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Teresa Gaston

Mom and DadMonday was my mother’s birthday. She passed away in 1989 after a long painful year of deteriorating health, so it was a blessing for her. My mother was a quiet, timid, kind person who never had much confidence in herself. She never had the opportunities she and my dad gave me and my sisters and I knew, even when I was a self-centered teenager, that she got vicarious enjoyment from my successes.

She and my aunt (her sister) were great readers, something they shared with me. We passed around Victoria Holts, Philippa Carrs, and Rosamunde Pilchers, but also Rosemary Rogers, Kathleen Woodiwiss and others of which my mother said, “I skip over those parts.” (Sure, Mom, I thought at the time!) I am sad that my mother died before I ever dreamed of becoming a writer. I like to think she would have enjoyed my books (even if she skipped over those parts)

On Facebook on Monday, I linked to an article I wrote about my mother, about a moment in her life where she became courageous–a true heroine. I am posting it here again, because I don’t want to lose it. And I am proud of my mom for it.

Here it is, first written for the now defunct Wet Noodle Posse ezine and later reprinted by Kim Lowe in the Fort Meade community paper:

It was the mid-1960s in Alabama, on the same Army base where the National Guard was billeted when Gov. George Wallace stood in the doors of the University of Alabama. It was a volatile time, a time when images of the civil rights movement were broadcast around the world. Out of sight of cameras, so quietly even her teenaged daughter did not realize, a most unlikely woman became a superheroine.

My mother, Teresa Gaston.

We lived at Fort McClellan, Ala., about 150 miles from the historic hot spots of Selma and Montgomery. My father was a colonel in the U.S. Army, and this was the first time he was stationed in the Deep South. At that time, discrimination against blacks could be found in any part of the country, including within the ranks of the Army, but in Alabama and other southern states it was the law. We had never before lived in a state that practiced segregation. The Army had been desegregated for years, and that was what we were accustomed to. At that time in Alabama, the home state of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and other courageous blacks, one could still find water fountains saying “for whites only.”

Because the Army was desegregated, a few black families were stationed at Fort McClellan, a posting that must have been very difficult for them. Their children had to attend segregated schools that were separate and not equal. Off post, those families would have suffered the same discrimination as the local black citizens. Yet a black soldier could not refuse being stationed in Alabama. It was his duty to go where the Army sent him.

The military was not just a job. It was a life that encompassed the whole family, who were expected to behave according to military standards. For example, I answered the phone, “Colonel Gaston’s quarters. Diane speaking,” and if we children were anywhere near the raising or lowering of the flag, we stopped and faced the flag with our hands over our hearts. At Fort McClellan, my father was about the fifth-highest ranking officer on the post. Because of his high rank, my mother was expected to be active in the Officers’ Wives’ Club and in their charitable and social activities. To do otherwise would have reflected badly on my father’s military career.

My mother was a very shy person. She left school in the 11th grade and consequently believed she was not as intelligent as women with more education, even though she was an excellent bridge player and an avid reader. She had very little confidence in herself. The Officers’ Wives’ Club was directed by the post commander’s wife and when this woman asked my mother to head up a committee, my mother could not refuse, even though it was difficult for my mother to assert herself as a leader.

My mother’s superheroine moment came when a black officer’s wife volunteered to serve on my mother’s committee. The post commander’s wife, a southern woman, ordered my mother to refuse. My shy, insecure mother was faced with turning away the woman, who must have been quite isolated in the larger community, or locking horns with the most powerful woman on the Army base, powerful enough to hurt my father’s career. Luckily, my father supported my mother in whatever she decided to do. I, on the other hand, was so busy being a teenager that I was mostly oblivious to my mother’s moment of courage.

My mother included the black woman on her committee.

It would have made sense for my mother to make her decision an issue of civil rights, equality and fairness. My mother believed in all those things, and it was the perfect time in history to take such a social stand. Her reason for accepting the woman on her committee, however, was based on something deeper than a social cause. It was based on something that ought to be at the root of all human interaction.

My mother could not bear to hurt the woman’s feelings.

February is Black History Month, an appropriate time for me to belatedly honor my mother as a superheroine for her quiet, largely unnoticed, courageous act. My mother, timid though she was, always considered other people’s feelings, not their skin color or anything else. Underneath it all, isn’t this the very essence of equality?

By 1996, 30 years later, Fort McClellan’s post commander was Maj. Gen. Ralph Wooten, a black general officer.

Do you know someone, an ordinary person, who had a superhero moment? Perhaps even yourself?

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