Woman’s memoirs mark a life of answering challenges
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.
In the first of three memoirs, Mary Matury Gibson, of Palos Heights, writes about growing up on a farm in Lowell, Indiana.