This is a story about recalling foremothers from our youth, foremothers whose encounters with us happened in small moments. Interestingly, seeds of possibility can be sown in our childhood that may take decades to come to fruition. My friend Laura Friedman has given me permission to share her Foremothers story. But first, here is how Laura’s story emerged from the recesses of memory.

Talking over breakfast–an “a ha” moment

Back in December, while having breakfast with Laura at the Freeport Cafe, we began to talk about my Foremothers Project, about women who had influenced us in our youth. At first, Laura was at a loss to think of anyone. Then, she had a moment of realization, or an “ah ha” moment, Her realization was that this person needn’t be a blood relative. And that even a small encounter, a brief moment of exchange with that person, might very well have opened up new ways of seeing ourselves, or new understandings.

While Laura and I were talking over home fries and eggs, one of these foremothers came into my mind. Her name was Vera Kovar and she worked as the Director of Arts for the West Orange Public Schools. When I returned home, I looked her up on the internet and found her obituary in the New Jersey Jewish News having lived to age 91. Vera Kovar did not teach classes, but she was instrumental in designing the art program in which I thrived and grew as a young artist. Back in high school I may have heard that Vera had been a painting student of the renowned teacher Hans Hofmann, but it didn’t really register at the time. Little did I know that some years later I would study with another student of Hofmann, this time in graduate school. You can read about Hofmann and his approach to teaching here.

Three Reggio friends (left to right: Kathy, Robin, and Laura)

A little background about my friendship with Laura

Laura is one of the special people I met and became friends with through our shared interest in the Reggio Emilia Approach to Early Childhood Education. For over ten years, our Portland area Reggio study group met to discuss and share experiences from the classroom. But that is a story for another time. A few days after our breakfast Laura sent me this moving remembrance of a special foremother she knew for a time in Panama during her early teens.

Foremothers: By Laura Friedman

Robin, as you know, because my father chose a career army officer’s life, I had a childhood that involved a great deal of moving and disruption, among other things. My own mother was often distant, and my grandmothers I saw infrequently. Extended family was almost non-existent, simply because were were moving all the time. I cannot think of any woman within my own family who I was very close to or who was inspirational. Our conversations yesterday made me remember someone who I saw almost every day when I was 13 and living in the canal zone. We lived in a house that looked like this:

A house similar to the one Laura lived in in the canal zone, Panama

If you look very carefully, you can see stairs on the right side of the house. These led to our kitchen. We lived on the second and third floors. On the ground floor, there is a recessed cement area. This is where Mae lived.

Laura in Panama

Remembering Mae

Most of the officers had “maids” that lived with the families during the week. Mae was our “maid”. I believed she cooked and cleaned and did laundry during the week. On Fridays, she went home where she lived with her mother and her daughter. It was completely on the other side of the isthmus roughly 30 miles away. We were in the Balboa area and she traveled to and from the Gatun area. She took a bus on Monday morning to work and live with us during the week and returned home on Friday afternoons. Her mother took care of her daughter while she was with us during the week.

Map of Panama depicting both Gatun where Mae and her daughter lived and the Canal Zone where Laura and her family resided.

Mae’s Room

The room Mae had was basically one open room with a cot and a very small bathroom behind a door in the corner. Maybe there was a chair in there. I don’t think there were any windows, but I’m not sure. I don’t remember that she ate with us, so she must have taken food down to her room.

I think that Mae was in her very early 20s. I remember her as beautiful—very petite, shy and always smiling or laughing. She had one gold-capped tooth which was not uncommon—a sign of “wealth”. She spoke English with a very strong Jamaican accent which I LOVED. I must have spent a fair amount of time hanging out with her, because I learned that she became pregnant by a GI that she had met who told her that when he was scheduled to leave after his tour was finished, he would marry her and bring her home with him. He didn’t do that. Instead he left her with a daughter—basically deserted them both.

She brought her daughter once to our place. I cannot remember her name. She was little—maybe two. She was beautiful like her mother. They CLEARLY loved each other. I remember the girl’s bushy hair pinned and little gold pierced earrings. I wish I had a picture to share with you.

A Special Closeness

I felt very close to Mae. In many ways she was a friend—really an age where we could have been sisters. But our time together was only downstairs in and around her room. When she was upstairs in our living “quarters,” she was very quiet and rarely talked to me. She seemed very concerned about making sure she did what my mother and father expected.

I still feel a sense of shame for the situation, and I still think about her and miss her.

She was lovely. Laura Friedman, 2021

Laura and Kathy on a walk at Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm, Falmouth Maine

Robin’s Reflections

Today, Laura Friedman is a talented designer and craftswoman. As a member of the Maine Crafts Association and the Rosemont Artists Guild of Maine, Laura participates in regional craft shows and exhibits. Please have a look at her website where Laura offers beautiful hand-crafted jewelry and custom metalwork.

Finally, I’m curious about how Laura’s Foremothers story resonates with you. As always, please feel free to respond or share your reflections in the comments. Recalling foremothers from our youth is a journey of remembrance and healing. To all my readers, thank you for your participation.