It is a sight I will never forget.
The scrub oaks, Manzanita, and pines blanketed the steep hillsides that protected the rugged valley from the winds. The road was but two continuous ruts interrupted by mud holes crowded with the thick, green foothill grass that grows strong on the edge of winter before it turns to a blanket of rustic gold as the spring heats up.
We had driven just 12 miles off Highway 49 in southwestern Nevada County. The most advanced spy plane man has ever known — the SR-71 — at one time called Beale Air Force base home just 20 miles to the northwest. The teeming Sacramento metroplex of 1.4 million people was centered 45 miles in the distance.
Yet, before me was the most pristine foothill wilderness I had ever seen on the edge of the Central Valley. It appeared more like the stage set for “The Waltons” than the typical northern Sierra foothills laced with 5- and 10-acre home sites that I was accustomed to seeing while growing up in Lincoln some 20 miles away across the Bear River and Camp Far West Lake where my maternal great-great-grandparents arrived in California in 1846.
Seventy-one years earlier during the height of the Great Depression, my grandmother sold this piece of heaven that was her family’s homestead, and moved with those of her eight children who were still at home to Lincoln.
But it wasn’t the stark beauty of the place on the edge of the Spenceville Wildlife Area that my mom affectionately referred to as “The Ranch” that took my breath away on a spring day 11 years ago. It was the realization of the incredible sacrifices that single moms make in the face of adversity to do the right thing.
Edna Towle was left with eight children to raise and a sprawling, rugged cattle ranch to look after when her husband took to the road after taking to the bottle.
Fate had turned grandmother into a single mother just as the Depression started unfolding. She didn’t complain. She set about raising her family the best she could.
It was a struggle in a place where grammar school really was a four-mile, one-way walk or ride on a horse for my mother Verna and her twin sister Verlie. High school for the older sisters meant earning their keep while boarding in Nevada City or Grass Valley.
Making a living was tough. When the opportunity arose to sell the land, grandmother accepted the offer. She bought a lot in Lincoln, built her own home by hand and started working several part-time jobs that ranged from the Lincoln Cannery to operating the elevators during World War II at the local clay products plant known as Gladding, McBean & Co.
Grandmother died in 1966 when I was 10. I was fortunate enough to have her show me how to play solitaire and Chinese checkers as well as to appreciate good conversation and books. But her biggest gift was her philosophy. There were a lot of wise things she tried to instill, but the message that stuck the strongest was simple: “Don’t go around life with a chip on your shoulder” and “don’t use the excuse that someone wronged you so it is right to wrong them.”
It was particularly poignant since a federal worker had literally swindled grandmother out of the ranch. He knew the Army was planning to buy the ranch to create a reserve that later became Beale Army Base and then an air force base. He paid grandmother a dime on the dollar for what he turned around and sold to the government four months later.
Life isn’t fair. Don’t spend your time being bitter. She “talked the talk and walked the walk” long before some hip urban philosopher even thought of the line.
My mother was equally impressive. She found herself widowed with four children in 1965. There was no life insurance, only uncertainty. Our home was paid for so it allowed her to purchase a small drive-in frostie hut. She worked six and sometimes seven days a week with some shifts going from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. with just a few hours off in between.
We never wanted for anything — food, clothing, shelter or love. The value of hard work and delayed gratification was made clear by example.
People often asked why she didn’t date or remarry. Her answer — long before the world had heard of Dr. Phil — was straight to the point: Her kids came first.
Life is the same for single moms as it is for everyone else. It’s about choices.
No one said it is easy or that life is fair.
All I know is that I have indisputable proof that single moms don’t need crutches to succeed.