Sometimes a simple little Internet search will unearth something totally unexpected and completely wonderful. Motivated by the fact that it’s Women’s History Month and by all the stories I’ve been reading about strong women, I decided I wanted to write a piece about my maternal grandmother who, though not famous, was a pretty amazing and inspiring woman herself. But I have a terrible memory and little capacity for retaining actual facts, so I knew I’d need help if I was going to do her story justice and get all the little details right. So, I turned to my two most trustworthy sources of information: my twin sister (who has a fantastic memory and a great capacity for retaining actual facts) and Google (you all know Google, right?)
My sister was a wealth of information as usual, as were my mom’s cousins whom I also contacted for the backstory, but I was thrilled to find out something completely amazing all on my own. Simply by googling her name (that interweb sure is great!!), I found an art auction site describing the recent sale of one of her paintings! This is really fantastic because while my grandmother was an influential and integral part of her local artist community, she was by no means a renowned artist. It didn’t sell for much, but the fact that one of her pieces is out there being sold to a random buyer halfway across the country and more than 60 years after she painted it is just out-of-this-world crazy to me.
I never had a chance to meet Phyllis, but she has always been a source of inspiration and a driving force in my life. She died quite young- before my parents were even married (just nine days before in fact) but my mom talked about her a lot. I used to love to hear stories about her because she was so intriguing. I imagined her to be tragic and beautiful and smart and strong and quirky and lovely and I always wished more than anything that I could have known her.
We had some pictures of her and we had a few of her paintings but that’s it. My grandfather remarried a few years after she died and his new wife threw out almost everything that had been hers. My aunt was away at college and my mom was living in Japan at the time and didn’t find out about it until she returned home, too late to save anything. Losing all of her mother’s treasures was deeply painful for her and it’s something she’s never gotten over. But she tried to keep her spirit alive by sharing what she did still have- her memories and her stories.
Phyllis Kocher Amman was born in Omaha, Nebraska on August 7, 1917, to Ellis Lundgren Kocher and Louis Kocher, but she spent most of her childhood in Palo Alto, California where the family moved when she was very young. She had a twin brother named Bud who she remained extremely close to even after circumstance and distance kept them apart. Their father died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage when they were just 19 years old, and the shared loss instilled in them a deep appreciation for family ties and an intense need to stay connected. When they married and had families of their own they, their spouses and children all maintained a close, loving relationship that transcended the miles that separated them. When Bud also died suddenly at age 49, Phyllis was heartbroken.
She attended UC Berkeley where she received a degree in social work. She also completed some graduate work in social welfare at Berkeley and later went on to continue her education at the Farnham School of Art in Surrey, England, the University of Rhode Island and Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I. All of this is amazing considering at that time, most women didn’t even finish high school, let alone set their sites on a Master’s Degree. In fact, according to the Education Census Bureau, just 35% of women earned a high school diploma in 1940 and a mere 5% went on to graduate from college. She was an influencer, a game-changer, a real go-getter!
While she was at Berkeley, Phyllis met my grandfather, Bernard Amman, a Navy pilot who also has a fascinating story that I’ll save for Memorial Day because well, you’ll see why when I write it. Their meeting was the start of a great love affair that endured hard times and unfolded all around the world. Shortly after they were married, the US entered WWII and Barney was deployed to the Pacific. He spent a good deal of time flying missions during the War and was historically shot down and rescued after three days at sea during the Battle of Midway (he’s even written up in books and stuff- more on that later).
While her husband was off saving the world, she was doing good work at home. She was a firm believer in having a community-based vocation so she served as a juvenile court probation officer, a recreation supervisor, a family caseworker and a Navy Relief interviewer. And because apparently, that didn’t keep her busy enough, she set up and ran a Navy Relief Thrift shop to help fellow Navy families in need. After Barney came back, she followed him around the world, perfecting the art of being a Navy wife: hosting fabulous dinner parties, organizing luncheons on the military base, volunteering with various service organizations, keeping an impeccable house and raising two spirited young girls in far-flung places like Guam, Japan, the United Kingdom, and perhaps the most exotic of all: Pensacola, Florida.
Oh, and she also passed her spare time wherever they were stationed by getting really involved with the local community. For example, she helped promote Japanese-American relations as a cultural ambassador while they lived in Japan and Guam, and she established the Art Association of Pensacola in Florida, where she also set up the first art gallery and studio and acted as head instructor, earning a spot as an honorary life-long member.
In Newport, R.I, where the family finally settled, Phyllis didn’t miss a beat. While maintaining a career as a devoted social worker focused on family and children advocacy and pursuing her passion as a painter, she served as Director of the Neighborhood Youth Corps, and, for a time, as Vice-President of the Newport Branch American Association of University Women. She was also a member of the Quota Club and the Art Association, the Newport County Council of Community Service, was on the executive board of the War College Wives and was a member of the Navy Footlighters, a drama group that performed locally. All of this, and she was a Navy Commander’s wife, with all the visible roles and multiple responsibilities that go along with that. By all accounts, she relished the job- drawing on the deep love she had for her husband to support him and help him excel in his career.
Perhaps her most important role, however, was being a mom. She encouraged my mom and her sister to be compassionate, generous, strong-willed, independent and proud. She taught them that it was important to work hard and give back, and she encouraged them to engage in volunteerism and to be involved with the community. She also instilled in them the importance of finding time to pursue individual passions and focus on the things in life that make you happy.
Though she didn’t start painting until her late 20s or early 30s, Phyllis became quite an accomplished artist who delighted family, friends and strangers alike with her talent. She was well known in the Newport area. She won multiple awards and her paintings adorned galleries across the region. But perhaps the most valuable works were the ones that were reserved for her family including some fabulous portraits and other pieces that adorned the walls of all my childhood homes and some less fabulous but equally delightful early works that she painted for her beloved brother.
And, despite all her impressive accomplishments, Phyllis was still endearingly human. My mom always used to recount how her mother could whip up canapés for 200 but had a hard time putting a tuna casserole or any other sensible meal on the table (usually she mentioned this as she was setting a tuna casserole on our table and I’m still not sure if this was in defense of the casserole or an apology for it).
It seems particularly unfair that someone so vibrant, full of life, and determined to give so much was struck down by a fatal illness when she was far, far too young. In fact, it was an illness that she lived with for years, while accomplishing more than most healthy people can even dream about. You see, Phyllis had chronic leukemia, something she neglected to tell most people, including her own daughters, until she absolutely had to, when chronic became acute and she couldn’t fight anymore. She didn’t want anyone to worry, she didn’t want pity and she didn’t want to stop until she had to. But, ultimately she did have to, much earlier than seems right or fair.
The end of the story is a sad one. This lively, beautiful, talented, generous human finally succumbed to the devastating result of her disease when she was just 50 years old, leaving behind a heartbroken husband and daughters who adored her and felt lost without her, her brother’s family who all loved her deeply and a community of friends who admired her, appreciated her and counted on her. She tried to hold on for so long, but the reality of life is that the one thing you can’t control is how much time you have. She was buried the same week my parents were married. Her untimely death would have been tragic at any point, but given that it happened during a time that should have been joyful for everyone made it particularly gut-wrenching.
She left a huge void here on earth, but she also left a beautiful imprint.
It’s amazing to me that she accomplished all that she did in a time when it was deemed unnecessary for women to do anything other than run an efficient household and raise obedient children. She’s a testament that you can do anything, anything you set your mind to, and nothing need get in your way. Not the fact that you’re a woman, not the times you live in, not the circumstances you find yourself facing. And, your life certainly should not be measured by how many years you live, but instead by what you do with the years that you have. It’s so cliché to say that, I know. I know. But really, it’s true. You need to do all the things, now, while you can. Phyllis was on this earth for just 50 short years, but she understood that and she left an impact that will resonate for generations to come.
So as we wind down Women’s History Month, let’s vow to celebrate all the amazing women who have made history, but let’s also remember all the everyday women who have led extraordinary lives, who have made their own mark, and who have changed the world simply by being ambitious, and generous, and by instilling in their daughters and granddaughters the importance of living life fully and with purpose.
Thank you, Phyllis. For everything, everything.