My mother, who was born in 1920, had a lifelong fascination with Earhart that spilled over onto me like a bucket of paint that colored how I feel even now about travel, exploration, and what a girl can accomplish. But as much inspiration as I, and I think many girls, have had with the aspirational part of Amelia Earhart’s story, the fact that neither she nor her plane were ever found after she disappeared in 1937 while trying to fly around the world has always been unsettling.
Now that it appears that the wreckage of Earhart’s plane may have been found, I want other little girls to know more about Earhart and I will probably start with making sure my own three daughters understand how our family became fascinated with and inspired by the famous aviatrix — through my mother.
My mom had polio. She contracted the debilitating illness when she was just 12 years old and the paralysis that came with it kept her in a bed for a year. The family was sworn to secrecy and was instructed not to let outsiders know she was sick, so my mother spent much of that time in isolation. As a consequence of not being able to play outdoors with her friends, or visit with neighbors, she read everything she could get her hands on.
My mother started with “girl’s” books, goblin stories, and fairy tales. She moved on quickly to what she called “boy’s books” and feasted on Tom Swift and his contraptions. In 1923, Howard Carter opened King Tut’s tomb so she read up on mythology and Egypt. She loved pirate books, stories of gods and goddesses, travelogues and adventure stories, and anything that would pull her spirit to places her body couldn’t take her.
But of all this interest in exciting careers, nothing held her imagination quite like reading newspaper and magazine articles about Amelia Earhart. I listened to my mother’s stories about “Lady Lindy” from the time I was really small. My mother thought flying was wonderfully exciting and she remarked every year about how one of her cousins was born on the day Charles Lindbergh landed his plane in Paris, becoming the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She loved the idea of traveling and liked to say how much she enjoyed eating out for breakfast because she could feel like she was far, far away.
Amelia Earhart was my mother’s hero. In 1937, Earhart and her plane, in that final fateful journey, were instrumental in one of the most significant moments in early feminism and it happened only a few years after suffragettes won the vote. Not only, on the simplest level, did she fly planes like a man, she flew planes beyond what most men were capable of at that time. She came across as spunky and confident, almost as if she were straight out of tomboy central casting and it’s easy to see how my mother could have fallen for her. And even though a very skilled Hilary Swank portrayed Earhart in the most recent Mira Nair biopic, it’s actually the character of Ellie in the 2009 Pixar film “Up” that I think best captures Earhart’s flair. Ellie was looking for something far beyond the reaches of her yard, bordered only by her imagination. Ellie wanted to fly and she wanted a two-story Gothic Revival house that sat on top of a waterfall in South America.
When Earhart took off, the hopes of many little girls – and boys – took off with her. Within an hour of her last radio transmission on that fateful day in 1937, crews began searching for her plane but never found it or her. On some level, I want to find it now too, but then again, maybe it is best that Earhart stays lost to history. We can imagine her landing on a remote island as a castaway or being rescued by undiscovered native peoples in South Pacific tribal islands. There is something heroic about her disappearance that might become earthbound if this really is her plane under all that water and we find that she died, as has long been suspected, by crashing into the sea after running out of fuel.
Remarkably, when my mother died at the age of 92, she had never once been on an airplane. For all her bravado about wanting to be a pilot or an archaeologist, or a pirate for that matter, she never actually did any of those things. But she raised two confident, very well-traveled daughters and spent her life surrounded by books and music in a world a lot of people would envy, and in the constant presence of love. She made me believe that because of Amelia Earhart’s accomplishments, I could do anything.
If recent images prove that this time this Earhart’s plane has been found, I hope American women in particular will take the time to remember her the way my mother always remembered her: as a hero and as a bold explorer. And if it is not her plane, I hope someone will keep looking for her.
Contributor Anne Born has been an editor and writer all her life. She writes poems, short stories, and personal essays on family history and her view of living in a big city after growing up in a small one. She likes an audience or she would keep her writing in her personal notebook. This embarrasses her children. She lives in the South Bronx and writes on and about the MTA – the New York City system of buses and subways. You also find her at Open Salon and Red Room, and you can follow her on Twitter at @nilesite.