It comes to me now in song: “Woman,” the songwriter sings, “Best you be a looker, a hooker, a pretty good cooker and interesting to talk to!” And, when I was old enough to be told so, Dad allowed as how Mom was all of those things.
If I didn’t know she was beautiful, all my friends did. “Gosh, your mommy’s pretty,” they said, which called to mind the dictum: “When you see a pretty girl, just remember, she’s a pain in the ass to somebody!” Hoo-boy! Mom was a piece of work. She should have been a movie star.
In fact, I would have just as soon she’d been in the movies. Then I could see her Saturday afternoons at the picture show instead of having to face her at home after I’d been up to no good. Admittedly, I was a hellion, but I am persuaded that, with Mom, it was a case of “takes one to know one.”
I am sketchy on the details of her early life. I know she was the youngest of nine children whose parents died when she was very young. She hailed from Kensett, Arkansas. She would not admit this, and I don’t blame her. Kensett was the hometown of Wilbur D. Mills, an influential United States Representative during the sixties. Nothing notable happened before, and very little since. According to the town’s home page ( http://www.kensett.net/): “The population was 1,791 at the 2000 census. It is also currently home to a very exotic Zonkey, who is usually used as one of the main attractions of Kensett and has become a very important part of White county’s entertainment.”
I am not making this up, and I know Mom is now turning in her grave.
I have it that she left Kensett as soon as she could, went to live with her sister in Houston, married, had my wonderful sister, Sylvia, got unmarried, went to Argentina to hang out with friends, and, when she was running out of cash, boarded a ship back to the States.
It was the same ship on which a bachelor named Dave Roth was making his way home on furlough from his bank job in Japan. A shipboard romance ensued, followed by marriage, and another boat trip, this time back to Japan. The year was 1938. She bore me the next year.
You would have to say my Mom had moxie. For Americans, life in Japan in the late thirties had gotten extremely tense. In 1940, General Douglas MaCarthur, Commander of US Forces in the Pacific, traveled from the Phillippines on a diplomatic visit to Japan. My mother was the woman that cornered him at a reception and pressed the case for arranging for American women and children to be shipped back to the States. This he did.
Women and children duly shipped out, and my Dad and other men remained behind to close down the bank’s operations. When our ship arrived at Wake Island, we were informed that all remaining Americans in Japan had been interned. My mother was in a state of panic. It was not until we arrived in San Francisco that we got the news that one more American vessel had departed Japan, and my Dad was aboard.
Dad’s Latin American posts, which included Argentina, Peru (where Steve and Stephanie were born), Uruguay and Mexico, were where Lera made her bones as the wife of an American executive abroad. With each of Dad’s promotions the social obligations grew. By the time we were in Uruguay, Dad was the bank’s resident manager, which often meant serving in de facto diplomatic roles. When President Eisenhower’s brother, Dr. Milton Eisenhower visited Montevideo, it was Mom that hosted the reception. In Mexico, where Dad was resident vice-president, it was non-stop entertaining both local notables and visitors. We all were called upon to participate regularly. I came down on leave from the Marines on one occasion and went to a garden party and got to visit with General William Westmoreland.
Lera’s star was ascendant, but not without problems. Heavy entertaining is the perfect milieu for alcoholism, and Lera suffered from the family disease. Over time, it took it’s toll on her, and greatly affected the way she interacted with the family. I had it too, and two people with that issue have difficulty relating to one another in a healthy way.
Each of her children had their own way of being with Mom. Sylvia says she had a lot of fun with her, especially in the earlier years. My relationship was more of an uneasy truce, which I handled by being mostly absent. For a long time, I held her responsible for our lack of closeness. But, eventually, I got into recovery from my own disease, and was able to recognize that it was as much my doing as hers.
Lera West Roth had a short, spectacular life. She was a brave, beautiful shooting star, and it was over at 54.
…And it seemed to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind.
Never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in
And I would have liked to know you, but I was just a kid.
Your candle burned out long ago, but your legend never did…
I love you, Mother,