I find myself wondering why I am revisiting my mother’s story in times like these with so many tragedies and frightening forces surrounding us as a global community. Yet I find myself compelled to continue on with the next labor-intensive chapter, or work on yard or house repair jobs. As an empath, social encounters are not my forte in the best of times. Now, they are painful, confusing, and draining.
My brief encounters in the super market have been bizarre. These days, I really need to take time to center and remember to be compassionate, patient, and willing to lighten others’ mood whenever I leave the sanctuary of my home to run errands. Thankfully, years of living off the grid with a 25-mile drive to buy groceries helped me develop the habit of stocking up so I don’t have to go to the store very often.
Perhaps these activities help me find reasons to keep an ember of hope alive when I can see damage transformed in concrete, observable ways or revisit my mother’s resilience despite the many challenges she had to overcome. Certainly all of these strategies make social distancing a lot easier to maintain, especially when I am able to connect virtually with such a gifted, caring blogging community.
Norma Angeline Ackley Graveen Coombs
A New Life Far from Home
Norma remained in Chicago after graduating from the Loyola nursing program. While she waited for Edward to return from the war, she accepted a position as the Superintendent of Nursing for the Mechanical Handling Plant in Chicago. When she received word that Edward was killed, she was heartbroken. She decided to stay in Chicago and focus on her work.
At some point, she met a charming young Marine, Westervelt Valentine Coombs, Jr., who was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Base in Chicago.
I don’t remember either Norma or Wes, as he preferred to called, ever recounting the story about when or how they met. The original version of my mother’s story didn’t include any of the background details about Wes’ history. His abusive behavior escalated in their last years together. The mere mention of his name or the sight of something that reminded her of him evoked fear and/or anger. Yet I did include photos of happier times during their early years together. Perhaps these helped her remember better times as her more recent memories faded due to her slowly progressing Alzheimer’s disease.
Shortly after their marriage, Wes left for the South Pacific during World War II. There were only a few pictures from those times in the album Norma began to assemble as a legacy for the family she hoped she would one day have.
Norma’s photo, featured at the beginning, was sitting on the trunk behind Wes. He framed her photo between two large artillery shells.
The young couple when Wes returned home in December, 1945.
Wes was 24 when he joined the Marines in January of 1940. He ultimately became a Technical Sargent with a specialization in aviation mechanics. His military records state that he participated in air strikes In Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands in June of 1945 and was honorably discharged in January of 1946 and awarded a medal for good conduct.
When he was discharged, Wes convinced Norma to move closer to his family in New Jersey, far from her family. They rented an apartment in Prospect Park, a neighborhood of Paterson.
During their early years together, Norma continued to work as a nurse at hospitals and doctor offices.
A Growing Family
As the pictures above seem to suggest, Norma wanted children. Her first surviving child, Carol Ann, was born on February 20, 1947.
The original draft of my mother’s story did not include something my mother only mentioned to me once when I was very little. Her first child, a boy, was stillborn. I vaguely remember her tears and deep sadness. I did’t want to dredge up painful memories that might trigger unresolved and irreconcilable grief.
Looking at these photos now, I remember Fanny, the dalmatian puppy cradled in my mother’s arms. Fanny was a lovely friend for many years, yet my mother’s joyful expression made me wonder if she was eagerly awaiting the birth of her first child at the time. That thought brought tears to my eyes and made me wonder how she survived the grief.
The arrival of Carol Ann…
Almost 3 years later, a second child was born to Norma and Wes on January 10, 1950, this time a son named Wesley Robert. By this time, the family had moved to their own home in Allendale, New Jersey. It was a 2-story house on a quiet street bounded by woods, streams, and ponds.
Sending my best wishes to all during these challenging times. 💜