas

I cannot think of a moment in my life when I have not needed her wisdom, her perspective. I guess that’s why I call her a, “WOW.” Now at age 91, I continue to marvel at this woman who wouldn’t let any hardship get the better of her. And, I’m still learning new things about her life. For instance, she was accomplished at fly fishing in her teens, a sport generally reserved for boys at that time.

Lately, we talk about the world, disappointed that it’s not the world we envisioned for 2020.  After our last heart to heart, she sent me a handmade card of encouragement, along with words I will always need and treasure:  She said every generation has had its trials, but that eventually truth and justice will prevail.  She reminded me that we are survivors.  She prompted me to contemplate my long list of blessings that far outweigh what is happening in the world right now.  She said she was thankful for me.

But I think I’m the fortunate one. I have the one thing my mother said she grieves after losing her mother so early in life.  She wanted the chance to forge a friendship with her. She wanted time.

SACRIFICE and DETERMINATION

My Great Depression mother knows more about sacrifice than anyone I know. She married my dad before finishing high school yet hammered into her children’s heads the importance of education. Finally, in her late 40’s, my mother finished high school and we threw her a graduation celebration with tremendous pride.

My mother’s determination kept her rooted in reality, so I was free to dream. She embraced a simple life so I could dream bigger.  She waited at the finish line of every success her children achieved, because she spearheaded many of our dreams and cheered us on throughout the expedition.

My female characters in my two mysteries, Deep Dark Secrets and Deep Bitter Roots are crafted from the grittiness of the strong women who have been sources of inspiration throughout my life.  Frankie Champagne, baker and vintner, comprises parts of me and my mom. Frankie’s business partner extraordinaire, Carmen Martinez, is a compilation of my memories with neighborhood pals from the Gonzalez family. My mom’s sisters, my two feisty aunts, inspired the two mischief-making aunties in Deep Bitter Roots. Besides the women I know personally, I fell in love with Maya Angelou and her tender yet painful life story in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I keep her stories, her life lessons, and her poetic words in mind when I craft my characters, thinking about how I can make their actions and words matter.

Because we talked about current events and politics during the course of my childhood, I heard details about Eleanor Roosevelt, and how she represented grace and sacrifice during the Great Depression, refusing to host lavish parties with expensive food when the rest of the country suffered in poverty.  Her humanitarian and political activism on behalf of women and the less fortunate inspired me to seek out purpose in my life through volunteering and advocating for others.

 There are more women, thankfully, and their various charms add to the potential for many lively characters.  This diversity of female voices will never be exhausted, and my gratitude for that is immeasurable.  I owe a debt to these strong women, and I hope some of my stories will help pay that forward.  But only one person has sacrificed for me so that I could have opportunities she couldn’t have, and that is my mother.  Her “can do” approach to life made me believe that anything is possible through hard work and ingenuity.  I do not have her same skills and talents, but I have her attitude, and that has made all the difference.  

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Joy Ribar

Joy Ann Ribar writes the Deep Lakes Cozy Mystery series, inspired by Wisconsin’s four seasons and friendly quirks. You can find out more about her on her website joyribar.com, where you can sign up for her newsletter, or follow her on Facebook, or Instagram.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Mari

    Loved all of this history in your life with Mom. Awesome!

    1. Joy Ann Ribar
      Joy Ann Ribar

      Thank you for the compliment. So happy to give credit to a wonderful lady.

  2. Avatar
    Sally Freitag

    Joy, this so special! You and your Mom are such great people. Have enjoyed your first book and am on to the second. You always had this writing talent that needed to unleashed, girl!

  3. Avatar
    Paula MacVittie

    Sunday morning. Just read the tribute to your mom. Now in tears. How amazing. How poignant. How inspiring. Keep giving us more. We love both you and your mom and feel amazingly like we just found new friends to cherish.

    1. Joy Ann Ribar
      Joy Ann Ribar

      Thank you , Paula for the compliment and for your support. You’re welcome as one of our family.

  4. Avatar
    Dorothy A Naparalla

    I enjoyed reading the tribute and history about you and your mom. It is well deserved, that’s for sure. She is the best! Aunt Dodo

    1. Joy Ann Ribar
      Joy Ann Ribar

      Love you, too, Aunt Dodo. You Wheaton women are the best!

  5. Avatar
    Lynnette Richards

    Joy, this was a beautiful article! Your mom reminds me a lot of my mother who has been gone for 24 years. She gave me values that have shaped my character all my life, and while we weren’t always close, I look back and bless her for the important things she taught me. Your article expresses beautifully the tremendous influence of women and mothers:)

    1. Joy Ann Ribar
      Joy Ann Ribar

      Thank you, Lynette. So glad you enjoyed it and that it brought you good memories of your own mother. I’m so fortunate to still have my mom. I never take that for granted.

  6. Avatar
    Jackie Vick

    Wonderful. Thank you for sharing. How lucky you are that she passed these skills and attitudes on to you.

    1. Joy Ann Ribar
      Joy Ann Ribar

      I am lucky indeed, Jackie. The women of that generation were so reilient, and I’m so much better for having her in my life.

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