My mother hated the name Martha Lee. And she lived her life avoiding it whenever she could. I remember my grandmother sometimes calling her M.L. She felt that was much better than the grating “Maaatha Lee” they would address her with in their thick Boston accents. As an adult she would be known as Lee
|M.L. held by her mother, Jeanette 1928|
Her new friends at her new high school, Kendall Hall boarding school in New Hampshire, began calling her Willey. This, reportedly after an impressive demonstration by my mother of belching out the entire alphabet at the lunch table one day.
A demur Martha, she was not. This girl needed a cute name.
Willey, short for her last name, Willett, had a gregarious personality and many friends at this school. This was a pattern that would repeat herself for my mom’s entire life. Everyone always loved when she was at a party. But as for this school, it was a place her parents had sent her to “straighten up” after her and her best friend, Phyllis, repeatedly skipped school and hung around various places in Swampscott, Massachusetts. Mom would come home at the end of the school day and my grandparents had no idea she wasn’t showing up for class. Occasionally the truant officer would stop by the house. He was a friend of my grandfather.
“Harold, you’ve got to get that girl to go to class.” The officer would tell him. My grandfather would shake his hand and tell him he would get control of it all.
Sometimes Mom and Phyllis would hop the train to the Boston Garden to watch a hockey game. Neither had an interest in hockey, by the way. But this was 1942 and young men on shore leave from navy vessels passing through the Boston Harbor would take in an afternoon game at the Garden. Despite my grandmother telling her daughter to never, ever, take a cigarette from a stranger because it could have something “funny” in it, Mom and Phyllis were double trouble and liked flirting with the young men. And yes, smoking their forbidden cigarettes.
The fun came to an end one day when they decided to skip school and hang out by the local grocery market in the center of Swampscott.
According to Mom’s version of the story, Phyllis suddenly jumps to her feet.
“M.L.! It’s your mother, coming this way!” Phyllis exclaims. They both spot my grandmother, coming up the street on foot, to go to the market.
Supposedly, my grandmother turned at all the commotion the frantic girls were making and looked over just in time to see her daughter and best friend diving into the nearby shrubs…their skirts flying.
Mom said my grandmother walked over alongside the shrubs and sighed,
“M.L. you come out of there right this instance!”
Mom says she and Phyllis popped up, knowing they were really in for it now. My grandmother had had enough.
|Martha Lee about age 12, 1940|
My mother adored her father. The feeling was mutual. While my mother’s older sister, Jean, was dainty, scholarly, demur and classically pretty, Mom was more along the lines of an early version of Carol Burnett. She was skinny and gawky with a wide, gummy smile. And she was not in the least bit interested in school. My grandfather secretly loved that about her because he had been a horrible student himself. He was more interested in chasing girls and having fun. Some of the stories in his own past mirrored what his favorite daughter was doing. What goes around, comes around was rearing its head to Harold Willett if there ever was a time. It was all innocent fun, he probably thought, thinking back on his own youth. He was now a successful insurance salesman. He straightened up just fine.
But my grandmother was not having any of this. SOMETHING had to be done about these girls traipsing around Boston doing unladylike things.
The fathers called a meeting. They had gotten together to talk over the situation. Both sets of parents and the girls sat in the living room of my grandparent’s house on Lewis Road in Swampscott.
“Girls, we have made a decision. Your education is important and you can’t keep dodging school. You come from good families. We are sending you both away to an all-girls boarding school.” My grandfather reportedly announced.
|Martha Lee High 1946 graduation|
Mom and Phyllis were absolutely delighted. They would have adventures in a far-away place! How fun would that be?
The parents were puzzled by the smiles on the girl’s faces. This was a punishment. What are they so happy about?
My grandfather was the first to figure it out.
“Young ladies,” my Grandad lectured to them, “You do understand you are not going off to school TOGETHER, don’t you? “
Apparently my mother’s face dropped. Phyllis looked confused.
Grandad continued, “We can’t even trust you two in the same state. M.L, you will be going to New Hampshire.” Phyllis’ Dad was sending her to a school in Vermont.
Mom remembers still not quite getting the whole picture of it. So she asked a question.
“But Daddy, what is there to do in New Hampshire?” She remembers asking.
“Exactly!” all four parents answered in unison.
Mom loves telling that story.