Eventually, though, with a rapidly expanding household of rambunctious children and a shoestring budget, my mother realized her aviation career had ended. It was a choice, she said, she was happy to make. She had grown up in difficult circumstances, without the love and attention of her own mother. While flying was her passion, she was willing to pass up time in the cockpit to lavish affection on her kids. I always admired that my mother never seemed bitter about giving up her wings. While she never denied that she missed being in the cockpit, she never resented her kids for grounding her. Rather, she was determined to expose me to as much of her flying world as possible.
As we grew up, our mother’s anecdotes about WASP life became part of our everyday lives. My mother had been indelibly marked by her wartime experience, and stories of flight and the war were as commonplace to us as fairy tales are to other children. But as the last of nine kids, I know I was, in many ways, more fortunate than my older brothers and sisters. My mother was 44 years old when I was born, her hair already salt-and-pepper when I was in grade school. No longer chasing a whole herd of kids, she had more time to tell me her flying stories and share her memories.
My childhood was punctuated with airshows, visits to aviation museums, and WASP reunions. I was named for one of Mom’s classmates, as was my sister Mary. I loved seeing her with her friends, bound by a unique experience. Virtually no one outside our family knew Mom was a pilot, so the reunions raised her spirits.
When I was five, our family moved from New Jersey to Moline, Illinois. While my teenage sisters were less than thrilled to leave the East Coast, for a grounded pilot, Moline was a choice spot to land: small airport, an easy four-hour drive to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and—just an hour down the road—Galesburg, Illinois, home of the National Stearman Fly-In. Together, my mother and I painted compass roses at small rural airstrips and washed airplanes to raise money for the Moline chapter of the Ninety-Nines, a women’s flying group. She taught me about map reading, using a silk map of the China-Burma-India route, given to her by a pilot who’d flown the Hump, the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains. She quizzed me on aircraft silhouettes, and taught me the basics of flying. Now and then, if she got wind of a unique aircraft making a stop at our airport, she’d pull me out of school to see it.
As the years went on, my mother’s body could not keep up with the sharpness of her mind. In 1997, she flew out to join me in Washington, D.C., for the dedication of the Women in Military Service for America memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Using a wheelchair, and with her vision fading, she found the trip challenging, but she told me she wouldn’t have missed it for the world. That journey was my mother’s last time on an airplane. The female pilot of the flight out of Washington was so thrilled to have a WASP on board, she called for a standing ovation from the passengers and brought my mother up to check out the cockpit. Mom was exhausted, but she wasn’t about to pass up a chance to check out the controls on a jumbo jet.
At the dedication, I watched my mother beaming with quiet pride as astronaut Eileen Collins, who would go on to become the first woman to command a space shuttle mission, addressed the crowd of thousands, singling out the WASPs for their inspiration and for breaking down the barriers against women’s careers in aviation. Dozens of people recognized the distinctive wings on Mom’s jacket and approached her. They came up to shake her hand, thank her for her service, and to take a picture with her. It was a remarkable moment in a life lived largely in the shadows of history.
Melissa Jordan is a writer based in the Washington, D.C. area.