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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

Looking for Love (1937-1948)

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 3/4/2024
Occurred: 6/18/1937
Updated: 3/23/2022
Page Views: 832
Topics: #EdnaMaeBrown #EdnaMaeCilwa #PhotoRestoration #Colorization #WalterCilwa #VernonBrown #DorothyWeemsBrown
Photos and narrative of my mom, Edna Mae Brown Cilwa, and her life up to her marriage to my dad.

By 1937, as Nazism was rising in Germany, Mom was a pert 23 years old, and like every woman of the period, anxious to get married. On the other hand, she had to have seen how her own parents' marriage was deteriorating, so perhaps that was why she was in no rush.

Somewhere along this time, Mom's father began an affair with Dorothy Weems, his receptionist. He even brought her with him on a vacation weekend to Pawlett!

(1937) Gramma Brown and Grandmother Brown in Pawlet. An open marriage?

An open marriage?! From the limited vantage point of today, with its misty, black-and-white (even when colorized!) view of the past, I can only wonder. It appears that Mary Virginia knew about this arrangement—indeed, in 1937, Dorothy Weems and Mary Virginia Brown had their pictures taken together at the house in Pawlet. Granted, Mary Virginia doesn't look very happy. But Dorothy does—not gloating nor triumphant, just enjoying herself and seemingly oblivious to Mary Virginia's scowl. Were Dorothy and my grandfather having their affair already? Did Mary Virginia know or suspect? What were the sleeping arrangements during this visit?

My ex-husband, Michael, is a genealogist and finds mysteries in the appearance and disappearance of names of people in the national censuses. I'm a photographer and I find them in the expressions of people, now dead, preserved in these photographs.

Certainly my grandfather, a Victorian gentleman of the first order, would be an unlikely adherent to the principles of what was then called free love. No one in our household, when I was growing up, ever spoke of sex. No adult in our family ever told me or my sisters the facts of life. In fact, neither of my sisters were warned before they had their first periods!

And yet…! For people who never admitted the existence of sex, they seemed to have an awful lot of it.


Mom and her mother continued to summer in the cabin in Pawlet, despite a fire that nearly destroyed it. They rebuilt it better than before, moving walls and paneling them in pine. Of course, they had no electricity or indoor plumbing; but, in those days, few rural vacation homes did.

Having spent her childhood in such an out-of-the-way location, Mom had been taught to shoot a rifle by her dad and she continued to practice sharp shooting into her twenties. She was known throughout the county as a crack shot, though she seldom shot animals. One story she told from this period occurred when her best friend, Bernie, was spending the summer with her. The two young ladies were preparing to target shoot when Bernie spotted a small creature crossing the clothesline. Oh, look! she said. It's a chipmunk! Did you ever see such a precious little thing, with those cute little eyes and those chubby little cheeks? …Quick, shoot it!

(1937) Mom and a friend shoot at targets in Pawlet. (1937) Mom as Annie Oakley (1938) Mom examines the Florida orange crop.

By the end of the 1930s, the Depression was easing but the clouds of war were looming on the horizon. In 1938, the Browns sold the house in Pawlet and Mom and her mother used the money to spend the winter in Florida. The following year they returned. That would be Mom's last vacation with her mother. Mary Virginia died of complications from diabetes in 1940.

With Mary Virginia dead, Grandpa was free to marry Dorothy Weems, which he almost immediately did. The two honeymooned in Cape Cod (where my Mom would later meet my Dad).

Together with Mom, who still lived with her father, Grandpa and the only person I ever knew as Gramma, moved into a newly-constructed, luxury apartment building called Rockcliff, in Montclair, New Jersey. The building was built, as its name suggests, on the top of a mountain cliff overlooking the city.

(1942) Vernon Brown (1942) Dorothy Brown
In the Red Cross

Mom, too short to join the WACS, joined the Red Cross and did her part to acheive victory, folding bandages and raising money at home for the boys overseas. The war threw a pall over the dating scene, as Mom was among the forefront of those who refused to date men who were 4-F—that is, unable to participate in the fighting. As everyone else was either too old or too young, Mom volunteered to work for Canteen, which provided a place to relax for off-duty soldiers. Vacations were not an option, as gasoline was rationed and having a good time (except with soldiers) was considered somewhat unpatriotic.

But all things come to an end, and eventually the war ended and Americans returned to a semblance of normalcy. In 1948, Mom, Grampa and Gramma had what we would now call glamour shots taken of themselves.

(1948) Edna Mae Brown (1948) Dorothy Brown (1948) Vernon Brown
My Dad

In October of 1949, Mom made a trip to Cape Cod with her best friends Bernie and Norma. On Halloween, Norma threw a party and insisted that Mom attend, though Mom had gotten sunburned and wasn't really in the mood. Mom went anyway; that's where she met my Dad, Walter Cilwa.

Dad had a few strikes against him. First, he was more than a decade older than Mom, and hadn't fought in the war. (Mom didn't take up many causes, but the ones she did take, she clung to.) Worse, he was divorced; he was Catholic but, as Catholics go, pretty relaxed about it. Mom decided to have nothing to do with him, even though she found him very attractive.

They got engaged.

Mom on board

Mom had been planning her first trip to Europe, to be made with the Mercier Club and led by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardinal_Spellman> Cardinal Spellman. Despite Walter's attentions, she left as planned in February, 1950, touring Italy and the Holy Land. (Those photos are among those lost.) She kept a letter Dad sent her which began, Hi, Honey, Since your departure things have gotten cold in more ways than one! He also recommended that she include a visit to the Isle of Capri, which she did, asking for a full account but cautioning, And I don't mean with some other Pilgrim, either!

On September 9, 1950, Mom became Mrs. Walter Cilwa. She was 38 years old, and two months pregnant…with me. Mom dealt with this discrepancy by telling me, for decades, that she'd forgotten her wedding date! It wasn't until Michael began gathering genealogical data that pinned her to a date and I did the math.

(1950) Dad and Mom take the plunge.

I should have guessed. My sister did, long ago: In Mom's wedding photo, she is not wearing white. Only my mother would have been such a slave to custom that she would keep this dark secret from the son she was carrying, but reveal it to all the wedding guests by her choice of outfits.

Dad's best man was his brother-in-law Mike Ryan, so Dad's sisters knew about the wedding. However, his children by his first marriage did not—they found out about it when reading the paper. They were on the young side, too. So, cold.

Mom, as we used to say, was more Catholic than the Pope. She continued to abstain from meat on Fridays for decades after that rule was relaxed. And so Mom's sermons on why divorce was evil and no Catholic could ever remarry never made much sense, given that we knew that Dad had been married before. Mom always said that his first wife had died. But then she let slip that Dad had gotten a divorce. Yes, but Lena died before he remarried.

As it turns out, Lena Cilwa died in 1955. Mom had been married in 1950. I don't know how she managed it, unless she just neglected to mention Dad's previous marriage to the priest…in which case, though her marriage was legal, it wasn't ecclesiastically sanctioned.

Each lifetime is unique, and therefore priceless. We may continue to reincarnate a million times over, but each person we've been exists once and once only (not counting any alternate Earths that may exist in the Multiverse). The stories of those lifetimes deserve to be told.

This was my mom's, at least, up to the point where I entered the picture.