This essay was originally published in the News Leader and is currently in my e-book (HONEY, I’M SORRY I KILLED YOUR AQUASAURS) on Amazon, on sale for 99 cents until after the Holiday. Enjoy!
Life stories rarely thrill me. I hardly ever read biographies; they frustrate me because often the reader only gets a sense of the subject’s accomplishments—not of the person. So often biographies leave so many questions for me and I find them hard to relate to because often they are about men, usually about folks who are genius and have had the support (money) from their family to do what ever they want to do. That does not thrill me.
About a year and a half ago, I ran into a life story that did thrill me and it called out to me. I could not shake it. And I as I approached the family of Mildred Rowe with my idea to write a book about her, I knew that it was meant to be. I did not know how that would happen, what form it would take, or really where the journey into her life would lead me. But I knew I must walk that path.
Sometimes it’s been a path that has not been easy. Mrs. Rowe really did not like to talk about herself—a quality that is rare and denotes not just a humbleness, but really a downplaying of her huge success. It was as if she felt anybody could have gone in there, worked as hard as she did, while raising four children, and created one of the most successful family-owned businesses in the state of Virginia. I don’t think so.
From the first day I met her, I knew she had some strong feelings about motherhood. “Where are your babies?” she demanded to know once she found out I had children.
“They are at home with their dad.”
“Oh, that’s okay, then. I don’t like when mothers leave their babies.”
This statement became more interesting to me as I delved further into her life, for Mrs. Rowe did have to leave her first three children to work in order to make a living. She had no choice.
But even though she had to sacrifice time with her children to make the money for the household, she was lucky in that her sister Bertha and her husband Basil lived with her and were able to watch the children. Very few of us parents in today’s modern world have such a welcome option when it comes to child care. She knew her kids were well-cared for and that must have relieved her mind while working from sun-up to sundown at her restaurant in Goshen.
Later, when she married Willard Rowe and had a fourth child, she stayed at home with her. Finally, she was able to be the mother that she wanted to be, even though she still worked at the restaurant from time to time and probably felt the same pull we mothers face today between career and home. She loved the business. In some ways, it was hard for her to be away from it.
In many ways, as I studied her further, her life acted as a mirror for my own—and for many of the women I know caught between two worlds. Often as I drifted into late nights writing and thinking about her life, or as I sat my children in front the television so that I could get some work done, I thought about her and caught myself. The most important thing I am doing is being a mom.
Often, as I am writing her life story, and researching women’s history, I see that things have not really changed that much for women. Particularly mothers. Though now we have a welfare system to help us, if need be, we have sensible daycare options, and yes, we are more educated, we are always the ones that have to make the difficult choices when it involves family and career. And we are the ones that have to live with our choices.
Mildred’s choices were not always perfect—but they were what was right for her and her family. This is the story behind the story. Mildred Rowe’s extraordinary success as a business owner was nothing compared to the fact that she raised four kind, thoughtful, decent, generous children, who have gone on to raise their own families. They have each had their own struggles—but she gave them what they needed to navigate through them. And that is, after all, one of the things that parenting is all about.
Opting to take this journey into her life was a good choice for me, though I will miss her now that she is gone. Not only have I gotten to know this remarkable family, and Mrs. Rowe herself, but she has become a character in my mind. When I sit down to write about her, I can sometimes almost hear her voice, her cackling laughter, or a scolding tone. “Why on earth would you want to write about me? I haven’t done anything worth writing about.”
Author’s Note: If you’re interested in learning more about Mrs. Rowe, her restaurant, and food, please check out my narrative cookbook Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of Recipe from the Shenandoah Valley.