My Mother, a Girl with a Star-Spangled Heart

PVT Audrey Salerno, Camp Lee, Virginia, 1949

At some point in the early 1960s, a boy on the playground yelled at me, “Your mother wears combat boots.” I don’t remember what prompted such a remark. If it was meant as an insult, I didn’t take it as one.* My mother served in the Army before I was born, so I reasoned she could have worn combat boots. I put it out of my mind at the time and returned to more important matters, like showing off my Outer Limits trading cards or admiring someone else’s Rat Fink ring. I ignored that child’s remark for the same reason I ignored those who called me an Army brat: my mother had taught me to pick my battles.

With Mother’s Day approaching, I’ve been thinking more and more about my mom. Audrey Agnes Salerno was born in 1927 in Peoria, Illinois to an Italian-immigrant father and an Irish-American mother. She was taught to love babies and food and how to hunt four-leaf clovers—all of which she passed on to me. She was the wisest person I’ve ever known, and I thought I’d take advantage of internet immortality to share a little of what I learned from her.

Audrey Salerno, goat and wagon courtesy of a traveling photographer, 1932

Find a Reason to Laugh
My mom laughed a lot and taught my siblings and me to do the same. She often said, “I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you,” and so we learned to laugh at ourselves as well. When a traveling photographer came to my grandma’s door one summer day, he snapped a photo of my 4-year-old mother wearing a somewhat sly expression. She was probably planning her next practical joke—a talent she carried into her adult years.

Audrey Salerno, 3rd grade, Peoria, Illinois, circa 1936

Read and Imagine
As a child, Mom often jumped off her porch roof to strengthen her arms for flying. This was the kind of active imagination she encouraged in her own children (but the pursuit of flight was, oddly, discouraged). With her guidance, I could read by the time I was four years old. She filled our home, our birthday presents, and our Christmas stockings with books. And a gift of a secondhand manual typewriter bridged the gap between my imagination and the stories waiting to flow from my fingertips.


Audrey Salerno, 12 years old

Be Grateful
The Great Depression was a great equalizer. Every country in the world was affected by it. The Salerno’s had it better than some in the 1930s, living in a mortgage-free house (built by my great-grandfather) and with a yard big enough to grow fist-sized tomatoes and multi-colored bell peppers. Still, times were tough; even though she was hungry, my mom couldn’t eat dinner the night her pet rabbit was served in a stew. When she had her own children, she made sure we had warm coats in the winter and shoes that fit (and always—always—had food on the table). Because of her I learned to be resourceful and to never waste a crumb of anything.

Audrey Salerno, circa 1943


Hold Your Tongue and Your Temper
Mom taught us the importance of our words and how they affect others. She didn’t gossip, wouldn’t allow a hint of it in the house, and she lived by the rule, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” Regarding cussing, she believed we have so many better, and more ladylike, words to choose from in the English language. You would think with all that crazy Irish-Italian blood running through her veins she would have been hot-headed, but she held her temper like no one else could. She was also an expert at holding a secret. I was a teenager before she let slip she never received a high school diploma.

Audrey Salerno, Peoria Journal/Star, circa 1947

Believe in Yourself
She was 16 years old in 1944 when the world was at war. She grew tired of spending her days in classrooms and watching life pass her by. Quitting school seemed the right thing to do. Shy and introverted, she still believed she could do anything she put her mind to. Though she had no skills, she landed a job as a clerk with the Peoria Journal/Star.

Audrey Salerno by Mort Greene

It wasn’t long before the newspaper’s cartoonist Mort Greene became enamored of her, evidenced by gifts of hand-drawn cards, poetry, candy, and flowers. Other women her age might have jumped at the chance of romance, but my mom had set her mind on a wiser path.

Learn From Your Mistakes
She enrolled in school again, and by the end of 1948 she had received a General Education Development (GED) certificate from Manual Training High School. The war was over by then, but patriotism still ran high. In downtown Peoria, Women’s Army Corps (WAC) posters asked, “Are you a girl with a Star-Spangled heart?” She enlisted in 1949, at the age of 21, and went to stenographer’s school.

PVT Audrey Salerno, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1950

Follow Your Heart
My mom had many suitors in the Army, but it was my dad’s sense of humor that won her over. Within a year of enlisting she had fallen in love with that young Sergeant in the Signal Corps. At the time, women couldn’t stay in the military after getting married, so PFC Audrey A. Salerno received an honorable discharge three days after the ceremony. Some would bristle at that now, but my mom knew her heart and it was the right choice for her.

The Highest Calling
A few days before my mother’s death at the age of 58, I thanked her for being a wonderful mom and asked if she ever regretted giving up her future to raise us. She told me she considered it an honor to be a mother, and there was nothing else she would rather have spent her life doing. Of all the things she taught me by example, learning the importance of responsibility and sacrifice has served me the best (and the most often) over the years.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who give so much and make the world a shinier, more loving place.

What lessons did you learn from your mom? If any of you had a mother in the military, I’d love to hear her story.

*As it turns out, that child was trying to insult me, but I like to think he was just passing on what he heard someone else say and had no idea what it meant. says this about that playground taunt: During WWII, prostitutes who followed the troops around, sometimes wore army boots or combat boots.

Speculative Fiction Writer

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4 comments on “My Mother, a Girl with a Star-Spangled Heart
  1. Thanks for sharing this wonderful tribute to your mother. I’m so sorry that she passed at such a young age. She sounds like a dynamic and wise woman, and I wish you had her longer. It’s clear from your post that she loved and was well-loved.

    • KL Wagoner says:

      You’re welcome, Diana. My mother was a blessing — she really was the ideal mother. We still miss her after all these years. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Looks like you’re very proud of her, and you should be.

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