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Aunt Mary as Rosie the Riveter: Portrait of Courage and Strength by Donna Donabella — Rosie’s Daughters

Aunt Mary as Rosie the Riveter: Portrait of Courage and Strength by Donna Donabella

by Matilda Butler on July 5, 2015

Post #68 - Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

[NOTE: Over the coming months, we'll be sharing some of the intriguing stories we received from readers--stories that honor Rosie the Riveters, women who worked during World War II. Today, we're posting Donna Donabella's vignette about her Aunt Mary. Yes, it is a story about hardship during the war, but it is a much larger story of an incredible woman who did what needed to be done.]

Portrait of Courage and Strength

by Donna Donabella

It was December 7, 1941 and the horror of the attack on Pearl Harbor was fresh and raw.  Mary Rose Parise had taken a Civil Service Exam to work for the government weeks earlier, and now on this horrific day was being offered a job at the Navy Yard.  Although it was a great opportunity she declined the job. After all the war wasn’t going to last more than a year, now that the United States was involved.  Instead she decided the job at Sears, for $12 a week, was a better opportunity.

And as the sole breadwinner in her family of four, better opportunities were most important to Mary. Her mother had died 6 years earlier, when Mary was 13, leaving her to care for her two sisters, Theresa, 10 and Emma, 3. Her father had worked, but was recently injured in a fall. Unable to work anymore, they were relying on his social security check of $25 a month and anything Mary could earn. So naturally she took the better job, the one that would not disappear in a year once the war was over.
And Mary was convinced it would be over quickly.

[Photo: Aunt Mary, age 13, and her two sisters.] The Parise family had emigrated from Italy to their new country in 1923 when Mary was one. She was not the oldest, but was the oldest surviving child when they arrived. Her parents’ house had no heat except for one lone stove in the middle of the small center room. Of the five children born to the family, only three would live beyond their first few years. So Mary was used to hardship when her mother died in 1935. It was second nature for this lanky young girl to go to school, and then come home and take care of the family. She had little time to mourn as she was now the female head of the household.  And when Mary graduated from vocational school at 18, she had to find work to support the family.

By May of 1942, as the country realized that this war was not going to be over any time soon, Mary wanted to work for the war effort. It was a risk to leave her reliable job, but one she was willing to take to do her little part. Mary luckily landed a job with the Signal Corps at the supply depot in Philadelphia. The Signal Corps was established in 1860, and became one of the technical services in the Army Service Forces during WWII responsible for establishing and maintaining communications.

Every day this young woman, of medium height and medium strength, showed up to work in one of the few clean, pressed dresses she owned, her curly brown hair falling around her shoulders. Her gentle brown eyes and intoxicating smile welcomed her co-workers who she described as, “Nice people to work with.” She quickly worked her way up from a typist to the job of expeditor. On the surface, the job seemed menial in its description. You took a requisition for supplies and filled it with great speed and efficiency. What could be simpler? But this job was far from simple.

Mary enjoyed the job because as she says, “You got to do lots of walking. It was different than just sitting and typing all day. You used your mind and problem solved. It was very challenging.” Mary was well respected in her job as she was given what were called the “hot requisitions.” These were especially important because our troops were without the supplies needed on the front lines in both the European and Pacific Theaters.

Mary would take the “hot requisition” and walk it through all the departments until it got to shipping. Sometimes this meant she had to stay past her shift. Each of these orders were of utmost importance After all, our boys were counting on the efforts of those back in the States. If stock control or inventory did not have the materials needed, an officer would accompany Mary to other areas of the depot to conduct a search as supplies would sometimes be mislabeled or tucked away in the wrong spot. Or she would go to the girls in purchasing to find materials in other areas of the country. Occasionally if Mary couldn’t find what was needed, she would have to call the manufacturer to try and order supplies, but that was a last resort. Often times Mary had to find a substitute that would do for now, and that took quick thinking on her part.

Mary recounted times that officers from the field would arrive with requisitions that she would have to fill fast. She would walk the requisition through with the officers to ensure the materials were quickly dispatched. She felt good about her job saying, “I felt like I was doing something to help. It felt good because the front lines were getting things they needed, and I was proud to help them.”

Mary and others were required to rotate and work all 3 shifts in the office, each shift just as busy as the other. This was not your typical office either, but a large building filled with rows of desks, clacking typewriters, Xerox machines humming loudly, phones ringing non-stop and thousands of people talking–and that was just in her section. The noise was deafening so it was a relief when Mary could spend time in the other areas and buildings searching for the right supplies to fill the orders needed during the war.

Mary was usually exhausted when she left work. She would often arrive home to chores that were still waiting for her.  After all someone had to do the washing and ironing, even the dishes. Her father was a help with some housework and cooking, but that help was limited. Her sisters were expected to go to school, and do their homework with just some light chores. Much was left to Mary. Frequently Mary would decline her co-workers efforts to get her to go out after work.  But sometimes she went to South Philly on the bus to get a slice of pizza before she worked the midnight shift.  There were times she went to dinner at a girlfriend’s house or even out for Chinese food, but those were rare excursions to help deal with the work-a-day stress.

Most nights Mary took the long ride home by herself–a ride that required both the bus and trolley. When she worked the later 4-12 or 12-8 shifts she would get an escort from a policeman who would drive alongside her as she walked from the bus stop to her house. Sometimes Mary was so exhausted after the last shift that she would fall asleep on the trolley as she rode it to the end of the line in complete oblivion. She would then have to ride it all the way back to get home, much later then she expected, even more tired after her cat nap. It is no wonder she really disliked the late shifts.

Mary worked as an expeditor until the war ended. She made little more than $1600 a year working full time during the war. This would equate to $20,464 today. Mary wanted to continue to work in her job after the war, but she was told women couldn’t have these jobs, and not because men were returning home to these particular jobs.  Simply put, men did these jobs not women.

Aunt Mary is my mother\'s Maid of Honor in 1953[Photo: Aunt Mary as my mother's Maid of Honor, 1954.] But Mary never questioned these decisions. Instead she moved on to find another job after taking another test. Mary held various civil service jobs throughout her working career always trying to advance and passing any test given to her. Many times she said, “I don’t know how I passed all those tests.” Because Mary had a war services appointment, after the war she was able to transfer to the Veteran’s Administration where she helped veterans complete forms she created so they could go back to school on the GI Bill. Mary moved on to work for the City Health Department where she helped in clinics and dispensed medications to families. She eventually returned to clerical work for businesses and the government before retiring.

Aunt Mary in her 80s[Photo: Aunt Mary in her 80s.] At this writing, Mary (Parise) Esposito is still alive at the young age of 90.  She is spry, and will turn 91 in March.   Mary is my aunt and she raised my mother, Emma, her baby sister.  And although her hair is white and she walks with a cane, she has not lost the sparkle in those kind eyes.

As she grew older and her sisters left and married, Mary took care of her father until his death. When he died, she was 34 and unmarried.  She did marry Hugo Esposito soon after her father’s death, but had no children. Her sisters, nieces and nephews were her children, and she was like a mother or grandmother to us.

My aunt has great humility, and always celebrates the other person’s accomplishments with pride downplaying anything she does. As I was growing up, Aunt Mary appeared to know everyone, and if she didn’t, she smiled and talked with them as if she did. She never missed a chance to visit friends or pay her respects to everyone she knew–touching them with just her smile, her kind words. These are the most important things to her.  The way she has lived her whole life not looking for anyone to reciprocate.  Just treating people the way we all should with friendship, respect and love.

And now she lives with my mom in Arizona. She still knows everyone, and what is going on in their lives. Who is sick or hurt. Who may need some help or a friend to visit. She still pays her respects and welcomes friends and neighbors into her home.

Aunt Mary has been an incredible role model for me.  And as time is blurred and I find myself back in the early days of WWII, I can see Mary lending an ear or a shoulder. Knowing all the people who worked with her soldiers and civilians alike. In her mind, she’s not a Rosie the Riveter, but just a humble woman never letting on what burdens she had–instead helping those around her bear their burdens.

Aunt Mary, a true portrait of courage and strength for women throughout the ages.

Donna Donabella recently retired from a 35-year career in education. She currently is pursuing a career as a writer and poet. She is married to her soul mate, Robert, who is her champion. Donna is an avid gardener, and blogs about her life and gardening at And you can read her poetry and prose at her new blog, where she is inspired by change, challenge and creativity.

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