Irma Violet DaltonJuly 25, 1922 ~ October 5, 2017 (age 95)
Irma V. Dalton: A Life Well-lived
My mother often told the story of how she would not listen to her teacher during her third grade geography lessons because she was dreaming of traveling to faraway places. That was 1930, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. No one in her family had ever left Milwaukee. But when she was 26, she defied family convention and sailed for Europe. That is my favorite image of her — on that ship, bravely heading into her adventurous, independent life.
She and her friend Stella, who she met in a night class where they were studying the Russian language, were meeting there to work for the the United States Counter Intelligence Corps in Augsburg, Germany. It was 1948, soon after WWII ended. My mother worked for an operations officer who was interrogating German and Russian spies and former Nazi officers.
It was in Augsburg that she met my father, Edward J. Dalton, who was in the U.S. Army and assigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps as an agent. He was one of the few soldiers there who had a car, and whenever he and my mother had time off, they’d travel all over Europe. We joked that perhaps his having a car made him especially attractive to her. They took hundreds of photos on those trips with their little Kodak Retina cameras. They both had a great eye for photography, and fortunately we still have all those photos in albums and shoe boxes. On some of the trips, my mother would ski. My father recently recalled that image of her when he was gazing at her in her hospital bed: “I still see her on the mountaintop, skiing in the Alps.”
Her travels didn’t end there. After she and my father were married, she returned to Europe as a wife and mother. I was six, and my sister was three. We lived in France for almost four years while my father was stationed in Fontenet, a little town in the southwestern part of of the country, where he was a captain commanding an Ordinance Corps. Whenever he had a leave, we’d hop into our Opel and travel all over France and to other countries. I have vivid memories of those travels — the canals of Venice, the churches of Rome, the castles of Germany. Mediterranean beaches (my mother in a bikini). Lots of zoos. French bread crumbs all over the car.
Living in France as an army wife at that time wasn’t easy for a young mother. We sometimes didn’t have heat or hot water, such as in the chateau in St. Jean d’Angely, the medieval town where we lived when we first arrived, or in the old farmhouse in the countryside where we moved next. But I think she saw it all as part of her great life adventure, and she always supported my father in his career.
Even with the hardships, she sewed all of my sister’s and my clothes. She was not just a seamstress, she was a tailor — she made us the most beautiful coats. We were two very well-dressed little girls.
She even started a kindergarten on the army post. It was time for my sister to start school, and though there was an elementary school for the service men’s children, there was no kindergarten. So she went to the commanding officer and demanded that one be created. She found a teacher, helped orchestrate other practical details, and had it going in time for my sister to start school. That’s the kind of person she was — determined. And she always wanted the very best for her children.
When we got back to the states, we moved a few times while my father was still in the army, then we settled in southern California when he retired and started to work in civilian life. My mother continued to raise my sister and me, but she also started to get more involved in her creative projects. In addition to her sewing, she knitted, embroidered, baked (oh, how I remember those delicious poppy seed rolls), created her garden, and decorated the house. When she needed a painting to hang in the living room, she got out her oils and painted one herself of a scene from one of her European trips. She always had a creative project going. When the neighbor ladies would get together for coffees, she’d say, “I don’t have time for that. I have too much to DO.”
After my sister and I left home, she went back to school. She was in her early fifties when she was accepted into the studio art program at California State University Long Beach, where she focussed on printmaking. She was the first person in her family to get a college degree. Her professors wanted her to go on and get a masters degree, but she wanted to have new adventures.
One of them was to travel to China. She went on one of the very first tours there in the mid-1970s when the country was opened to westerners. The photos she took on that trip are worthy of being in an art gallery. She also went to eastern Europe, traveling on the Danube River. My father wasn’t interested in foreign travel anymore, but that didn’t stop my mother. She just went on her own, determined to live her life to the fullest.
Her artistic skills came into play again some years later when she studied Chinese painting and would spend innumerable hours painting in this technically difficult style in her home studio.
All along the way, she made friends and kept in touch with them for life. She made two very good friends in her Chinese painting class and kept in touch with them long after they stopped going to the classes. For the past 40 years, she kept in touch with the woman who was her roommate on her China trip. She kept in touch with Stella, her friend who worked with her in Europe after the war, until Stella died. Of course, there were also all the friends she and my father made in their army life. I remember helping her with Christmas cards over the years, and I think she sent out close to a hundred. When I moved to the east coast in the late 70s, she would type a long, chatty letter to me every single Tuesday night, and I would look forward to receiving it in the mailbox on Saturday morning. Maintaining connections was so important to her — she really valued her friends and family.
Her home nurse for the past three years was a kind and vivacious woman from Cambodia who my mother also considered a friend. She loved hearing stories about her childhood and current life. She loved hearing everyone’s stories. My father would always joke that when my mother was in line at a store, she would have the life story of the person in front of her before she got to the cash register.
She cared for her animals, too. First, our little dog Buttons. Then, the succession of cats — Sassy, Cutie, Mopsie, Sally, and Tina. Tina is still with us and seems adrift without my mother. When my mother would awaken during the night, Tina would always appear and seemed to be checking that she was all right.
My mother had an abounding energy. I had a hard time keeping up with her. When we’d shop when I was a teenager, she’d always be way ahead of me with her brisk steps. When I’d visit her as an adult, she’d say, late in the evening, when I was ready to quit for the day, “What should we do next?” She was still painting the walls of her house when she was in her late 70s.
Nine years ago, she started to fall and break bones. But each time, she was determined to recover. She did recover, despite all odds. After she broke her hip in 2008, when she was 86 years old, she was determined to regain her strength so she could walk to the end of the Seal Beach pier and back again, as she and my father had done so many times before on their daily walks. She did walk the full length of the Seal Beach pier again — 156 times. She counted.
Up until the last two months of her life, when I called her in the morning, she would be exercising her legs by bicycling — sitting in her chair, feet on a stationary bicycle’s wheels — and say, “I’m almost there. Get the coffee ready.” Even in her hospital bed, she would exercise her arms or wiggle her feet. She always wanted to keep moving.
I think it was her indomitable spirit that kept her looking so young. Everyone always thought she was decades younger than she really was. Even at 95, her facial skin glowed and looked like the skin of a young woman.
My parents celebrated 67 years of marriage this past April 29. It was 69 years since they met in Augsburg. They loved each other deeply. Though they were different in many ways, they were also very similar. Like my mother, my father was the only one in his family to leave his hometown and the only one to get a college degree. They were both ambitious and loved to travel. They both wanted daughters. They even shared artistic pursuits at times, such as when they set up a darkroom in the house in the 1980s and went on photo-taking excursions together. My mother loved that my father was such a sharp dresser, and she always said she liked tall men. But, most importantly, he could make her laugh. Always. Even if she was mad at him about something, he could make her laugh. What could be more important than that?
A few days after my mother died, my father said to me with a cracked voice, “I can’t believe she’s gone. She was so full of life.” Yes. That was her defining characteristic: full of life.
She will live on in our hearts — my adventurous, independent, creative, loving mother, Irma Violet Dalton.
— Kathleen Dalton
Irma V. Dalton was born on July 25, 1922, and died on October 5, 2017. She is survived by her husband, Major Edward J. Dalton; her daughters, Kathleen Ann Dalton, a photographer and rescuer of cats (and the writer of this remembrance); and Margaret Rita Dalton, a minister and musician.
She is predeceased by her parents, Albert E. Schoenleber and Martha M. Schoenleber; and her siblings, William Schoenleber, Pearl Barger, and Elaine Walczak. Her father was an entrepreneur, builder, and artist. Her mother was a homemaker who had the difficult job of raising her four children largely during the Great Depression.
The photo above was taken at the famous Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago in 1950, after my parents had returned from Germany, a few months before they would be married.