My mother's wings
My mother was a cloud writer. She looped her winged body into coils of white puffs that wove themselves into words on a sheet of blue, words that melted like whipped cream on a summer's day. A stunt pilot before World War II, she flew with the Curtiss-Wright Flying Service from a Michigan airfield. She owned a two-seater biplane and supported herself by skywriting. In photos, my mother stands beside her plane or leans from the cockpit. She wears a leather helmet, a long leather jacket, jodhpurs, and tall, lace-up boots. She is always smiling.
"What was the happiest day of your life?" I once asked her.
Without hesitation, she answered: "The day I first flew solo."
Ever since she was a child in Sofia, Bulgaria, my mother
had dreamed of flying. Her next-door neighbor was a young man named Assen Jordanoff, who left for America to become a test pilot. On his return visits, he held little Olga spell-
bound with stories of his flying exploits. She longed to fly, too, but he would chuck her under the chin and tease, "Girls don't fly planes!"
That was certainly true in Bulgaria, particularly if the girl was the daughter of the chief justice of Bulgaria's Supreme Court. Her father, my grandfather, was a progressive man. In his youth he had studied in St. Petersburg and Paris. He gave Olga and her older sister, Vera, the same education their two older brothers had and encouraged them to read widely.
But when Olga said she wanted to fly, my grandfather knew his wife would never agree. She was interested mainly in beautiful clothes, parties, and social standing. She would not hear of Olga embarrassing the family by doing something so tomboyish. It had been bad enough the day Olga had taken one of her skirts, cut it up the middle, and sewed it into trousers. When the young girl strode into the drawing room dressed like a man, her mother shrieked: "What have I done to deserve such a wicked child!" She fled to the family chapel to pray for help in dealing with her difficult burden.
But Olga persisted. In her late teens, she heard that the Bulgarian government was offering the winner of a typing contest the opportunity to spend a year at the Bulgarian Embassy in Athens. My mother did not know the first thing about typing, but she wanted to see the world. She bought a typewriter and secretly taught herself typing from a book. When she won the contest, my father agreed to let her go, over his wife's objections. Olga spent a wonderful year in Greece.
Olga's dream of flying had not left her. Her childhood friend Assen sent her a book he had written on stunt flying. He inscribed it to her an wrote underneath: "Bulgaria's first woman pilot?" Back in Sofia, Olga went to college. Beautiful, intelligent, and headstrong, she had many admirers. Her friends compared her to Greta Garbo - she had the same high cheekbones -but with larger, dark-brown eyes and a warmer smile.
One day, she came home from college to find a stranger seated with her oldest brother, Stephan, who imported furs from Canada. The tall, distinguished man who bent his sleek black head to brush his lips against the back of her hand was one of Stephan's business partners. He had emigrated to Canada, where he traveled through the wilderness buying furs. Gabriel was 12 years older than Olga, with prematurely graying hair and a lazy smile. Within a few days, he was captivated by my mother's exuberance. He proposed to her, but Olga just laughed. She thought him too old for her. He pleaded, cajoled, promised to show her the world. Still she said no. Then he played his trump card. Stephan had told him of Olga's fascination with airplanes.
"Have you heard of Amelia Earhart?" he asked her one day.
"Of course!" Earhart was Olga's hero.
"She is not the only woman pilot, you know. There are others. If you come with me to Canada, you could learn, too."
Olga thought her heart would stop. Could she really learn to fly? This was what she had always dreamed of doing.
"In that case, yes!"
Olga and Gabriel were married a month later. Neither her mother nor her brother Stephan approved the match. Both thought she was marrying beneath her status. Her brother Christo and her sister Vera had other reservations. "Will you be happy?" Vera whispered as she kissed her sister goodbye. Olga smiled and murmured, "When I am a pilot, I will be very happy."
MY MOTHER never talked about her marriage to Gabriel. I learned about her first husband by accident, when I needed my parents' marriage certificate and saw, to my surprise, that she was listed as "widow." It was only after she died that Vera's daughters told the story. There were no children from the marriage, and after a few years they separated. But Gabriel had kept his promise, Olga learned to fly.
She moved to Michigan and, with another woman, bought a secondhand plane. She was a daredevil flier, performing stunts at air shows on weekends and carrying banners or tracing words in the air during the week.
Airplanes in the early 1930s didn't have complex instruments. "Sometimes," my mother told me, "when you looped the loop, you couldn't tell if you were flying upside down or right side up. So I always carried some pencils in my breast pocket. If l got confused, I'd take out a pencil and let it go. If it dropped to the floor, l knew l was right side up. If it flew up past my head, I knew I was upside down!"
Her exploits caught the attention of a wealthy man who wanted to sponsor her as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Amelia Earhart had flown across the Atlantic in 1928 - but with a co-pilot.
In the newspaper clipping, the headline reads: "Fair Young Flyer to Try Solo Atlantic Crossing." The paper is yellowed and my mother's portrait is brown with age. Her shoulder is turned so that she is looking back at the camera, a half smile on her lips, and a curl is peeking from under the leather cap. The large goggles are pushed rakishly back on her head. She looks a little wistful. There is no date on the clip but my mother told me that only a few months later, Amelia Earhart - not Olga Handjieva - became the first woman to cross the Atlantic alone. That was in 1932. Mother never did attempt a transatlantic flight. After Earhart was lost at sea while on her round-the-world flight, my mother sold her plane.
But before hanging up her wings, Olga returned to Bulgaria and was invited to visit its air force. In a photograph, she is wearing an elegant fur-trimmed coat with a fashionable hat. She is surrounded by uniformed officers. In her high heels, my mother is taller than some of the pilots to whom she is speaking. Her head is bent forward slightly, as if she's listening. The pilots look bedazzled.
I wonder if my mother was proud. Or was she secretly laughing at the irony? A woman who had been brought up being told that girls should not fly was inspecting her country's air force.