PAG­ING HIS­TORY

Woman’s mem­oirs mark a life of an­swer­ing chal­lenges

Post-Tribune - - Post-Tribune Local - DONNA VICK­ROY dvick­roy@south­towns­tar.com Twit­ter: @dvick­roy “Re­mem­ber­ing Straw­berry Fields: A Mem­oir” is avail­able at ama­zon.com and bar­ne­sandnoble.com.

M ary Gibson is a chap­ter in per­se­ver­ance.

She has sur­vived poverty, breast can­cer and sin­gle par­ent­hood. And, equally im­pres­sive, the re­tired Pa­los Heights nurse prac­ti­tioner, who spent much of her life un­able to read, is now work­ing on her third book.

The first in her se­ries of mem­oirs, “Re­mem­ber­ing Straw­berry Fields,” was pub­lished this month by Wheat­mark ($19.95). It is a mov­ing, de­tailed ac­count of grow­ing up as the youngest child of Ital­ian im­mi­grants in Low­ell, In­di­ana.

The 428-page re­flec­tion is rife with mys­tery, hind­sight and heart­warm­ing mo­ments.

It be­gins with a se­ries of near misses, dur­ing which she sur­vived be­ing accidentally shot at, among other close calls, and con­tin­ues on to her great­est feat of all: leav­ing the fam­ily farm to learn how to read so she could en­roll in a free nurs­ing pro­gram of­fered through City Col­leges of Chicago.

It’s no se­cret that mem­oirs are of­ten ther­a­peu­tic ex­er­cises. Putting mem­o­ries on pa­per some­times helps clar­ify murky mo­ments, and shar­ing those mem­o­ries can make a con­nec­tion with read­ers and bring a sense of peace to the sto­ry­teller. But Gibson’s rea­son for shar­ing is even greater than self-ac­tu­al­iza­tion.

“We’re los­ing th­ese sto­ries,” she said. “Peo­ple don’t share sto­ries any­more. Ev­ery­one’s on their phones. No one talks to each other.”

She has fond mem­o­ries of sit­ting around the din­ner ta­ble ev­ery Sun­day, lis­ten­ing to the tales her broth­ers, sis­ters and par­ents weaved.

Among her fa­vorite tales to share is how her fa­ther, Tony Matury (orig­i­nal- ly Ma­turi but the “i” was re­placed with a “y” at El­lis Is­land), sur­vived be­ing a prisoner of war dur­ing World War I.

At 17, Matury stowed away on a ship to Amer­ica. When he ar­rived at El­lis Is­land, they promptly sent him back, she said.

“Since he was a home­less teen wan­der­ing the streets of Si­cily, they grabbed him and put him right in the Army,” she said.

He even­tu­ally was cap­tured by the Ger­mans and put in a POW camp, where he en­dured near star­va­tion and lived in con­stant fear for 13 months.

“If it hadn’t been for Pres­i­dent Wil­son get­ting the U.S. in­volved in that war, my fa­ther prob­a­bly would have died in that camp,” she said.

“He was afraid to even move. The pris­on­ers were fed sauer­kraut and bread ev­ery three days,” she said.

When Ger­man sol­diers told them that the war was over and that they could leave, none of them left, her fa­ther told her.

“They all thought it was some kind of trick to get them to run away so they could shoot at them. They just sat in their cells, re­fus­ing to leave — un­til the Amer­i­cans came there and took over the camp,” she said.

He even­tu­ally mar­ried a woman half his age and, with other rel­a­tives, made the jour­ney to Amer­ica. They set­tled in East Chicago, In­di­ana. But af­ter Gibson’s older brother was hit by a car, the fam­ily moved to ru­ral Low­ell, where they grew straw­ber­ries, and her fa­ther, who had long worked a se­ries of odd jobs in­clud­ing ice cream ven­dor and bar­ber, came to be known as the “Straw­berry King.”

Like many, Gibson also has her share of murky mem­o­ries that beg for ex­pla­na­tion, among them why her mother tried to give her away when she was 3. The youngest of six, she never knew the rea­son and was told only that her mother had been ill.

Determined to go back home, she did ev­ery­thing in her power — re­fus­ing to eat, re­fus­ing to ac­qui­esce — to make that hap­pen. It did, and her mother re­cov­ered, but the ex­pe­ri­ence cre­ated a rift be­tween them that was never bridged.

This, Gibson knows for sure: The fam­ily strug­gled to make ends meet. The chil­dren had one pair of shoes each, slept in the same bed for years, and their home did not have in­door plumb­ing un­til one of the older boys got mar­ried and brought his new wife to live with the fam­ily.

“He didn’t want her us­ing an out­house so he in­stalled a toi­let,” she said.

Though that one is not a pleas­ant story, with a clear be­gin­ning and end, she is com­pelled to share it. Just as she is com­pelled to let the world know that she was an aw­ful stu­dent.

“I fin­ished high school un­able to read,” she said. “All my life I thought I was stupid and peo­ple thought I was (de­vel­op­men­tally chal­lenged) be­cause I couldn’t read and I hardly ever talked.”

As a re­sult, she was so­cially awk­ward. Her sib­lings were able to as­sim­i­late into the com­mu­nity of mostly English and Ger­man res­i­dents, but Gibson said she strug­gled.

When it came time to choose a ca­reer path, she drew from her ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing in a lo­cal nurs­ing home, where she’d learned to make a bed with sheets so taut you could bounce a quar­ter off them, and she de­cided upon medicine. She mus­tered all of her courage and headed to Chicago. At the time, the Chicago school sys­tem was of­fer­ing a free course for li­censed prac­ti­tioner nurses.

Tran­si­tion­ing from the farm to the big city was quite the ad­just­ment, emo­tion­ally and aca­dem­i­cally.

“It was a dif­fer­ent world,” she said. “I felt like I had two very dif­fer­ent lives.”

Look­ing back, Gibson said, she now thinks she strug­gled with dys­lexia. Thanks to the keen ob­ser­va­tions of a woman in the city col­lege sys­tem, she was en­cour­aged to en­roll in a six-week read­ing course. Stu­dents ad­vanced at their own pace and trained on a ma­chine, learn­ing how to read one line at a time, in­creas­ing their speed as they were able.

“That course changed my life,” she said. “I am so thank­ful for that woman. I wish I could re­mem­ber her name. She was re­ally a smart lady; she was won­der­ful.”

Af­ter earn­ing her LPN, she en­rolled at Mo­raine Val­ley Com­mu­nity Col­lege and then Pur­due Calumet. With her school­ing com­plete, she landed a job at a hos­pi­tal in Dyer, then moved to Oak For­est Hos­pi­tal and fi­nally was hired on at Blue Is­land’s then-newly built St. Fran­cis Hos­pi­tal, where she stayed for 36 years un­til she re­tired four years ago.

She still works one day a week at an of­fice in Mat­te­son. But now her days are mostly de­voted to writ­ing.

She ex­pects to pub­lish her sec­ond book, a de­tailed ac­count of her nurs­ing ca­reer, some­time in 2016.

Long di­vorced from her child­hood sweet­heart, Gibson raised her two daugh­ters, Carla and Brenna, on her own. They lived for a time in Blue Is­land and then in Mid­loth­ian. She has five grand­chil­dren.

She also has trav­eled a bit, to visit rel­a­tives in Australia and to see if her mother’s de­scrip­tion of her home­town in Si­cily was in­deed ac­cu­rate. She had hired a driver to take her to the vil­lage that her mother said was built into the side of a moun­tain.

They were driv­ing along when sud­denly the driver stopped and said they’d ar­rived. She looked out the win­dow and saw the ocean on one side and a cliff on the other.

“Then he pointed up,” she said. And there in the side of the hill was the town her mother had grown up in.

More about that in her third book.

| DONNA VICK­ROY

In the first of three mem­oirs, Mary Matury Gibson, of Pa­los Heights, writes about grow­ing up on a farm in Low­ell, In­di­ana.

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