Mothers of Midwick Tract

FIRST PERSON: Writer Lorna Lund Collins recalls growing up in 1950s Midwick Tract with a single mother, and all of the other mothers who adopted her. 

This was the first Mother's Day without my mother who passed away six months ago so I thought a lot about her. 

Thanksgiving, 1953. This was the last family photo before the author's father, Ray, died in 1954.

Mom had a really rough time after my dad died. She was left with a 7-year-old (me) and a 4-year-old (my brother) — and no means of support. She made a lot of really tough decisions: to remain in our home in Alhambra, to take a job in the school cafeteria so that she could be home with us when we had vacations, to make it on her own. This was a really gutsy position in 1954 when few women worked at all, and even fewer mothers did.

But we received wonderful mothering from others when Mom couldn’t be there. Our "village" was our close Midwick Tract neighborhood. We always knew that if we needed anything, the neighborhood parents were present for us.

My major surrogate mother was Wilma Sehnert, who lived two doors down on Hathaway Avenue. She was funny and caring and irreverent. All the neighborhood kids knew they’d find love in her home. She only had one son, Dan, so she treated me as the daughter she had always wanted.

The night of my senior prom, a friend offered to do my hair for me, but she wasn’t used to dealing with a mane as thick as mine. The result was terrible; I arrived home sobbing. Mom sent me to Wilma who combed it all out (we teased our hair at the time), wet it down, and styled it into a chic French roll. Then she cut wispy bangs, and added one of her own tortoiseshell headbands studded with rhinestones across the front. Finally, she did my makeup. I went from utter despair to elation. She’d made me feel like a princess. 

She was not only a surrogate mother for me, but she played that role for many of the other kids in the neighborhood. When she died, I was asked to speak at her memorial service. It was both the hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

Laura Lee Graham and her daughter Diane

Another of those "other mothers" in the neighborhood was Laura Lee Graham, mother of my friend Diane, who lived accross the street. We were never able to take vacations as kids, but one year the Grahams asked me to go to Yosemite on their family camping trip. The first night, I was bitten by a scorpion in my sleep and developed blood poisoning. Rather than grousing about my spoiling their vacation, Laura Lee rushed me to the emergency hospital, obtained the necessary medicines, and monitored my recovery. I insisted we stay there, even though I was unable to go in the water. The parents gave up their tent so that we girls could sleep inside. They took the air mattresses on the ground. I still remember the campfires and seeing the fire fall. Despite being ill, it was a memorable trip—one of the very few in all my growing up years.

Letha Collins, the author's mother-in-law.

Another significant ‘mother’ in my life was Letha Collins, my precious mother-in-love, who lived on Hitchcock Drive. She was the Avon lady and started calling at our house when I was five. She seemed very glamorous, and her bright smile was like a magnet to everyone she met. She loved me as a little kid, and that love continued until the day she died six years ago. It was mutual.

Larry and I have always joked that if there were arranged marriages, we’d still have married each other. Letha loved me, and Mom loved Larry.

Shortly before our wedding, I asked her what I should call her. In our neighborhood, all the adults were addressed by their first names, but she was now changing roles in my life. Her own mother-in-law was ‘Mother Collins’ but that sounded too formal. She asked what I’d like to use. I answered, “Well, I call my own mother ‘Mom’ so how about ‘Mother’ and Murl can be ‘Dad’?” She started to cry and so did I.

She was Mother from then on. She sometimes confused friends because she always introduced me as her daughter. And I never received a birthday card that didn’t say, “To our Dear Daughter.” As far as she was concerned, I was her daughter, not her daughter-in-law.

I have been truly blessed to have been mothered by all of these wonderful women and others as well. Who played a mothering role for you? For some people it’s grandmothers or fathers, teachers or friends. On Mothers’ Day, I gave thanks for them all.

Lorna Lund Collins grew up in Alhambra and met her husband in her neighborhood in Midwick Tract. Now the couple lives and writes in Dana Point, California. They are the authors of eight published books with Lorna’s next to be published at the end of this month.

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